PASADENA, Calif. - 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."

DESERTED AND DECAYED - THE STUFF OF MYSTERY

While mystery stories keep popping up all over TV, not all of them are about murder most foul. One of the most interesting of the group is the Science Channel's "Mysteries of the Abandoned." Who would've thought that decaying structures all over the world would prove as intriguing as solving one of Agatha Christie's puzzlers?

The show takes its cameras from desiccating cities in the deserts to forgotten pirate ships under the sea. The question always is why are they there and why have they been abandoned? Often armchair sleuths prove no match for the sagas of the sites. This season the show kicks off on Thursday with a two-hour special, "The World's Strangest Disaster Zones."

These will include an Indonesian village that has been swallowed up by the earth, an American ghost town that continues to burn and a deserted Caribbean city partly buried in some eerie substance. Go figure.

STREAMING SITES TO THE RESCUE

Some of the streaming sites hope to make avoiding the coronavirus quarantine more palatable by introducing longer free trials. Acorn TV is extending its free period to 30 days. There you can find some of the best English-speaking sagas, including the Australian caper series "Jack Irish" starring Guy Pearce, and the special feature film and streamer, "Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears," starring Essie Davis and her gorgeous wardrobe.

The site also features the dumpy but canny "Vera," with Brenda Blethyn, the bucolic countryside of "Midsomer Murders," (which proves more lethal than mustard gas) the true-to-life crime of "Manhunt," and gentle dramedies like "Detectorists" and "Doc Martin."

Sundance Now is offering a deal for new viewers: three months for 99 cents. The streaming network features such fare as "Riviera," starring Julia Stiles and the thriller, "Liar," with Joanne Froggatt ("Downton Abbey") and Ioan Gruffudd ("Fantastic Four"). Its second season premieres April 8.

Marquee TV is the streaming site for the elite as it specializes in dance, opera, theater and other artsy endeavors. They're offering a 30-day free trial and, if you sign up before May 3, Showtime will give you a 30-day free trial too.

And to keep the kiddies calm Up Faith and Family will lend free access to family programming at UpFaithandFamily.com/uplift.

For the students missing school, the Weather Channel is dedicating time during each hour of live programming at 50 past the hour to share educational content. There will be scientific explanations on everything from how raindrops and rainbows form, to why thunder happens, how to stay safe in all kinds of weather and more. More info can be found at https://weloveweather.tv/for-kids.

Fox News has announced it will make its news and local Fox stations available to everybody via online viewing. The NFL and the NBA are offering past games free online. The NFL goodie runs till May 31, while the NBA's will last till April 22.

Starz is giving away online and on demand the first episodes of some of its worthwhile shows like "Ash vs Evil Dead," "Flesh and Bone" and "The White Queen." But the entire first season of its adventure, "Black Sails," is streaming now through March 31.

FEMALE SHAMUS RETURNS

The "Frankie Drake Mysteries," that unheralded Canadian paean to pioneering women, returns for Season 3 on April 4 via Ovation. Frankie Drake is an unconventional figure for Toronto in the 1920s. She heads up her own detective agency with a female partner and throws herself headlong into dangerous cases.

Tall (former redheaded, now a blonde) Lauren Lee Smith plays Frankie, while Chantel Riley portrays her partner, Trudy Clarke. Smith, who's been seen here in "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "This Life" and "The Shape of Water," enjoyed some unconventional idols when she was growing up.

"A lot of people praise Audrey Hepburn ... the greats - for me it was David Bowie and Jim Henson. I took my love of imagination and wonder from a film called 'Labyrinth,' and I watched the film when I was 6 years old and thought, 'What is this world? And how do I become part of it?' It was this imagination that drew me in and this wonder that I wanted to be a part of," she says.

"My family didn't know what to do, it was so far from the realm of - what does that even mean? How would we go about that? We traveled quite a lot when I was growing up, and I would get put into theater programs wherever we were. And I continued to do theater programs into my teens. And that was the outlet for me," she says.

"I tried my hand of doing some childhood auditions, but we were never in one place for long enough to make a real go of it. So when I was 17, I moved back to Vancouver, where I was born, and that's when I decided to take matters into my own hands and get an agent and start to study seriously and start auditioning for television."

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(Luaine Lee is a California-based correspondent who covers entertainment for Tribune News Service.)

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