Fresh from college in Tennessee, where he had played the title role in the Clifford Odets hit Golden Boy, a hayseed named John Cullum rolled into Manhattan with stars in his eyes and two letters of introduction in his pockets. One was addressed to a powerful Broadway agent, who said to go back to Knoxville. Letter No. 2 got him into the office of the founder of the Off Broadway Phoenix Theatre, who let him type and file for free for a couple days before hiring him as a spear carrier in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Next thing he knew, Cullum stumbled into the roles of Rosencrantz and Marcellus in the Shakespearewrights’ uptown Hamlet, another money gig. “Six weeks in the Big Apple and I had two paying jobs as an actor,” Cullum marvels in his video memoir An Accidental Star. Nice going! He had rent to pay, six bucks a week.
Beginner’s luck or the story of his life? Maybe both. Once Cullum made it to Broadway as Sir Dinadan in the original cast of Camelot, he stuck around, not that everything came easy. “Most of the shows I have done—and the parts I have played—have come to me through the back door,” Cullum explains early on. Indeed. When impresarios came a cropper with hotshots like Maximilian Schell or Louis Jourdan or Jack Palance, they reeled in Cullum to save On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and then Shenandoah, for which he won his first Tony as lead actor in a musical. Three years later, for On the Twentieth Century, he took home another. Don’t expect to hear much about his appearances in the epic Hawaii, which filmed on Oahu, or his six seasons (with Emmy) on Northern Exposure. The big screen, the little screen, and regional theater for that matter were really just detours, which rate barely an aside.
Songs from Cullum’s Broadway shows and some others, accompanied by Julie McBride, punctuate the 80-minute narrative, which proceeds in leisurely but irresistible cracker-barrel fashion. Best in show: “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” from Camelot, originally sung by Richard Burton, whom Cullum understudied, and who, blissfully for him, was occasionally indisposed. With America’s Got Talent and TikTok jamming our frequencies, this Horatio Alger story lands like a fairy tale from the Age of Innocence. What a pleasure!
An Accidental Star is available for streaming on the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii