TV's a Different Kind of Exposure for Cullum





Los Angeles Times - November 29, 1993
Susan King

JOHN CULLUM is uncomfortable. Real uncomfortable.

"What do you want to talk about?" he asks, leaning across a conference table at CBS. He stares at his inquisitor. "You know I'm real nervous about this interview. It's because I really ought to be doing something serious, but I really don't know what the hell I'm doing anymore. I don't know what it's all about. But I'm having a good time doing TV."

For the past four seasons, fans of CBS' quirky, Emmy Award-winning "Northern Exposure" (9 p.m. Mondays on Channel 4) have had a good time watching Cullum. The Tennessee native won an Emmy nomination this year for his performance as the vulnerable, charming Holling Vincoeur, the 64-year-old proprietor of The Brick tavern who is married to 20-year-old Shelly (Cynthia Geary), a former Miss Northwest Passage. This season, Holling and Shelly will become parents.

"I think they are going to tuck me away and I'm going to be a very dull daddy," Cullum says of Holling's fate. "I don't know what's going to happen this season. They will figure something out."

The world of television is a relatively new one for Cullum, 63. For nearly three decades, he was one of Broadway's brightest musical- comedy lights. He received Tony Awards for "Shenandoah" and "On the 20th Century" and received a nomination for "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

Sports fans in Seattle, where "Northern Exposure" is filmed, are familiar with Cullum's vocal prowess because, "I sing the `Star-Spangled Banner,' so I can get into football, basketball and baseball games for free."

Though Cullum got to sing on the final episode last season, his musical-comedy side, he says, is basically unknown to the "Northern Exposure" stars and creative team.

"I was doing the second episode of `Northern Exposure,' " Cullum recalls. "I was reading the script. It said that Maurice gets angry at Chris and takes over the radio station because Chris is playing the wrong kind of music and he's going to play what he went up into space with - Broadway hits."

Ironically, the song Maurice (Barry Corbin) was to have rocketed into the stratosphere with was "On a Clear Day." "I said, `These guys don't realize that if they play the record, it has to be me because I sang the title song,' "

Cullum says. "They didn't know." And the song wasn't used.

Though Cullum and his wife now have a home in Malibu, for most of his professional life Cullum refused to leave New York. "I was married to a dancer who had a dance company in New York City and she toured," he explains. Cullum, though, wouldn't tour with his shows and was reluctant to try Hollywood. "There was a time I wouldn't fly to California if I had to spend the night," he admits. "Can you believe it? I would not fly to California, the phrase was, `if the sun has to set on me.' I just had prejudices against it."

Hollywood left a bad taste after Cullum met a high-powered agent early in his Broadway career. "He turned me off so badly I literally could have killed him," Cullum says. "I spent a lot of time talking to him. He was probing me. He asked me simplistic questions. Afterward, he told my (New York) agent, `He is very exciting. He's wonderful. But his values are wrong. He should not be married to his wife. He should have a nose job. He would be perfect.' "That made such a strong impression on me, I thought, `That's not my world. That's not for me.' "

But his feelings changed when Broadway changed."If I had a hit show I would end up playing the same thing for anywhere from 400 to 800 performances," he explains. "That particular discipline was one I could get into. I could force myself to do it. Then, musicals took a change because the whole English faction came in. They weren' t doing musicals the way I remember them being done."

Cullum made his Broadway debut 33 years ago in "Camelot," in which he played Sir Dinidan and understudied Richard Burton's Arthur. "It was the old-fashioned big guns kind of thing where you had the best established people in the business," he says. "That was my first Broadway experience. Before that, I had done only Shakespeare. I got into musical comedy because of Shakespeare, not because of singing. They needed someone to understudy Richard Burton. I was also going to musical auditions because the agent I had insisted I go to them."

Since moving to California in the mid-'80s, Cullum has done five plays. During his hiatus this summer, he played King Arthur in the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera production of "Camelot" and performed on the first complete recording of the George and Ira Gershwin musical "Pardon My English."

Cullum exposed more than his acting talents last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in "Man in His Underwear," a play by Jay ("The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd") Tarses. Megan Gallagher played Cullum's love interest. A sheepish expression creeps across Cullum's face. "I was always taking off my pants and jumping in bed with her," he confesses. "I never thought I would ever do anything like this. I did some explicit sex scenes. I was very self-conscious. It turns out the director expected us to both be stark naked. We finally ended up wearing skin tights."


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