Like most I grew up fascinated by the Cinema. My love of Hollywood started at a young age when my mother would drop me off at the local movie theater with a crisp 5 dollar bill in my pocket. I can still smell the popcorn and feel the excitement as the lights went dim and the film crackled and popped to life on the big screen in front of me.
I am still fascinated by the entertainment industry and never miss the chance to interview the people behind tinsel town’s magic. One person I admire from the industry is actor Tim Abell. Abell is best known from his work on the 1997 TV series, ‘Soldier of Fortune, Inc.’ and the break out character he played, ‘Bennie Ray Riddle’. Like many, I often found myself fantasizing about going out on a mission with ‘Bennie Ray’. I remember his most iconic lines, “There’s nothing like the smell of cordite in the morning to make a man appreciate his right to bear arms” or “Sir, I can field strip this weapon with my tongue, and I can shoot bullets with my teeth.” Ahh, who didn’t want to be Bennie Ray?
Abell has had an illustrious career. Jerry Bruckheimer gave him his first big break by casting him in ‘Soldier of Fortune’ (1997) which aired for 2 seasons, as Benny Ray Riddle, a former Marine scout/sniper recruited by the Pentagon to work as part of a covert team. Then he worked in a series of films that capitalized on his military experiences, including ‘The Base’ (1999), where he co-starred with Mark Dacascos, and ‘The Substitute: Failure Is Not an Option’ (2001) which also starred Treat Williams and Bill Nunn. Abell went on to score more roles in ‘Murder, She Wrote: The Last Free Man’ (2001) for CBS, which was then followed by roles alongside James Caan and Daniel Stern in Jason Bloom‘s award-winning ‘Dead Simple’ a.k.a ‘Viva Las Nowhere’ (2001), and in the much acclaimed ‘We Were Soldiers’ (2002) starring Mel Gibson. Guest-starring roles in the television series’ ‘CSI: Miami‘ (2004), ‘NCIS‘ (2003) and ‘JAG‘ (1995) bought Tim face to face with David Caruso, Mark Harmon and David James Elliott.
Mr. Abell was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss his 26 year acting career.
Russell W. Dickson: So how did you become interested in acting?
Tim Abell: Well I have always been interested in the way people act and when I was in the army I realized acting is a part of the everyday experience. If you are a drill Sargent you act like a drill Sargent. If you are going to be jumped by a bunch of guys, you don’t act like a rabbit or they will hunt you down. So I have always been interested in how people act in different situations and that was one of the things that drew me to the field, being able to explore these things in different roles.
RD: How did you start out?
TA: I started out doing some Shakespeare up on the stage and then I did 2 years in the Actors Studio in Washington DC. The first work I did on film were training videos and commercials. In college I started out doing regular studies like science and biology and then I changed to theater and acting and so my interests began to change. I had to take a lot of day jobs to pay the bills in the beginning. I actually made a lot of contacts early on working as a bar tender in a jazz club. As a matter of fact, I met my agent there.
RD: How did you end up out in Los Angeles?
TA: I was working giving dance lessons at the time when I met my 1st wife and we kind of talked about it and it came down to two choices: New York or LA. So we got a U-Haul with all our stuff and when we got enough money we got our first apartment. It was tough in the beginning, I had three jobs. My wife was a nurse in a doctor’s office. I worked building sets and also at a catering company and in the midst of all this I had to find time to take acting classes.
RD: Who was your greatest influence?
TA: I remember I went to see this one man play called “Acting Shakespeare” with Sir Ian McKellan and it really made me want to become an actor. I remember going to see it and him just being awesome. Not too many people knew who he was back then. I don’t know if I thought I would ever make any money from acting, but I knew it was something that I would love to do.
RD: So was the role ‘Bennie Ray Riddle’ in ‘Soldier of Fortune’ you first big break?
TA: Oh yeah, definitely! It changed my life. I went from struggling to get by, to suddenly I have a career. My agent got me a shot on the last day and I tried out for the part. I remember her telling me, ‘just go in there and don’t F@%king suck!’ I worked at it for a full week. I had a couple of different coaches. I really had a character fleshed out and it turned out to be the ‘Bennie Ray’ character. So I walked into the room. There was this pretty big name casting agent named April Webster there at the time. She had left the room just as I went in. They were pretty much seeing me as a favor to my agent. After all the people they saw, I just sort of clicked. It was serendipity, I guess. I did three scenes, with about 14 or 15 pages of dialogue. The assistant said wow! Could you do that again? And let me call April? She came back in and was sort of annoyed, but I did it again and she liked it and asked me if I could come back the next day and meet the cast and it happened fast from there.
