Behind the scenes with the cast of TV's hottest, coolest show
JANINE TURNER stars as Alaskan bush pilot Maggie O'Connell
TV's most enchanting show is also its most surprising hit. The cast and creators of "Northern Exposure" heard the call of the wild -- and grinned. A report from the set.
From Entertainment Weekly, July 26, 1991 A Jason-K Exclusive!
by Mark Harris & Kelli
Photographs by Primoz
In the old coal-mining hamlet of Roslyn, Wash. (population 869), a TV crew is creating springtime: One guy is spray-painting a pine tree a more youthful green, the prop assistants are bringing in potted plants, and an animal handler is wrangling a skittish squirrel onto a stump to eat a scenically placed nut. The producers of CBS' year-old series Northern Exposure scouted more than five states and Canada in search of a town to stand in for fictional Cicely, Alaska. Finally they settled on Roslyn and rolled in to capture its natural beauty -- and to touch it up just a bit.
If you happen into the Roslyn Cafe (famous from the show's credits) when a few locals are warming their hands around mugs of coffee, the cook might tell about the time he woke up in the still-murky morning and heard a voice calling, "Here, boy. Here, boy." When he looked out the window, he saw the Exposure crew cajoling an impassive moose into taking a stroll on camera. Since last summer, Roslyn's citizens have learned to expect anything. But they haven't spotted anything stranger than what viewers see on Monday nights.
Since it turned up with little fanfare as a 1990 summer replacement, Exposure has explored a terrain like no other on television, somewhere between sitcom and drama, fact and fable, a dramatic crossroads where medicine meets magic and where a single story can teeter teasingly between tall tale and outright fantasy. It's a complicated balance, but creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey have kept the show's tone precisely calibrated.
Now, at a time when style setters from thirtysomething to Twin Peaks have been canceled and the hour-long quality drama is an endangered species, Exposure is, amazingly, flourishing. After modest success last summer, followed by a six-month absence, the show returned this spring and the audience grew to match its reputation. The season finale reached Nielsen's top 10, and this summer, as more viewers discover the show before new episodes air in September, Northern Exposure has become the season's least likely and most delightful new hit.
The premise sounds TV-traditional: A young doctor, Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), who thrives on the cranky urbanneurotic hyperactivity of New York City, is transplanted to a tiny Alaskan village to work off his med-school scholarship. He's schooled in science; the locals are steeped in folklore and custom. He cures with Medicare; they prefer mud packs. But thousands of miles away from Hollywood's assembly line, Brand, Falsey, and their talented ensemble of writers and actors work wonders, transforming real-life Roslyn into a town that's far too sophisticated for TV's standard culture-clash stereotypes. Cicely's locals aren't yokels -- every week, their inner lives are revealed in surprising and hilarious ways.
Actress Janine Turner
"Maggie's an outdoorsy, can-do-everything, jill-of-all-trades. Yet she has all these boyfriends who can't keep up with her, who fall off mountains. I think Maggie has a vulnerability underneath there. She is from Grosse Pointe, Mich., this really rich place. Her dad says she never used to go to a place without linen tablecloths, , and she was a Little Miss Whatever. And now she's out in the boonies of Alaska fixing toliets and flying bush planes with the men. So I think there's an aspect of Maggie that she's out to prove to herself that she can do this."
Hair: Bryn E. Leetch; Makeup: Joni Meers
See Maggie (Janine Turner), that crisply gorgeous, self-sufficient bush pilot? Well, she's also an unwitting black widow spider who builds personalized shrines to her boyfriends after they die -- and all four (oops-make that five) have indeed met grisly ends. And Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles), the receptionist who believes so firmly in house calls that she provides road maps when Dr. Fleischman asks for a patient's chart? She also hands out effective home remedies with a shy smile. Local teenager Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows) may seem a bit thickheaded, but his obtuseness masks a genius IQ and a cineast's passion to become Alaska's own Ingmar Bergman.
Then there's Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), the blustery, bullying town tycoon whose personal and professional resume -- ex-astronaut, halfhearted bigot, gourmet cook, show-tune fan, lovelorn bachelor -- doesn't begin to encompass his complexity. Maurice owns the town's only radio station, where itinerant ladies' man and morning deejay Chris Stevens (John Corbett) regularly infuriates him by devoting airtime to "War and Peace" readings or discussions of homoeroticism in Walt Whitman's poems. Maurice was once in love with Shelly (Cynthia Geary), a teenage nymphet who has instead found almost-wedded bliss with the kindly, perpetually startled 63-year-old barkeep Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) -- except when quarrels over their new TV satellite dish impede their romance. Add in the characters who give the show its surreal halo -- an Indian spirit who walks through the fields, a Sasquatch who's revealed to be a vagrant chef -- and Northern Exposure offers a blend of folksy coziness, otherworldly mythos -- and, always, the unexpected -- that puts it in a class by itself.
Actress Elaine Miles
"I think Marilyn should have a boyfriend."
On the set, Northern Exposure is just as charming. Falsey and Brand, the producing-writing duo who also created the critical favorites "St. Elsewhere" and "A Year in the Life," have imported a cast and crew of 80 to the mountains of Washington to make a series about America's ultimate backwoods -- Alaska. Knowing they were going to spend most of the year posted in Roslyn, the company brought the trappings of Hollywood -- overstuffed Filofaxes, red convertibles, and crew members sporting blond dreadlocks. Though there is the occasional grumble about L.A. tans lost to the rnists of the Pacific Northwest, and though Morrow ached to have New York bagels overnight-mailed to him, most everyone has found something to love among Roslyn's pine trees and tin-peaked rooftops. Corbin stables his horse nearby and sneaks off for some cow roping when he's not ranting as Maurice. Turner, relocated from New York, adores the mocha coffee that comes with a smile at the Roslyn Cafe, where Corbett stops in for the vegetarian burger. "When we get to Roslyn, the metabolism has to slow down a little bit," he says, as he leans back in his chair.
This spring, CBS flirted with cutting costs by moving the show to Hollywood. Everyone protested. "Those mountains, the snow when we get snow -- you can't recreate that in Los Angeles," says Brand. It's clear that being in a place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are reputed to have robbed the bank in 1892 lends something to the rawness of the fictional Cicely. "Roslyn is great," Geary says. "It looks like a movie set, but it's real."
Actor Rob Morrow
"He has a real curiosity, and I think that's part of the reason he became a doctor. It wasn't so much to fulfill the status quo and the parents. He was interested in how human beings work. I think that is the conflict in himself- that his kind of social, materialistic background is in conflict with that curiosity. And that's where he sort of gets on people's nerves. I hope that for every two or three scenes where he may be a little acrimonious or whatever, he redeems himself."
Like Morty the Moose, the knobby-kneed mascot that ambles around Roslyn in Exposure's credits, the show itself wandered onto the schedule unassumingly. Brand and Falsey had been toying with ideas for a show about a displaced urbanite practicing medicine in a small town. "Jeff Sagansky [CBS' entertainment president] said he loved it," recalls Brand, "and that CBS would do it as a summer replacement."
But if CBS expected a standard medical drama, Brand and Falsey had a more eccentric creative agenda. "From St. Elsewhere, we were kind of doctored out," says Brand. "Both John and I could hang up a shingle at this point." The producers instead looked to European films for inspiration, and saw, in Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero" and Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog," in Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso" and Federico Fellini's "Amarcord," shades of the series they wanted. "America," says Brand, "tends not to make those gentle, warm, offbeat character comedies. We always say that we wanted to create Alaska as a state of mind, a place where people could recreate themselves in a nonjudgmental universe."
Actress Cynthia Geary
"Shelly is very energetic and off-the-wall, and things come tumbling out. She's 19 and from no family life. She moved to Alaska by herself with no college education. In a weird way, she's very innocent and Lolita-ish."
Northern Exposure's run last summer drew sturdy if not quite hit-level ratings. Nonetheless, after eight weeks, the town of Cicely vanished from the television map while Brand and Falsey spent last fall and winter trying to get CBS to bring the show's small budget up to industry standards. They finally won more money, but only after a half-year hiatus -- a lifetime for a fledgling show trying to build audience loyalty.
But even during its season-long hibernation, Exposure saw its reputation grow. "When negotiations were finally completed," says Falsey, "Jeff [Sagansky] said to us, ' What you did on the first eight shows? Just do it again.' " In March, a screening of an already-aired episode at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art attracted hundreds of viewers who laughed appreciatively at the surreal hour's revisionist take of everyone from bigfoot to Carl Jung. "It gave us a real jolt," says Falsey. "For the first time, we heard 400 people responding. It was incredibly refreshing."
Actor Darren E.Burrows
"Ed has an IQ of 180. Some people think he's dumb, others that he's just off. I think he's just seeing things from a different perspective, living moment to moment, each day noticing the sun come up with a childlike innocence. Ed's only 17. And he doesn't drink or smoke."
CBS executives heard the buzz as well -- from people on the the street, from people with kids at my kids' school, from people I had dinner with," says senior vice president Peter Tortorici. The loyalty the show excites even reached into network offices. "Of course it will be back next September," said one senior CBS executive long before the series was renewed. "My God, there are people here who would start a hanging party if it weren't." When CBS, thirsting for younger viewers, brought Exposure back this spring, it became a top 10 hit among the coveted audience of 18 to 49-year-olds. In the 10 p.m. Monday time slot following Designing Women, the show is drawing its best ratings ever.
Exposure seems to have tapped into a rich vein of American longing. As Turner says: "I think we all yearn for this. We're all becoming very metropolitan and franchised ... and Alaska symbolizes something that has kept its individuality."
Certainly, something of a pioneer spirit fuels the cast and crew, who shoot for as long as 20 hours straight in rain, sleet, snow, and rainbows. Most of the actors have uprooted themselves from New York or L.A. to live in Seattle and commute two-plus hours to Roslyn twice a week. Morrow has even had to endure a separation from his girlfriend, Leslie Urdang, a New York theatrical producer, that has offered eerie parallels to Joel's on-screen long-distance relationship with his fiancee, Elaine. "When I got the first script for this season," Morrow says, "I told her, 'Elaine's written off [in an episode in which she dumps Dr. Fleischman with a "Dear Joel" letter].' She was like 'Oh, GAAAAAWD!"' Not to worry: Morrow's real-life relationship is still intact.
Whatever the risks, the rewards are obvious. "Working is the great part," Turner says. "Even if I'm out here 18 hours in the freezing cold, or I have to do a real intense scene and it's exhausting, that still is the great part of it."
Actor John Corbett
"IN THE MORNING" STEVENS
"Chris is from Wheeling, W.Va., and so am I. He's the glue. He's the connective thread to everybody in town. Everyone tunes in to KBHR. It's the only station. I stutter a lot, but Chris must flow. He's the narrative voice of Northern Exposure. He really gets to have fun with the English language. He's one of the more intelligent people and also one of the least sensible. He always makes the wrong comment at the wrong time."
At 15, Turner left Texas for New York, where she became the youngest model ever to sign with the prestigious Wilhelmina agency. Still in her teens, she moved on to a prominent role on General Hospital. But by the time she auditioned to play Maggie, she was down to her last $8 and had been pacing New York's diamond district, trying to get up the nerve to walk into a jewelry shop and hock the ring that Alec Baldwin had given her before their engagement dissolved in the mid-1980s. (She couldn't bring herself to do it.) Turner says her role on Northern Exposure has given her more than just steady work; it's allowed her a chance to rediscover a sense of playfulness that was lost in her early career. "I want to go claim the childhood I didn't have," she says. "I'm going to go back to Texas, I'm going to buy a horse and a pickup truck, and go country & western dancing. I'm gonna get that childhood in no matter what."
Settling into their newfound working world, the other actors are fond of recalling the trails that led them to Cicely. Before his stint as Chris "In the Morning" Stevens, Corbett spent six years working in a steel factory and attended junior college, where he discovered the drama department; eventually he made his way into TV commercials. Burrows, who dyed his blond hair black to play the half-Native American teen Ed, grew up in Kansas before making his bloody way through L.A. "In 'Casualties of War,' I got bamboo stakes through me. In '976-Evil,' half my face got ripped off," Burrows says. "I've been mutilated pretty bad."
Not that the physical demands of Exposure have been any less intimidating: This season, Ed lost his virginity. "It was my first love scene," Burrows says. "There are 20 people who have to be there, and I have to pretend they're not and do things you don't do when there are 20 people watching."
Actor John Cullum
"Holling, at one time or another, had been a different type-a hell-raiser, a drinker, perhaps even a womanizer. But he has a natural instinct for right and wrong. And he gets confused when his basic ideas don't fit in with his emotional needs. Like some of the things he feels for Shelly. He's probably never been as attracted to anyone before. He was immune and then that young girl came into his life and bowled him over. He fought against it for a long time-48 hours-but he wanted her. It's as simple as that."
