It’s a safe bet to assume Michael Ontkean grew up wanting to be a hockey player. He was on skates almost as soon as he could walk and was playing hockey at the age of four. Hockey remained his primary focus for the next 15 years. In fact, at 14 years old, Ontkean was consumed by hockey. When he wasn’t at school, you could find him at one rink or another where he played in the junior leagues. Played very well, that is. When he graduated from highschool, he was offered a number of hockey scholarships and he eventually opted to study, and play hockey, at the University of New Hampshire, where he stayed for four years.
Everything changed for Ontkean almost by accident. Fate, if you believe in such things, certainly played a hand. Invited by friends to join them on a trip to California, they decided to spend a day being tourists and visiting a movie studio. While there, they ran into Norman Jewison who offered Ontkean a screen test. There seemed to be no turning back. Perhaps it was the palm trees after all those cold winters, perhaps it was a deep-seated knowledge that no matter how good he would be at hockey he could never make it in the NHL. Whatever the reason, Ontkean was intrigued by the chance to act, and so he let fate take its course.
Like most actors, his first roles were small. When he was cast to appear in a made-for-television movie, he jumped at the chance, and when the movie was spun-off into a series, Ontkean was asked to continue his role of Officer Willie Gillis in The Rookies (1972-74). The show lasted two years and gave him the basic training he needed to survive in such a competitive business.
Some of his best films were made in the late 1970s including Slap Shot, which gave him the chance to show off his hockey skills as well as costar with Paul Newman. Directed by the legendary George Roy Hill, the comedy follows the misadventures of a minor league hockey team that resorts to violent play to gain popularity. Sounds like an early version of the 2011 film, Goon. His next film was the drama Voices (pictured above). Amy Irving plays Rosemarie Lemon, a deaf woman whose ambition is to become a professional dancer. Unfortunately she gets little to no support from her family. She meets a sensitive truck driver, Drew Rothman (Michael Ontkean), and they become lovers. Rothman`s family is full of hatred for the world and ridicules his dream of becoming a singer. Their common ambitions and need for support make their relationship stronger, as each pursues a dream. The film uses rock & roll songs to fill in the parts in the movie where Lemon’s deafness is emphasized. Appearing on the soundtrack are songs by Burton Cummings, Tom Petty, and Willie Nelson.
Through the 1980s his career continued to grow and included working opposite fellow Canadian Margot Kidder in 1980’s Willie & Phil. Toward the end of that decade he costarred with Rebecca Jenkins in the Anne Wheeler film, Bye Bye Blues. Set in World War II, Rebecca Jenkins plays Daisy Cooper, a woman who joins a jazz band as a singer to provide for her family while her husband Teddy (Michael Ontkean) is serving in the Canadian military.
But one of the roles that seems to have stuck with the actor came not on the big screen but on television. And it also seemed to change the kind of work he was offered afterward. Cast in the role of Sheriff Harry S. Truman in the breakthrough and then-controversial series, Twin Peaks (1990-91), it was the Mad Men of its day. That is, everyone was talking about the strange and sometimes weird events that happened in the not so perfect small town of Twin Peaks. It was, depending on the episode, a campy mystery, a psychological thriller, a drama that often contained lots of offbeat humour. What else would you expect from series co-creator David Lynch? Oddly, when a prequel film was made, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Michael Ontkean’s scenes had been left on the cutting room floor.
A quick look at his credits and from the start of his career until Twin Peaks reveals that the vast majority of his work was on the big screen, with only the occasional made-for-television movie. After Twin Peaks most of his work would be found in movies made for the box. Between 1990, when he was part of the cast of the excellent film Postcards From The Edge, and the end of that decade of the 15 films he made, 11 were made-for-television.
His career has been far too quiet lately. Since the end of the ’90s he’s only been in six features and three of those were small screen productions. He has also shown up in a number of episodes on a TV series or two and he was in George Clooney`s hit 2011 film, The Descendants, but fans are hoping there will be more. Much more.
Also see: Michael Ontkean’s Filmography
This mini-biography is Copyright © 2002 by Ralph Lucas and cannot be reproduced without prior written permission. Click here for more information about copyright.
The photos used in this biography, both from the film Voices, were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection