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Michael Moriarty, the actor, is best known as Ben Stone, the righteous district attorney on NBC's Law and Order. Michael Moriarty, the man, has earned himself a reputation as a drunken fool. These days, with a recent Emmy nomination shining like a miracle in the darkness of his washed-up career, Mr. Moriarty plays a slippery preacher man in a made-for-TV film, James Dean. And it almost seems as though he has convinced himself the role is real.

Dressed in a collarless, black shirt, buttoned up to his neck, the 60-year-old actor presides over a downtown Vancouver café table strewn with coffee cups, half-finished breakfast plates and cigarette packs. Standing up, he introduces the small congregation at his side.

"Meet my family," Mr. Moriarty says with a voice that sounds ravaged and gravelly. "Donny, my adopted son," he says, nodding to a man in his early 30s wearing mirrored sunglasses and a prominent gold cross hanging from a chain on his burly chest.

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"Carol, my beloved," he adds, nodding to a petite woman in a denim miniskirt, whose puckered mouth and deeply lined face suggest a woman older than her years.

"Thank you for coming," he says, grasping my hand. "God bless you."

He's on his third cup of espresso.

Those who have followed Mr. Moriarty's ups and downs will know that his personal life has often been more entertaining than his career.

In the early seventies, the young graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art showed great promise, standing out in films alongside Robert De Niro ( Bang the Drum Slowly)and Jack Nicholson ( The Last Detail). He won an Emmy award for his 1978 performance in the TV miniseries Holocaust,but it wasn't until 1990, when he premiered in the original cast of the acclaimed TV series Law and Order,that Mr. Moriarty earned widespread recognition.

He stormed off the show four years later in a thunder clap of absolutist indignation that could very well have been portrayed by his intense courtroom character. He claimed he was being blackballed by the network and slowly written out of the series because of his outspoken criticisms of then U.S. attorney-general Janet Reno's effort to curb violence on television.

After threatening to run for the U.S. presidency, he hightailed it to Canada and declared himself a self-imposed political exile. Blazing a trail from Halifax to Toronto and, eventually, Vancouver, Mr. Moriarty has since been married (and divorced), worked on 24 film and TV sets, formed the Republican Party of Canada, threatened to run for mayor of Calgary, recorded two jazz CDs, composed chamber music, conducted his own symphony, written three books of poetry, a one-man play and countless film scripts, published a novel, a memoir and various political opinion pieces (three of which have been published in The Globe and Mail).

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Two years ago, Mr. Moriarty resurfaced in the courtroom. This time, on an assault charge that involved slapping his then common-law wife. He avoided a conviction and criminal record by agreeing to behave himself and undergo treatment for alcohol addiction.

Six months ago, he was admitted to a hospital in Maple Ridge, a suburb 40 kilometres east of Vancouver, after being assaulted in a bar. The RCMP said the attack was unprovoked. Mr. Moriarty, who says he has been attacked five times in the past two years, believes he is the victim of a young gang of wannabe mobsters with wealthy family connections.

He wrote about the so-called "Hyena Pack" and the wild frontier of the Vancouver suburb he now calls home in a long-winded parable titled The Lone Stranger. He submitted the first part of this dramatic western yarn to The Globe and Mail to consider for publication. (An excerpt appears here.) Back on the patio, Mr. Moriarty says he will have no idea how The Lone Stranger will end until Jan. 13, when his case -- his attackers in the bar were charged -- goes to trial. "I'm not writing this play, God is," he says, his beady, blue eyes transfixed in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

"To me, God is a dramatist and we are the actors," says Mr. Moriarty, who once toyed with the idea of starting a church called The Church of the Good Thief. "Play the role well, therein all the honour lies. When the words hit your head, say them. Don't hold back. It's a leap of faith. It takes great courage to do that."

Mr. Moriarty found his courage within. "I didn't know how tough it was until I went through all this. I was in the hospital, I went to the mirror and I looked like the Elephant Man. I didn't see my face -- I saw my soul. I discovered my soul does exist, and it's eternal. My body is temporary. Really. It was quite a moment."

Five assaults can't be easy to endure, but it wasn't the first time Mr. Moriarty, who studied at a Jesuit high school, has experienced a jolting epiphany. When he was 23, he thought he saw God while visiting Florence. His friends were so concerned they had him admitted to hospital, whereupon he underwent electroshock therapy.

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If God doesn't deal in his favour, he always has his fame to fall back on. "I wouldn't mind if the press were all over [the trial] I'm not running away from my fame any more."

If Mr. Moriarty sees God, the playwright, as his saviour, would drink be his devil? No, he says. Satan is more like an ice cube. "They've got it wrong. Satan's not fire, he's ice. He's a glacier, as cold as Alaska. We are fire. We are warmth. We are passion. We are alive. The devil is ice. Cold, ruthless, calculating, cunning, reptilian."

It's no wonder AA didn't work for him. "Unfortunately, I am not anonymous," Mr. Moriarty says, explaining how he felt smothered by all the special attention he received as a result of his fame.

These days, he says he follows Winston Churchill's advice: "Drink moderately, all day."

