John Cullum is recognizable to a lot of us only as Holling, the bartender on Northern Exposure, but long before that role brought him a much deserved fame, he was, in addition to being a character actor in films, a star on Broadway. Twice he has won a Tony as best actor and has co-starred with, among others, George C. Scott and Richard Burton. He is also a director, which is why on this late sun-dappled fall afternoon I’m on my way to the Aha! Theater, where Mr. Cullum is directing his wife’s play, Emily Frankel’s Shattering Panes (Oct. 21 – DEC. 19), and where we’re to meet for an interview.
At the theater’s second floor entrance, an attractive, chestnut-haired woman wearing a stylish silk scarf peeks out the door. She has a theatrical presence like that of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. “Whatever you’re selling we aren’t buying,” she says with a mischievous smile. This must be Miss Frankel, I’m sure, but when the doorman tells her I’m there to interview John, she vanishes into the recesses behind her, beyond a blue velvet curtain, before I find out. Inside, I’m told John is still in rehearsal, so I kill some time circling the lobby, which is decorated in Off-Off-Broadway motif-vinyl furniture, broken drinking fountain, painfully ambitious
artbefore plopping down into some squeaking naugahyde with a found copy of Variety.
Finally John Cullum is ushered up to me. He is shorter than I expected, judging from his imposing masculine presence in Northern Exposure, and has two different colored eyes, one brown and one blue, which I find a bit disconcerting at first. (He wears a blue contact over the brown one when he acts.) He immediately puts me at ease, however, with his amiable southern charm, which he gathered up from his native Knoxville, Tennessee. A blue “J&M Cardroom” cap hides thinning, swept-back blondish hair. First off, I ask what its. like directing his wife’s play, which would seem to me to be tantamount to, oh, say, taking a leisurely stroll on a firing range.
“It’s very difficult. It’s absolutely dangerous and damaging. but we’ve endured,” he says bravely.
“Well, you’re still here in the flesh,” I say.
“Yes,” John says in that soothing southern drawl, smiling. “It takes a lot out of you, though. I have to be on constant guard that I’m not giving up my perceptions as a director in order to please her. So based on that, as long as I do everything she wants me to, I’m OK.” We both laugh.
Show business is indeed a family affair among the Cullums. John, Emily, and their son, John David Cullum, have appeared together in a Syracuse University production of Look Homeward, Angel, and John and Emily were together in several other productions. “We considered doing this play ourselves, but I wanted her to step back from it.”
“I’ll bet everybody here wanted you to do it.”
“Well, it was just impossible for me, doing the TV show. However, we are flirting with doing a few special matinees at the end of the run.”
“You’ve directed yourself before, haven’t you? As Hamlet?”
“No, I didn’t. I did produce that show, so I got to choose my own director. I am, however, going to direct myself in a film.”
This is Al, based on the novel, The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton, by Russel H. Greenan, which is scheduled to begin shooting next spring. Not only is John directing but he is also acting, producing, and adapting the screenplay.
“It’s weird,” John says, explaining the story. “It’s macabre, offbeat, kind of like Prizzi’s Honor in the sense that it has these quirky characters and deadly things yet it’s a comedy.”
“Is the cast lined up?”
“Well, Charles Durning wants to play in it.”
“Wow,” I say, letting drop any remaining blasé pretense. “Charles Durning is great.”
“Yes, he’s wonderful. And I’ve offered a part to Jeanine Turner from our show.” We talk some more about Northern Exposure and especially about an episode he is currently shooting in which Holling is made to be a very bad guy. “They’ve opened his insides up and are showing things that had never existed there,” he says, starring at his cap, which he turns this way and that in his hands.
“They’re degrading the character in my opinion.” Cullum is dearly pained at this sea change made in the character by the writers.
Listening to him though, I’m not so much commiserating with him as struck anew at how actors can speak of their roles with such absolute objectivity.
John has not only acted in TV shows but directed them as well. He finds no joy in it, however. “Directing episodic TV is not a very artistically satisfying thing to do,” he says with a deep sigh. “You come into a situation where every cast member has been there for at least two or three years, and they feel the same way I do about their roles very self-protective. The writers know exactly what they want, as does the producer. So you’re hidebound to come up with what everybody wants you to come up with. And if you try anything different you’re going to run into trouble with the director of photography, who shoots the show every week, with the first assistant director, who works on it every week, and each actor, who is absolutely resentful about anything you say to him. It takes a guy who really knows how to use a camera fast, gets in there, and shoots it as quickly as he can.”