The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Bruce Boxleitner

Bruce Boxleitner has been making a living as an actor since the early ’70s, but there are many who consider the ’80s as the era when he really hit his stride, thanks to him having starred as the title character in “TRON” and following up that success with four seasons as Lee Stetson on CBS’s “Scarecrow and Mrs. King.” Then, of course, there’s his work during the ’90s as John Sheridan on “Babylon 5,” and…well, basically, what we’re saying is that Bruce Boxleitner’s fanbase is multi-generational.

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Currently, Boxleitner is a regular on the Hallmark Channel original series “Cedar Cove,” but he also continues to keep busy on other projects, including a new holiday film called “Silver Bells,” which makes its small-screen debut on UP TV on Dec. 1. Bullz-Eye had a chance to talk to Boxleitner about both of these projects, along with several other items from his back catalog, but there were actually two conversations: one in person, one on the phone. The first one took place during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, and the second…well, I’ll explain about that one when we get to it.

For now, though, here’s our chat from the TCA tour…

Bullz-Eye: So let’s talk “Cedar Cove.” You’re Bob Beldon, I understand.

Bruce Boxleitner: Bob Beldon! If I had monogrammed towels, I wouldn’t even have to switch ‘em out! [Laughs.]

BE: How did this role come about? Were you looking for a gig, or did it come looking for you?

BB: It came about very quickly. They just called my agent. Some changes had been made about five episodes in, and I got a call, and I had a day or two…two days, actually…to accept or not. And, y’know, it’d better be pretty abhorrent to you to turn an offer down. [Laughs.] It just sounded like a good deal. I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t in front of the camera. And it was a series. In the past, I’ve done miniseries that were kind of romance-novel things. I did a thing called “Bare Essence” years ago, I’ve done Judith Krantz (“Till We Meet Again”), I’ve done Danielle Steel (“Zoya”)… I do actually have a history in the genre, at least as far as the miniseries format goes. I’ve been the romantic lead. Now I’m sort of the mentor in it. I’m the go-to guy in the community. I have my own little deep secrets that I’m keeping, too, though.

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But I’m married to Peggy Beldon, played by Barbara Niven, and we were born and raised in Cedar Cove, and we run the Time and Tide, which is an inn, a bed and breakfast. We’re the only bed and breakfast, in fact. So we’re kind of the patriarchal and matriarchal people for the younger characters. Like I said, I’m the go-to guy, and I take on this cause to save this historical lighthouse when one of our citizens, who owns the land, wants to tear it down. It’s a simple story, but they’re realistic stories that happened every day in America. Simple issues like that happen all the time. That’s what I like about it. It’s a small town with a big heart. And it’s got some beautiful ladies in it. [Laughs.] I go to Vancouver – I’m flying up there tonight – I come home on Friday, have a weekend, and then I go back up again. So I’ve been living in airports. LAX and Vancouver. But it’s fun.

The show’s fun…and the people make the show. If you’re working with a bunch of buttheads, it makes it rough, you know what I’m saying? But I’ve worked with Teryl (Rothery) before. I did “Babylon 5” with her, and she’s wonderful. Barbara and I have played together before, too. So it feels like old home week. It feels familiar. And that’s a good feeling.

BE: That’s funny that you mentioned “Bare Essence.” I actually just talked to Jonathan Frakes about that not too long ago.

BB: Johnny Frakes! Yeah, who’s up there all the time. I’m always having dinner with him, because he directs…what was it that he was coming up to direct? “Leverage” is one. There was another one, too, though. It’s on TNT, and it’s two names.

BE: “King and Maxwell”?

BB: Yeah! That shoots up there as well. You know, the Sutton Place, which is a chain of hotels in Canada…well, it may be bigger than that, but I know there’s one in Toronto and there’s one in Vancouver, and I  see more people in the industry there than I ever see anywhere else. We’ll always end up in the Gerard bar and restaurant right there in the hotel. It’s infamous. We call it Hollywood North. [Laughs.] I see a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time, and I meet people I never would’ve met in L.A., because we’re all doing movies or TV up there. I just saw John four weeks ago, I think it was. He was doing one of those episodes. But, yeah, as you say, we did “Bare Essence” together. That’s where he and his wife Genie (Francis) came together, in fact.

