By Tom Gliatto
November 04, 2002 12:00 PM

Between takes on the set of NBC’s Crossing Jordan, Miguel Ferrer likes to play cutup in a place where usually only the worst sort of cutting up gets done: a morgue. Ferrer, who plays Boston medical examiner Garret Macy, “is a wonderful big clown,” says Jordan star Jill Hennessy. “He’s always acting silly and playing around with all those bizarro medical instruments.” But it’s his own slaphappy antics that Ferrer finds truly bizarro. “There’s no other area in my life where I act like that, crazy with the jokes,” he says. “It must be a reaction to the bodies. The corpses aren’t real, but the atmosphere is. Death is all around us, and some level of denial kicks in.”

This year, unfortunately, Ferrer, 47, has felt death cut close and deep: On June 29 his mother, venerated pop singer Rosemary Clooney, died of lung cancer at age 74. At the time, Ferrer—whose father, actor-director José Ferrer, died in 1992 at age 80—was ending a two-week vacation in Hawaii with his wife of nine years, Leilani Sarelle, 36, and sons Lucas, 9, and Rafael, 6. Before they’d flown out, he says, “I asked my mother, ‘Want me to stick around?’ She said, ‘I’m not going anywhere in two weeks.’ The day before we were to fly back, we got a call saying she’d probably die within the hour. I grabbed my kids and kept them close and waited for the call.” The situation, says Sarelle, an actress Ferrer met shooting the 1993 thriller The Harvest, “was excruciating for him.”

For comfort Ferrer turned to his siblings from his parents’ tumultuous marriage, which ended in a bitter 1967 divorce: Rafael, 46, a voice-over actor; Maria, 45, a tapestry designer; Gabriel, 43, a music producer married to singer Debbie Boone; and Monsita, 42, a homemaker. He also found support from his cousin, actor George Clooney. “My mother was loved by so many people,” says Ferrer, “famous and not so famous.”

Ferrer is content with his own fame as a character actor. He often plays shady, rumpled yet oddly attractive men, from a corrupt city official in 1987’s RoboCop (his breakout role) to a drug informer in 2001’s Traffic. “People sorta know my face,” says Ferrer, “but I can still go out to the supermarket, and nobody pays much attention.”

The lifelong comic-book fan is less known for his credits from the late ’80s through the late ’90s, writing story lines for Marvel Comics’ Comet Man and other characters. Nowadays he has put down his pen and picked up his sticks: A first-rate drummer, he regularly plays L.A.’s House of Blues as part of a six-piece band, the Jenerators, with his friend, ex-child star Bill Mumy (Lost in Space), 48. He has even been cast as drumming legend Buddy Rich in an upcoming feature film.

Ferrer has already begun practicing in a rented studio, but he doesn’t do more than strum his fingers against the furniture in the five-bedroom, 5,000-sq.-ft. Mediterranean-style home he shares with Sarelle (perhaps best known for playing Sharon Stone’s lover in 1992’s Basic Instinct). But he’s most concerned with being instrumental in his boys’ lives. “I’m obsessed maybe,” says Ferrer, who learned not to take fatherhood for granted after a crisis in 1995: Doctors told him Lucas, then 2 and hospitalized with meningitis, had but hours to live. Four days later Lucas awoke from a coma. “I hate to use the word miracle,” says Ferrer, “but by all accounts, it was nothing less.”

Making time for his sons, he says, is a major reason he took the Jordan role two years ago: “I get to come home every night and tuck them in.” Playing a medical examiner was less of a draw. When his castmates ventured to L.A.’s morgue last year “to watch the real guys cut up bodies, I had absolutely no interest,” he says. “And the actors who did were sorry—because you know what? You can have too much reality.”

Tom Gliatto

Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles