'Time Trax' carries Shore's Dale Midkiff to TV stardom

May 12, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BURBANK, CALIF. — Burbank, Calif.

Actor Dale Midkiff can appreciate how it feels to be Darien Lambert, the time-traveling cop he plays in "Time Trax."

That's because Mr. Midkiff, a native of Maryland's Eastern Shore, suddenly was transported from Hollywood to distant Australia, where "Time Trax" is filmed, and plunged into a marathon course of 12- to 14-hour workdays for nearly six months. He was cut off from all his Los Angeles friends and associates in a place where nobody knew him.

"It took some time getting used to," Mr. Midkiff said in an interview at the Burbank Studio offices of Lorimar Television, "but I think it helped make me a better Darien Lambert. He's someone who's out of his element and far from home. I tried to utilize all that -- the homesickness, the pensiveness, the feeling that you're an alien."

That wasn't the only odd adjustment Mr. Midkiff had to make. Because "Time Trax" (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Channel 54) is one of the most special effects-heavy shows on TV, he also had to crank up his imagination to new heights and leave it there almost constantly.

For example, Darien's "assistant" during his crime-busting journey 200 years back to the 20th century is "Selma," a computer who occasionally materializes as a prim-looking, redheaded female hologram to help break up his monotony. Flesh-and-blood actress Liz Alexander plays Selma, but her voice -- and, occasionally, her physical presence -- are put into the scenes later by the special effects technicians.

That means Mr. Midkiff has to play all his scenes with Selma to empty air.

Darien also has a neat little laser weapon that's disguised as a remote control gadget for a car alarm. But all Mr. Midkiff has is a car alarm. The laser effects are put in later.

"You feel awfully damn stupid shooting people with this car alarm," he said.

The fact that Mr. Midkiff can make such stuff look convincing is a major reason why he's one of the busiest young leading men in Hollywood. His special trick is the raised-eyebrow attitude he brings to most of his roles -- a sense of mischief that makes his straight hero characters fun without being funny, and his darker characters credibly human.

"To me, the only believable heroes are the ones who don't take themselves too seriously," he explained. "They're mostly just regular people who can rise above situations sometimes and do what needs to be done. With Darien, I figure the more insecurities he has, the more mistakes he makes and the goofier he is, the more his real acts of heroism will stand out. I think people can relate more to the things he does wrong than the things he does right."

So far, people seem to be relating to Darien in enormous numbers. The nationally syndicated action show draws a large male audience as well as solid numbers among youngsters. It has boosted the ratings for most stations carrying it.

Mr. Midkiff also was pleasantly surprised to learn "Time Trax" has developed a following among teen-age girls, who now give him the sort of squeals usually reserved for rock stars and hunks from "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"I'm not the screaming-crowds kind of guy," he said, "but suddenly I was being followed by the paparazzi, about 20 of them, all shouting 'Dale, Dale, Dale!' "

Though Mr. Midkiff is still awaiting word on a second-season renewal of "Time Trax" -- it's a costly show, despite the economies of filming overseas -- the odds seem to favor this former stage actor.

College educated -- he has a bachelor's degree in communication arts from Salisbury State College on the Eastern Shore -- and professionally trained at Actor's Creative Theatre in New York, he worked regularly in off-off-Broadway shows, but had to push to overcome the typecasting provoked by his boyish good looks. "You look at this face and you think I was maybe destined for soap operas or TV commercials," he said. "But I've always been more comfortable playing what I'm not. I wanted to play pimps who kill five people in one night, then go home and beat up my whores."

His first movie part was playing a pimp in Roger Corman's "Streetwalking."

Since then, Mr. Midkiff has delivered first-rate performances in a number of career-making projects. He was a wife-beater in TV's "The Tracey Thurman Story," the rapist son of Elizabeth Montgomery in "Sins of the Mother," the young Jock Ewing in "Dallas: The Early Years," a blue-collar worker in NBC's short-lived "Dream Street" series and the spook-fighting dad in the hit movie of Stephen King's "Pet Sematary."

Mostly, though, people remember him as Elvis Presley in ABC's 1988 miniseries, "Elvis and Me," in which he was the personal choice of Presley's former wife, Priscilla.

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