Television viewers first came to know Max Gail in the ensemble police comedy Barney Miller. “I remember getting a call from my agents saying, ‘It’s for a cop show — but it’s a comedy,’ like maybe I wouldn’t be interested,” Max tells Closer. “But, of course, I was.” He had good instincts: Barney Miller ran for eight seasons, from 1975 to 1982. While the show got plenty of laughs, it also dealt with real issues like racial profiling , social injustice and the role of the police. Along the way, Max’s character, Det. Stanley “Wojo” Wojciehowicz, grew from a naive, gung-ho former Marine into a seasoned detective and a caring humanitarian.
In the years since, Max, 79, has also continued to grow. In 2019 and 2021, he won Daytime Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for playing Mike Corbin, a man with Alzheimer’s disease, on General Hospital. During the pandemic lockdown, he and former Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider co-starred in an episode of Viral Vignettes, a series of short comedies that stream online. “I enjoyed being a part of that and using Zoom as a place we could come together,” Max says.
First of all, congratulations on your Daytime Emmy wins!
“Thanks. It was a cool experience to win. It was nice to have a chance to say that it’s all about collaboration.”
Where do you keep your awards?
“You know, they’re in their Emmy boxes under the bed! We live in a small bungalow, so there’s not a lot of room. I don’t think I would want to have them out anyway.”
Did you enjoy working on General Hospital?
“Yes, I did like a lot about it. I didn’t think it was a world I was interested in, but I am open to working and I really felt it was an interesting part to play.”
Going back to the beginning. You didn’t start off as an actor, right?
“I sort of sidestepped [into it]. For a while, I was in San Francisco playing in the piano bar at the Hyatt House. I had just taken the law boards and was thinking about going to law school. My first two years out of college, I taught private school. Then I was in graduate school getting an MBA, but actually majoring in staying out of Vietnam.”
So where did acting come in?
“They were looking for understudies for a new production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They offered me the part of Chief. I ended up doing it for two years and then going into the New York production.”
So you were mostly a theater actor?
“While I was in San Francisco, I got cast in a couple of small film parts too. I had my first line in Dirty Harry — kind of at the last minute. They thought they needed some hoods to accost Harry on his way through a tunnel, so he could pull out his big Dirty Harry gun.
And then you played a detective yourself on Barney Miller. What was that set like?
“I always say it was like family, which doesn’t mean that everybody gets along all the time. There were some conflicts early on, but not the kind of jealousy or power trips that other sets have. We were all glad to be there, work hard and try to make it good.”
Do you stay in touch with anyone from the cast?
“Mainly, who’s left is me and Hal Linden. We got together for dinner a couple of months ago.”
Do you have any favorite episodes?
“The hash brownie episode was very popular because we sort of crossed a line that other people weren’t crossing. There was also one where Ron Glass’ character gets shot at by another cop because he is Black. The cop thought, ‘There’s a Black guy. He must be part of the crime.'”
Did you ever get feedback from real police officers about the show?
“Yeah, lots of it. Overwhelmingly, cops saw it as the most realistic cop show on the air.”
How did you deal with your sudden fame?
Around the same time as Barney Miller, I was learning about music from being around Native American singing and song. I was focused on a kind of activism. I was looking to be involved in life, including Barney Miller but not exclusive to Barney Miller … I think that saved my life.”
“It saved me from doing a John Belushi. You know, you get money and fame. You can pay for the drugs, so who’s going to tell you you’re making bad decisions? I got a call from a friend of mine who was kind of dating John Belushi when he was in town. There was an invite. And I said, ‘I can’t do that, but we’re having a sweat on Sunday morning. John’s welcome to come to that.’ She called back later and said, ‘John says thanks, but he can’t do anything that healthy at this time.’ We laughed. Later, I get this call from her sobbing…. She said, ‘They just found John.'”
Wow. How did you adjust to life after Barney Miller went off the air?
“After Barney Miller, the most significant part of my life had nothing to do with work. I got married and had a child. And when our daughter was 8 months old, we found out her mom had colon cancer. Two years later, she moved on. I entered my single mom phase, where I started learning how little I know about what moms really need to come up with. In the end, I remarried and had more kids, so it’s not just a sad story.”
And you’re a grandfather now?
“Yes, I have eight grandchildren. It’s just wonderful. You get to see your own parenting and what you did in a different light. You get to sort of resonate with your child about that.”
What do you like about being the age you are now?
“I don’t think about it much, but I guess I just like still being here. I was just doing an episode of Magnum where I was supposed to cut a piece of steak and get it in my mouth quick enough to say [my line]. I was trying to chew it, and the next thing you know, it slipped down and got stuck in my throat. I had about 25 or 30 minutes of people coming up trying to give me the Heimlich maneuver. It wasn’t a moment to get scared, I just knew that I had to stay here.”