RETURNS HOME TO STAGE AFTER "NORTHERN EXPOSURE"
John Cullum is so appealing as Cap'n Andy in Show Boat, you might not notice that he never gets to sing. "I do some patter in the opening number, but I can't really find a tune there," says Cullum, known to Broadway audiences for his leading roles in On the Twentieth Century, Shenandoah and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. After a five-season run as bartender Holling Vincouer on TV's "Northern Exposure," Cullum says he doesn't mind playing the straight man in what he calls "the biggest show in town.
"I think everybody in the theatre thought I was dead or couldn't sing anymore," the quotable actor confesses with a laugh. "When I was invited to a benefit for [Show Boat director] Hal Prince, it seemed appropriate to sing 'I Rise Again' from On the Twentieth Century. Even though I was doing a television series, when you leave New York, it's out of sight, out of mind."
On the other hand, admits Cullum with amusement, the "Northern Exposure" writers never seemed to realize that they were working with a two-time Tony Award winner. "In one script the town radio station was supposed to play 'On a Clear Day,' " he recalls. "The writers had no idea that if they put on the Broadway cast album, it would be me!" In the end the song was dropped for lack of air time.
Cullum's "Northern Exposure" character was known for his passionate relationship with a beautiful wife who just happened to be 40 years younger. "At that stage in my career, it was wonderful," the actor says of Holling's May-December romance. "I was too long in the tooth for it to worry my wife, and yet I was getting old enough to be flattered by it. Nobody could have the kind of sex drive Holling Vincouer had." In real life Cullum sang "Ave Maria" at co-star Cynthia Geary's wedding. Because "Northern Exposure" was filmed near Seattle, Cullum and his wife, playwright/novelist Emily Frankel, became accustomed to a commuter marriage. They raised their son, actor J. D. Cullum, in New York, but have called Los Angeles home for several years. "We have a log cabin up on a mountainside above Malibu," he says. "It's gorgeous, and my wife loves writing there. She spends a month at a time with me, but everything about our place here is a reminder of a different life. It isn't always easy to come back."
Luckily for musical fans, Cullum wanted to come back to Broadway. He especially enjoys Cap'n Andy's elaborate pantomime on the stage of the showboat, performed after an unruly patron has shooed the real actors offstage. "I'm thinking of putting a song in the middle of that and seeing if anybody notices," he says mischievously. "This is an unusual role for me in that it's more of a character part, but I'm happy to be in such a magnificent production. And it's a hit! That's a great way to come back to New York."
Cullum has been talking with Circle In The Square Theatre about starring in a revival of O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet next season. "People forget that I did Laertes in Richard Burton's Hamlet," he says. "I understudied all the major roles one season at the Public Theater. I only became a singer when Alan Jay Lerner asked me to understudy Burton in Camelot." Not that Cullum regrets his detour into musical comedy. "Oh, no," he says. "I've done such a variety of things, including Holling the bartender, and I've loved them all."
-- By Kathy Henderson