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For ‘Black Monday’s' Don Cheadle, music was almost his first career choice

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Although he’d already graduated from a prestigious arts institute, actor Don Cheadle immediately signed up for waiters’ school. 

“It was on Sunset Boulevard, and the whole reason to go there was not just to be a waiter,” he says. “But when you graduated, the teacher would call you in the back like Don Corleone and give you tips. ‘OK, this is the guy at Spago, call him.’ And, ‘This is the person at Tower, call him.’ You got the insider stuff,” he whispers.

“But I got an acting job the day I was getting ready to go to my first meeting for a waiter’s job. I just never went back.”

It’s been 35 years and Cheadle says he’s twice blessed that he’s never had to balance a tray full of prime rib or hawk timeshares or extinguish fires for a living.

He’s earned his keep as an actor, though music was almost his first choice. “When I graduated from high school, I had a couple different scholarships to pursue either acting or jazz, vocal jazz, instrumental jazz. And I picked acting,” he says.

“It was a weather-related choice as well — but I knew what it was going to take to be the kind of musician on the level that I wanted to be, the kind of music I heard and understood. And I knew I wasn’t going to be sitting in a room studying scales. I just knew I wouldn’t be doing that kind of work,” he shakes his head.

“I didn’t realize acting was going to be as hard. There’s much work to do that as well, but there’s some very specific skillset you have to have to be a musician. And I just knew I wasn’t going to put in that work.”

Ever since he was 10, he liked performing and putting in the work, though his first role wasn’t very promising. He played Templeton the Rat in “Charlotte’s Web.”

His family moved often when he was a kid, as his parents were both pursuing academic degrees. His dad is a psychologist who earned his master’s at the University of Colorado Boulder and his PhD at the University of Nebraska.

“So he was moving around where he was getting money and scholarships and support,” says Cheadle. “I was an education brat. I wasn’t an army brat.

“Moving can have one of two different kinds of effects,” he thinks. “Either you can get kind of good at making friends again and jumping back out there. Or you can say, ‘Well, I have to count on ME.’ I was an extrovert, somebody who made friends easily and always found a way to make it work.”

Both parents encouraged him in his passion for acting and drove him from Denver to California so Cheadle could study at CalArts in Valencia, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. “They (the professors at CalArts) wanted you to stay up there and learn what you were doing, and discouraged you from going to L.A. for auditions,” he recalls.

But Cheadle’s friend, Jesse Borrego, was cast in “Fame,” and landed an agent who took on Cheadle as well. “She started sending me out on stuff over the summer, and I started getting work, so once I came back to school I had a job and still went to school. Then it kind of happened,” he says.

What "kind of happened" was that Cheadle was to go on to star in four “Oceans” movies, two “Iron Man” films, the hits “Crash,” “Hotel Rwanda” and several high-ranking TV series.

He’s back again for a new season as the loudmouth Mo in Showtime’s 10-part comedy “Black Monday.” The series is about the Wall Street crash of 1987 and the excesses of the untamed ’80s. Cheadle plays a Wall Street trader now on the lam.

“I’ve been very, very lucky, blessed to only do this to support myself,” Cheadle muses. “I remember a couple times where I thought, ‘Ew, I don’t know …’ I remember calling my mom one time and saying, ‘I don’t know if I made the right choice.’(

”And she said, ‘This is what you’ve been saying you want to do since you were 10 years old, don’t quit. Just keep doing it.’” (

He and his spouse, Bridgid Coulter, have two daughters, 26 and 24. “We didn’t do it in a traditional way at all,” he says.

“Most people plan it, we just had a kid. ‘Oh, now we’re gong to get to know each other a little better.’ And, ‘Are we going to hang in here?’ And God bless my wife because when I’d go work and be gone a few months, she’d come. She’d bring the kids, so we had family continuity.

“Once my kids got to a certain age and you don’t want to drag them around, and they don’t want to be dragged around, they want to stay in school, I was lucky because I had a series. It kind of worked out. But if she had not been willing to follow me around for a while it would’ve been a lot trickier.”

While his offspring were growing up, Cheadle had a rule about not being separated from the family for more than three weeks. “You have to keep checking in: ‘OK, what are we doing this for again? What’s the goal? Remind me. And I’m going to try and remind you of what this is about and what we’re trying to do.’ Obviously the goals change, and what you’re trying to do changes, but having communication is so important. It’s critical. It’s impossible without it.”

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