I was sludging my way through writing a blog post about 1980s TV stars who fell from grace, partly inspired by the Bill Cosby sex scandal, until I got to Ken Wahl.
Reading about Wahl's story, I realized he didn't deserve to be lumped into the same category as those actors that let drugs and other demons take over their lives and eventually drive them to their deaths. Wahl's rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story is mainly due to plain old bad luck, and it's even more troubling considering he's a stand up guy who would do anything to help animals.
You may remember that Wahl was the star of the excellent CBS crime drama Wiseguy, which aired from 1987 to 1990. He played the young undercover operative Vinnie Terranova, who helped a fictional special division of the FBI bring down criminal organizations. The series launched Wahl into sex symbol status--he was crowned "The Sexiest Man on TV" by US Magazine. It also raised the profile of another budding actor, Kevin Spacey, who played baddie arms dealer Mel Profitt, a mastermind criminal with an addiction to painkillers and an unhealthy fixation on his sister. Other notable actors who made appearances in Wiseguy included Stanley Tucci and Tom Curry.
Wahl was one of the lucky few who hit it big in Hollywood practically overnight, and with little acting training and experience. He was born Anthony Calzaretta in Chicago sometime in the mid 1950s (sources differ on his actual age.) In 1978, after working odd jobs, he set off for California in his Dodge Dart with $300 in his wallet. He only intended to stay in Hollywood for a year, collect any earnings, and then pursue his real dream which was playing professional baseball.
He worked as an extra in several movies before he arrived on the set of The Wanderers for a bit part. Director Philip Kaufman, seeing untapped potential and perhaps struck by his brooding Italian good looks and presence, instead cast him in the lead.
It turns out that Wahl was a natural. He was soon working alongside Paul Newman in 1981's Fort Apache, The Bronx. The two became friends and Newman even wrote a letter of recommendation to the Chicago White Sox's manager requesting that he let Wahl try out to be on the team.
Baseball never came calling, but Hollywood continued to offer him work. Then in 1987 he landed the lead for Wiseguy, without even having to audition. By 1990 he had earned a best actor Golden Globe for the series, and had to hire bodyguards to keep women from tackling him.
He left the job by his own accord in 1990 to pursue movie work, although the press at the time tried to say that Wahl had been fired. Two years later, his life and career took a turn for the worse.
Wahl was divorced and dating a woman named Joan Child...who happened to be involved with comedian Rodney Dangerfield, and later married him. One morning after spending the night at Child's residence, Wahl fell down a slippery marble staircase in the home, breaking his neck and injuring his spinal cord. Child begged him not to tell the truth to the press--lest Dangerfield find out--so Wahl blamed his injuries on a motorcycle crash. The rehab and operations he underwent (which Wahl says were botched) got him addicted to alcohol to self-medicate the pain and he found it difficult to get through acting projects.
Wahl was a guy affectionately known as Santa Claus to family members and friends; he'd think nothing of helping someone out financially, even strangers. He's also a staunch animal lover and supporter of animal rights. In 2010 he offered up his Golden Globe to whoever had information leading to the arrest of a soulless cretin who glued a young cat to a Minnesota highway and left it to die. As a child, he rescued and helped animals in need and adopted and fostered many after he became a successful actor. He also credits pets with helping him recover from his injuries.
Wahl more or less had to give up acting in the mid-90s. By 2009 he found himself nearly bankrupt, mostly due to deceptive financial managers and an ex-wife who swindled him out of a trust fund he left to his son years earlier. In another strange turn, his agent was found murdered in 1993 and the case, which Wahl believes to be mob-related, has never been solved.
|Photo via The Anipal Times|
These days Wahl is devoted to helping struggling military veterans cope with PSTD and other psychological and physical injuries by placing pets with them through his program called "Pets for Vets." He told the Huffington Post in an interview last year that he's found his second calling. In a 2015 interview with The National Enquirer, Wahl says it was the love of a kitten that helped him through his darkest days.
“A person receives tremendous comfort and joy from the animal,” he said. “In my own experience—after rescuing my cats, and them caring for me — it was nearly miraculous!
I now feel a sense of purpose. Trying to help alleviate the suffering of veterans, civilians and animals is my life’s second calling.
My wife Shane and I share this common bond. She concentrates on helping the rescue animals, and I try to reach out to veterans.
On this Veteran’s Day, I want to leave you with one thought — you can’t save all the world’s veterans, but you CAN help save the world of one — just by letting them know that they are appreciated and valued!”
So far I've had no luck locating an authentic photo of what Wahl looks like today; if anyone has any luck, please leave a comment.
Score one for the good guys.