I was going to begin by saying I have developed this nice friendship with a man I’ve never actually met, but that’s not true. We met once, 40 years ago.I was 13 years old and he was famous, an overnight sensation in Hollywood. If you had told me then that four decades later, we’d be long-distance telephone pals, I’d have laughed.Michael Cole was, as he puts it, "the white guy" on "The Mod Squad," which was a hip hit for ABC-TV from 1968 to 1973. Cole co-starred with Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams III as young toughs who avoid a jail sentence by agreeing to become undercover cops.Cole, who lives in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, grew up in Madison and gets back here once in a while. Last summer, he made an appearance at a Monona Terrace charity event, Outdoors Without Limits. There he spoke with Bobby Hinds, the Madison fitness entrepreneur. Hinds had been a teacher at East High, from which Cole dropped out. "I didn’t like school," Cole said, "but I love education."Last year, Cole mentioned that he’d been thinking about doing a book on his life. "Whenever anyone brought it up before," he said, "I would say that there are too many people still alive." Now it was time. He felt he had some important things to say. He had been to the top and bottomed out, too. Hinds gave him my phone number.The first time Cole called, last fall, I explained that I was in the middle of a book about the late NFL star, Lyle Alzado, and couldn’t commit to another project. But we talked, and agreed to talk again.He called every couple of weeks or so. Mostly, we chatted about Madison. "You know that Thomas Wolfe line about never being able to go home again?" he said. "I think it’s the opposite. I don’t think you ever really leave. There’s always something beating in my heart for Madison."He loves the city despite having it anything but easy when he lived here. He had a mother and brother he loved, and a father he never knew. The early years were in Schenk’s Corners. Money was short. Cole disengaged. "My place to hide," he said, "was along the Yahara River, about a half-mile from the locks. There was a little community of people there who didn’t have any place to go."Eventually, with a buddy, he took off. California beckoned. Cole found his way to an acting workshop run by a woman named Estelle Harman. She’d taught at UCLA.When I asked Cole about the break that led to "The Mod Squad," he began talking about the workshop and said one day he accompanied another student to her audition at Paramount."I had never been inside a studio," he said. They read a scene from "Picnic" for a casting director. The woman did fine, but it was Cole, just along for the ride, who made an impression.The casting man brought Cole to the attention of Howard Koch, Paramount’s head of production. Word reached Aaron Spelling, in need of a charismatic rebel to headline "The Mod Squad."When they met, Cole scoffed at playing a cop. "That’s the attitude I want!" Spelling said.It was January 1969, just after the show hit, that Cole and the entire "Mod Squad" cast came to Madison for a March of Dimes fundraiser on Channel 27, the city’s ABC affiliate. My dad was the station’s general manager, so I met everyone, including Cole. What I remember, truly, was how nice Clarence Williams was. Cole and Peggy Lipton seemed a little remote.It had to be a strange time, that first rush of stardom. Cole had started drinking in Madison at 14, and it escalated with his fame. There was an incident at an awards show in Australia. Word got around. After "Mod Squad," he did dinner theater, but his star dimmed.Twenty years ago, he met Shelley, the woman he would marry and who convinced him to enter rehab. He went to Betty Ford. "I remember standing by the serenity pond talking with Mickey Mantle," he said.Renewed, Cole found roles on television’s "ER" and in the Kevin Costner film "Mr. Brooks." He thinks there might be a place for him in Wisconsin’s fledgling film industry. "I’ve never felt more like acting," he said.Maybe one day that book will happen, too. The calls come sometime after noon. "It’s Michael," he’ll say, and begin a story. He has some good ones.