Brett Cullen:
Leaving a Legacy

by Michelle Erica Green

Brett Cullen is rather young to be playing Legacy's patriarch, but the former Falcon Crest heartthrob actually has a lot in common with his character Ned Logan. They both have young daughters to whom they're passionately attached, they both like horses, and they both seem to have a rather old-fashioned value system which emphasizes their work rather than their stature.

Legacy, the lead-off series for UPN's Friday night lineup, straddles a number of genres. A period drama set in 1880s Kentucky about a horse breeder struggling to keep his family together after the death of his wife, the series has elements of both action Western and domestic history, with some post-Civil War politics and romance thrown in. Still finding an audience, the series was recently featured on five consecutive nights to expose it to wider audiences.

Cullen was a bit taken aback when asked to play the father of two grown men; "two years ago I worked opposite of Julia Roberts, so I don't really feel like I'm an old guy who has four kids," he jokes comfortably. "The producer said, I understand that, but we don't want an old guy. We want a leading man, because historically you probably got married when you were about fifteen and started having kids immediately. And I said, that makes sense. In actuality, if you got married when you were fifteen, you could easily have had four children in your late thirties."

"I said, well, I'll do it if you don't age me [with makeup]," he laughs. "But they're aging me anyway by making me work every day!" Despite its Midwestern setting, Legacy films in Richmond, Virginia, which necessitated that Cullen relocate his family for the shooting season. "I like working a lot, but you do get weary - I'm waking up every morning at 5 a.m., and last night I got in at 9:30. That's a long day. This is my sixth one-hour drama that I've done.; it's hard work. I've worked construction, I've been in a garage working on cars in very hot weather, and none of that compares - at the end of the day I'm more tired working on this than I was doing any sort of labor job."

The role attracted Cullen, the father of a three-and-a-half year old daughter, because "it rang true to me in my heart - this man trying to raise a family, a single father, in this period." The period drew him as well, "because from an actor's standpoint it's not just your typical contemporary drama where everyone speaks what they think. In this particular period, even though there are a lot of anachronisms and we don't always stay true to that dialogue, they didn't necessarily say everything that was on their mind. There's a great deal of subtext, and there's a great deal of emotional content underlying."

In early episodes, the Logans welcomed a young boy into their family after he lied to them about his origins, and Ned Logan had to rescue his youngest daughter from a kidnapper. "A perfect example of subtext would be in the pilot when Asa Winters says, 'I understand there was a robbery on the train of that boy that you adopted,' and I say, 'Well, that was a misunderstanding,' and he goes, 'Yes, just like he was seventeen instead of twelve,' and I go, 'Yes.'" In the context of that, underneath all that, is 'Mind your own business and shut up!' For me that's a whole lot more challenging for an actor than contemporary work."

Cullen would rather not see Logan transformed into a perfect father or role model. "I want to see the character's children bring his temper, and I want to see him make mistakes. There's a guy who rips my son off for like $80,000 while I'm in a panic trying to find my daughter, and he laughs in my son's face, and I just flip out, I almost beat this man to death with my bare fists. None of my kids can stop me. It gives Ned an edge, a kind of passion for his family that you may not normally see in most television dramas. You'll see fights with the kids where they punch each other, but with this, you say, he's going to kill this man, sort of like in Lonesome Dove where Gus kills the army sergeant who tries to take Newt's horse - that kind of rage. That's the whole essence of what I think Ned is; he's a man with values, but he can go off the handle and do something very dangerous."

A history buff who has done a lot of reading about the Civil War era, Cullen thinks that while this is being played down on the series at present, Ned Logan must have fought not for the Union but for the Confederacy. "Kentucky was supposedly a neutral state, but there were a huge amount of Kentuckyans who rode for the Confederacy, particularly the cavalry. There was a great cavalry general for the South, who Forrest Gump was named after, and he had a group of Kentuckyans. I figure that's probably what Ned Logan did."

The war scenario is pivotal to Ned's relationship with his best friend on the series - a black man named Isaac who stops him from committing murder when his children cannot. "I met Isaac in the war, and this is a storyline that I think we are actually going to do: that I was wounded in a battlefield, and he found me. And at one point I could have killed him, but I didn't, and then he saved my life, 'The Southern pickets are 250 yards that way,' because the Union comes back. And as I'm leaving I say to him, 'If you ever need a job, you come to Kentucky and look up the Logans and you've got a place to live.' That's where our friendship starts. Everyone's like, oh come on, a black man and a white man, but in that period, the Irish were treated almost as badly almost as the blacks - no Irish need apply - so they really had an affinity."

