Question: I used to have a huge crush on Michael Ontkean, when he was on The Rookies (way before he was on Twin Peaks). What was his claim to fame before that? And before you even ask: Yes, I still have a crush on him.
Answer: You and half the girls in my second-grade class, Melissa. (Me, I had a thing for Kate Jackson, but no self-respecting boy of that age would've admitted girls were anything but really gross back then.)
Ontkean, who, as you say, would go on to play Sheriff Harry S. Truman on Twin Peaks in 1990, was an actor and, of all things, a hockey player in his earlier years.
Before playing the role of Officer Willie Gillis on ABC's Rookies from 1972 to 1974 (his character was replaced by Bruce Fairbairn's Officer Chris Owens from 1974 to 1976, when the show left the air), Ontkean starred in the Disney movie Bayou Boy and made appearances on Ironside and The Partridge Family. But he just as easily could've made a living on the ice with the skating skills he later put to use on the big screen in Slap Shot. In fact, he played for farm and semipro teams in the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers organizations, but never took it any further because the sport was just a vehicle for putting himself through school.
"I figured out that the only way I could make enough bread to get an education and to perfect myself as an actor was by playing hockey, which I always was quite good at" the native Canadian told TV Guide in 1973. "It was a wicked system, which the government since has stopped, but the National Hockey League used to find 12- and 13-year-old kids all over the country, pay to take them away from their families, and send them to play in remote cities. They had networks of farm teams all over Canada, ranging up from what would be the Little Leagues in baseball in the United States. But these little kids were, to all intents and purposes, pros at puberty; and most of the time no one gave a damn about their schooling or well-being. It was almost a form of slavery."
Nevertheless, the young Ontkean entered the system, managed to graduate from high school and got a scholarship at the University of New Hampshire, where he played right wing. After college, he was offered a contract and invited to training camp by the Rangers. "No thanks," he said he told them. "I don't want to get killed."
Ontkean wasn't necessarily thrilled with the quality of The Rookies, quite like the critics of the time. But he was pragmatic. "It's not ideal," he said, "but like that college hockey scholarship, it's moving me along."
Cast mate Georg Stanford Brown wasn't quite as soft a touch when asked for his opinion of his show. "What we're doing is not real life," he said. "In real life, police work is garbage and a cop is mostly a paperwork factory."
Doesn't sound like a man who wanted to play a cop, huh? Well, he didn't. "I was on an interview for a job one afternoon when my agent called and told me to go see Mod Squad producer Aaron Spelling they were casting for a new police show," recalled Brown in 1974, who had some street life and run-ins with the police in his past. "I simply said I didn't want to do a police show." He repeated it to Spelling when he walked in the door, and again on the way out, but friends convinced him to take the role. "People would get to see my work; they would get to know what I could do," he said. "I simply discovered that it's very hard to be an actor without acting."
A practical man, it must be said. And speaking of practical, Warren from New York wanted to know if the cops on The Rookies were LAPD. The short answer: No. A slightly longer one: The producers didn't want to worry about having to have their scripts approved, so the young patrolmen were part of the SCPD (Southern California Police Department).