The Callback Kid: Mike Watkiss on his Memoir and Movies

Stephen LemonsAugust 19, 2020
Share This
Soakin’ up a day of retirement with sun-loving residents at the pool of The Palazzo senior living.; Original photography by Camerawerks

Ex-3TV newshound Mike Watkiss lets down his locks to discuss his new memoir and his latest ambition: To make it big in the movies.

Mike Watkiss can’t sit still, at least not for long.

On a muggy July evening in Phoenix, during an interview at his Arcadia home, Watkiss frequently leaps from a chair on his backyard patio to make a point, check on his lawn sprinklers or tend to his cats – a jet-black one named Midnight, and a black-and-white feline, Mr. Metro.

Clad in a black T-shirt and shorts, dark brown hair down to his shoulders, and a greyish Van Dyke beard, the former Valley TV news reporter, who hung up his microphone in  August 2018, looks like he could’ve played Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, minus the maniacal stare and Twinkie van.

“I’m just like a hyperactive kid who got old but is still hyperactive,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Watkiss’ wife of 32 years, Darl Chryst, a professional singer and former model, occasionally glides out of the couple’s handsome abode to check if refills are required on the Old-Fashioneds she’s expertly mixed.

On tonight’s agenda is Watkiss’ memoir “Story Hustler”: Murder-Mayhem-PTSD, which covers – in the same dramatic, hard-boiled style he cultivated for TV cameras – his 40 years in the news biz, including the Tinsel Town glory of his time as LA bureau chief of the TV tabloid juggernaut, A Current Affair (ACA), staking out stars such as Liz Taylor, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson.

The memoir also covers the 20 years he worked in the Valley after moving here in 1996. As the star investigative reporter at KTVK Channel 3, Watkiss won national awards for his exposés on the religious cult of child-rapist Warren Jeffs, headquartered in the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, together known as the community of Short Creek.

His recently published memoir, available on Amazon, is an addictive parade of vignettes that takes readers on a Runyonesque romp through Watkiss’ gritty, adrenaline-fueled existence, in which his spouse and two kids serve as the eye of his personal hurricane. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world in that I found a job that panders to all of my worst instincts.”

Plus, since his retirement from journalism, Watkiss has rediscovered another abettor of bad habits, as well as his inner ham: the magic of thespianism.

Watkiss’ Manson-esque tresses, a departure from his clean, cropped look at 3TV, are partly a consequence of his newfound passion for acting.

He originally began growing his hair out for parts two and three of the independently produced The Dark Side of Opulent trilogy, about a fictitious Arizona town run by the Russian mafia. His character, Angelo Rizzitti, is the film’s “token Italian gangster,” he says.

Other recent roles – all in independent, low-budget productions, some available via streaming, others awaiting distribution or stewing in post-production – include “a lecherous old sidekick” in the costume drama The Day of the White Lotus, and a “little shit of a movie star” in the provocatively titled Some Nudity Required.

Does Watkiss strip in the latter? “I can’t tell you how much I’d give to go back to the days where someone would pay me to take my clothes off,” he sighs.

Throughout his career, Watkiss dabbled in acting, often playing himself or some version of a hard-hitting TV newshound, like in the 1994 comedy Dumb and Dumber, co-starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Watkiss calls it his “one big blockbuster,” from which he’s received countless residual checks, all for delivering this one line: “Next up on A Current Affair, the heartbreaking story of the little blind Rhode Island boy, who was duped into buying a dead parakeet.”

The manic former newsman first caught the acting bug at age 9, when he appeared in a TV commercial in his native Salt Lake City. He’s indulged the avocation on and off since then.

Some movies he’s done are “utter train wrecks,” Watkiss concedes. Others are “not too bad,” in his estimation. “I’m hoping I live long enough to do one really, really great film.”

Watkiss with Sheriff Joe Arpaio before the latter’s defeat in the 2016 election.; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
Watkiss with Sheriff Joe Arpaio before the latter’s defeat in the 2016 election.; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
in Cape Cod covering the ill-fated search for the missing airplane of JFK Jr.; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
in Cape Cod covering the ill-fated search for the missing airplane of JFK Jr.; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
with the A Current Affair crew, circa 1986; Photo by Michael Smith
with the A Current Affair crew, circa 1986; Photo by Michael Smith

To that end, he holed up in an apartment last year in the City of Angels for several months after retiring from TV, taking acting classes while ferociously working on his memoir, a project given an extra push by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis.

Watkiss turns 63 years young in October. But, as he likes to tell his two 20-something kids, the no-longer-novel coronavirus has rendered all goals “aspirational,” since “no one knows what the future holds.”

He was born and raised in Salt Lake City, the third and youngest son of David K. Watkiss, a prominent Utah trial attorney with political connections to the state’s once-thriving Democratic Party, and wife Dorothy “Dot” Watkiss, a “relentless do-gooder” according to her third child.

Both parents were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but Watkiss describes his parents as “liberals” who were “not really into” the religion. “They baptized their sons because at that time, the only social activity in the neighborhood was all centered around the Mormon church,” he says.

He says he grew up idolizing his older brothers, who were “teenagers in the ’60s.” Both ended up following their father into the practice of law. “I was sort of the Peter Pan of the family,” he says. “I was a screw-off.”

Well, not exactly. He would graduate from Stanford University in 1980, with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Later, he went east to attend Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, graduating in 1984 with a master’s degree.

He wasn’t interested in studying law, he says, though his father represented huge corporate clients like Boeing in major litigation and enjoyed a good measure of political influence in Utah. Cal Rampton, Utah’s popular three-term Democratic governor, was the elder Watkiss’ law partner. The senior Watkiss also served as campaign manager to Rampton’s successor, Governor Scott Matheson, also a Dem.

During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Matheson backed Watkiss’ father to fill a vacancy on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. But intraparty politics scuttled the deal.

Even if the Perry Mason route was not for young Watkiss, he was inspired by something his dad, a World War II combat vet, told him. “‘If I could do it over again, I would’ve been one of Murrow’s boys, wearing a trenchcoat, covering the war,’” Watkiss recalls him saying.

“That planted something in me early,” he adds.

“Murrow’s boys” refers to journalists who worked alongside the legendary war correspondent for CBS radio, Edward R. Murrow. At Columbia, Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, was one of Watkiss’ teachers. However, in his book, Watkiss says one of the most valuable pieces of advice he obtained at Columbia came from “a hunched-over, chain-smoking, energetic little man” named John Schultz, a renowned video editor who taught at the school. “’You want to make good TV, kid?’” Watkiss recalls Schultz asking him one day. “‘Always make sure the crew gets lunch.’”

With that bit of wisdom tucked away, Watkiss returned to the City of the Saints for a stint as a reporter at an ABC affiliate. But he was soon back in New York City, where he frequently donned a Murrow-like trenchcoat for media baron Rupert Murdoch’s first foray into national television news, A Current Affair.

Eventually, the show’s execs packed him off to La La Land, where he covered crime, scandals and Hollywood sleaze as the program’s LA bureau chief.

At the start of his near-decade in the tabloid trenches, Watkiss’ colleagues in network news and print journalism looked down their noses at shows like A Current Affair. But by the dawn of the new millennium, the guppy’d swallowed the whale. Mainstream media dropped all pretense of nobility to swim in the same gossipy swill all America longed to imbibe.

Early 1994 marked a media shift, with an ice-skating soap opera involving Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan acting as the lever, as the skaters prepared to compete in the Olympics held that year in Lillehammer, Norway.

Harding’s estranged husband Jeff Gillooly orchestrated an assault on Kerrigan, Harding’s main rival, leaving Kerrigan wounded after a paid goon whacked the skater’s knee with a baton. It was headline news from The National Enquirer to 60 Minutes. No media entity, no matter how esteemed, could bear to ignore it.

Watkiss flew to Harding’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, to cover the story. There, doing TV shots alongside Watkiss and correspondents from Hard Copy and Inside Edition were such marquee players as CBS’ Connie Chung. “Tonya Harding was the point where I got the sense [the networks] were all in,” Watkiss says. “They realized we were the wave of the future.”