Cullen's role model for Ned Logan was Gary Cooper, of whom he describes himself as "a huge, huge fan." The two are similar in size and physical type, and Cullen believes "this is the kind of role Gary Cooper would have shined in." A skilled rider who "used to do a little rodeo," Cullen grew up in Texas and learned to handle show horses on the 1980's Western The Chisholms. While he says he gets "a big joy out of being around horses," he adds that "the wranglers and the horse people respect me because I don't pretend to be an expert. There's a difference between knowing how to ride and knowing a horse - no matter how skilled you are, the horse can feel it in your butt muscles if you're not really in control."

Legacy is in a precarious position: it is not an inexpensive show to produce, and thus far its ratings have been disappointing to UPN - not just the numbers, but the fact that far more women are watching than men. Cullen points out that when CBS cancelled its long-running Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, the series had the fourth-highest ratings of any drama on the network. "It doesn't matter where you are in the ratings: it matters what your demographics are, and the demographics on that show obviously weren't 18-35 males," he laments. "From what I understand, our demographics are also mostly women. Each week, the numbers in the 18-35 women goes up. I believe that we're going to get a full season out of this show, and I think that if they hang onto it and really give it a chance to find an audience, they will. I think this show, as far as this season is concerned, is head and shoulders above anything else the network has put out there."

While he's a bit concerned that the network may panic - "I hope they don't say, 'We've got to make it more like a historical Melrose Place!" - he jokes that it's about time he got a love interest. "I've been a widower for ten years. There's an episode that I think is the best-written episode we've had: my daughter's looking at a picture of me and my wife, and she says, 'What did mom sound like?' And I can't answer her. The next day a horse runs into me and knocks me into the fence, and I go into a coma. And my wife comes back to me, and she keeps saying, you have to go back, they need you. The last scene, she kisses me finally, she says, you care about the children, their weddings, our grandchildren, and then she says, tell Lexy what I sound like. Everyone who read the script cried five times. But that's the first time you actually see me kiss a woman."

Melissa Leo, who played Cullen's love interest for a year on The Young Riders, plays his daughter's laudanum-addicted kidnapper on Legacy. "I adore her," Cullen says. "I told all the guys, when you work with her, you better bring your homework, because this woman is a consummate actress. Melissa and I would be talking, having fun and laughing, and as we'd go she'd start very slowly, without missing a beat, to itch her neck and go into withdrawal, without saying, 'I need a moment.' And they say, 'Action,' pow, and she's the character. It's funny, because Emma is the name of the character she played on The Young Riders, and our first episode about her is called "Emma."

Ned Logan is young enough that he and his sons could end up fighting over the same woman - a storyline Cullen thinks would be interesting if not turned into a soap opera. At one point, a conniving woman named Vivian Winters starts to try to seduce Ned to get back at his son Sean. "Ned wouldn't allow that, but who knows? They didn't say Bonanza was a soap opera. I really do hope that they give the opportunity for this show to go, because this could be a show that could go for five to seven years to great success."

If the series does go, Cullen will have to make some lifestyle choices; this year he was able to find a nursery school for his daughter in Richmond so that his family could come on location with him, but inevitably they would have to choose a school on one coast or the other. "The other day, my wife said to me, 'Gosh I hope this show goes for awhile, because I like this life in Richmond, I like the slowness and the politeness. It's not like being in L.A. where everyone's flipping each other off.' But I don't want to move to Richmond forever! We do have a really great group of friends in L.A. and it's where our home is - I still miss Los Angeles."

Cullen's relationships with talented industry people and fellow University of Texas alumni have given him opportunities for which he is very grateful. Before Legacy, he had several very good years working in feature films, starting with Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon. "Being able to work with Ed Harris, of whom I'm a huge fan and have known socially a little bit over the years, and to work with Ron Howard..." he recalls fondly. "Not many people know this, but every day when we shot the mission control stuff first, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon came in when they weren't even on the clock yet and sat in a little room with headphones on and did the off-camera for us. We would sit there and talk between takes, everyone would keep their headphones on, it was really a working mission control room where everyone could hear everyone else on the radios, and we talked about our cars and stuff. These are just terrific, terrific guys."

From Apollo 13, he got the role of Jamie Johnson in the Julia Roberts hit Something To Talk About. "That was a real joy because I got to work in a movie with one of my best friends, Dennis Quaid - we grew up together and went to college together. That was a real joy, to be on a set with him and Julia and to watch Bobby Duvall and Gena Rowlands."

After that, Cullen heard that Howard and Hanks were working on the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, and really wanted to be involved with the project - partly because of the subject matter, partly because of the wealth of talent involved. "I'll give you an example of how they treated people," he recalls. "None of us made any money, it wasn't about money, but it was a huge committment because of the time element - it's ten days here and four days there. I took the job, and a week later, I got an offer to do a movie of the week for an enormous amount of money, with two days that conflicted with the other schedule. Tom Hanks was directing the first episode. I called Tom Hanks in Florida, and I got Tom Hanks on the phone - he gets on the phone to talk to me. I tell him what's going on. He goes, 'I'm the producer and I'm the director, yeah, take the other job.' And he switched it around for me. When people treat you like that, you have nothing but admiration and respect. There's a great joy about going to work."

