You’ve probably seen Mike Pniewski a half-dozen times, but can never put a name with the face. You’re not alone. He is regularly approached by people who say things like, "Didn’t I go to school with you?" or "Do you go to such-and-such church?"
In fact, he’s an actor whose credits range from Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and Law and Order to Remember the Titans and Ray. He was a bus driver in Ray, a cop in Remember the Titans, a judge in Law and Order, a flight surgeon in Tom Hanks’ HBO series, From the Earth to the Moon, and a sheriff in the Oscar-winning short, Two Soldiers.
He recently taped five episodes of the soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful in Hollywood, and a pilot called Hollis and Rae with Steven Bochco in Savannah. In the next few months, he’ll appear in Thief on FX and The Sopranos on HBO, in an indie film called The Ultimate Gift and the big-budget film Miami Vice.
I drove to a suburb north of Atlanta a few weeks ago to visit with Pniewski. I was drawn not so much by the fact that he is successful yet virtually unknown, although it does have a certain fascination. Rather, it was that he left Hollywood 10 years ago to take control of his life.
"It had been 10 years and I was doing pretty well," he said. We were sitting at the kitchen table. Pniewski wore jeans, a long-sleeved, burgundy waffle weave shirt and running shoes. "I’d just read for a pilot, a terrific role, and I could have done it in my sleep."
But the producer decided that Pniewski was "too right" for the role, and chose someone else.
"That’s when I realized that the question was not whether I’m good enough," he said. "I’m there. I’m good enough. Now it’s whether they’re gonna pick me for the team, and it could be next week, next year or maybe 20 years from now.
"In the meantime, I’ve got a family and kids. I didn’t want to raise my children in L.A., and I wanted it to be my turn to have a life. Not just a career, but everything."
He did well in Atlanta until tax incentives elsewhere all but killed the film and TV industry in the south. Now he commutes to Hollywood and New York for auditions and work, and is in such demand that he no longer works union scale unless a project appeals to him.
At 6-1, 235 pounds and balding, Pniewski has the beefy, don’t-mess-with-me look of a cop, something he’s played 28 times in his career. But there is a sparkle in his blue eyes, a vitality and an intelligence. You get the feeloing that this is a man in touch with his gift.
But he’s no Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, and that’s fine with him, too. "There’s a look with being a leading man, and being overweight, middle-aged and bald is not the look," he says. "And that’s cool with me. I don’t want that kind of pressure. I’m a character guy. All I ever wanted was to do good work, and work all the time."
Succeeding for 20 years in an industry where 98 percent fail has taught him a thing or two about performing, and a few years ago he decided to take advantage of it by becoming a motivational speaker.
"One of the frustrating things about being an actor," he said, "is that you’re only as good as your next job. When I go to an audition, I don’t go to the head of the line because I’ve got 20 years’ experience. When it’s down to the last few people, it’s ‘Who’s best for the role?’
"But in the speaking industry, there’s a cumulative benefit from being a success in an industry where most people fail. People think acting is about being fake, but what we’re actually trying to do is create reality. You can take those acting techniques and use them in your life to improve your reality."
Pniewki also publishes a monthly e-newsletter called "Act to Win" with topics like, "You never get it right the first time," "Thank your unhappy customers" and "No idea is ever too absurd."
And while he took up motivational work as a hedge against the uncertainties of acting, he says he’s not just in it for the money.
"This a hard business," he says, "…and I think it’s absolutely important for those of us who have the good fortune of making a living to give back. You’ve got to continue the cycle, to keep it all going. I like putting what I know back into the system so the path for other people maybe gets a little shorter and a little simpler. I’d like to think that through my success I can contribute to the pile of ideas that people can draw from to perpetuate their own success."
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