ANDOVER — Most people think Michael Chiklis' big break came with his role as the easy-going police commissioner on the television show "The Commish."
They obviously don't know about his ninth-grade debut as Hawkeye Pierce in Andover High School's production of M*A*S*H.
Classmates, coaches and family remembered Chiklis' lesser known roles as football player, disco dancer and impersonator of teachers when they gathered in front of Andover Town Offices yesterday to celebrate Michael Chiklis Day.
"You are entering rarefied air," Town Manager Reginald "Buzz" Stapczynski told the 44-year-old actor as he handed over the representative key to the town where Chiklis was raised. Only two other keys have been given out that Stapczynski could remember, one to a visiting principal from China last fall and the other 12 years ago when a group from Andover, England, came to visit. No other entertainers, including Andover native Jay Leno, have a key to the town.
Stapczynski pointed out that makes the key more rare than an Emmy or a Golden Globe, both of which Chiklis has won for his role as corrupt cop Vic Mackey on the television series "The Shield."
"My father said a place is only as good as the people who live there," Chiklis told a crowd of about 200. "I've been all over the world and there are no better people than those in Andover, Massachusetts."
His mother, Katie, smiled as she stood at the back of the audience and looked around at the crowd.
"I think it's nice when people care enough that they want to see you and talk to you and be a part of things," she said when asked what she thought about her son being honored.
Katie Chiklis said there was never any doubt in her mind her son would be an actor. She remembered when he came in her room one day and said he wanted to talk about something.
"I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be an entertainer," she recalled him saying.
He was in third grade.
"That was what he wanted. That was it," Katie Chiklis said.
Former teacher and coach Bob King said even in high school people could see his talent and versatility.
"Mike could play anything. He could play a 5-year-old boy or a 90-year-old Greek woman," King said.
Chiklis was well known at high school as a football player as well as an actor, but sometimes the two crossed. Former coach and teacher Dick Bordelais said Chiklis was the only student who could make people laugh while they were getting grilled before practice by coach Dick Collins.
Bordelais peeked over one time and saw Chiklis matching his coach's mannerisms and speeches with amazing accuracy.
"He was doing Dick Collins better than Dick Collins," Bordelais said. "I knew he wouldn't go far in football. But I knew he would do well in Hollywood."
Collins had his own way of dealing with the young actor for misbehaving.
"Chiklis! Up the hill!" he turned and yelled at his former student yesterday, just like he used to when he sent him running as punishment.
After the speeches, the crowd filled in around Chiklis, who stayed until every person got the handshake, hug or autograph they came for. Some clutched "The Shield" or "Commish" DVDs. Others knew him from his role as The Thing in the The Fantastic Four movies.
Keri Harris hovered around the back of the crowd with her daughter, Emma.
"I dated Michael in junior high," she said. "I haven't seen him since high school, so I thought I would come say 'Hi.'"
She said he was a funny guy who used to love disco dancing and would act out the moves from "Saturday Night Fever."
Janet Cooper, Harris' mother, had already made her way to the front of the crowd and returned with a note signed by Chiklis after he realized who Cooper was.
"Sweet Keri! Come see me," he had scrawled.
Harris waited until the crowd dwindled before she made her way over to Chiklis, who greeted her with a hug as Cooper ran up with a camera.
"See how happy he was!" Cooper said as they walked away.
Anne Marie Yastrzemski, who graduated with Chiklis, said the gathering was like a reunion for her classmates. She said the day was a nice tribute to his Hollywood success.
"We always knew he would be something," she said. "He has that kind of personality."
Chiklis described the experience as "overwhelming" as friends mingled with strangers who just wanted to shake the hand of their favorite television character.
One fan looked at him with sad eyes, lamenting that this will be the last season of "The Shield," but Chiklis promised her she would love the seventh season, which starts Sept. 2.
Chiklis has an upcoming movie with Shia LaBoeuf called "Eagle Eye." He said he also has an independent film in the works that he's "really excited about," but his wife shook her head when he wanted to talk about it.
"Not yet," Chiklis said.
He planned to fly back to California last night, taking with him his complementary Andover T-shirt, an Andover High School football cap and a key to the town so he won't forget where he came from.
Chiklis promised to prominently display the key in a frame in his office — not quite next to his Emmy and Golden Globe, but near them.