When in September 1956, a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan opened at the Phoenix Theatre, a young actor took to the stage making his Broadway debut. True, he was only part of the ensemble, and even at that, no more than a supernumerary — “enumerated among the regular components of a group,” as Meriam-Webster specifies the term. Meaning that the 26-year-old John Cullum’s appearance was more about filling space onstage than anything else. Now, with a career that has spanned nearly sixty-five years, there’s no doubt that this actor has enriched every production he’s been featured in, no matter what size the part.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, John Cullum attended Knoxville High School and then the University of Tennessee in… wait for it… Knoxville. He did theatre, mainly classics, which helped a lot when four years after his supernumerary job, he got a chance to make an official Broadway debut. As Cullum tells it, “I got into musical comedy because of Shakespeare, not because of singing. They needed someone to understudy Richard Burton in the new Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical Camelot.” Getting the understudy gig allowed for him to also play Sir Dinadan, which put him on stage with not only Burton, but Julie Andrews fresh off My Fair Lady and the twenty-seven year-old Robert Goulet. Cullum and Burton became good friends during that time, sharing a love for both Shakespeare and a good drink now and then (although in the case of Burton there was a lot more “now” than “then”). To help pass time between hoists, Burton put together an informal Shakespeare master class for Camelot actors, which included neophytes working in other Broadway shows in addition to drop-ins by such Burton cronies as Robert Preston and Laurence Olivier. I mean, can you even imagine?
Cullum’s affinity for Shakespeare — and his friendship with Burton — came in handy when the 1964 Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud, paved a path for him to play Laertes opposite Burton. The carousing that went on in Burton’s dressing room before, during and after the performances have become legendary, but luckily for Cullum, he figured out a way to moderate it over the years. Burton left this earth at age fifty-eight looking like a haggard old man of seventy-eight. Cullum, at eighty-eight, was still working on Broadway, cast as a successor in the role of Joe in the musical Waitress.
Post-Hamlet, Cullum worked steadily in Broadway musicals, starring opposite Barbara Harris in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, replacing in Man of La Mancha and 1776. Then the chance came to create a character that fit him like a glove: Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah, first at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, and then on Broadway. This was the part that put him over the top and that won him a richly-deserved Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. And for those living in the tri-state area in the mid-seventies, no one will ever forget the TV commercial (sadly, not available on YouTube at the moment) and the sight of Cullum standing alone in a field, lip-syncing to the musical’s Act One closer, “Mediation.” When he hits the last phrase of the song, “For as long as the Lord will allow,” a crane shot allowed for a pullback, leaving Cullum a speck in the distance, bellowing the final note at the top of his lungs.
It sold a lot of tickets.
Among the many roles I have seen Cullum do on stage, it was his Edward Rutledge in 1776 (a role he got to reprise in the 1972 film version) and his Oscar Jaffee in On the 20th Century (which won him his second Tony) that will always stand out for me. I saw him sing the Act Two showstopper “Molasses to Rum” at many a matinee due to my obsession with 1776 when, in my teenage years, I paid admission thirteen times. And even though I returned to 20th Century only once, what he did as a physical comedian with the juicy part of Oscar lives forever in my memory. The original cast recording of 20th Century remains one of my all-time favorites, not only for its sparkling and witty score by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, but for its brilliant orchestrations by Hershey Kay. And if you’ve ever heard the audio recording of the entire show taken from an early Broadway performance live through the theatre’s sound system it is screamingly funny, especially Cullum. I do not exaggerate that he is getting laughs from the audience worthy of Nathan Lane or Bert Lahr.
In 1990, Cullum had to deal with something he’d never had before in his whole career: a hit TV series. As Holling Vincoeur, a tavern owner on the award-winning series Northern Exposure, Cullum was exposed to a larger audience than he’d ever known. And, at age sixty, he was cast opposite a thirty-five year old actress (Cynthia Geary) who played his twenty-five year-old wife. He was nominated for an Emmy As Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for one of Northern Exposure’s six seasons. Later, he recurred on the hit series ER, portraying the father of the series lead, Dr. Mark Green (Anthony Edwards).
Cullum’s thirty-one Broadway shows, and twenty-one off-Broadway is a remarkable achievement. As short a time ago as 2009 (at the age of seventy-nine), he was in a Broadway and off-Broadway show at THE SAME TIME! While appearing in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage Country at the Music Box on 45th Street, he would leave that play following his character’s death in the first act and head over to the Harold Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street, and do a leading role in Gerald Sibleyras’ Heroes. From a March 20th NPR broadcast on Cullum, he is heard doing a bit of huffing and puffing while walking and alongside his interviewer during his commute between shows: “I catch the lights the way I catch ’em. It takes 12 minutes to walk briskly from down there at the Harold Clurman, Theatre Row, to the Music Box. It takes about 11 minutes, usually to go in [this] direction, because it’s got a slight downhill.”
Downhill has never been a direction Cullum’s professional or personal life has carried him. Married to the dancer-novelist Emily Frankel for the past 61 years, he lives in New York City as he always has and was scheduled to do a solo cabaret show at Feinstein’s/54 Below in the late summer of 2019, but a bout of pneumonia caused its cancellation. Then came the shut down six months later.
Mr. Cullum most definitely recovered, so here’s best wishes for extended good health and a wonderful 91st birthday. Here he is singing a song he introduced back in 1965 and performed magnificently on a television special in 1982. A song, by the way, that promotes optimistic vibes than can easily be interpreted as a much hopeful statement on the return of theatre before the end of 2021.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to follow me here on Medium and mail me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.