The actors have spurred one another on with a lot of mutual cheerleading. Geary says Cullum, who has won two Tonys (for "Shenandoah" and "On the Twentieth Century"), encourages her. Everybody hails Corbin, an ex-Marine whose credits range from "Macbeth" on stage to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" on screen, as a mentor. And Morrow rescued soft-spoken Miles from a bad case of stage fright. Miles, who lives in Seattle with her parents and used to dance at powwows across the country, never pursued an acting career; she won her job when she drove her mother to the casting session for Marilyn. "I auditioned on Saturday, got called back on Sunday, auditioned again on Monday, and started working on Wednesday. I felt like Cinderella," Miles says. But on her first day before the cameras, her knees wouldn't stop shaking. Morrow, who is at 28 a veteran of 35 New York plays, took her aside, rubbed her shoulders, pepped her up, and started teasing her that her name wasn't Indian enough. "I'm gonna call you Elaine One-Take," he told her after she breezed through her scene.
Off duty, the cast hangs out at the Brick, the bar that inspired Holling's tavern. There, they have their choice of soda water or double-proof Roslyn-brewed beer. "It's the oldest bar in Washington," effuses Geary. "There's a trough of water running under the bar, and when it used to be a men's-only bar, men would just urinate in it." Men who might be man enough for such sport are still there and ready to mix -- or mix it up -- with the actors. "You're so convincing in that show," one beer-swilling guy told Corbin genially, "that I want you to know I'd like to bust your f---in' nose." Corbin, who is as affable as his one character is irascible, escaped without harm.
Actress Peg Phillips
"She's a knitter-together of people. She has her own ideas but is very accepting of human life. The only one she has trouble with is Maurice. She wishes he'd come down off his high horse."
As production of this fall's episodes begins, Northern Exposure sits on the cusp of mainstream success; it's more than a cult show, but it's not yet a blockbuster. Nevertheless, CBS vice president Tortorici says the network is willing to wait patiently for the audience to grow. "It took three years for Murphy Brown to become a hit," he says, "and it's going to take some time for Northern Exposure."
One possible complication is that the suddenly hot Brand and Falsey will have to divide their time between Exposure and I'll Fly Away, their new drama series about a Southern family during the civil lights era that many TV insiders are calling the dramatic jewel of the fall schedule. But the producers say they'll make it work, and indeed, their attention to Northern Exposure seems unwavering. Already planned for next season are several stories that will advance the show's careful balance of character comedy and skewed spiritualism: Look for Maggie's late boyfriend Rick to return in the body of a dog, and for Joel's twin brother, Jules (also played by Morrow), to renew a strange sibling rivalry. Falsey promises a furthering of Joel and Maggie's almost-romance, and Brand plans "an episode that's going to reveal the history of the town and let us meet those two extraordinary lesbians [Cicely and Roslyn] who created the Paris of the North."
Actor Barry Corbin
"Maurice is only happy on the edge of civilization-happy in space, happy in the wild. He has a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. He's the best-traveled person in the world because he's been out of this world. He's very literal-minded, but he would love to be instinctive. That's the part that's missing. He's in anguish over the fact that it's missing."
And apparently there's little worry that sponsors will quail at the adult humor (one episode dealt gently but thoroughly with circumcision). "Shows with that quality are allowed to take greater chances," Sagansky said recently. Does that mean he'll let the writers go further? "They've gotten plenty of latitude," he answered, laughing. "They don't need any more." What may be hardest to maintain is the fragile combination of sly humor and faith in the inexplicable, the intangible, and the not-quite-real, showcased by lovingly crafted dialogue. Exposure can be hyperliterary (Dostoyevski, Nabokov, Baudelaire, Henry Miller, and the "Kama Sutra" made their way into one script). But it's never willfully obscure, and often it's disarmingly self-deflating: The same show featured a hilarious discourse on the movie Aliens. And without being too smart for its own good, it's in love with language: "Give me words!" one character moaned to her paramour during a love scene.
Even its creators struggle with Northern Exposure's unique sense of humor. "When you say something's a comedy, people try to be funny in the style of a sitcom," says Brand. "We're not interested in that. With this delicate souffle, you stick a pin in it, and it's flat as a pancake." Then what else can you call it but..."I know," says Brand tiredly. "Quirky. And people use 'whimsy.' 'They say we're whimsical or quirky. Every human being is quirky if you don't behave in the ways everyone expects you to."
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