The Steve Wilkos Show is now one of the longest-running daytime shows, celebrating its 10th anniversary on the air this year. Marine veteran (and former Chicago policeman) Steve Wilkos went from security detail on Jerry Springer's show to fill-in host to star of his own show. He talks to us about how his military service taught him the skills to succeed and what's he's trying to do with his daily show.
Tell our readers who have never seen your show what you're up to on television. What do you do on your program?
Well, I mean it's a talk show, obviously. When I got my show, I had been on Jerry Springer for many years and they decided to give me a show. We said, “Well, what are we gonna do?” And they said, “Well, what are you good at?” I said, “Well, I'm a policeman, so we're gonna pick the policeman off the streets of Chicago and put him on TV.” That’s what we did and so far that’s worked out pretty well for us after ten years.
So give us some background on your military service.
Right after high school I joined the Marine Corps from 1982 to 1989. I did 6 1/2 years on active duty. I was stationed all over the place. I was with 7th Comm Battalion in Okinawa, I went to Korea on the Team Spirit 1983, rotated back to the states, was based at Quantico for a while. Then I was stationed with MACG-48 in Illinois. And then I was at Parris Island my last couple years and then I reached the rank of sergeant.
After you got out, what made you decide to become a policeman?
It’s funny. When I was a kid, I always thought that I didn’t want to be anything like my father because I was scared of my father. He was a very strict disciplinarian. He was a paratrooper in the Korean War and he was a Chicago cop. And I ended up being just like my dad. I ended up joining the Marines right after high school and then became a Chicago cop, just like him.
How did you go from being a cop to working on the Jerry Springer show?
At the time, every TV show had off-duty security. If they thought that they were going to do a show that was could be confrontational, they were hiring some off-duty cops. And Mike McDermott, who is now my head of security, he somehow knew somebody from the show and he was the in.
One day, I was walking around the station at 1:00 in the morning, my shift was over, and he goes, Hey, do you want to work The Jerry Springer Show tomorrow?” I didn’t even know who Jerry Springer was. I said, “Yeah, what does it pay?” And that was the big question because cops were always working side jobs to make extra money. And he told me that I had to wear a suit and a tie and be there on time.
For some reason, they liked me. Whenever they called me, I made myself available. Finally, they said, “We want you to run security here.” I ran security and they asked me to travel all over the place to find guests. Jerry didn’t like traveling by himself, so he asked me to travel with him as the show was becoming very popular. So I became his personal bodyguard.
And then the big people upstairs asked me to shave my head. I didn’t think it was a big deal because I wore my hair high and tight anyways for the Marines. I shaved my head and popularity took off, so that was a nice little break for me.
(Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
Your show is very different than a lot of other daytime talk shows. It’s almost like a courtroom show crossed with a talk show.
Well, I'm investigating the story, just like a cop does when he gets a radio call. You know when you're a cop, you're in a patrol car, and you get a radio call, 1434, go to an address and talk to Ms. Smith about this. Then you go there and you find out what her problem is and you try to solve it in the quickest amount of time you can. That’s basically what we do on the show.
Everybody asks if my show is real. Have you ever watched the show? Because if you watched the show, you would never ask that question. I get it: with The Jerry Springer Show all those years that I was on, people asked, “Oh, is that real?” Well, when you see the midget with the super hot stripper, I don’t know how much that’s real, but when I was on the show, the fights were real. It didn’t take a lot of incentive if somebody was sleeping with somebody's wife or girlfriend. These people were mad and pissed and they wanted a piece of each other. That’s why we were there: so nobody would get seriously hurt.
People have gone to jail, have gone to prison after they’ve been on my show. The court system looked into it, the police went back over it because people failed lie detector tests on my show. Because of my show, there are people who have committed serious crimes that are in now jail.
Steve counsels a couple who don't know how to solve their own problems.
The guests on your show don’t seem to have ideas about how to solve their own problems. Is that something you encountered when you were a policeman?
