Bruce A. Young:
The Sentinel's Captain
Like the rest of the regular cast members on The Sentinel, Bruce A. Young had a strange 1998. In the spring, he was enjoying playing Captain Simon Banks on the two-year-old series, which was one of UPN's highest-rated shows. By summer The Sentinel had been cancelled unexpectedly, victim of strange politics at the fledgling network. But in the fall it was rescued in large part by a tremendous fan campaign, and Young spent the end of 1998 filming the new episodes which will begin airing next Monday night.
At this point, nobody's sure what will happen next.
"That would be the yin and yang of life," says Young of the show's demise and revival, which "came as quite a shock, of course, because I don't know many networks that cancel their top-rated shows." Of the corporate shenanigans which led to UPN's decision not to pick up The Sentinel last spring despite the ratings - which reportedly involved a feud between Pet Fly Productions, which produces the series, and the network - the actor says only, "I'm sure I'll never have the straight story; I'm just glad it came back."
The series returns by rebroadcasting the pilot, which explains how sentinel Jim Ellison got his heightened senses, and how anthropology student Blair Sandburg and police captain Simon Banks became involved in Detective Ellison's destiny. In the first of the new episodes, "Sentinel Too Part Two," Star Trek Voyager star Jeri Ryan reprises her role as Alex Barnes, a female sentinel whose encounters with Ellison and friends proved deadly for Sandburg. "Sentinel Too Part One" left Sandburg dead in Ellison's arms, despite the latter's attempts to revive him with CPR; it won't shock viewers much to learn that Sandburg survives, however, since series regular Garett Maggart returned along with Young and lead actor Richard Burgi when the series resumed filming in the fall.
"We did a cliffhanger, of course that was supposed to mean we were coming back on!" groans Young. "We had an arc to complete, simply because that was a two-part episode. Obviously, Blair's back. Jeri Ryan is back, off in the jungles." The change in shooting schedule as a result of the cancellation did ruin Ryan's vacation, Young laughs, noting that because they filmed in the fall rather than the summer, they shot in rainy Vancouver rather than the original location. "She was supposed to go to Mexico - she thought she was going to get to lie on the beach!"
Because UPN's decision to drop the show came as such a surprise, Young had no other work lined up for the summer; he had been spending his hiatus in Vancouver, just relaxing for what he thought would be a two-month break from the grueling shooting schedule. "Usually my summers I just take off, because we work so hard the rest of the year, so I wasn't prepared," he explains. The late decision meant that none of the actors had auditions during pilot season, when the next fall's new series go into development. "I just sort of resigned myself to, 'Oh, gee, I guess I better get around to finding another job.' The work is always four months ahead of time. So unless something just dropped into my lap, I was already looking at, 'What am I going to do in January?'"
The veteran actor has a strong, eclectic resume - in addition to lots of classical drama and stage combat, he's a legend for playing the transvestite Jackie in Risky Business, the "woman" to whom Tom Cruise almost lost his virginity - so he wasn't worried about eventually finding work. But he was humbled by the intense loyalty of The Sentinel's fans, whose dedication and perseverance were unlike any audience reaction he'd ever seen. "It's very touching to realize that people do care, and they care to an extent that they're actually willing to take out ads, and look at the number of sites on the net." Young adds that he learned quickly of the fan movement to save the series, but never expected the large-scale campaign which quickly snowballed. "It's nice to know that even on the baby network, there's still a fan base out there. I talk to people on the street, people come up to me, and if those numbers are to be believed, people are watching the show."
Young had gone to the Sentinel convention in Canada and got "my first inkling of what our fans were, at least what the fans were that wanted to travel to a convention"; like Richard Burgi and Garett Maggart, he was surprised at how many women there were. He notes, "It just wasn't what you would think for a cop action-adventure show; it was quite amazing to realize that most of our fans were women." Also like Burgi and Maggart, Young believes the connections among the main characters are the attraction for the viewers: "They like the dynamics of our characters. It's character-driven, it usually does have something to do with the relationships and how the guys are acting."
The Illinois State University was offered the part without an audition based on his previous work with producer Danny Bilson (Young has also appeared on Viper, Pet Fly's other major series). "What I liked about the character was that it was a black character in a position of authority - those are so rare, that was the first thing that appealed to me," he recalls."Being able to pull off that dynamic and have it be realistic, that's what I was drawn to. Then, as we went on, I realized that the chemistry of the actors was so strong, and our backgrounds were similar in the way we worked and how we approached things - that became more of a driving force in what interested me in keeping the show going."
