Occupation: Film actor, working in 46 motion pictures in 18 years. Film credits include: Reservoir Dogs, Free Willy (I&II), Thelma and Louise, Donnie Brasco, Wyatt Earp, The Getaway, Kill Me Again, The Natural, Mulholland Falls. Best Emerging Actor Award, Universal Studios. Best Actor, Spirit Awards, Author and Poet, Burning in Paradise. Married with five children (4 sons, and a stepson)
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Education: Graduate of Evanston Township High School, Evanston, IL
Delinquency History: Began with breaking into cars and auto-theft. Later arrested for reckless driving, driving under the influence and resisting arrest. Spent time in adult jails as juvenile. Arrested at age 20 for burglary, pled guilty, and was released contingent on a promise to join the Marines.
"I knew that I was doing something that was wrong, and I was gonna have to get in trouble for it. And I knew that there was no way in the world that I could ever talk my way out of it. It was a really terribly lonely, empty feeling."
At age 21, Michael Madsen finally realized that he could no longer evade the criminal justice system. He and his friend Mark, during a crime spree in Arizona, had finally been caught. Michael recalls seeing the headlights of the police cars at the sporting goods store he and Mark were robbing; "I realized our situation, and how far out of touch we had both really gotten." Trying to escape, Mark pushed Michael by his feet out through a ceiling vent, but as soon as he popped his head out onto the roof, Michael saw a police officer pointing a gun at his head, ready to shoot. "I think at that moment, it could have been over for me," he says.
He was arrested, and for the first time in his life, he saw the full force of the criminal justice system baring down on him. As a juvenile he had been arrested for various things, but it wasn't until this arrest that he faced hard time. Also, this time, he was jailed with two other criminals; one doing time for murder, the other for drugs. Only then did he realize that he did not belong in jail, and that the "thug life" wasn't for him. Ironically, the second chances he received as youth and young man allowed him to become a well regarded actor, who specializes in playing criminals and thugs he once came close to becoming in real life.
His real crime story began at a very tender age. In the fourth grade, Madsen was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), and forced to take Ridilin. Instead of taking the pills, Madsen would hide them under his tongue, and spit them out later. Eventually the school and his parents caught on to his trick, and they made him stick out his tongue before he could leave. Michael was often a behavioral problem in school. His father was emotionally battering to the entire family and was not understanding of Michael's ADD, nor his poor grades. But his father, who worked as a fireman, did as much as he could to support the family, even after he and Michael's mother divorced.
For the first five years after the divorce, Michael lived with his mother and sisters in only one apartment in Evanston , IL. After his parents divorced, Mike felt the vacuum in his life. "I always figured that my father was never going to appreciate anything I did," he says. In his collection of poetry, "Burning in Paradise", Madsen wrote about his stormy relationship with his father: "One million tears over 35 years....I remember my father hitting me in the face, and falling to the floor with the bright lights flashing in my head.....My father rolling up the window of his brown Dodge and driving away on Christmas day." Around age 12, Michael started drifting towards trouble. Soon after his father left the home, Madsen began acting up in school, making jokes, bothering friends, and throwing things. Later, he began sneaking out of the house, and with friends, breaking into cars. He remembers the school intervening, but nobody ever talked to him about the problems. He described feeling like a "nonentity in the room." But even as a petty delinquent with poor grades, Madsen realized his passion for the arts. His mother tried to encourage him as much as possible, althoughs he did not believe that arts would ever get him anywhere in life. His father did not encourage his interest, and would have been happy if Madsen got a stable job like him. Madsen says that he enjoyed reading, painting and sculpting, however, they weren't "tough, and it wasn't cool. And so, it was something that I didn't really make known that I was interested in those areas."
One person that did know he had talent was his Evanston , Illinois High School English teacher, Sid Lieberman. Mr. Lieberman "was one of the first people that was an authority figure who actually spoke to me, and took time to explain to me that there was some beautiful things in life." He gave Madsen books to read, and let him know that he was interested in his future. Lieberman's encouragement helped Madsen realize that his teacher was not going to give up on him. And it implemented the idea that he did not have to be a thug his entire life; he was capable of much more.
But at Evanston High, Madsen met a group of older kids who had passions other than the arts: they liked to race and steal cars. To build racecars, they would steal dozens of automobiles, strip them down, and sell or use the parts. "It seemed like they had more to offer in their friendships." During this time, Madsen was arrested for many things, including reckless driving, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest. Although he went to jail, there were no interventions, and his attitude was that being arrested and locked up was 'cool.' When Mike was seventeen, things got harder financially for his mother and it was then that the family began moving every year for the next several years. His last year of high school was particularly a problem. He wrecked his mother's car the first day he had his license and totaled his own car a year later. Madsen "ditched" school, and cut a lot of classes. He turned up l/4 credit short at graduation time, and missed matriculating with his class. As he began doing landscaping, painting houses, and working in gas stations, he finished up his high school credits at night school. Just after he left school, Madsen met a new partner in crime. Mark, a guy he met through car racing, was older, and had been in the Army, but was kicked out when they found out that he had a criminal record. "It really, really crucified him because he had nowhere to go, and nowhere to turn," Madsen says. At 18 years old, he and Mark decided to steal a Chevy van, and drive it across the country. The day they left, Madsen stopped by a birthday party at his mother's house. He sat on the front porch with her, and told her he was leaving. She started to cry and begged him not to go, but he left the same day on a trip that would turn into downward spiral.