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So, anyway, this show… You know, it’s just drama, you know what I mean? It’s television. Whether I’m flying in a space ship or riding a horse. It’s still all about characters relating, and relationships. So far it’s been good. I like the element that he’s a recovered alcoholic who has a past that… Well, in the book he was a Vietnam veteran, and as a young 18-year-old, he killed some civilians in an accidental firefight and he’s haunted by it. Hallmark’s not gonna touch that too much, I don’t think. I mean, I’m just saying, they’re probably not gonna delve into it too much. But I use it as my own back story, because it is from Debbie (Macomber’s) books. And Dylan (Neal’s) character, Jack, he sort of is that guy he goes to when he’s feeling like he’s gonna slip. He’s sort of a fish out of water in our town…and we have some great fishing scenes, actually. We don’t catch a damned fish. [Laughs.] But we sure as hell solve the problems of the community and have man to man talk about priorities and try to stay off what we both have to struggle with. I’ve never really had to play that before, so it’s kind of an interesting dynamic.

Anyway, I had two days’ time to change my mind, so I had settle my affairs and cancel some comic-cons in Phoenix and things like that, and…people weren’t happy. I had the 20th anniversary of “Babylon 5” in Phoenix, and I didn’t show up. All of the other living members of the cast showed up, thank god. I was the only one gone. But everyone understands. If a job comes, it comes. I needed it. I don’t care what it is, you need to stay out there. Perception is everything in this town.

BE: Well, now that we’ve talked about your current TV gig, I wanted to ask you about your very first one, which – if my research is correct – was on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

BB: Yessir, it was. Followed by “Gunsmoke” and…something else. It was over at the CBS lot in Radford.

BE: How did you score that role? Was it just a standard audition?

BB: I had to read for Ed Weinberger, who was the executive producer. I think at the time my agent… I was brand new, and the whole thing was that I had no had no film on me at all. They don’t care if you just came off of starring on Broadway: if there’s no film on you, nobody really wanted to see you. It didn’t mean anything out here. And I wanted to get a SAG card and all of these things, but somebody has to take a chance on you. So I sat in an office at MTM Productions and auditioned for Ed Weinberger – it was just, like, two or three lines – and I think my agent was owed a favor for something else, anyway, so I got it. [Laughs.]

But it was thrilling. My girlfriend’s a total Dick Van Dyke –phile, and that extends to anything with Mary Tyler Moore as well, so we dug that thing up and watch it on DVD not too long ago. I had shoulder-length hair. [Laughs.] It was the ‘70s! What do you want? God, what a horrible look… But I got my SAG card, and I got my AFTRA card, too. Of course, my whole paycheck went to joining the union, but I needed that, ‘cause otherwise I couldn’t get any work. And then I went on from that to doing the “Gunsmoke” episode, which was in one of its last seasons. Ironically, I would meet the same people over at MGM and do my first television series. James Arness, who was the star of “Gunsmoke,” and that whole creative team headed over to MGM and did “How the West Was Won,” which just came out on DVD…38 years later! It just came out a few weeks ago.

BE: So after doing a bit of episodic TV, did you feel that “Sixpack Annie” was going to be your big jump to big-screen stardom?

BB: [Snorts.] Boy, you know too much, don’t you? Yeah, actually, that was probably my other… Okay, I look at “Mary Tyler Moore” as the first legitimate thing. “Sixpack Annie” I try not to even remember. All I know is that my farmer grandmother saw it in some movie theater. They took my grandmother to the movies to see her grandson’s movie…and I had that skinny-dipping scene with Lindsay Bloom. God, I can remember this, and I can’t remember last week. [Laughs.] And it was in Franklin Canyon Reservoir, up in Coldwater. I came out of that, my backside showing, and she said, “Oh, that’s nothing. I diapered that butt so many times…”

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Yeah, well, you do what you have to do. I was young, I needed the money! [Laughs.] But you do whatever to try and get film. But, really, the first legitimate job was… I don’t even think I was union when I did that! Maybe I was. Maybe it was actually after “Mary Tyler Moore.” But, you know, it was a small-budget film, and it was work. You do what you have to do. But, boy, it was a terrible film. Terrible! Everybody has those, though. You start out somewhere. You’re just eager, and you’re almost paying them to act! My sons are going through that right now. You’ve just got to work. You take what’s out there. But “Sixpack Annie,” that’’ll haunt me for the rest of my life. But at least it wasn’t like Sylvester Stallone, who had… [Starts to laugh.] What was it, they renamed his film (“The Party at Kitty and Stud’s“) “Italian Stallion”? That bare-ass scene was as lewd as it got for me. What I didn’t know was that it was almost like soft porn for the rest of the picture! I don’t think they were ever gonna have me do any of that, and I wouldn’t have done it, anyway. At least I was smart enough then to know not to do that. We didn’t know this stuff would hang around and turn up on the internet later!

BE: Hey, don’t knock the internet. That’s where I do most of my research…although, you know, it’s funny how I didn’t realize until relatively recently how rare it is for journalists to actually do their research. In your case, though, I lived through a lot of your career first-hand. I was there in the ‘80s, trying to decide between “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” and “Tales from the Gold Monkey.”

BB: [Laughs.] Both of the “Raiders” knock-off series! But that’s what we were trying to do, except without realizing how much lower our budget was. I was working for Columbia and, ironically, the real Frank Buck did serials. “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” was a serial that he shot. He was not an actor, but he did wildlife stuff, and they had these small, terrible plots. Anyway, he did ‘em for Columbia, and here I was doing the show for CBS, so how ironic was that? But, yeah, it was that attempt to try and capture “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Television always imitates the movies. But it was fun to do.

I was actually offered “Tales from the Gold Monkey” when it was still called “Tales from the Brass Monkey” – you know, the old sailor’s term “colder than the balls on a brass monkey – but the gin company wouldn’t let the name go. So, yeah, I was actually offered that first, but I’d just given my word to Bud Grant, who was the head of CBS at the time. They wanted me to come over and do a series for them, and I just didn’t feel the love when Don Bellisario called me and started practically cussing me out because I said I sort of had a handshake commitment. [Growling.] “Handshake commitment?!?” But I still believed in that. And I’m glad I did it.

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It lasted the season that it did, but it also got me “Scarecrow and Mrs. King.” If I’d done “Tales of the Gold Monkey,” I don’t know what would’ve happened. But Bud Grant said, “Listen, nothing against the show, but it wasn’t pulling the number it needed in that timeslot.” The irony was that they never made the numbers they needed in the timeslot. They lost out all the time. I think it was the 10th season of “Happy Days” at that point, and it was a juggernaut even then, one that wasn’t going to die. So he said, “Well, I think we’ll have something better for you.” So I saw two scripts. One was with Kate Jackson, an ex-“Charlie’s Angels,” and it had sort of a goofy premise, and other was called “The Yellow Rose,” about a contemporary ranch. And I kind of liked that – I had horses at the time, I’d enjoyed the western lifestyle.

BE: Sam Elliott went on to do that series, didn’t he?

BB: He did. And I would’ve played David Soul’s character. I could’ve gone with that. John Wilder was the producer, and I knew him. But I just thought… Well, you know, the female audience dominates television, and “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” just had a goofy, fun premise, and the dialogue was terrific, and then the whole thing about this spy incorporated a housewife into his mission one night to help him out accidentally, and she ends up as his partner. It had that “Hart to Hart” feeling, which was very popular then. And I thought, “This has a chance.”

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After having been on “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” where I worked my butt off and was so tired, I thought, “I don’t want to lose now. I want something that’s gonna work. And as much as I love ‘The Yellow Rose,’ I’m going with this one.” And “The Yellow Rose,” even though it had Cybill Shepherd in it, too, it didn’t go anywhere. This one did. And it ran for four seasons. So it was just kind of an instinctive thing.

