Michael Moriarty shuffles across the floor at Rossini's jazz club, leaning heavily on a cane. With his slow gait and stooped shoulders, the ravaged 64-year-old seems a mere shadow of the electrifying actor he once was. Then, with a little help from his band members, he sits down at the grand piano, takes a sip of coffee and begins tinkling the ivories. And like a plug that's found its socket, his face suddenly lights up with that old full-star wattage.
"B.C. woman/You let me be," he sings, beaming placidly into the audience and swaying gently to the bebop rhythm. "B.C. woman/You set me free."
Free, for Moriarty, means clean and sober. It's been 18 months since the hard-living actor last touched a drink of alcohol. "I've never been happier," he explains after Sunday night's Vancouver show, which began as a drop-in jam session, but has now turned into a regular monthly gig. The path it took to get to this point, however, has been one long, tough slog.
Moriarty first came to attention as a promising young actor in the early seventies alongside Robert De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly. In 1973, he won an Emmy Award for his performance in the TV adaptation of The Glass Menagerie, the first of many awards that included a Golden Globe in 1978 for the TV miniseries Holocaust. He is still, however, perhaps best known as Ben Stone, the righteous district attorney he played for four years on the NBC-TV series Law & Order.
He stormed off the show in 1994, spouting conspiracy theories about being blackballed by the network because of his outspoken criticisms of then U.S. attorney-general Janet Reno and her efforts to curb violence on television. After threatening to run for the U.S. presidency, he hightailed it to Halifax, where he declared himself a self-imposed political exile, married for a third time, began drinking heavily and was arrested in 1997 for public intoxication after a pub brawl.
From Halifax, he blazed a trail to Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and eventually Maple Ridge, B.C., a suburb 40 kilometres east of Vancouver, where he has lived for approximately five years. To say he settled down there, however, would be slightly misleading.
In January, 2000, he was charged with assaulting Margie Brychka, his then common-law wife, with whom he has now been reunited. Both had been drinking at the time of the incident. Moriarty avoided a conviction and criminal record by agreeing to behave himself and undergo treatment for alcohol addiction.
Two years later, he was admitted to a hospital in Maple Ridge after being knocked unconscious in a bar. Moriarty, who claimed he was the victim of a young gang of wannabe mobsters with wealthy family connections, said it was the fifth time he had been attacked. He pressed charges, saying God had advised him to do so. And although the RCMP said the attack was unprovoked, the charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
Around the same time as this most recent court case, Moriarty also won an Emmy for his supporting role as the father of James Dean in a made-for-TV film. The drinking had barely slowed him down. Since moving to Canada, he has worked on more than 25 film and TV projects, formed the Republican Party of Canada, talked about running for the mayor of Calgary, recorded two jazz CDs, composed chamber music, conducted his own symphony, written three books of poetry, a one-man play, countless film scripts, published a novel, a memoir and various political opinion pieces (several of which have been published in The Globe and Mail). Oddly enough, the acting jobs have dried up considerably since Moriarty got sober. But he will be appearing in a small part alongside Jessica Lange and Nick Nolte in a film called Never Was, to be released later this year. And through it all, he never stopped playing the piano.
"It's been my best friend, my whole life," says Moriarty, as he takes a seat on the patio, lights up a cigarette and is soon surrounded by an eclectic entourage of friends and adoring fans.
"Your audio rendition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was the best ever," says one gentleman streaming out of the club, as he stops to shake Moriarty's hand.
"Thank you," the actor replies, seeming genuinely surprised. "Not many people know about that."
"You're a great pianist, very cerebral," another fan shouts out.
Moriarty turns to his friend, Floyd Flex, a young black man with long dreadlocks. "Have you ever been called a cerebral pianist before?"
"A cerebral penis?" Flex jokes as the group cracks up. Flex, as it turns out, is the brother of Farley Flex, an artist manager and celebrity judge on CTV's Canadian Idol. Moriarty says they met in a bar, many years ago in Toronto.
"He saved my life a couple of times," the actor nods appreciatively.
Moriarty can also thank Flex for his new gig at Rossini's. The actor first stumbled into the bar about four years ago. "It wasn't one of his better nights, but I could tell the guy could play," says owner Arni May, who has now come out of retirement to play drum in Moriarty's trio.
As May explains it, Flex convinced Moriarty to come back and play last spring. "We just clicked," says May. "He's an amazing jazz pianist. I love playing with him. And the adulation from the people -- wow. Most people know what he's been through."
The monthly shows have been a sell-out success (the next gig is Sept. 18). Last month, fellow jazz aficionado Burt Reynolds dropped by while he was in town shooting a film and really lit up the joint when he got up on stage with Moriarty to perform a wonky version of Ain't Misbehavin'.
The Michael Moriarty Trio is rounded out by Mark Wardrop on bass. They played the Maple Ridge jazz festival last month, delighting fans with Moriarty's original songs, which are strongly influenced by his old friend, the late Mel Torme, and his ultimate jazz idol, Miles Davis. Their plan is to tour across Canada next year -- if Moriarty's plans to launch a campaign for the U.S. presidency don't get in the way, that is.
"I was thinking of running for the mayor of Vancouver, but I'm not a Canadian citizen yet," Moriarty explains, straight-faced.
Brychka, a hard-edged woman who doesn't look like she'd stand for any nonsense unless it involved her, leans over and pats his knee.
"She takes care of me like nobody else," says Moriarty, smiling contentedly at his "Tweety Bird," as he calls her in one of his more whimsical songs. "Of course, it's better when I'm sober."