Any line left between tabloid TV and the mainstream media was obliterated later that year with the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, a saga ending with the 1995 acquittal of accused killer and football great O.J. Simpson.Watkiss’ crew was one of the first on the scene, with the victims’ bodies still on the ground outside Nicole’s Brentwood condo. He later rushed down to the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, where Simpson was being questioned.

The Juice emerged into a scrum of reporters before being whisked away. In his book, Watkiss remembers the “sheer panic” in the famed running back’s eyes, writing that the moment “will haunt me until the day I die.”

But not for the reasons you may think.

Simpson’s “defenses were down,” but “none of the assembled reporters,” including Watkiss, asked him the obvious question: “Did you kill them?”

Tabloid TV shows waned as the ’90s ground down, but before those days of excess were over, Watkiss would chase Michael Jackson’s Dangerous tour across the globe, hound Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and bag a one-on-one with Satan-worshipping serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka, “The Night Stalker.”

interviewing serial killer Richard Ramirez in a San Francisco jail; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
interviewing serial killer Richard Ramirez in a San Francisco jail; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
chasing a story in San Salvador, El Salvador, in the mid-’90s; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
chasing a story in San Salvador, El Salvador, in the mid-’90s; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
bird-dogging polygamist Warren Jeffs in St. George, Utah, during a 2008 trial; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss
bird-dogging polygamist Warren Jeffs in St. George, Utah, during a 2008 trial; Photo courtesy Mike Watkiss

The Ramirez interview came about in 1991, after Watkiss reported on the phenomena of ordinary women becoming romantically obsessed with the darkly charismatic Ramirez, who terrorized Southern California with a string of home-invasion murders in the early 1980s. The would-be paramours even got into fights with each other over visiting privileges. After being introduced by one of Ramirez’s girlfriends, Ramirez granted the jailhouse gabfest while awaiting a trial in San Francisco for yet another murder. He’d already been convicted of 13.

The video of the interview on his YouTube account has nearly 5 million views.

Of the encounter, Watkiss writes the following in Story Hustler:

“Serial killers do on a small scale what governments do on a large scale,” Richard Ramirez said with rehearsed conviction. 

“This nation was founded in violence,” he continued. “Men murdered their way into this democracy.” 

“Are you evil, Richard?” I asked. 

“Yes, I’m evil,” Ramirez replied. “Not 100 percent evil, but I am evil.”

It was an edgy face-off and not one of my best interviews.

The truth is, I wanted to jump across the table and kick The Night Stalker’s ass. Although, I have to admit, much of what he said was true.

“The Caligula of Polygamy”

In 1995, a change in ACA’s management resulted in Watkiss catching a pink slip. Out of work, with Chryst pregnant with their first child, he took a freelance gig with Hard Copy to confront a late-night TV pitch man about a phony miracle cure the guy was selling.

The snake-oil peddler took a swing at Watkiss on camera to the great delight of Hard Copy, which promoted the hell out of the segment. The result was a long-distance phone call from a Channel 3 news director, who’d seen the piece and offered Watkiss a full-time job.

Watkiss came to Phoenix and “covered the waterfront,” as they say in journalism, whether or not you’re in a desert: fires, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, hailstorms – you name it, Watkiss reported it. But Channel 3 also gave him the freedom for years to pursue a story about 500 miles north, in a remote strip of the Arizona-Utah border known as Short Creek, home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS.

Though the Mormon church in Utah renounced polygamy in 1890 as a prerequisite for statehood, outlaw sects like the FLDS believed the practice was ordained by God. Moreover, in Short Creek, the FLDS owned all the land and controlled the utilities, schools and police force. FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs ruled the towns with an iron hand, doling out child brides to faithful servants.

Jeffs would eventually be convicted of marrying off child brides to others and taking underage brides himself. He’s currently serving life plus 20 years in Texas for raping two girls he married, ages 12 and 15.

The situation disgusted Watkiss, who over the years would make countless trips to the area, accompanying anti-polygamy activists as they rescued women from the community. “My initial goal was to find the victims, put them on camera and confront the perpetrators,” he says. “Then dump it in the lap of law enforcement and say, ‘What the hell are you going to do about it?’”

Watkiss and others chipped away at the FLDS and the indifference of many Arizona and Utah officials. Few journos were as tenacious with the topic.

In 2005, Watkiss’ six-part documentary, Colorado City and the Underground Railroad, won an Emmy and an Edward R. Murrow Award. Law enforcement officials credit Watkiss’ work, saying it garnered them the public support needed to act.

Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith, the first law enforcement official to bring charges against Jeffs and win convictions against several of Jeffs’ adherents for sexually assaulting minors, praised Watkiss’ reports for helping to pave the way. “If it wasn’t for that type of coverage, I don’t know if our board of supervisors would have allowed me to hire a special investigator that would go up [to Colorado City],” Smith says.

Smith’s investigator, Gary Engels, whose work was crucial in bringing Jeffs and other FLDS wrongdoers to justice, agrees. Engels says Watkiss kept the story in the public eye, encouraging federal involvement.

The U.S. Department of Justice would eventually help break the FLDS’ hold on Colorado City and Hildale, suing both cities for discriminating against non-believers and winning an injunction in 2017, ordering the reform of the Colorado City-Hildale marshals service.

It’s no wonder, as Engels explains, that Jeffs tried to call down the wrath of the Lord on Watkiss, a fact discovered in Jeffs’ personal papers. “There’s one [passage] where Jeffs talks about Mike Watkiss and myself and where they decide they’re going to hold a prayer circle and ask God to handle… our destruction,” Engels says.

But with Jeffs in prison and Short Creek now on the road to representative democracy, providence was not on Jeffs’ side. In his memoir, Watkiss says the curse called down on him by the “Caligula of polygamy” is likely “the one thing for which I am most proud in my entire career.”

Watkiss also discusses his Mormon lineage in the book. His great-grandparents practiced polygamy, which, he points out, “is sort of in my DNA.”

Watkiss says his wife was raised in a more traditional Mormon family, but that she began questioning the religion in college. Neither see themselves as Mormons, not even so-called “Jack Mormons” – lapsed members who don’t go to services but sometimes still identify culturally with the church.

Growing up in Salt Lake City, Watkiss was aware of groups such as the FLDS, “and many you’ve never heard of,” a knowledge that he says informed his reporting. He had even been through Short Creek when he was younger, and says he was cognizant of the abuses going on. “I knew the certain Stalinist, mechanical infrastructure that went into a community [like Short Creek],” he says.

Perhaps he was the right ex-Mormon at the right time. He notes that his wife is a “more spiritual person than I am.” As a result, she believes fate may have taken a hand, and helped him be an agent of change.

“She thinks there was something larger afoot when we moved out here to Arizona,” he says. But chasing corrupt FLDS cops and Warren Jeffs’ cronies is in Watkiss’ rearview window now, as is his career as a journalist. Now his raison d’être is acting and film. He’s currently reading a script for a rom-com that was supposed to begin filming this fall, but will be delayed due to COVID-19.

He has a manager, Robert Rossi, at Rossi Talent Management in LA, and is represented locally by Dani Green at Dani’s Agency. He believes he has the right look for certain roles, like cowboys, mafia types and crazy geezers. “I don’t want to typecast myself,” he says. “But I guess I look at my face, and I think villains and bad guys come immediately
to mind.”

He says he’d also love to portray the “old men of Shakespeare,” if he could make money at it. “I’m still waiting for my Citizen Kane, dude,” he growls. “I’m still hoping for my Casablanca.”

Meanwhile, he says, “I’m just trying to get better with each film.”

For more than 50 years, PHOENIX magazine's experienced writers, editors, and designers have captured all sides of the Valley with award-winning and insightful writing, and groundbreaking report and design. Our expository features, narratives, profiles, and investigative features keep our 385,000 readers in touch with the Valley's latest trends, events, personalities and places.