July 16, 1990 12:00 PM

There are discreet fans and there are intrusive fans, and then there are the two women who approached Michael Ironside brandishing revolvers. “I thought, ‘This is really scary,’ ” Ironside recalls the Simi Valley, Calif., encounter. “I was very nervous.” Happily, all they fired were questions. “One of them asked, ‘Is this a good gun to have in the house?’ They took it for granted that I would know.”

And why not? In a career that has clipped through some 40 TV shows and feature films, Ironside, 40, has brandished firearms aplenty—usually taking aim at the guy in the white hat. He played a psychic assassin in David Cronenberg’s head-popping Scanners, a trigger-happy rebel in the NBC-TV series V and Tom Cruise‘s hard-ass instructor in Top Gun. Now he’s the leering sociopath out to get Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. “Most of my roles are heavies,” Michael admits. “You hit one old lady in the head with a shovel early in your career and do it well, that’s the way you’re going to get hired.”

Recall takes him to Mars in pursuit of Schwarzenegger, who plays a secret agent with an erased memory. Director Paul (RoboCop) Verhoeven took his cast of 43 and a crew of 117 to Mexico City, where he used 10 soundstages to bring to life his vision of the red planet—a vision that may offer a new explanation for its color. “I asked [special effects supervisor] Tommy Fisher how we were doing,” remembers Ironside, “and he said, ‘We used between 2,800 and 3,000 blood hits [packets of fake blood] on all of Extreme Prejudice, and we’re halfway through this movie and we just passed that mark.’ ”

Still, the special effects couldn’t spare Ironside one daunting task: going hand-to-hand with the big guy. “Some people thought they should hire a large man to balance out Arnold,” says 5′ 10¾, 185-1b. Michael. Arnold disagreed. “He said, ‘You a bad guy. You make me look good.’ ”

Ironside himself is looking pretty good, to say nothing of formidable, as he reclines in the living room of his Hollywood Hills bungalow, dressed in head-to-toe black. But his amber eyes, burning beneath a set of eyebrows that slither and slope like crazed caterpillars, soften as he smiles, which he does with fortunate frequency. Schwarzenegger, for one, wasn’t fooled by the tough-guy pose. “He’s very sweet,” Arnold says, “a very giving person. On the set, he would never go out shopping without bringing something back for us.” Sharon Stone, who plays Ironside’s double-crossing, karate-chopping girlfriend, also praises his tender side. “When you do a part like mine, you become one of the guys,” she says. “Michael was the one guy who never forgot I was a woman. When I was thrown down, he would help me up.”

Michael shrugs off the testimonials. Raised in a working class family in Toronto, he was insecure for years about his place on a movie set. “I used to go home and say, ‘I got away with it today, but tomorrow they’re going to find out.’ ” He describes his family as “proud, stubborn Scots-English-Irish.” His father, Robert, was a streetlight maintenance man, his mother, Patricia, a housewife. She had 18 siblings, which meant Michael, the oldest of five, had 95 first cousins living nearby, 22 on the same street. A pudgy target for their taunts—and a voracious reader—Michael would also write stories “about my cousin getting beamed to another planet.”

To help support the family, the teenage Ironside spent his nights cleaning factories. He put his creative energy into playwriting, transferring this interest to acting at Ontario College of Art. A role in a student film led to a part in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation production of Look Back in Anger as a caring psychiatrist—his first, and practically last, heroic role. Canadian TV parts led to Scanners, and in 1982 he moved to L.A.

Ironside met lanky actress Karen Dimwiddie at a party in 1984—and fell hard. “I thought, God, I wonder who she is. Too bad I am who I am.” Karen had never seen one of his movies. “If I had, I might have had a much different picture,” she says. Michael has a 16-year-old daughter, Adrienne, from a previous marriage. “She introduced me to the Psychedelic Furs,” he says proudly. But it’s Bonnie Raitt and Sam Cooke tunes that play when he’s down in the garage, tinkering under his three sports cars. “I’m working out my motorhead fantasies from when I was 16,” he says. “And grease under your fingernails reminds you of who you are.”

Ironside’s next evil turn is in Highlander 2—The Quickening, in which he plays a ruthless dictator; then he stars with Rae Dawn Chong in Chain Dance, a film he co-wrote and is co-producing. Not surprisingly, he has written some redeeming qualities into that part. Could this be the beginning of a new semi-good guy career? If not, he has no complaints. “I get to chase Arnold Schwarzenegger around and punch him and live to talk about it,” he points out. “I wouldn’t change that.”

—Tim Allis, Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles

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