He's in uniform most of the time on television, yet Michael Warren, on screen or off, is one of the best-dressed men in the business. He has no trouble deciding where to shop. "I head to where the bargains are," laughs Warren, who plays Bobby Hill on NBC's "Hill Street Blues."
But his get-up betrays his casual comments about clothes. Over tomato juice at the Vista International Hotel recently, he was wearing a nubby wool-and-mohair grape-toned jacket, a checked silk pocket square, a pink silk shirt, gray front-pleated corduroy trousers, argyle socks and sleek Italian shoes.
Well, says Warren in his own defense, "the shirt was on sale."
His interest in clothes may be tied to his days as a college basketball star at UCLA. "When you are in shorts much of the time, you want to present another image off court," he says. He discounts the theory that athletes care about clothes as a way to show off their bodies. "Athletes are hooked on clothes because they have the means to buy them. Clothes are expensive."
He recalls being concerned with his appearance as a kid. "I hated to have dirty hands." At age 6 or 7, when playing outside, he would run inside frequently to wash up, he says.
"When I was in high school all the black guys tended to pay close attention to their clothes," recalls Warren. "Every day I wore something real nice. Not just anything, but a careful choice. We thought about it a lot." Textures and colors were important considerations in his choices. "It had a lot to do with self-image. I always felt good about myself and I wanted to say that with what I wore." He never remembered to polish his shoes in those days, a habit he has incorporated into his role on television. "Hill looks so together no one knows his shoes are not shined," he says.
In spite of his spiffy appearance, he never spent much on his clothes as a kid. "We were poor," says Warren. His father, a retired custodian in South Bend, Ind., "planned well with his money." Warren always thought his family was rich. "I only realized how little money we had when I applied for tuition help for graduate school."
Yet Warren says his father is one of the best-dressed men he knows, with a special knack for putting things together, a lesson his son learned well. Warren's mother is a clothes collector, too. In fact, according to Warren, his parents' closets are filled and the overflow is on racks in the bedrooms. "When I visit them, there is little room to put my own clothes."
Warren pegs his own style as "mostly conservative, though I'm willing to take chances." After college, when he formed an advertising agency with friends pitched to the 19-to 25-year-old consumer, he wasn't as conservative. It was a disaster, he says. He remembers calling on an advertising executive in New York. The man behind the desk was in a black pin-stripe suit and white shirt. "In I came, head of the sales force of one with a terrific idea, but so what. I was young and black and had an idea they should have thought up themselves. And I was wearing an Edwardian suit with a jacket down to here," he says, brushing his ankle.
He doesn't make those mistakes anymore. But he never wears pin-stripe suits either. "I'm daring in some things," he says. Like the mohair jacket he's wearing. Last summer he was working on the upcoming NBC special "A Little More Love" when he noticed designer Pamela Morris in an unusual sweater. It turned out she designed sweaters and jackets, so Warren had her make the jacket and other things for him.
He gets some ideas from Gentlemen's Quarterly, but mostly from trying things off the rack, where sizes 39 long or 40 regular fit him easily. He skips the Beverly Hills shopping circuit--"too expensive"--in favor of "Boystown," a shopping area preferred by homosexuals: "They pay a lot of attention to clothes and tend not to be too conservative," Warren says.
He only started wearing jeans when a friend bought a discount jeans store. He's not into "in" names, he says, but he does have a Giorgio Armani tuxedo. "I buy what pleases the eye." He cares how things feel, like his silk shirts or silk pajamas. And how much they cost.
"I have a limit in my head about how much I want to spend on clothes," says Warren. Then, smiling, he adds, "If I really like something, I'll pay more."