The Sentinel Contemplates Myth and Manhood
Richard Burgi returns to UPN as a married monster from outer space, but that's not the comeback his fans are waiting for. They're anticipating new episodes of The Sentinel, which will arrive at mid-season - or when the network cancels one of its new shows, whichever comes first. For Burgi, the return is highly anticipated but bittersweet.
This spring wasn't the first time Burgi found himself on a series which a network had unceremoniously dumped...but in this case, he took it personally. "I was hurt, I was depressed, I was pissed off," said the actor who plays Detective (and Sentinel) Jim Ellison, now back in Vancouver to film eight episodes, or possibly more. Consistently one of UPN's highest-rated series last year, The Sentinel's abrupt cancellation took many industry insiders by surprise - including its own actors and producers.
"We were all under the impression that we would be starting up in July, that's how we left the show," Burgi recalled. "It's a sad acknowledgement of the industry in some ways, the lack of dignity." Though his co-star Garett Maggart was literally left in limbo when UPN failed to pick up The Sentinel at the end of last season - after an episode in which Maggart's character died onscreen - it's Burgi who talks about the series' revival as a redemption of sorts from purgatory, a chance to play out the show or at least to say goodbye properly.
"Even when I'm off, I still hold the inertia of going back to work in my being, so I really needed to let all of it go, which I did - when I heard, I told my wife, look, I need to go and clear out my head. I had a very emotional reckoning with it," reported the actor, who said he was unaware of the fan uproar and immediate formation of a campaign to save the series. "I left - four days later, we went to Albuquerque on family stuff, and when I was in Albuquerque I got a call about a project which I was offered and started a couple of days later. I guess I have a different sense about it, having let it go once."
The New Jersey-bred actor is unwilling to make any more predictions about how long the series might last, having been saved once from oblivion. "The prevailing sentiment in terms of a lot of the people here is that there might likely be another order of shows, but I don't put any stock in that," he noted. "I'm looking forward to whatever comes. We're doing some fun episodes; I'm just happy to be working. What would I like to have happen is that it either goes on or dies a dignified death: press on with valor, or die with dignity."
Burgi had a similar experience at CBS on One West Waikiki, a detective show set in Hawaii which co-starred Cheryl Ladd. "The show was very well-received and was gaining in popularity, it was doing very well for CBS. Then a new regime came in and needed to put their imprint on the programming. There's a lot of egos involved."
This time around he got over his depression with the help of his family, including his nearly two-year-old son, who ran around giggling in the background throughout this interview while Burgi's wife played with him. "He's running around naked, running on his hands," reported the actor, tone switching from frustration to joy. "I'm more in love than I've ever been. I can't imagine anything that surpasses this. The other side is, I could throw it all away tomorrow and try to exist real simply, eke out a humble existence someplace, have a garden and live a very pastoral, candlelight existence with my family."
Burgi is more philosophical and open than Jim Ellison, of whom he joked, "I think the part of the character that looks like me is a lot like me!" On Ellison's appeal, he hedged, "I guess I like the part of him that's very, I don't know, masculine. In some ways he's a throwback to kind of the hard-bitten, quasi-strong, silent type. He's not very effusive, he doesn't embroider a lot of things, he's kind of acerbic, a bit cynical, I guess he's a bit of an underdog in a lot of ways; I guess in some ways that's how I feel."
As for what makes Ellison popular with the show's hundreds of thousands of female fans, Burgi observed that "there's not a lot of bullshit about the guy. He's a straight shooter, I guess he's just kind of a throwback to a simpler, more streamlined type of man. He's not a product of some New Age status quo," beginning to laugh at himself, "not some '90s version of a man who's been beaten down by the feminist movement - I don't know! God, I don't know! There's an assimilation of all of that!"
Ellison is of course in some ways the quintessential New Age man, in touch with his animal nature (in his case a jaguar) and unafraid to express his feelings for his partner and guide, Blair Sandburg. "But those are very private things," Burgi pointed out. "I don't think that he would buy crystals or go to a channeler for help. It's not like Bewitched where he can wiggle his nose and conjure up the puma. There's a part of him that's very secretive; people don't really see what his inner life is like, and they don't need to, because he exudes a triumphant quality. Maybe that's what appealed to me as well - this character who on the surface can be very cynical or doubtful, but wants to see things in a concretized, heroic American way, and fight for the weak and oppressed."
As for the relationship between Ellison and Sandburg, Burgi said it was one of the things that attracted him to the role in the pilot movie when he auditioned. "The relationship with Blair attracted me, and some of the mystical qualities of the whole thing attracted me," he recalled. "The subtext, the nascent quality of a sentinel and the relationship between these characters, there's an undercurrent that people might be getting. I think it bleeds through sort of like subliminal advertising, there's stuff that Bruce [Young] and Garett and I have in our lives that bleed in. I think we all have woven it into a fabric that has a deeper textual quality, so maybe that's what is actually being perceived."
