By LUAINE LEE

Actor Frank Grillo has always been a fighter. He still is. He may be performing in the engrossing drama Kingdom, but he’s still a fighter.

While the series chronicles the world of mixed martial arts, that’s not Grillo’s gig. He has wrestled, executed ju-jitsu and boxed. He still boxes every day, rising at 5.30 in the morning while his family sleeps.

“It’s been a passion of mine since I was a little boy. I consider myself a fighter that became and actor, not an actor that’s fighting. After this career of mine, struggling up and down, really (this show) was a marriage of, if someone would say, ‘Go and write a show for yourself.’ I don’t think I could’ve done better.”

Grillo embodies the troubled Alvey as he tries to juggle the world of athletic prowess with a struggling business. All that comes naturally to Grillo, the grandson of Italian farmers who emigrated to the United States desperate for work.

“I grew up in New York in a certain economical environment that was not easy. And I think it affected me as an adult. I tend to lean toward the darker things in life.

“I exist in a melancholy place. I like music that’s kind of downbeat. I like poetry that is sad. And I’ve been a fighter my whole life, in real life.”

While he was growing up, his family lived next door to his aunt and uncle. It was a very tight-knit extended family. When he was 11, Grillo was abruptly called out of school one day and his mother relayed the unexpected news that his aunt had died.

“I didn’t know what death was, I was young. She died in the house. She died of cancer, but they were telling the kids she had pneumonia. They didn’t tell any of us. They said she was sick, but would get better. She died. And the family dynamic that we had fell apart,” he sighs.

“My uncle went off the rails, met another woman, and moved to Yonkers – a horrible place. And the family that I knew fell apart. My cousins got screwed up from it. I was 11, and it screwed up my life. The whole family unraveled.”

That experience didn’t help prepare him for a youthful marriage that went sour. He decided to split from his first wife, even though she was pregnant. “I come from a Catholic family, so you stay with your pregnant wife. But I didn’t.

“Side note: I think my son, Remy, about to go to college now, is one of the most incredible human beings I know. And it’s not because of me. He was born that way. He’s a special kid and I couldn’t be more proud of him,” says Grillo, seated in a coffee lounge here, his torn Levi’s stressed by his sinewy legs.

“But I left when she was pregnant and I was a pariah, a PARIAH. Even my brother – who’s closer to me than anybody – said, ‘You can’t do this.’ I said, ‘I don’t love her. I cannot stay with her.’

“It was a tough time in my life. The guilt, it was terrible. And everywhere I turned I would get it.”

But eventually he overcame his remorse, and met his current wife, actress Wendy Moniz, on his very first acting job – a soap opera. Though he’d done scads of commercials, he was thrilled to snag a real acting role.

“Friends said, ‘You’re going to work on a soap opera? You don’t want to work on a soap opera!’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something, my father never made more than US$30,000 a year and they want to pay me US$1,500 a day. I’m doing a soap opera!”

The show was The Guiding Light, and it proved to be just that for Grillo. “It was a great experience. I met my wife, and we’re still married and have two kids.”

Grillo has performed in everything from sitcoms to slasher films. “I don’t regret any of it. And still, once in a while when I’m on the set, and it goes quiet, I’m the last guy there, I look around and say, ‘How did I end up here? What a great experience.’”

Recently he had the honour of throwing out the first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. “I’m standing on the plate, and there’s 60,000 people there. And I thought, ‘Wow! Look at that! Somebody’s paying attention!’”

But Grillo, 50, admits he’s often considered quitting. “When you’re doing it, and it feels good, it’s like throwing a 96-mile-per-hour fast ball, or the perfect left hook. It’s fantastic. But mostly it’s not.

“It’s a lot of struggle and insecurity and instability. I’m fortunate now I’ve got a career. I can say ‘no’ to things. I often do. All the ‘no’s’ that I got coming up, I have to give some of them back now,” he laughs. – Tribune News Service

Kingdom airs every Thursday at 10pm on RTL CBS Entertainment HD (HyppTV Ch 616).