By appearances, at least, the Eagles were the grunge-meisters of their day, famed for taking the stage in decorum-defying T-shirts and blue jeans, not to mention haircuts and beards that didn't exactly offer dictionary illustrations of kempt . The definitive band of the era, their anti-style exemplified play-it-as-it-lays '70s casual chic, proving that what was good enough for afternoon rehearsals was good enough for the nighttime superstar spotlight.
Who would've guessed back then that inside grungy Glenn Frey was a Dapper Dan just waiting to bust out?
"We dressed the way we did during the Eagles because that was the way we dressed every day," Frey says, "but I always enjoyed putting on a suit or a blazer and tie to go out to dinner. It was funny: I called my mother up some years ago to tell her that I got this part on 'Miami Vice,' and she says, 'Oh, Glenn , that's great --you're gonna finally get to wear your Armanis!' "
Mrs. Frey's exhilaration was premature. "I said, 'Well, Mom, the guy I'm playing, he doesn't even have good personal hygiene, so I'm afraid you're not gonna see me walking next to Don Johnson in a white suit.' "
Flash forward a little further to the fall of '93, and Glenn Frey is Don Johnson, or the closest thing to him in the new television season's freshman offerings. He's temporarily put his music career aside to make a serious commitment to acting for the first time, essaying the sympathetically crusty and only slightly hard-boiled detective lead in "South of Sunset," a CBS series premiering Wednesday night that hopes to get wayward "Vice" viewers to tune back in and switch sunny coastal alliances.
It's been some years now since, post-Eagles, Frey cleaned up his act and his image in a few detoxifying and defoliating fell swoops. But with this show, his extreme transformation from the quad-sound era to the time of Q ratings seems complete: Frey, 44, really has entered Sonny Crockett's sartorial class--and, well, exited Joe Walsh's.
"I do think that there is a void out there now," Frey says, smoking up a storm in his trailer between takes on location, hopefully assessing his show's chances. "The people that liked 'Vice,' liked 'Wiseguy' (on which he also had a featured appearance), liked 'Crime Story'--I don't think there's a show for them right now."
(It's also a little bit "48 HRS.," what with Frey's private dick having as his younger sidekick a wiseacre African-American, and a little bit "Moonlighting," with a blond secretary adding sexual tension to the buddy trio at the detective agency.)
Traditionalists might figure that the show's producers are taking a gamble on hiring a rock 'n' roller, of all animals, to carry a series that's designed to satisfy Middle America's gumshoe fix. But Stan Rogow believes that the charismatic cultural baggage Frey brings to his role more than makes up for his short acting resume.
"We'd been looking and looking for four months" for a lead before the idea of calling Frey was hit upon, says Rogow, who with John Byrum created and produces the series. "With Glenn, there's frankly stuff that actors couldn't pull off--which is his persona. If an actor tries to act cool, it just seems silly. Glenn is cool. What he brings to the party is something that would almost not be obtainable with an actor of great skill, even.
"When we were asked a year ago by CBS if we would be interested in doing an L.A. PI (private investigator) show, the first thing that comes to your mind is 'Hotel California' and his music. When we sat down to talk about it with Glenn, he had read the script and he said, 'So, I get it. This show is about the tarnished elegance of L.A.' And I said, 'Well, yeah!' Glenn, in his persona, is such the embodiment of California for the last 20 years that it was just a perfect match."
Frey, for his part, acknowledges that, technically, he's pretty much starting from scratch in this new career: "The one thing I bring to acting from rock 'n' roll is an absence of fear."
Hiring rockers to emote has plenty of precedent--in the movies. But as invariably as music stars do get bitten by the acting bug at some point in their careers, few of any magnitude have ever taken on a dramatic weekly TV series.
That may be less because musicians can't carry a hit show than because the somewhat more relaxed schedules of the music biz don't exactly pump rockers up to be able to switch over to the exhausting and often inhuman regimen that is TV production.
"Well, it's not for the faint of heart," Frey acknowledges. "You can't do this job on 12 beers and three joints a day. There's certainly no question that this is a demanding job from an hours-on-the-job standpoint, and this wasn't a job I could've taken 10 years ago. But now I'm pretty well organized and pretty well together and don't have any lifestyle problems that inhibit my work, so I'm able to do this."
What exactly was the transformation between Frey's stint in the poster band for '70s ill health and his gig in the late '80s as commercial pitchman for a health club chain? Frey has no major inspirational tales to tell:
"You get into your mid-30s, and I don't think it takes a guru or rehab to tell you that you just can't rock like you used to. So I just ultimately made up my mind that I was going to eat a little healthier, live a little healthier and be able to do better work. But it wasn't any big thing for me. . . .
"I've been getting up early because I've been lifting weights and I don't do drugs anymore, so my life is kind of in order. It's got some semblance of discipline. But we get up at 5:15, have coffee and rehearsal at 5:30 in the morning, and we just laugh. Tommy (Nixon, Frey's tour manager) says, 'I don't know any other musician who could do this job. They're all just going to bed right now, Glenn. Remember when we did that?' "
Frey, then, may be unnaturally suited among musicians for TV's regimen thing. But the control thing--that is, the lack of it here--is another adjustment entirely.
"The reason that this job is tougher than music, that there are 10,000 more things that can go wrong than there ever would be in the music business, is because there's more fingers in the pie," Frey says, nursing a beer in his trailer after a few hours' shooting in the late afternoon sun.
"There are more things that go on off the set that directly affect the work we do on the set than would ever happen in the music business. I mean, the worst-case scenario there is--what?--Clive Davis says, 'Put bongos on this; I think it'll be better,' and you have one person meddling or something," he says, invoking the name of a longtime record executive.
"But in this job, there's a million different people that have other jobs, and some guys over here have an idea of how to promote the show, and these guys over here look at dailies and go to the producers and tell them to tell the writers to change this, and da da da da da. This show--and I think every show--is constantly in a state of flux. There are constantly revisions in the script, there's changes in the crew, you get a new director every episode, you have a new guest cast every episode.
"So I've found I really have two jobs. My first job is showing up as an actor, being generous, being ready, well prepared and helpful. And then my second job is fighting 24 hours a day for the credibility of this show. But it's ultimately out of my control."
Frey has just come into his trailer from finishing umpteen takes in front of a church a few doors away in South-Central L.A. This scene, where the three principals bid adieu to some parishioners who have made use of their sleuthing services, is the epilogue to one of the breezy series' more serious episodes, in which Frey investigates drug dealers using children as fronts for their felonies.
The re-shoots by the episode's director, Michael Schultz ("Car Wash"), don't faze Frey. He was , after all, an Eagle. Few bands were ever so known for their perfectionism in the studio as that one, at least when it came to the group's last album, 1979's "The Long Run," which was years in the making. So a dozen or two takes of one scene are nothing for someone who lived through such legendary obsessive overdubbing in the studio.
Frey may not be quite so painstaking in everything he does anymore, but he's still reluctant to cede the direction of his career to others, and he's nobody's pushover. After he left the Eagles in 1981, the Detroit native began making solo albums that were heavily informed by the kind of R&B; influences he felt he hadn't been able to work into his former group's sound.
His acting break came when "Miami Vice" producer Michael Mann saw Frey's music video for his song "Smuggler's Blues" and wanted to base a first-season episode around it, offering the singer a key sleazeball part as well. Frey is still strongly identified with that series as a result, even though--to the disbelief of many who inquire--he appeared in only one episode.
He was asked to play a classier-dressing character in a seven-hour arc of "Wiseguy" after running into Ken Wahl on an MGM Grand flight while he was, yes, dressed in his Armanis. Then he made a "slightly forgettable" action-adventure film--"Let's Get Harry," with Robert Duvall and Gary Busey--that went straight to video. He went out on interviews for other feature film roles but found the cattle calls too demeaning and decided he had better focus back in on music after all.
Although he had had a good run of Top 40 hits in the '80s, the heat wasn't on his last couple of albums. Frey seized upon an inspired idea: Put together a band, head out to Tennessee and cut a record that was a little more live, a little more akin to the freshness of the early Eagles and a little less slick than what he'd been making lately. That's what almost happened six or eight months ago, anyhow--and it would have gotten an incredible marketing boost from "Common Ground," the new compilation album of old Eagles songs performed by top country stars that just hit the market.