Kate and I met the network people, and we really had to sort of audition this series, not only its concept but also us as its stars. Oh, my God, all of CBS was in this room. We’d prepared three scenes for them, and that was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life, because Kate Jackson was looking at me, going, “Uh…”

And what’s funny is that David Soul, who took “The Yellow Rose,” had also been in serious contention for “Scarecrow”! But in the end, it all worked out. I really loved that show a great deal. But then Katie got ill – she had cancer at that time – and we had to stop, because she was on medication. Otherwise, I think we would’ve gone on a couple more years, easily.

It was at this point that the Hallmark Channel publicist came over and apologetically informed me that I needed to wrap things up, so I did as I was requested, with the hope that I might be able to add a bit more to the interview before it actually went live…which I did, if not entirely as I’d anticipated. Due to trying to take care of covering all of the broadcast network premieres, I accidentally lost track of time and missed the window to run the interview with Mr. Boxleitner before the series finished airing its first season. Thankfully, however, I soon learned that he’d be starring in an upcoming Christmas movie for UP TV called “Silver Bells” and would be doing a bit of press for it, so I decided, “Hey, I can kill two birds with one stone and combine the interviews!” (After all, if you don’t think Hallmark is going to be re-running “A Cabot Cove Christmas” during the holiday season, you don’t know Hallmark very well.)

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BE: So I don’t know if you remember, but we talked for a bit during the TCA tour this summer.

BB: Ah, yes.

BE: I’m sure you’d remember me, because I’m sure I’m the only person who asked you about “Sixpack Annie.”

BB: Yes, thank you so much, by the way. [Groans.] There’s another epic film I’ve been in…

BE: Hopefully “Silver Bells” is somewhat more of a classic.

BB: Boy, I hope so, too! [Laughs.]

BE: So tell me a bit about how you came aboard “Silver Bells”…and if it was a contractual requirement that your character had the same first name as you.

BB: I think this is the first time I’ve ever played another Bruce! It was kind of fun. I certainly always knew who they were talking about! Yeah, at first it was a little wild, knowing that when they were talking about Bruce, they were always talking about me, no matter what. But, then again, it’s always all about me, anyway. [Laughs.]

BE: Is this your first actual holiday film? Unless you count “A Cedar Cove Christmas,” that is.

BB: Yeah, I think so. [Hesitates.] Looking back, I think it probably is. I mean, we may have done a Christmas episode on “Scarecrow and Mrs. King.” That’s how it is with television. If you do a series, at some point you usually do a Christmas episode or two. But I think this is the first full-on Christmas film., and it was a lot of fun to do, for sure.

I really enjoyed doing it. I identified with the character a bit. To me, it was sort of a Frank Capra type movie, a modern version of that. You know, like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a character Jimmy Stewart could’ve played…although I think I probably played him more obnoxiously than he ever would’ve. [Laughs] Also, we shot it in two weeks. There was no mucking around. We flew into Grand Rapids, Michigan, we shot in a town called Manistee in the dead of the Michigan winter, but it was a lean, mean production, and we got it done. We shot in all practical locations. But I think it’s a nice little film. In a climate where television is…it’s rather cynical today, and this is a nice, old-fashioned little movie about redemption, falling on your face and redeeming yourself. There’s certainly no harm in that.

BE: There’s nothing wrong with a film that uses the phrase “the true meaning of Christmas” in its tagline.

BB: There really isn’t. And I hope the Salvation Army gets a pump in popularity again. [Laughs.] I appreciate what they do. Those guys and gals who are their bell-ringers out there… I had two long days doing that in the cold. It takes a certain person to be able to do that.

BE: So how’s your Hallmark experience going?

BB: It’s good! “Cedar Cove” got picked up for a second season, and we go back on that in February.

BE: Maybe Vancouver will start to warm up at least a little bit by then.

BB: Actually, probably not. [Laughs.] It’ll still be rainy and cool ‘til the end of March. But they’re getting a jump on it. I think they want to premiere the second season sooner than later. But that’s been a wonderful experience, too. I couldn’t be happier right now, in the way my life and career are going.

BE: Your character, Bob Beldon, joined the proceedings a few episode into the series, but you talked a fair amount about the various aspects of his career last time. Did you feel like they had a handle on him pretty quickly as a character?

