For ‘Wiseguy’ and ‘The Wanderers’ Star Ken Wahl, Helping Our Vets Means More Than Acting Ever Did

There have been key moments in his life when Ken Wahl has taken the pragmatic approach, pushing everything else aside to get done what he’s needed to. This was certainly true when he decided to become an actor — leading him to work with the likes of Bette Midler and Paul Newman and starring in the Classic TV show that invented binge television, Wiseguy — and, in more recent years, trying to help veterans dealing with PTSD. Interestingly, he was considering joining the Marines in the late ‘70s when he made the shift to acting. Again, for pragmatic reasons.

“My concern then in helping humanity was my own family,” Ken explains in an exclusive interview, “because all of my family was struggling financially. Since the day I was born, that’s all I could remember. We weren’t destitute to the point that we worried about our next meal, but our next meal after that was in question. So we really were the poor class that lived paycheck to paycheck, and it’s a horrible way to live. We were very proud in the sense that we would never take any government handouts. My parents, God bless them, never took a nickel from the public trough, and I’m very proud of them for that. But, on the other hand, they essentially worked themselves to death. Both of them. And I wanted to do something different.”

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Courtesy Shane Barbi

He recalls seeing movies and watching television shows, and saying to himself, “‘That doesn’t look so tough. I think I could do that. And they get paid how much to do that?’ I wasn’t intimidated by that idea at all. That doesn’t mean I thought I was so great, but think about it: Acting is the only profession where children are on an equal par with adults. I mean, a five-year-old girl back in the ‘30s single-handedly saved 20th Century Fox studios. That little girl was Shirley Temple. Or someone like Dakota Fanning, who made more money as a professional actress between the ages of 8 and 13 than 99.9% of adult actors will ever make. As a job, it’s wonderful. But as an occupation, to me, it’s kind of silly. I mean, you’re just pretending to be someone else. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I think the big thing that they make out of it is really excessive. So I was very pragmatic about it and just approached it as a job.”

And he enjoyed great success with acting until an accident in 1992 resulted in injuries so severe that he was, as he calls it, “forcibly retired.” As he struggled with the pain on a daily basis over the years, he found a new calling, if you will, in 2010.

“I was perfectly happy to live my simple, quiet little private life,” he explains, “but then one day in 2010 I was watching the news. There was a guy in uniform on it and I heard him talking about veteran suicides. I was drinking a cup of coffee and right when he mentioned the number of suicides, I took a little slurp, so I didn’t hear him correctly. Or thought I didn’t hear him correctly. But actually, I did. He said that there were 22 veteran suicides per day on average. I thought, ‘That couldn’t have been right.’ So I turned to the TV and listened very intently. And in the course of the conversation that he was having with the interviewer, he again repeated the number 22. I said, ‘I can’t believe that!’ One per century is too many; how can we have 22 veteran suicides per day?’”

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Geoff Robinson Photography/Shutterstock

Ken notes that he’s always been a big supporter of the military, “even when it wasn’t fashionable to do so,” and when he heard this statistic, he felt a need to do something. At the time, his wife, Shane Barbi (of The Barbi Twins), had had a friend set up a Twitter account for him, which, he emphasizes, he had nothing to do with. “I didn’t even know my own password,” he laughs. “A friend of hers who was savvy with computer stuff set it up and I never had any interest in it. I thought, and still do think, for the most part it’s just ridiculous. However, I thought perhaps I could use this forum to do something to get the word out to anybody that would care to listen, because we had to do something about these 22 veteran suicides per day.”

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