HOLLYWOOD -- Check it out, man! Cheech Marin has gone mainstream.
Not only is he a regular on CBS' "The Golden Palace," the revamped version of the long-running sitcom "The Golden Girls," but he also is releasing his first children's album at the end of October.
Mr. Marin, who with ex-partner Tommy Chong rose to fame in the 1970s as the successful counterculture comedy team Cheech and Chong, admits that he has consciously attempted to separate himself from his drugged-out "Cheech" persona.
"God, yeah, absolutely," he said during a recent interview in his bungalow at "The Golden Palace" set, which is decorated with photographs of his three young children and Latino art. With the series and the record, Mr. Marin said, he "hopefully is distancing myself from that other era. I am not putting that down or denying it or whatever, but this is a whole other era."
But it has been difficult to persuade Hollywood to forget about the old "Cheech."
"It still is," Mr. Marin said. "It is a continual process."
That's the main reason why he wrote, directed and starred in the 1987 film "Born in East L.A.," a surprise hit that was based on the 1985 Cheech and Chong record. "It was a conscious effort to make a political statement in a comedy context and turn this thing around," he said.
It was Mr. Chong's reluctance to evolve that led to the breakup of their Grammy Award-winning act in the mid-1980s. "I didn't want to keep doing that, and he did," Mr. Marin said. "It was like Jerry Lewis couldn't play that guy anymore because he physically grew out of it. We had grown out of those guys. At some point, it becomes pathetic and not funny. So I am here. I am having a ball, and things are opening up."
It wasn't that long ago, though, that Mr. Marin had had it.
"I almost had sold everything and opened up a leather shop in Sonoma or something," he said.
Mr. Marin had been trying to get into television for a long time, but had met resistance.
"I had this kind of Latino agenda where I was trying to get this Latino presence on television and get myself rich at the same time," Mr. Marin said, laughing.
He spent two years developing a series for Fox with the popular Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash. "That was the most hair-raising experience," he said, shaking his head. "We [taped] one episode, and then we went into Fox's theater process where we mounted the show live. The Culture Clash experience was a doomed project from the start on all sides: my inexperience, the demands of the studio and the networks, and the particular horses I was riding. But I had to go through the process."
Afterward, Mr. Marin stepped away from the business for a while, then decided to give television another try.
"I said, 'I am not going to let these guys defeat me. I am going to make an entry into TV somewhere, somehow.' I just had to keep lowering my head and banging through the door. I always believed if I just focus and write or act or do something, I will come out on top. They didn't make my faith in myself falter, but my faith in the whole industry process. I was definitely disillusioned."
Salvation came in the form of producer Paul Junger Witt of "The Golden Girls" fame. Mr. Marin and Mr. Witt had worked on a film project together, and the producer was looking for someone to play a feisty hotel chef on "The Golden Palace."
"I was about to get out of my contract with Fox," he said. "When the opportunity came to be in a very, very mainstream, down-the-middle-of-Middle-America show, I jumped at it."
In "Golden Palace," Mr. Marin plays Chuy Castillos, a divorced, transplanted Chicano "with an attitude" from Los Angeles who works as a chef in a Miami hotel owned by "Golden Girls" Blanche (Rue McClanahan), Sophia (Estelle Getty) and Rose (Betty White). If the character flies, Mr. Marin has been promised his own spinoff.
He is very excited about his kids' album, "My Name Is Cheech, the School Bus Driver," which will be released Oct. 27 in both English and Spanish on Lou Adler's Ode 2 Kids label. Mr. Adler, who directed Cheech and Chong's first film, 1978's "Up in Smoke," asked Mr. Marin about doing an album for the Latino market.
"He put me together with a couple of guys and we started working together," Mr. Marin said. But he wasn't pleased with the results, so he decided to do the album himself. "I had been listening to a lot of Tex-Mex [music] at the time," he said. "In one flash, I got this idea of doing this Tex-Mex bus driver who had this kind of jalopy bus. He picks up the kids on the way to school and has this adventure. It was one of the best times I ever had doing any kind of project."