"It would be real safe for me to go to Nashville this year and make a country-rock record, which is what I was going to do," he says. "But there's not as much to accomplish as there is in this job. This is a real whoa . I'm just dumb enough to dive right in there, just wade right in and say, 'OK, I'll try! Where's that cliff again? How far do I jump?' "
Talking about his career crossover, Frey tends to sound more like an athlete on the lam than a moonlighting musician. And he is an unrepentant part-time jock whose bio includes numerous guest shots on sports programs. Try to count the competitive categories as Frey waxes metaphorically muscular over the course of an hour:
"They brought me up on full scholarship. I got a series, I'm the lead, I get an acting coach, they're paying me, and I get to watch dailies, very similar to the way a football team would watch game films" . . . "I have a huge learning curve. I'm like a 30-handicap golfer who's racing to be an 18" . . . "Music to me, it's second nature, like dribbling a basketball. I can just do it. Give me the guitar, here's a B. B. King lick. But the acting thing, that's different" . . . "I'm just starting to have those moments where it's like skiing down a black diamond (run) on Aspen Mountain, and you look up and go, 'I did that and I didn't fall! Did anybody get that on film?' " (We'll skip Frey's chess simile.)
Frey is well aware that "South of Sunset" might wipe out, to continue the metaphor, up against Nielsen monster "Home Improvement." He hopes there's an alternative niche audience out there that wants to watch macho guys bust through windows, not fix them, on Wednesday nights at 9.
"I think this show at its best is Lawrence Kasdan meets Joel Silver; it's kind of a combination of 'The Big Chill' and 'Lethal Weapon.' It's got action but it's got moments of tenderness and just human experience. So that's one of the nice things about this show. It's not about me being cool. My character is not about being Jack Webb. Cody McMahon is more like Rockford.
"It's not all about suits and style and drugs and guns. There's a lot of nice, human moments in this, because if you're going to have a successful television show, people have got to like you. It's not really about solving the crime or saving someone. That happens every week, but what you really have to do is develop a friendship with the viewing audience, where hopefully they'll say, 'We want to hang out with these guys and see what kind of trouble they're going to get in this week.' "
The tone of the show has changed since Frey first signed on for the role, at his behest. Cody was originally conceived as seriously bitter and Chandler-esque; Frey thought the character ought to have a bit more sense of humor. Now he finds himself on guard against the series tilting toward the opposite extreme; just recently he got involved in a fight to nix a series of promo spots that he thought had too much levity.
"They weren't right for the show," Frey says of the disputed ads. "So I had to tell some people, and they listened--and then they do whatever they want. No, not really. But because I'm the star, it's very important that I look good and come off the way we want me to come off--genuine, not a yukster, not somebody out there selling, saying, 'Love me, America, watch our show,' because that's not me. To look at the promos you'd think it was a comedy show, and I'm not doing Keystone Kops."
But Frey has been learning that, even as a male lead, pulling rank is harder in the everybody's-a-cook broth of TV production than it is in the world where he comes from. So he's trying to learn to save his battles and feel grateful to be having fun learning his craft on a gig that a lot of experienced actors would have given a decade's residuals for.
"This TV machine is just a big 10-headed monster that I can't slay by myself," he says. "It's out of my control. And I think you've got to just do your job every day and figure out a way to make that day's work mean something to you, and then you leave it go. It's in the can. You just do the best you can, and some days maybe you're better than others."
He's enthusiastic about his progress: "My voice is changing. I have a different screen voice. My actor's voice is bigger and more resonant. It's more from the stomach; it's not up here where it's like (he affects a squeak) 'Hi, we're the Eagles from Los Angeles!'
"I mean, I understand how people get just slightly suicidal about watching themselves on the screen. It's not like just hearing your voice on a record. There's a lot more to analyze and be critical of. But I'm learning to be generous with myself and allow for the fact that I'm a beginner and can't step up and instantly be as good as Jimmy Woods. And people tell me I'm getting better, and I watch the dailies and I don't cringe."
Spoken like a true recovering control freak.