What has been the highlight of your career?
Guess I’d have to say longevity! I began as a singer in 1963 long before I became an actor, so I’m pushing 50 years in this business. Hard to believe I’ve managed to fool ’em for that long. Anyway, because there are so many memories, so many “highlights” in my career and so many people who were instrumental along the way, I can’t really pinpoint one single highlight. Keep in mind I grew up in an era where ‘X-Factor-type’ stardom was not the primary goal… doing consistently good work has always been my goal and the highlight of my career, whatever the job.
Did you like the Gran Torino from Starsky and Hutch?
Not particularly … Why do you think I called it the “striped tomato”? Can you imagine two undercover cops driving around in a bright red car with a white stripe chasing bad guys? Really… I mean, nothing like blending into the woodwork. What would I have preferred Starsky and Hutch to drive? Well, frankly, forgettable as it may be, I liked my shit brown 1974 Ford and I want you to know I actually did my own customizing. When it was first delivered to me as “Hutch’s car,” I thought it was just too pretty. So I took a sledgehammer to it along with a bucket of fullers earth, smashed it up, and gave it a more ‘lived-in’ look … more character. Then I ordered the transportation department never to wash it. They didn’t.
Do you still have a brown leather jacket, like the one from Starsky and Hutch, in your wardrobe?
Of course not … and when you see me you will realize that I could only look longingly at a jacket of that size.
What is your favorite memory of filming Starsky and Hutch?
Along with Paul, the crew was our family. What a fabulous bunch of people… all 70 of them. Those were the days of non-PC behavior. They were crazy days. Oh yeah, we worked hard, but we had a lot of fun, too. Paul and I, with the support of ‘our team,’ were not really cops … we were a couple of outlaws who ruled the studio and, we thought, the streets of L.A.
What is your most embarrassing memory of filming Starsky and Hutch?
Being stopped by the cops in downtown L.A. for driving around in the “striped tomato” like the streets was our set and belonged to us, breaking every traffic law on the books. The result? We were banned from driving in downtown Los Angeles. Try explaining that to the Executive Producer and the Network.
Was there a real ‘bromance’ between you and Paul Michael Glaser?
You bet! We were best of friends. Still are. At the moment, you’ll find Paul on tour in the U.K., Scotland, and Ireland starring in Fiddler on the Roof.
You are currently working on restoring a Chrysler which once belonged to Ernest Hemingway. Is this your first classic car restoration project?
Yeah, his last car and my first one, though I’m not personally doing the restorative work. I’m just a facilitator, working with Practical Classics Magazine and Lancaster Insurance, who in turn are providing the contacts and means to secure and ship the parts.
How did the Cuban restoration project come about? Was this because of your love of classic cars or for Ernest Hemingway?
Since I was about 15 and first read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, he became my literary hero and Cuba, my dream destination. The problem was that, after 1962, visiting Cuba was impossible for a U.S. citizen because of the embargo. Then, when I got my British citizenship and passport in 2004, I was finally able to go and I could finally make a pilgrimage to Havana and the Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home for 22 years. Now called the Hemingway Museum, our Cuban friends are lovingly preserving his legacy—his boat, the Pilar, much of his unpublished writings, notes, etc., and preserving the house pretty much as he left it in 1961. He’s one of their national heroes as well. The director of the museum became a good friend and, on a vacation trip in September of 2012, she told me about his car that had gone missing for 18 years and had finally been found in a jungle shed. The museum wanted to restore it, but to get the original replacement parts from the U.S. was still impossible, again because of the U.S. embargo. So, because I now had my British passport, the director asked me if I could help. Knowing absolutely nothing about restoration, of course I said “Yes.” Makes sense, right? Then it was a fast learning curve and, if it weren’t for Danny Hopkins at Practical Classics Magazine and his contacts in the States, and for Lancaster Insurance’s generous contribution, the project could never have been realized.
What have you found to be the most challenging part of restoring the car, so far?
Any number of challenges. First of all, sourcing original or rebuilt parts. There were only about 900 of this model Chrysler (New Yorker Deluxe convertible) built. Then, once the parts are sourced, because we can’t ship them direct to Cuba, we have to fly them out to the U.K. and then, from the U.K., air freight them to Cuba. This is where Lancaster has been so helpful to us, providing the means to take this circuitous route. Then the final nightmare for me is getting the parts past the internal bureaucracy of Cuba and released out of Cuban customs. They are very, very careful about what comes into the country … probably as a result of the embargo. Once the parts are in the hands of the ‘automotive wizards’ in Cuba, I step back and enjoy.
