You may know him as the new face of 13 WREX’s morning show, but chances are, you’ll also recognize him for the work he did before entering broadcast journalism.
Michael Collins has worked with the late actor John Ritter. He’s shared a movie set with Kelsey Grammer and Mark Wahlberg, and he’s appeared in dozens of national commercials.
These days, he’s the host of 13 News Today, the 13WREX morning show that airs Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 a.m.
It might come as a surprise seeing a veteran actor hosting the local morning news, but this is a second career for Collins, who came to Rockford in July. “I’m having a blast,” he says. “I had a great time acting in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. I’ve paid my dues. This is a really big break and unique opportunity for me.”
It might be risky to give the keys for the morning show to a relative newcomer, but it was a chance the station was willing to take. “We’re open to hiring the person who is best suited for the job,” says news director Josh Morgan. “We like people who are comfortable in their own skin. We were looking for someone fun who could bring energy to the morning show. We had a fun show before, and didn’t feel like anything was broken. The foundation was solid; we just had to find the right people to fit our new show. Michael brings an intriguing perspective to the anchor desk.”
A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Collins caught the acting bug at age 15, when he played Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream during a high school play. He received a partial theater scholarship to the University of Alabama, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in theater in 1991. After college, Collins performed at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Tony-award winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., and the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. “I never became an actor because I wanted people to like me,” he says. “I did it to challenge myself and to amuse myself.”
In the 1990s, Collins moved to New York City, where he found work in theater productions, commercials and television shows. His credits include Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Chappelle’s Show, and host of VH1’s Rock of Ages. While filming Law & Order, Collins spent a day working with Ritter in 2000. “He was one of the first famous people who I worked with,” Collins says. “These guys don’t have to be nice to you. They’re paid to be big-time movie stars. Seeing someone who was so kind and gracious to everyone around him really had an impact on me.”
Collins found most of his success in commercial work, including a campaign for Pert Plus Shampoo. “It was a great time to be a commercial actor,” he says. “We were inundated with work. I could work for a couple of days on a commercial before moving on to the next job. But some of the campaigns could last five years.”
In 2004, Collins packed his bags and continued his acting career in Los Angeles. Two years later, he was on the move again to Chicago, where he lived near Wrigley Field and took part in Second City’s Conservatory program, an advanced study of the art of improvisation. In 2007, Collins married wife Colleen, and they moved to Libertyville and started a family. The couple adopted sons Harrison and Patrick, and daughter Katherine was born nearly a year ago.
It was at this time that Collins decided he wanted more steady work than acting could provide. While acting full-time, he went back to graduate school at DePaul University, taking classes at night to earn his master’s degree in journalism. “I love to write and with a background in television, it seemed like a job in broadcast news would suit me well,” he says. “I felt at home in front of the camera.”
Knowing that finding a first job in the larger Chicago or Milwaukee markets might be difficult, Collins focused on finding work in Rockford, a city where he could manage a daily commute from his suburban home. “I got lucky that 13 took a chance on me,” he says.
With three children under the age of four, Collins has little time to do anything but change diapers, sleep and commute three hours round-trip to Rockford. He goes to bed at 7 p.m. and wakes up at 1 a.m. to start his long drive to the station, where his work day starts around 4 a.m. After anchoring the show, Collins hops back in the car for the 76-mile trip home.
“Initially, I was a little apprehensive getting into something I didn’t know,” he says. “You start to have conversations with yourself in the rearview mirror. Can I do this? It’s a sacrifice I’ll gladly make. I’m fortunate to have a wife who supports me and takes care of the children while I’m here. Believe me, that’s a much harder job than what I’m doing. I’m getting off easy.”
Despite a lack of journalism experience, Collins has made a smooth transition from acting to broadcasting. The biggest challenge, thus far, has been learning the production side of the news business. In addition to anchoring two shows, Collins hopes to start reporting in the field soon.
“Since I have a background in comedy, I like to bring some levity to a world that is sometimes stark,” he says. “For me, that’s the thrill of doing this. I want to bring a smile to people, even during the serious news of the day.”
At 45, Collins is also one of most experienced staff members in the newsroom, even if it’s not in the journalism field. “I’ve lived through some big things,” says Collins, who lived in New York during 9/11 and Los Angeles during a few earthquakes. “I have a wealth of knowledge to draw from.”
News director Morgan agrees. “We didn’t worry about teaching him to be a professional. He gets that,” he says. “The learning curve for Michael was far less than that for any recent college graduate. It’s refreshing that he didn’t have a journalism background. He can pull from experiences and insights that viewers can’t get anywhere else. He brings life experiences to the anchor chair that are different than anything we’ve had before. After two months, he looks like he’s been doing this for years. We’re thrilled with his performance.”
Earlier this year, Collins had a brief role in the movie Transformers: Age of Extinction, working with Grammer and Wahlberg, among others. But now that he’s found a second career, Collins says his acting days are most likely over.
“I won’t be going back, and that’s OK,” Collins says. “I’m enjoying doing 12.5 hours of live TV every week. I’ve found an artistic outlet on TV. In fact, I’ve found a new home.”