Jane Stowe O'Connell is mother to Maggie and a creature of habit from hot lemon juice and marmalade to her marriage of 32 years. She comes to Cicely to inform her daughter that she intends to divorce Maggie's father, Frank. Perhaps subconsciously, Jane encourages Maggie to move on in her life when she burns down Maggie's home (Burning Down the House).
Jane is portrayed by veteran Emmy-winning actress Bibi Besch. "There were a lot of people up" for that part, Besch explained in a phone interview. "I think a lot of people wanted that part. Fortunately, the audition went well enough for me to get it. They liked my take on the character. It's a very whimsical character and I played it that way, but I played it very light. It's such a light show. Light meaning 'airy.' So that's how I approached her," Besch said, remarking on her character development.
Besch saw something special in Jane that really attracted her. "I like the show very much, I think it's a really offbeat show. The character is very offbeat. I mean, she's not your usual middleaged lady on television," Besch remarked. "Most people on television who are my age are either victims or they're bitches. They have very few redeeming qualities. She was a wonderful combination of things that I really like. I thought she was a really interesting, quirky, funny, curious likable, and charming."
If this character attracted Besch so much, was there a part of Jane that Besch is? "It's hard to separate you and your characters. She comes out of me, so I guess there's a part of me that's like that. I like that. I like her as a character."
Playing this character was an extra plus for Besch because she had been a Northern Exposure fan right along, and she got to work with some acquaintances again. She had worked with Janine Turner before and had starred with John Cullum in the groundbreaking telefilm The Day After. "I know Janine, so it was wonderful playing her mother in this. It was very easy to establish a familial relationship. It wasn't difficult to be mother and daughter. In fact, I think was easy for her two. She had be very vulnerable with me, and me with her, and that was effortless because we knew each other. It added a dimension to scenes we had together.
"So often times you're cast in parts and you have a relationship with someone: you're either married or you're their mother or daughter or whatever to this other person, and you've never met until you arrive on the set. It's a challenge to establish a relationship instantly, one that comes across on film as a relationship, but when you know someone, the relationship you already have is easily translatable to the film so you're able to touch each other, and be with each other, and look at each other from the heart as opposed to when an actor is trying to figure out who this other actor is."
Like most other actors who have worked on the series, Bibi Besch saw something very special in it. "I think the show tends to ask and answer questions about - I don't mean to be heavy about this -about what it's like to be alive. There really aren't any other shows doing that. They deal with the unanswerable aspect of life that makes like interesting and joyous, unusual, and curious. I keep using the word 'curious.' It's a very curious show. I don't mean curious in asking questions, although it does ask questions. It's whimsical.
"One of my favorite [episodes], aside from flinging the piano, which was the other aspect to [my episode] which I thought was just brilliant was when the ice breaks. Everybody's hormones go crazy. [The series deals] with that, and that's true. When spring comes, we're affected, but nobody ever talks about it. Nobody talks about the profound sadness when the leaves begin to turn. And yet they have such a tremendous impact on us."
She also very much enjoyed the location work in Roslyn, the town that doubles as Cicely. "I thought being in Roslyn was great, being up there in the mountains with the snow was wonderful. They're obviously on a hit show and they know it, so everything is wonderfully taken care of, the details and the wardrobe and the sets. The scene we did in Maurice's house; the set is so brilliant. You get a flavor of that when you watch the show, but when you're actually on it, you see what the set designer and the prop people and the set dressing people have done, it's extraordinary. It was a big pleasure."
Besch very well may experience that pleasure again. "My understanding is that there is a plan for me to come back," she admitted. "I haven't been told what I'm going to do, although I've got an idea that I want to communicate to them. I think what would really would be fun would be to fall in love with a young Frenchman on my bicycle trip in France and I come back with him to Cicely. My daughter, of course, keeps having her boyfriends die on her, so it would be another huge bone of contention between us.
"I think whatever they do to bring me back it needs to be something where I make her life miserable yet again in a way that I don't try to do it or mean to do it. It's just that I irritate the hell out of her." Irritation aside, what Besch sees as important in the citizens of Cicely is their heart. "Everyone has a huge heart, and because of that, because all of them are basically good people - even though they may not act like it all the time - that quality allows them to get along so well and to pass over the differences that might otherwise become barriers between people and barriers to having a relationship. Of course, there in this little town in Alaska snowed in all winter, so they damn well better figure a way to get along together.
"I love them all; I think they're all wonderful characters. They've all got such a huge heart. That's why audiences have fallen in love with them, because we need to have our hearts fed. Most television shows and movies don't feed the heart. That's why we feel so empty so much of the time."(3)
Sadly, Bibi Besch died of metastasized breast cancer Sept. 7, 1996. (top)
1. now defunct A&E Northern Exposure site
2. Internet Movie Database
3. Exposing Northern Exposure, (1992) by Scott Nance
12/28/01 Updated 8/6/02
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