The Sentinel reportedly has a very comfortable set, where the cast and crew get along very well and there's a lot of humor. "The goofball is the way of letting off the tension, because if you thought too hard about it, it would drive you nuts!" laughs Young, who quickly adds, "It beats brain surgery. We have fun together on the set. And in all that nonsense is some sense of reality." He refuses to share any stories of set antics like some of the ones which can be seen on the series' blooper reel which has been shown at several cons, and says quickly, "No quotes about my co-stars! We have a rule, no quotes! It's obvious from how we talk about each other, any quote we say would just be taken out of context. And the things we can say about each other, we don't want quoted!"
It's not clear whether there will be more Sentinel episodes after the eight new installments air; that may be determined by ratings, and by the overall health of UPN, which is hoping for a splash with Dilbert which will also be featured on Monday nights. "As it looks now, UPN is not doing too well - our reruns were doing better than some of their new shows," Young points out. "We just don't know what they're doing."
But in terms of the work they do on the series, where the down-to-earth Captain Banks has had to struggle with the supernatural powers of his detective and with an unlicensed anthropology student tagging along on police stakeouts, he's very pleased with the job. "I'm confident with where my character is going; I'd just like to continue a logical progression. I really believe our strength is bringing out the sides of the characters that people want to see, given the scripts that they give us. I find it more interesting and fun to try to add that story on top of whatever tale they're trying to tell. It's more challenging as an actor, and I think that's what makes us a different type of cop show, because you see two or three sides of our characters. I just hope we keep getting good scripts, good plots, some nice villains, and let us play around with that."
The actor declares, "I love action-adventure," noting that he choreographs stage fights for the theater and does lots of sword work (including two episodes of Highlander, though Young played a major league baseball star and is remembered for swinging a bat instead). "I've always been involved physically in roles that I play. It's fun. It's like you're a big kid, you get to run around and play cops and robbers. Unfortunately, it's the nature of our culture that you can't make a living doing live theater - I still get back, I remain loyal to the stage and whenever I get a chance I do a play." He appeared in Chicago last spring with the Next Theater Company.
Young has played many of the major Shakespearean roles, including Othello and Richard III, both of which he would like another crack at. "Any Shakespeare I've done has always been my favorite. That's sort of my passion." The actor had his own production company for five years, "but that's very time-consuming - some things you have to let go of. I produced and directed, and it was a lot of work. I'm not saying I wouldn't go back and do that again. In ten years I'd like to be retired, running my own theater company. Dream big! I want to get back to the Midwest - L.A. doesn't really appeal to me anymore. I like the Northwest, it's very nice, lots of trees, but the Midwest where my roots are. "
One of a number of distinguished Illinois State theater graduates including John Malkovitch, Laurie Metcalf, Crusade's Gary Cole and Voyager's Tim Russ, Young jokes that he knew he was going to perform when he was young "because I got told I was loud. I don't remember being flamboyant necessarily; I just remember enjoying myself. I never considered anything else. What's not to like?" The rejection? "We deal with rejection everyplace in life," he rebuts. "Show me a job that you don't have rejection in. I'd rather be rejected based on something that is immaterial than something where they can say, you didn't do this right. So I find it's OK."
Though he's appeared in films from Lethal Weapon II to The Color of Money to Basic Instinct, his favorite role remains Jackie in Risky Business. "I think everybody else came in to the audition dressed up; I didn't. I was riding my bike, I came in in shorts and a t-shirt with a beard, and I said, 'I can play this role,'" he recalls. "I knew what I was auditioning for, but I wasn't going to come dressed up as a girl! I looked at all the other guys sitting there, like, oh my God."
Young was doing a play at the time, so he couldn't shave his beard until he got another job - "I wasn't going to cut it for an audition!" he exclaims. "But I told them how I wanted to do the role, and they saw Jackie - they saw that girl that I have in me."
The actor is happy and proud that he's able to do what he wants and make a living at it. "I've never had to compromise what I wanted to do - I think that's something nice to be proud of," he says. "I can provide a living for my family doing this." Whatever happens to Captain Banks and The Sentinel from this point forward, look for Bruce Young to remain in charge.