Along their way across America , Madsen and Mark stopped to burglarize gas stations, got involved with a motorcycle gang and began breaking houses, prostituting girls, and carrying guns as they stayed in motels along the highways. By the time they arrived in Arizona, they had over $8000. The spiral ended in Phoenix . When a plan to rob a drive-up bank teller failed, they decided to rob a sporting goods store. After sliding through the air-ducts of the store to get to the safe, they accidentally set off the silent alarm. When they saw the headlights of the police cars, Madsen realized that this time was for real. They were seized at gunpoint while trying to escape from the vent leading to the roof.
Both men were arrested, and taken to jail. While Madsen was in jail, the arresting officer, the one who had pointed a gun at his head, came to visit him. "He said he had a feeling that I wasn't a bad person, that I just needed someone to look out for me," Madsen says. The officer offered to help in any way that he could, and Madsen asked him to call his father (he did not want his mother to know that he was in jail). When the police officer got Madsen's dad on the phone, his father said, "`let him sit there in jail to teach him a lesson.'" While it broke his spirit, looking back as an adult, Madsen says his time in jail did spark an epiphany for him : "it wasn't cool to be in jail anymore," and he thought, "it's time get out of this life."
Madsen was appointed a public defender, and when he was threatened with 5 years in state prison, he turned to the police officer for help, again. The policeman spoke to the judge on Madsen's behalf, and asked that he be allowed to join the Marine Corps instead of going to jail. The judge agreed, and Madsen was set free. Though Madsen tried to enlist, it turned out the Marines would not take him for medical reasons.
While Madsen caught a lucky break, Mark received a 5-year sentence for the Phoenix break-in--a penalty enhanced by the fact that he was on probation at the time of the offense. Madsen moved on with his life, though he began receiving letters from Mark from prison. "He was incredibly more and more comfortable with the idea of being incarcerated, and each successive letter I got was more and more violent, and more oppressive, and filled with jail jargon , " Madsen says.
Eventually, Mark was released, but was caught breaking into a car, and sent to the State Penitentiary. When he was released again, he got an apartment. Soon after he moved in, he was found shot dead on his couch. Madsen thinks about him all the time. "He was such a wonderful guy," he says. "He wasn't an evil person, he was just a misunderstood guy. What the hell did I do? We were both there. Why take me out and think that I was worth saving?"
Whatever the reason for his fortune, Madsen made something out of his second chance. Upon returning to Illinois , he stopped his criminal activity. "I was afraid to steal a pack of gum," he says. He started a house-painting business, and moved in with his mother and sister, actress Virginia Madsen. He managed to straighten out, even though he continued with the recreational drug use he picked up as a youth. After seeing a production of "Of Mice and Men" staring John Malkovich at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Madsen was inspired. He met with Malkovich, and was told that he should try acting. His first major role came in Reservoir Dogs, out in a masterful performance as the violent "Mr. Blonde--the character who cuts off a police officer's ear in a memorable scene. Since then, he has most frequently been cast in "bad guy" roles in such films as Thelma and Louise, Kill Me Again, Joey Coyle, Donnie Brasco, Wyatt Earp, and The Getaway. But in Free Willy (I & II), his fans a gentler character, when he broke with the thug role to play the father of foster child who saves a whale from captivity. Madsen thought about his own life and his role as a father when making the movie. "Bad guys are easy to play. But it was hard 'cause it was very real. It was a father, and I'm a father. And it was hard to put myself in front of the camera, to let that part of me be seen."
As his career took-off, Madsen's life began to straighten out. After a rocky first marriage, he married to De Anna Madsen, and his role as a father of five children sons has consumed his life. "I am a good role model to my kids," says the ex-thug, who often plays one on screen. "My every day life is a good example to them." He says he's learned from his father's mistakes in raising him. "I try to take an interest in what they take an interest in."
When asked what he thinks is the most important thing to do for young people in trouble with the law, he says they need a carrying adult who will listen. Madsen thinks the criminal justice system is big flaw is that it does not looks at what led to the crime, and does not see the whole context of young peoples lives. "We should be asking, 'what was the boy after and what does he want to do with himself?,' he says. "After answering those questions, he would make sure that the young man has access to those opportunities, and maybe give him a chance to change his attitude". If three strikes laws and zero-tolerance sentencing were in effect when he was a youth, Madsen says would never have gotten the second chance that led him to the life he has now. Looking back at what happened to his friend Mark, Madsen realizes how an overly punitive criminal justice system can take away a second chance.
"The tragic thing about Mark is that he found his niche when he went into the military," Madsen says. "He got high marks for everything in his military training. When it was discovered that Mark had a criminal record, all that he achieved was ignored. There was no compassion for Mark's turnaround and the talent he had demonstrated. They booted him out of the military and back into the life."
Looking back on his own life, Madsen worries about troubled kids who don't have anyone to talk to. "As soon as a kid starts thinking that he has some insurmountable psychological thing that he can't talk to anybody about, then it becomes really scary," he says. "And he's gonna look elsewhere for the answers, he's gonna look to his friends. And that's when everything starts going to hell. The sooner you get yourself out of that ring of fire, the easier it will be to see that it is not cool."
For additional information about the Children's Court Centennial Communications Project: Second Chances , go to this link: Justice Policy Institute .