If you had the chance to restore any classic car what would it be?
The first thing I would have to do is to find someone who knew what they were doing. Thank God we’ve got a couple of these guys in Cuba (a panel beater and a mechanic) doing the actual work. Did you know that one out of every six cars on the road in Cuba today was built prior to 1959 and that they’re still running despite the fact that Cubans cannot access original parts? That’s a testament to the ingenuity of these guys.
What cars do you currently own and what has been your favorite car that you have owned, and why?
Car, not cars … we only have one. My wife and I have an Audi A5 1.8 S line convertible. As for my favorite car? It’s a toss-up between my old 1964 silver Porsche 356SC and my bright red, 1956 Lancia Aurelia Spider. Both are classics in their own right and fabulous cars. I got the Porsche in 1968 and the Lancia in 1969. They were shit-hot! As the family grew, I got rid of them.
Have you ever given your car a name / what is your favorite driving song?
No, but I’ve sure had a few choice words with some of them and kicked a few tires. My favorite driving song? Can’t really say. But there’s one song that made me pull over to the side of rode and stop the car … it was back in the early 70s, the first time I heard Carly Simon and James Taylor’s version of Mockingbird. Blew me away! When I’m driving across the wide-open spaces in the States, I guess I like Willy Nelson or the early Doobie Brothers or the Eagles … when I’m driving in the U.K., I like Led Zeppelin or something international, like Cuban music.
What was your car that got away, the one you wish you’d never sold?
My 1985 Corvette. I loved that car. Sold it in 1993 when I left L.A. to travel and work in New Zealand, Australia, and Paris, finally landing in London in ’95.
What car did your father/grandfather drive?
They were both real conservative gentlemen and cars were not a priority. My grandfather, a pastor, drove your basic 1952 grey Chevy with Powerglide automatic transmission and my dad drove your basic lime-green 1956 stick-shift V-8 Ford Fairlane. Not very exciting, huh? My dad was a professor of history. He had no interest in cars except that it worked and could get him from point A to B and even that explanation didn’t apply all the time. He’d often drive to his office on campus where he taught and then forget he’d driven it, walk home, and ask my mother why it wasn’t in the garage. Go figure.
What is the most embarrassing car you have ever owned?
I’ve never owned a car I wasn’t proud of. On-the-other-hand, when I was in high school, about 16 years old, my dad’s lime-green Ford was a real embarrassment to me. And, despite the fact that it was a V-8, it didn’t have “glass packs,” and so I took a screwdriver and punctured holes in the muffler just to make it at least sound acceptable. Dad sure didn’t like it, but I did, especially on a Saturday night when everyone was out revving up their engines, ‘crawling’ Minnesota Avenue and hangin’ out at the local drive-in called The Barrel.
What’s your favorite TV car?
But I like movies and, in that case, I’d probably say, McQueen’s Mustang in Bullitt.
Do you prefer European, British, or American classic cars and why?
I like them both for different reasons, but I guess these days the European cars have more style—although they, along with the Japanese cars, are getting to be more and more cookie-cutter. That’s why I really prefer the old American cars from the 50s and 60s. The same ones you still find on the streets of Havana today. I like them because I grew up with them and, when I was a kid, always dreamed about having one.
Are you or have you ever become a member of an enthusiast car club?
That question sounds like it came out of Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee ‘witch hunt’ of the late 40s, early 50s … “Are you now or have ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Well, my simple answer to both questions is: “No, Senator … not yet.”
What modern car do you think will be a classic in the future?
None of the really contemporary factory cars. I guess the closest is the Mercedes line because it’s maintained its basic styling and appearance for years. Maybe the Corvette, though that’s changed enormously. Generally, to my eye, they all look alike. Cookie-cutter cars. They sure don’t have the class, simplicity, uniqueness, or personality of the old classics of the past.
What would you suggest Lancaster Insurance do to celebrate their 30th birthday in 2014?
Because they’ve been so instrumental in making this project possible, they and Practical Classics should join my wife and me and maybe a couple of competition winners and come to Cuba to celebrate the unveiling of Ernest Hemingway’s 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe convertible. We’ll parade it down the Malecon and throw a big party!
Originally published in Practical Classics Magazine