Mysterious, monumental, meritorious, Ken Wahl burst onto the Cult Faction radar in 1979 as Richie the leader of The Wanderers! Wahl would go onto dominate the next decade through his unique roles and popularity with the ladies (at one time being voted Sexiest Man on TV by Us magazine). Even though he feels “every single movie I’ve done has been crap because they’ve cut the best stuff out” each etched something into pop culture.
Wahl’s early years are shrouded in mystery. In 2004, Entertainment Weekly attempted to unravel the mystery and concluded the following:
“The mystery surrounding Wahl goes all the way back to the beginning. Ken Wahl was born in Chicago on… well, no one quite knows when Wahl was born. Some reports say Halloween 1954, others say Valentine’s Day 1956, but these reports seem to be attempts by the actor to stymie curiosity seekers. “There’s a reason for that”, Wahl states cryptically, “but I’m not gonna get into why.” Oh, one other thing: Ken Wahl is not actually Ken Wahl. At least he wasn’t when he was born. While he declines to disclose his birth name, he does say that the moniker he’s gone by for the past 25 years is the name of the person who saved his father’s life in the Korean War.“
What is known is that by the late 1960’s his family had relocated to The Bronx in New York City where as part of his education he played baseball although this was halted due to a knee injury caused by a motorbike crash. According to his biography he graduated Midlothian’s Bremen High in 1975 and then left home (at 18 years old) in his ‘69 Dodge Dart” and crossed the United States working odd jobs. By 1978 Wahl was in Los Angeles and working as a movie extra on such films as The Buddy Holly Story.
In 1979, Philip Kaufman cast Wahl as Richie in The Wanderers. The movie took $23 million worldwide initially and has since grown in cult status so much that in 1996 Warner Bros. granted the movie a theatrical re-release in the U.S.
following The Wanderers came Running Scared; then in 1981 came Fort Apache, The Bronx with Paul Newman. Further films followed with Race for the Yankee Zephyr, The Soldier, Jinxed!, and Purple Hearts.
Tragedy struck in 1984 when Wahl suffered another motorcycle crash. He was on his way to meet with Diane Keaton about a role in the film Mrs. Soffel. It was reported that Wahl was not wearing a helmet and required 89 stitches in his scalp. The role eventually went to Mel Gibson.
In 1985, Wahl appeared in the ensemble TV-movie The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission and followed this up with the role of Ken Sisko in the six-episode TV series Double Dare. In 1986 Wahl delivered Omega 7 and The Gladiator.
In 1987 Wahl hit the small screen as Vinnie Terranova in Wiseguy. the show would go onto run for four seasons (75 episodes). In a 1988 interview, Wahl noted that “the feature market dried up for me. When ‘Wiseguy’ came along I was hesitant to do it, but I thought the quality was good. I had to make a living, so I decided to do it. I didn’t have to audition or anything.” The show would earn Wahl an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe. It also provided him the opportunity to write and direct. Wiseguy was also noted for reuniting Wahl with his co-star from The Wanderers Tony Ganios who played Mike “Mooch” Cacciatore.
During the filming of the second season of Wiseguy Wahl was injured in an episode directed by Jan Eliasberg. As Wahl recalled in 2004, “She (Eliasberg) had me walking into my own POV shot, and you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg to know that that’s not right. I was stepping up, and the [camera] wheel caught my right heel and it just ripped out the Achilles tendon. Pop! It sounded like a champagne cork. But she wanted to do it again, so I said, ‘Okay, you’re the boss.’ From that day forward, I’ve never been the same.” Series creator Steven J. Cannell said the camera ran over Wahl a second time, leaving him in so much pain that Cannell replaced him for three episodes while Wahl healed.
Wiseguy was followed up by The Taking of Beverly Hills, unfortunately tragedy struck yet again in August 1992 when Wahl broke his neck. Initially Wahl stated the injury came form another motorbike accident but eventually he confessed to having fallen down a flight of stairs at the home of comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Joan Child. “We were dating casually … I stayed over at her house one night, fell down these stairs, and she begged me not to say that in the press.” His official biography has the following on the incident:
“Ken accidentally fell down some slippery marble stairs at a friend’s home, causing his neck to break and his spinal column to be injured. Because his friend was in the public eye, she asked Ken not to say where the accident occurred. So, later on, when the media inquired about the scar on his neck, Ken simply offered the explanation that he had broken his neck in a motorcycle accident, in a sincere effort to protect the privacy of his friend.”
Wahl said it took him 2 1/2 years to learn how to walk again but he overcame it and in 1994 starred in The Favour, and Search for Grace. Then in 1996, due to public demand, came the Wiseguy TV reunion movie. The movie was a critical success and there were hopes the series would return but Wahl was still in a great deal of pain blaming a “botched” undisclosed surgery and the refusal of doctors to prescribe pain medication, Wahl noted: “Okay, I can’t get a prescription, so I’ll get a bottle of vodka. I was in such chronic, agonizing pain 24 hours a day that I started drinking to kill the pain.” After gaining weight through lack of exercise, and with a growing alcohol problem, he worked 16 days on the reunion movie “and barely got through it. That’s when I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.”
The Wiseguy TV reunion movie was Wahl’s last acting role.
Since his retirement Wahl and his wife Shane Barbi have been active supports of animal rights and of disabled United States military veterans. On January 19th 2010, Wahl he offered his Golden Globe Award as part of a reward then being assembled by the Second Chance Rescue Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to help find and convict the person who glued a 7-month-old orange tabby to Minnesota State Highway 60, where travellers found it on December 18th 2009; the cat, which rescuers called Timothy, died days later. Wahl stated “men who pick on cats are sick cowards that have control issues, since cats are half wild and independent we’re not just finding a kitten killer, we are preventing this person becoming a serial killer.”
In 2012, Wahl stood against the Hayden Law Repeal, which would have revoked the Hayden Law for shelter pets in California, which had extended the number of days owners had to find their lost pets or for injured animals to receive donations or to be adopted.
For Memorial Day 2012, Wahl sent a message saluting the military, alongside the group Pets for Patriots, supporting adoption of pets for veterans. Later in the year he took part in the documentary Saving America’s Horses, about both wild and domestic horses and the issues that plague them. In December 2012 he reiterated the need to support wounded veterans, and help reduce suicide rates, by pairing rescued animals with veterans. He has said of Israel, “[W]e should defend them at all costs. They’re the only democracy in the Middle East.”
“I’m forever grateful for all the major producers who offered me numerous opportunities for huge come-backs. Maybe it’s for the best, I just didn’t have the personality to be famous and felt out of place in the limelight.”