It's a cool morning in Thermal, California, and the horses at William Devane's Deer Creek Ranch are frolicking in fields of winter rye that's lush from rare, recent rains.
A half-dozen or so paddocks house the polo ponies that have become the focus of his life for the past quarter-century.
"I really couldn't live anywhere else," he says. "I guess I'm a farmer at heart."
But he's also an actor through and through, always game for a well-rounded role. "You want the character that has a problem," he says, "because that's the one people watch."
His recent role as U.S. President James Heller in Fox's 24: Live Another Day fits that bill. Targeted by assassins, Heller is also desperately trying to maintain control as Alzheimer's ravages his mind. "I really liked his predicament," Devane says. "I liked his pseudo father-son relationship with Jack [Kiefer Sutherland]. It gave me a lot to work with."
Devane has made a career of characters with problems.
In six of the seven Jesse Stone telefilms (the CBS vehicles for Tom Selleck), he’s played Dr. Dix, the cop-turned-psychiatrist who longs to be back on the beat. He was a military man risking court martial for an affair with his commanding officer's wife in the NBC miniseries From Here to Eternity. And an eight-episode arc as scheming Greg Sumner on CBS’s Knots Landing turned into a 10-year stint on a primetime drama that, at its '80s height, was in the top ten.
Born in Albany, New York, Devane got his first big TV break in 1974, when he was cast as President John F. Kennedy in the ABC telefilm The Missiles of October. The part brought him an Emmy nomination. "I was advised to not take the role because it would typecast me," he says, "but I'm an Irish Catholic from upstate New York. I wasn't about to turn it down."
Since then, he's played his share of upper-crust, Harvard-educated politicians, "which is as far away as you can get from who I am," he says with a smile.
Devane became interested in polo while on Knots Landing, after he was invited to play in a charity tournament hosted by Stefanie Powers. He grew to love the sport. "It was pure adrenaline," he says. "It felt like you were going 100 miles per hour and your brain was going 500 miles per hour. There's nothing else like it."
He competed in tournaments around the world until polo injuries (including three broken collarbones and five broken ribs) sidelined him.
Today, he's much happier taking the occasional ride on his 140-acre ranch, a fully working equestrian-polo complex he's coaxed from the parched desert. He's also still hard at work in L.A. and Canada, cast opposite Rob Lowe and Fred Savage in the new Fox series The Grinder and reprising Dr. Dix in an upcoming Jesse Stone film, Lost in Paradise.
Eyeing his green acres, Devane says he'll be measured not by the roles he's played, but by the life he's built — for himself, his family and his fellow polo enthusiasts. In a nearby field, a horse is recovering from a broken bone in her hoof, and Devane worries that the high-spirited filly might start galloping and undo months of recuperation.
"Obviously, this is what I'm really passionate about."