Well, I find that in every walk of life, whether it's big cities, rural areas, people with money, people with no money. There are just some people that can't get out of their own way. You know what I mean? They just screw up all the time.
And there are degrees of screwing up, right? Everybody makes mistakes, I make mistakes, but you try to limit them to whatever degree so they're not horrible and you don’t destroy your life. But some people…
The biggest thing for me in doing the show is the kids. I'm a father and the mistakes that people make with their kids, they abandon them, they don’t support them, they're not there for them, they let shady people in their house, their kids are getting molested. How could you let that happen? What were you thinking?
Personally, I don’t worry about myself. I can take care of myself. I worry about my wife and kids. That’s who I'm always thinking about. I always wonder why aren't the people on my show doing the same? How come they’re not thinking about their wife and kids?
Has anyone come back months or years after they’ve been on the show and say that they were able to figure out their life because of what they went through on TV?
From time to time, I get letters from people that were on the show and they thank me. They feel like I really helped them and maybe helped them straighten out their life or put them in rehab or something.
Even though I get the accolades because it's The Steve Wilkos Show, we're a team. My producers, my wife, everybody, they work really, really hard on the show. When the show is over, we just don’t kick people out. We make sure that we follow up with them, that they're getting the things that they need or if they need somebody to talk to or help anger management, whatever it may be.
I'm not gonna lie, it doesn’t happen all the time, but I do get a letter occasionally from somebody, “Thank you so much, you changed my life, and I really appreciate it.”
Some of Steve's funniest TV moments
You really do seem to have a sense of mission when you’re on the show.
The biggest turning point of my life was joining the Marine Corps. I wouldn’t be the man that I am, I wouldn’t be the father, the husband, the talk show host, anything. I mean the Marine Corps really taught me work ethic, loyalty, honor, integrity. There are so many things that are drilled into you and the Corps does give you such a high level of standards to follow in life. When I got my show, I was scared to death, but ever since I've been in the Marine Corps I've never failed at anything.
I remember the kids who were 18 years old back then. Guys who were coming back from the Marine Corps who didn’t make it through boot camp. They said to me, “Oh, don’t go, you're not gonna make it, it's crazy in there.” And I said, “No, man, I'm going and I'm making it.”
Even when I came out of the Marine Corps, people are like, “Oh, the police department, 30,000 people put to pasture. There's no way you're gonna get on.” Well, I was in the first class that made it in. That’s what the Marine Corps taught me: don’t fail, keep driving.
When I got my show, people were like laughing at me, “Oh, Jerry Springer's bodyguard, you're gonna fail, you're not gonna last 13 weeks.” And I said, “No way, man. No matter what happens, I'll tell you right now, I'm not gonna fail.”
There aren’t a lot of shows that can say they stayed on the air ten years. And I'm signing on for a few more, so I think I've done quite well.
Do you have any advice for men and women who are transitioning out of military service? How can they translate their skills to the civilian workforce?
You know, I do. This is really the only advice I can give because I'm not the smartest guy in the room and I'm never gonna be that guy. But the one thing I always said when I got out of the military was, “You can't outwork me.” That’s how I got to where I am today. Other policemen knew when they needed somebody to work a side job, I never said no.
People always tell me all the time, “You're lucky, oh, my God, you used to be a cop and now you have your own TV show.” I said, “Yeah, I'm lucky, but luck never found me laying on my couch. I was always on the go, I never turned down any opportunity to make a buck or to meet somebody or to make a contact to get ahead.
It was supposed to be one day of working security at Jerry Springer and it turned into my life. I ended up getting a career out of it. I met my wife on the Jerry Springer show. My wife is my executive producer. My kids, everything, from that one opportunity, because those guys said, “Hey, I'm going golfing tomorrow or I'm doing this tomorrow, I don’t want to do it, I want to sleep in.” And I never was like that. If somebody said, “Hey, man, you want to work this job?,” I said yes.
I tell people all the time: take every opportunity you get. You might not like it, you might not stay, you might move on, but you gotta give everything a chance. Don’t say no to anything.