RD: So did you live happily ever after from that point on?
TA: Well all that success was a double edged sword, it sort of destroyed my first marriage. I was away filming all the time. The life of an actor is a tough life for the other person in your life. We are still friends but it kind of dissolved our marriage. I am happily married now though.
RD: You play a lot of military roles, do you still enjoy them?
TA: Yeah, I am starring in a film now with Steven Segal called ‘Sniper: Special Ops’. I like to do military roles because I can draw on my experiences from the past as an Army Ranger. My military background paid off because in the first season I got a lot of fan mail saying that I looked like a real military guy. I am so happy that the ‘Bennie Ray’ character got the approval of military people that watched the show. I think I played it too real at times. I remember doing this scene in the second season where I shot this bad guy and then shot him again while he was on the ground and the director yelled at me and asked why would I do that? I said well that is what it is all about in these situations. You don’t want the guy to get back up and kill you.
RD: Was there pressure in the second season to tone down the violence?
TA: Yeah, in the second season they had us shooting people with f@cking darts, and stunning them, and that just wasn’t real. I mean you would dart someone if they were a good guy or something, but the bad guys you kill them. I remember we filmed this episode in Cuba and instead of going in and killing people they had us open a little canister of gas that knocked them out. We fought against it, but it really came down to the people that were airing the show in the different viewing areas. They kept pushing it back later and later because they didn’t want kids to see the show, but kids loved it. An amazing outcome of the show to me is that the character I played on TV inspired a lot of people to join the military.
RD: Has there been any talk about bringing ‘Soldier of Fortune’ back again?
TA: That would be fun. You know sometimes they bring back shows. It would be interesting. We are all a bit long in the tooth now though, but it could be done, there have been movies out there like the ‘Expendibles’ with older action stars coming back and making a great film.
RD: Is there any role you would love to play at this point in your career?
TA: Yeah I think so. I would love to do some sort of an adaptation of Shakespeare. I love classical theater.
RD: I can see that, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead!’
TA: Yeah (laughs) something like that or to get a shot in a film like ‘Lord of the Ring’s’ playing ‘Strider’. How awesome would that be? I love those types of roles. I played something similar to it in the film, ‘Soldier of God’. I just love that era in history. The crusade has sort of come back in vogue. I’d love to do some work on shows like ‘Hell on Wheels’ but it is real hard to get a shot.
RD: You are a great actor and it is the entertainment industry’s loss if they don’t utilize you more, just saying!
TA: It’s weird, you do a lot of work and get offered all these shows, but it is like pulling teeth trying to get into the shows you want to do. I just told my manager that I really want to go in and read for that TV show, ‘The Last Ship’. Have you ever seen that show?
RD: Oh yeah with Eric Dane and Rhona Mitra, that is a great show on TNT. ‘The crew of a naval destroyer is forced to confront the reality of a new existence when a pandemic kills off most of the earth’s population’. You would be great on it!
TA: This industry is weird. I see guys I know or worked with and they go on to work on big shows, like Michael Cudlitz, who is Abraham on The Walking Dead.
RD: I just met him at Walker-Stalker Con. I was there covering the convention for this media outlet I do some work for. I got to hang out with him and Michael Rooker, who played Mearl Dixon on The Walking Dead.
TA: My son plays soccer is Michael Cudlitz’ kid. Michael Rooker is a great guy. I just went up against him for a part, and he got it because he has more juice, more of a name.
RD: I always think that acting must be such a frustrating business, especially when you see all these guys you have worked with or have gone up against getting roles, having big success in their projects. I know as a writer I get frustrated sometimes when I see my social media numbers are higher than the numbers writers at bigger outlets like the New York Times get and a lot of the doors I wanted open still remained closed to me! I don’t want much, just a staff position somewhere so I can dedicate more time to my craft.
TA: I have always said you do this business because you love it and nothing else. Don’t do it for money or fame, do it because you love it! I have had my shots too. I probably shouldn’t have gotten the ‘Bennie Ray’ part in Soldier of Fortune. I went up against bigger names like Michael Rooker and beat them in the past. I don’t think about stuff like that when I try out for roles. I just go there and kick ass and do the best I can do. You have to go in there and fight, and when it is your time, it is your time, be prepared.
RD: Thanks Tim you are an inspiration to me as always. Be sure to watch Tim’s latest film, ‘Sniper: Special Ops’. He is co-starring with Steven Seagal and Rob Van Dam.