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September 28, 2017

It Takes a Chief

All hail Keith Carradine, who’s enjoying a stint in the Oval Office.

Lyndon Stambler
  • Sandro Baebler

Arriving at the east lot of Silvercup Studios in Queens to shoot Madam Secretary, Keith Carradine is greeted by the crew’s chorus of “Good Morning, Mr. President.”

Ever since he started playing President Conrad Dalton on the CBS series, he gets that a lot, especially on the streets of Los Angeles and New York.

With his square jaw and graying temples, Carradine has certainly restored gravitas to the office of the president — however fictitiously. “Given the way our political landscape has shifted, I think the audience quite likes coming to our little world,” he says. “In a funny way, it seems like it’s more predictable and orderly than the world in which we are actually living.”

Carradine, recently seen on The Big Bang Theory and Fargo, finds his own form of refuge on the Madam Secretary set. He credits star Téa Leoni for that. “She takes the work very seriously. She takes herself not seriously at all,” he says. “She’s hilarious. She sets the tone. It is a joyful place to be.”

Most of the time, Carradine’s President Dalton is a foil for Leoni’s character, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord. “As Téa says, every week she puts on her cape and saves the world.”

Carradine gets his share of the spotlight. In a third-season episode called “South China Sea,” he reminisces in a scene with Leoni about his days as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam. As he talks, the camera zooms in on a photo of a youthful Dalton in fatigues. The photo, retrieved from the CBS archives, came from the 1980 miniseries A Rumor of War, in which Carradine played a Marine lieutenant.

The son of actor John Carradine and half-brother of David Carradine, this Carradine initially considered a career in forestry. He attended Colorado State University, but not for long. “I had artistic sensibilities,” he says. “Somewhere along there, I realized I’m just going to giggle and give in.”

In March 1969, Carradine began a yearlong run in the Broadway cast of the quintessential ’60s musical, Hair. In 1970, he landed the first of more than 70 movie roles, acting alongside Johnny Cash and Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight.

Westerns seem to fit this rangy California native: in 1991, he earned a Tony nomination as the lariat-twirling title character in The Will Rogers Follies. In 2004, he played Wild Bill Hickok on Deadwood. “I somehow wound up with a lot of dust on me,” he says.

Carradine won an Oscar for “I’m Easy,” a song he wrote and then performed in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). It became a top-20 hit and led to two albums. He still composes and plays music every day, sometimes on the Madam Secretary set.

“There is nothing more joyful for me than to be able to play music,” Carradine says, adding that he has no plans to go on the road again. For now, he’s focused on playing the president. Though he met Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign and played George W. Bush in the 2005 American premiere of David Hare’s play Stuff Happens, Carradine says he didn’t model Dalton on any president.

“Fortunately, it’s make-believe,” he says. “If I ever wound up with that responsibility in real life, I’d probably crumble.” 

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017

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