Theater - 'August' Actor John Cullum Leads A Double Life — Onstage He's best known for TV roles on Northern Exposure and ER, but the Tony Award winner has worked in theater for 50 years. These days, he's really working — performing in two plays each night, six nights a week.
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Actor John Cullum, Beating The Broadway Clock

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Actor John Cullum, Beating The Broadway Clock

Actor John Cullum, Beating The Broadway Clock

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

John Cullum is probably best known for his television roles in "Northern Exposure" and "ER." But for the past 50 years, he's been a working New York actor, winning two Tony Awards and starring in countless productions. Now he's really working — performing in two plays a night, six nights a week.

Jeff London decided to tag along one evening to find out how he does it.

JEFF LONDON: It's 6:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday evening, and John Cullum has already had a long day. He's performed in the matinee of "August: Osage County" on Broadway, and he's had a rehearsal for his off-Broadway show, "Heroes."

Cullum signs in at the stage door of the Music Box Theatre, where "August" is playing, and briskly climbs up the backstage stairs to his tiny dressing room.

So what's your typical pre-show ritual?

Mr. JOHN CULLUM (Actor): Well, typical is I come in and I go over the lines. I generally go down at five minutes, pour myself a glass of water and go over the lines, peek out and look at the audience, which is supposedly very unprofessional. I always do it surreptitiously.

LONDON: In "August: Osage County," John Cullum plays the patriarch of a highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play runs for more than three hours, but Cullum only appears in the first 15 minutes.

Mr. CULLUM: Even though it's not a big part, it hovers over the play.

LONDON: Because he finishes way before all the other actors, Cullum generally doesn't stick around for the curtain call — which is what enables him to do double duty, performing in "Heroes" later in the evening.

Before he puts on his costume for "August," we chat a bit.

Did you always want to be an actor?

Mr. CULLUM: Well, I always was an actor, let me put it that way. I'd fought against it, and I was…

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Woman #1: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Rise and shine, the time is 7 o'clock, the call is half-hour, half-hour, please. Half-hour…

Mr. CULLUM: I was working on a master's degree in finance and working in my father's office, in a real estate and insurance company, and was ready to take over. If I hadn't left when I did, in another three or four months, I would've stayed in Knoxville, Tennessee.

LONDON: With the half-hour call, it's time for Cullum to change from jeans and a pullover to his costume: jeans and a plaid shirt. Before we know it, it's 7:25.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible) ladies and gentlemen, places for the top of the show, places for the top of the show, places, please.

LONDON: And he's off.

Mr. CULLUM (In character): And he was only in his 30s when he wrote it. Well, he must have had some inside dope. Give the devil his due.

LONDON: Fifteen minutes later, Cullum is back in his dressing room.

How'd it go?

Mr. CULLUM: Well, it went all right. I got all the words.

LONDON: He quickly changes to his street clothes, and we hustle down to 45th Street. It's 7:55. Theater-goers are rushing to get to their plays, and we're rushing, too - past theaters where Cullum has performed.

Mr. CULLUM: That's where "Camelot" was. My first Broadway show.

LONDON: And past the St. James Theater, where he won a Tony for "On the Twentieth Century." We're really moving now. Cullum is 79, but I'm struggling to keep up.

Mr. CULLUM: We're just catching the lights. I catch the lights the way I catch them. It takes 12 minutes to walk briskly from down there, the Harold Clurman, Theatre Row, to the Music Box. It takes about 11 minutes, usually, to go in the other direction because it's got a slight downhill.

LONDON: While Michael Jackson blares from a storefront, we cross Eighth Avenue. Cullum's carrying his script for "Heroes," a French play about three World War I veterans, in a "Northern Exposure" shoulder bag. I ask him if people ever stop him on the street because they've seen him on TV. He says very rarely; people in New York generally leave him alone. But, he adds…

Mr. CULLUM: I mean, television is so - so powerful. More people see you in one episode of a big TV series than will ever see you your entire career onstage. Something very strange about that. But look at how many actors come back to New York to recharge their batteries, so to speak. Or else just because they just want to do stuff onstage, because there's nothing quite like performing in front of a live audience.

LONDON: We arrive at the stage door of the Harold Clurman Theater, huffing and puffing. Curtain time is 8:30. Cullum waves at the doorman, then looks at his watch.

Mr. CULLUM: What time is it? It's 8:09.

LONDON: We walk through a twisting passageway to the dressing room, where Cullum's fellow actors, Jonathan Hogan and Ron Holgate, are already in costume. As Cullum hurriedly puts on a jacket, vest and trousers, they all run their lines.

Unidentified Man #1: Lovely, sublime.

Unidentified Man #2: Now, about - about tonight. Dinner's at 8 - uh, dinner's at 7.

Unidentified Woman #2: Five minutes, gentlemen.

Mr. CULLUM: I'm not ready.

LONDON: He still has to get all his props.

Mr. CULLUM: Okay. Let's see. Now, I got my pencil, my…

Unidentified Man #3: Glasses?

Mr. CULLUM: Glasses.

Unidentified Man: We're at places, please, gentlemen.

Mr. CULLUM: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of music)

LONDON: And it's time for play number two.

Mr. CULLUM: I love the month of August. (Unintelligible) he's colossal, he's immense. A man of action, a man of sense. There's no one like Chessen(ph), but most of all he's our friend.

(Soundbite of applause)

LONDON: So how do you feel after this three-performance and rehearsal day?

Mr. CULLUM: Tired. It's a long day, there's no question about it. But I can generally handle that sort of thing fairly well. Yes, I am one tired puppy.

LONDON: And so at 10:15, John Cullum gets back into his street clothes, pulls a half-eaten sandwich from the fridge, and leaves the theater to go home for a good night's sleep. He needs it. He's going to be performing in both plays six nights a week until "Heroes" ends its limited run on April 11th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff London in New York.

HANSEN: On our Web site, you can track John Cullum's nightly journey on an interactive map, and hear a few footlight stories about the theatrical landmarks as he passes them. It's at NPR.org.

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