Cullen played Dave Scott, whom he had met on Apollo 13 when the former astronaut served as technical advisor to the film. "Not many people really know the story of NASA, but Dave Scott was sort of the poster boy for the astronaut corps," reports Cullen. "I'd do a take and he'd be ten feet away from me, and I'd go, 'Dave?' and he'd go, 'Better than I would have done!' That was a big thrill to me. I got to be really good friends with Dave, who lives not far from me. I got a call from his wife inviting us over for dinner the night that the episode was airing about Apollo 15, where Dave was the commander, and he went to the moon and drove the lunar rover. So we went over and had a barbecue with some of his friends, like this fellow who was one of the technical guys who used to build the stuff for NASA. We watched the show and I sat with my wife, and eventually I got up to get a glass of wine and sat next to Dave, and watched the episode with him."

The experience of sitting beside an authentic American hero, watching himself onscreen playing his friend, was one of the highlights of Cullen's career. "Dave's father was a general, his wife's father was a general, he was born on Randolph Air Force Base, he's a lieutenant colonel himself, very military, though he's a renaissance man," the actor explains. "He watched the show, and everyone once in awhile he would wipe his eyes - he obviously was very moved by what he was seeing. When it was done, when the show ended, Dave kept staring at the TV, and he finally turned his head and looked at me and very quietly said, 'Thank you.' That was really a spectacular moment in my life. I was going, 'My god, how wonderful is this, to be sitting next to a man who walked on the moon and flew into space three times?' I love Dave and I thank him for that every time I think of him."

Though he got into acting because "there was no homework" in drama classes in high school and he realy didn't know what he wanted to study in college, Cullen got the lead in one of the first plays he auditioned for and was mentored by Cecil Pickett at the University of Texas. "He really taught me everything I needed to know. In the summers I was with the Houston Shakespeare Festival, a repertory company, I did four seasons. There are some great people who have come out of that university - Dennis and Randy Quaid, Brent Spiner, Cindy Pickett, thousands of actors that have come out of that program."

An unpretentious man with a self-deprecating laugh, Cullen admits that he "happened to drop into some really classy projects. I've had the opportunity in my career to work with some really classic stars." The Chisholms - the first job on which he was cast, three weeks after moving to California - put him on a set with Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris, and Donald Moffitt; Delta Burke played his sister. "Being around those type of people when I was too young to appreciate it, I was smart enough to shut my mouth and sit there and watch what these pros did," he recalls. "Then I did The Thorn Birds with Jean Simmons, Richard Kiley, Richard Chamberlain...I got to work with these actors where I just was going, wow!" As for Falcon Crest, "at the time it was a really cool show. It was a marvelous experience being able to work with Jane Wyman, one of the great stars of the silver screen, I learned a lot from her. Everyone says, 'Oh, you did a nighttime soap' - yeah, I did, and it bought my house."

The most fun Cullen ever had on a project was Dead Solid Perfect with Randy Quaid, a film about the PGA Tour for HBO. "We shot for eight weeks on golf courses. And every day, because I was the rich guy who was number ten on the money list while Randy was a struggling touring pro, I'd shoot four or five hours and then I'd have the rest of the day off. And I'd be at Colonial or the Byron Nelson Classic, and I'd go, well, gee, can I play? And the touring pros would say sure, let's go! And Randy would be cussing me out because he'd want to play, but he had to shoot. So I got to play golf every day. I'm an avid golfer. That was probably the most fun part I ever had, I got to play golf and act all day."

Cullen has a production company with the singer Meatloaf, who was an actor before "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights." His acting career has taken off, and he approached Cullen with the idea of developing projects with him. "He said, 'I want to start making movies,' and I said, 'That's a great idea, Meat,' and he said, 'I'd like to do it with you.' So we did," the actor notes. "We've optioned one script, we have a writer writing another one, we have a couple of scripts we'd like to do ourselves - there's one we may do right after I do this series, that both he and I would star in right here in Richmond." Cullen adds that much as he loves to act, he would like to produce, as well as to direct so that he understands the problems a director faces. "That's probably where my career will go if we get the opportunity, and I think we're going to. Meat and I are snobs about scripts. There's a movie of the week that Paramount and VH1 wants to do about Meatloaf's life story that I think we're going to co-produce with them."

Hopefully Paramount will feel kindly towards Cullen and give Legacy the chance it deserves to reach a Western audience as well as the melodrama audience which has embraced it. Whatever happens with the series, however, Cullen seems certain to ride past it.

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