How then, does he keep the demons at bay? "Love your warmth, your passion, your life. Melt the devil. Melt him down."

His two companions (Carol and Donny) crack up. Mr. Moriarty says it's easier to balance life's trials and tribulations now that he's finally found a family.

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Of course, he said the same thing when he was living with his former wife in Halifax and the "socialist poster girl" he was charged with assaulting.

It's different, he insists, in the bible belt of Maple Ridge. "We go to the lake, we laugh, we sing, we tell jokes."

How did they meet? The table erupts into cackles. "You wouldn't want to know," Donny says.

"It's a wonderful life," Mr. Moriarty says, praising the "momma" of the family he calls his Poppy Pack. "She's a lioness of a woman. She raised four kids all by herself, seven grandchildren and the biggest baby -- me."

Mr. Moriarty says he hasn't worked since the assault. He spends his days writing scripts, planning a third CD, teaching himself how to play the tenor saxophone and writing the occasional editorial. "But my best time is enjoying what I've never had in my life, which is a family."

Mr. Moriarty did not have a happy childhood himself. His father was a surgeon for the Detroit police department. His mother suffered from mental illness. They divorced when he was 11. He lived with his mother for a while, until she fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and almost burned the house down. That was when his father, although not Catholic, sent his son to a Jesuit high school to live with what Mr. Moriarty now calls "the Christ-bitten winos."

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While in AA two years ago, he began writing another memoir called The Third Person. The first eight chapters are published on-line. He says he has given up on the project.

At the time, however, he was obsessed with the ghost of his father and his father's dream of having "a man's man" for a son. ("You're going to end up in the gutter like your mother will," his father once wrote in a letter, "if you continue to dream your way through college and waste my hard-earned money.")

Not coincidentally, this obsession coincided with the filming of James Dean. Mr. Moriarty played Dean's father, Winton. He still has a bone to pick with the script. "The main purpose of that film is to glorify the Actors' Studio and blame all of James Dean's problems on his father. I don't think you can blame all of James Dean on his father. I had to play that role and I played it well enough to get nominated for an Emmy. But why blame his father, who cannot talk back from the grave?"

Didn't Mr. Moriarty heap a lot of blame on his own father's grave? "We all do that for a while. Then you have to finally grow up and say, 'Wait a minute. God dealt me some cards. I had better play them and cut the whining.' "

Mr. Moriarty's so-called adopted son doesn't suffer from the same problems. "What's that saying?" Donny says. "Life's a bitch, buy a helmet." More raspy chortles all around. "Laughter can cure a lot of things," Mr. Moriarty says.

But can it save his career?

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"You cannot endure five assaults and not be a changed man," Mr. Moriarty says. "The industry does not know who I am any more. They don't know what to do. They know I'm not the same guy and they wonder how to cast me."

He says he's certainly not Ben Stone. Many thought he was once as self-righteous as the lead prosecutor he played, but Mr. Moriarty now sees it differently.

"[Stone]was not righteous. He was naive. Self-righteousness comes out of naiveté."

Perhaps Mr. Moriarty was too. After playing Major Erik Dorf in the television miniseries Holocaust,he was refused to play any more bad guys. He says it cost him millions of dollars to turn down all the villain roles. But he's ready to take them on now. "There are plenty of roles out there for me -- cops, godfathers, tough guys."

Mr. Moriarty puts more faith in God than the North American entertainment industry, which, in his opinion, was long ago corrupted by the socialist religion.

"For a period of about three decades, the leftists so infiltrated Hollywood, that it became a propaganda mill." He points to the film Taxi Driver, as an example of the inherent evil. "That film romanticizes a psychotic. It's not the amount of violence in the film thats dangerous, it's the hero."

Some might say Mr. Moriarty suffers from his own psychoses. "In the eyes of many," writes The Lone Stranger, he had become a 5,000-pound gorilla.

Yet now the self-proclaimed has-been, is up for an Emmy. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

"In the short term, it might look like I'm in some way a persona non grata and why romanticize a persona non grata? But in the long term, I'll prevail. Out of my grave, I'll prevail."

The Lone Stranger by Michael Moriarty He doubted if anything would change, but he was tired of running from the nightmare of his own fame.

Pronto [a friend]had lent the Lone Stranger a book by Anthony de Mello entitled Awareness. To the very isolated man, the book had a central theme -- enlightenment and spirituality depended on the depth to which an individual accepts and surrenders to his or her aloneness. It said that we are all doomed to aloneness in one way or another and that the reason for this was to increase our awareness. If we learn to know ourselves with increasing depth, only then can we truly know others.

The Lone Stranger, after hours of solitude, concluded that de Mello was right. A new contentment rose in him, an almost blissful surrender to what fate might hold in store for him. The menacing faces of certain townsfolk no longer disturbed him.

Saying prayers of faith and gratitude to God for what he had been given -- an extraordinarily rich life of love and adventure and recognition -- the Lone Stranger was prepared for anything the future might bring him. Excerpted from a longer letter sent by Mr. Moriarty to The Globe and Mail

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