Mike Cornelison 1952-2011

November 8th, 2011 by Max Allan Collins

I’ve written here before about my friendship and collaboration with Michael Cornelison – who starred in my four indie features, three short films and narrated both of my documentaries – but this weekend I spoke about in public, at the venue where he acted so often, the mainstage of the Des Moines Playhouse. We presented (and filmed) ELIOT NESS: AN UNTOUCHABLE LIFE at the Playhouse, but in the “black box” theater downstairs.

My son Nathan and his girl Abby spent the weekend with us, mostly in Des Moines. It was Nate’s 29th birthday and he chose to spend part of at Mike’s wake-like memorial. Nate knew Mike well, having worked on all of those film projects mentioned above. Mike’s son Nick is a very gifted young actor, and Mike was an incredible dad to Nick – and always warm toward Nathan, showing an interest in him that reflected his own positive parenting.

Nathan (and Abby) celebrate his 29th birthday, which he chose to in part celebrate by attending Mike Cornelison’s memorial in Des Moines with his mom and dad.

I won’t repeat what I said on stage, because I have no idea what that was. A few years ago, when Paul Thomas – also one of my best friends, my musical collaborator since 1968 – died unexpectedly, I was asked to speak. Public speaking is no big deal for me; it comes easily, and I always do it extemporaneously. But when I had to speak about Paul, I came unglued. I was washed off the stage in a tidal wave of tears and snot and sobbing, a tough guy just like Nate Heller and Mike Hammer. Sunday night, my goal was to get through speaking about Mike without it dissolving into a sentimental sob fest. I made it. Just barely. Dick Choate, Mike’s good friend and a great actor (and incredibly funny guy), went on before me (there were four speakers) and, presenting a warm, sometimes hilarious tribute to Mike, broke down about half-way through…I turned to Barb and said, “I’m screwed.” Not only was Choate great, he had stirred my own emotions. I figured I would do a repeat of the melting man routine I did for Paul, but I think I managed to serve Mike better.

I speak at Mike Cornelison’s memorial (on stage at the Playhouse in Des Moines) and manage to just get through it without dissolving into a puddle of goo.

Nick had asked me to talk about the man, not the actor, but the truth was, you couldn’t separate them. Mike barely scratched out a living most of his last twenty years (he’d made good money out in Hollywood) but he insisted on making that living, however meager it sometimes was, by exercising his craft and his art. He also wanted to live in Iowa near his son. That was one of the main connections between us – we were, each in our way, professional storytellers who preferred to live in Iowa, to raise our sons there. Being a professional actor working in (and out of) Des Moines is a rough road. But Mike travelled that road bravely and well.

He left behind an incredible body of work. If you are an ‘80s TV fan with DVD sets in your collection, Mike lives in your house. He was a guest star on HUNTER, HILL STREET BLUES, WHITE SHADOW, HARDCASTLE & McCORMACK, DALLAS, REMINGTON STEELE, GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, and a boatload more. He was in a lot of films, too, possibly most memorably as the hotel clerk in LOST IN AMERICA who Albert Brooks hilariously bribed. I think his performance as Mark in MOMMY shows him at the top of his considerable gifts, at what I consider his specialty – the flawed leading man. And when Patty McCormack, who had so enjoyed working with Mike on the MOMMY movies, saw ELIOT NESS, she said, “That Mike…what a wonderful actor.” As you might guess, Patty is no pushover where it comes to rating actors.

At Mike Cornelison’s memorial (actually a celebration of his life) with his actor son Nick and two of Mike’s best friends (and very talented actors themselves), Richard Choate and Greg Anderson. Greg was there when Mike and I wrote our first (unproduced) screen treatment together in my house on Lord Avenue in Muscatine.

It just goes on and on, the body of work he created (some of it ephemeral, because he loved the stage above all else). His last major project with me was playing Pat Chambers to Stacy Keach on the two NEW ADVENTURES OF MIKE HAMMER audio novels – hearing of Mike’s passing, Stacy said to me, “He was a fine Pat Chambers.” For those of you interested enough in my work to read this update, you know what that simple tribute means.

There is perhaps no greater joy in the creative process than working with a talented artist who you admire and to then receive admiration and devotion in return. His nickname for me was “Captain.” If Captain Chambers considers me his equal, I am a happy man. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to finally break the fuck down….


The lovely picture of Mike during the production of the one-man show DARROW, which preceded ELIOT NESS by a few months.

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