BB: I think they did, yeah, as we went along. But there’ll be more of him in this next season. He and his wife are kind of in and out. Everyone else is having problems in their relationships, but we’re still a happy couple, Barbara Niven and I. But I think it’s a good show. I mean, it was number one in its timeslot. Let’s hope we can make the same thing happen with “Silver Bells,” too! [Laughs.] I think it’s a good picture, one that’ll appeal to a lot of people. I mean, there are no zombies in it, no vampires, serial killers, or any dark, edgy stuff. But I think there’s an audience out there for that, so I just hope they find it.

BE: I wanted to throw another obscurity at you, although I realize it probably won’t top “Sixpack Annie.”

BB: Nothing can do that! [Laughs.] That was epic, I tell you!

BE: What do you recall about the experience of making “The Baltimore Bullet”?

BB: My God, you do like to dig deep, don’t you?

BE: Well, in this case, I ask about that film in particular because tomorrow, by complete coincidence, I’m talking to one of your co-stars from the film, Ronee Blakley.

BB: [Shocked.] Really? Oh, please, you have to give her my best!

BE: I certainly will.

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BB: I haven’t seen or heard from Ronee in years and years and years. The best part of that was working with two idols of mine, James Coburn and Omar Sharif. That was so phenomenal for me as a young actor back then to be with these two guys that I had seen in the movies for so many years and admired such great films that they were in. Jim was just incredibly fun. That movie just kind of did nothing, though. I mean, it kind of came and went. But, boy, the making of it was an adventure.

BE: How so?

BB: Well, you know. [Laughs.] No, I mean, it just was. Because of those two guys. They were huge movie stars! Omar Sharif, in the ‘60s, was probably one of the most famous international stars in the world and in the business, with “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and all those great, epic David Lean pictures. And Jim was so wonderful. He was, like, my action hero, with the spaghetti westerns and the “Flint” movies and all those things. “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen and those guys, “The Magnificent Seven,” you name it: Coburn was Mr. Cool, with that craggy face and voice. He was a great guy.

BE: There’s actually a surprising tie-in between “The Baltimore Bullet” and holiday movies: the fellow who wrote that, John Brascia, was actually in “White Christmas.”

BB: He was? [Hesitates.] Really? John Brascia was? Wow…

BE: Yeah. He’s credited on a few songs, although I think he’s known more for his dancing in the film than anything else.

BB: Oh, yeah, he started out doing that, didn’t he? Well, maybe I knew it then. I don’t know. That was a long time ago, you know? I think we made that in 1979, didn’t we? I remember it came out, and it was such a short run that by the time they got the billboard for it up on Hollywood Boulevard, it was already out of theaters! [Laughs.] But oh, well, you know? It was one of those films that was more about the experience rather than the end result. I got to learn to be a pool shooter, an ace at it, and then I promptly forgot all of my skills. But I can still play a pretty good game. And we got to work with all of these professional pool hustlers… It was great. But it’s pretty different from “Silver Bells,” let’s face it!

BE: I know you’re on a tight schedule, but I just wanted to quickly ask you about the “Tron” animated series, “Uprising.” Obviously it didn’t do as well as people had hoped, but I thought it was a really underrated series.

BB: I thought so, too. I was really disappointed about that, and I know Disney was very disappointed, too. They were really scratching their heads as to why it didn’t do better. But, you know, I don’t know if they really had the proper venue. The Disney channels are really more for a younger audience, and I felt like “Tron: Uprising” was for older teens up to adults, but it just didn’t have the ratings they wanted. It was a wonderful voice cast, though, and…well, I don’t know. What can you do, you know? That’s the television game. If you don’t make the ratings, you don’t stay on. Oh, well.

BE: Has there been any further forward motion on doing a sequel to “Tron: Legacy”?

BB: Well, I do know that…I think it’s public knowledge, I don’t think I’m saying anything out of turn, that, yes, it in the works. As for the where and when, I don’t know. They don’t tell me those things. [Laughs.] Hopefully I’m in it! I’m pretty sure I will be, though. When and if they do it. It has to been green-lit first. But they’re been working on a script for awhile, so…fingers crossed. I’d love to do it!

  

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