Asked about the section of the series' following who perceive a strong homoerotic undercurrent between Ellison and Sandburg - the slash fans, who are among the most passionate and vocal supporters of the series - Burgi laughed, "That's funny!" but didn't resist the suggestion. "It's not deliberate, but I think it's also something that lies dormant in the super-unconscious of all men. You have these two who embody a relationship, it just happens to be two men; the dichotomy is that they're from completely divergent backgrounds and outlooks on life. They disagree, and then they choose to grow within themselves, looking at the other as a reflection, trying to find a sense of growth and understanding through forgiveness and compassion."
The actor sees these issues as the underlying themes of the series, and credits them much more than the action-adventure elements with The Sentinel's appeal. He said, "I think the creators and the characters have all done a lot of interesting work on ourselves and we all have a kind of gnostic spiritual approach to things that embraces all religions, all spirituality, all kinds of stuff. That's something that as I said is sort of subtextual. So on the surface there's a denial of it in a lot of ways, but it's maybe a mirror for those watching it - they can actually see within themselves something that's being denied externally."
Burgi, who comes from a family of performers, has played a detective for many years - "My younger brother and I had a little detective agency when we were kids, we had this lab in the basement and we fashioned ourselves as junior sleuths." He was interested in the Secret Service, "I loved the name, I loved the idea of the stealthy nature of protecting and serving, doing all that cloak and dagger bull." But he was not as interested in settling down and getting busy with an acting career in his youth. He traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe working odd jobs before starting to act, "kind of late," having desired "that life patina that you can only grow from experience."
Burgi described his father's death as a pivotal event in his youth, sending him "propelled into a world of instability" which he needed to work out of. Settling down to work as an actor helped with that; so did the acting itself. "Every time you go in front of a camera or get on the boards, you're out there on a limb and have no idea what's going to happen," he explained. "It's kind of like when I was a kid and I used to jump off high cliffs into water; I never knew if I was going to make it. I have the training and a sense of method, but I just try to allow for the magic of the moment to manifest."
After laughing at his own alliteration, Burgi turned philosophical about the value of performing. "It's like a Zen meditation, being in the moment within the context of the present that is a fantasy - the fantasy of the illusion of eternity, you know?" he asked rhetorically, then tried to explain, "There's someone in Los Angeles - or India - just responding to my being in the moment in a fantasy situation that is a reality for them, but it's also a non-reality...an illusory moment of fantasy and reality at the same time. I think that's where I am with life."
So he's trying to live in the moment even if the moment's not real? "That probably sounded a little long-winded," he amended. "Sorry! I guess I can be a little diffuse. This isn't just actor-speak for Burgi, who said he applied the Stanislavski approach to his first job on the soap opera Another World, which he followed up with parts on As the World Turns, One Life To Live and Days of Our Lives.
"I tried to really live in that space at that time - I did more work in preparation, I did a lot of Method work then, I feel really blessed that most of the time, those emotions and that life is very available to me," said the son of two performing artists. His recurring role as villainous Laine Cassidy on Viper introduced him to The Sentinel creators Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo.
Burgi observed that at that point in his life, he was "living a darker existence," and he believes that was what the team first saw in him. Now, however, they have him playing "a champion of the light, of the good, that's where he is, that's where I am in some way." His character Mack Wolfe from One West Waikiki also started out "more lugubrious," but evolved into a hero. "I think it was organic in that way to take him in that direction, because I think to watch people struggle through their dark elements is appealing. Going through it and out and up into a joyful, winning, positive, light area is appealing...and the possibility of sliding back."
The fan response to his shows have been gratifying for Burgi: "I think that part of my philosophical, existential approach to life is that I'm really here to serve, and my purpose on this planet is to hopefully make somebody's life a bit more enjoyable, so it's terrific that what I'm doing is appreciated." Lest he sound too serious, he also pointed out that he likes to "goof around - it's all goof to me, I like to have fun, you know, goofing." But even the goofing has a serious element for him. "I come from a wild, vibrant household where the parties were very frequent and it was a very fecund time of creativity and productivity, musically and artistically, and spiritually."
What made him decide to play an undeniably goofy role in UPN's remake of I Married a Monster From Outer Space? "I play this guy who gets abducted and spat back and turns into a blob," Burgi laughed. "It was an hour from my house, I could drive past my favorite surf break, I could see my wife and son at the end of the day." The break from The Sentinel gave him time to work on some projects that he hopes to produce, including some of his own writing.
Burgi, whose fan club can be contacted at http://www.dc.net/coupede, declined to predict whether producing will supplant acting in his career over the next decade, but said he hoped to be able to work on "a couple of different projects that I've helped manifest, with a group of people that I really feel connected to, trying to put out quality work with integrity, and hopefully enlightening people. I think there's a constant urge on my part to heal and save the planet and simplify life."
He also might like to have more children, and volunteer for environmental causes. "I really want my son to maintain a connection to nature - any project to preserve Mother Nature, I am there to support, and that's what I would like to instill in my son as well - a real love for the natural element and his place in the grand scheme of things." And one more thing: "I'd like to be hanging ten on a really beautiful overhead glassy wave with my son next to me on a board," admitted Burgi. "With my wife either on another board or on the beach with her smiling countenance. Having a good time."