Brett Cullen: A Texan to Reckon With
Soap Opera Digest
— April 19, 1988
Written By: Robert Rorke
The back of a truck is an unlikely place for an interview, but not if you’re talking to Brett Cullen. And not when the truck is parked in the rural canyon country north of Los Angeles for a Falcon Crest shoot – the great outdoors seems a natural fit for the tall, lanky actor. Wearing Dan Fixx’s habitual blue jeans and cowboy boots, he looks like a younger, Southern relative of William Hurt, his longish blonde hair accentuating his angular features. Brett hooks the door of Jane Wyman’s trailer open to keep the midday gusts from banging it shut, and leans back on the truck’s lift to talk about one of his favorite subjects: Texans.
“Texans are unique,” says the Houston native. “They have open minds because they have a very big, open space to live in and they have, to me, a kind of the middle-of-the-country attitude. They’re not in the West where they’re setting the trends and they’re not in the East, where they’re the cultural heroes of the world. They’re just in the middle exploring everything that comes through and goes through their lives. And those that leave Texas and go elsewhere I think are a hell of a lot more open because the openness of being a Texan and also the curiosity of what’s going on in the world.”
For somebody with such a strong sense of place, Brett Cullen rarely stays put. Maybe it’s that Texan curiosity or his innate wanderlust, but he probably knows the airport terminals of the world better than his own backyard. Having spent his two-week Christmas vacation flying from Los Angeles to Albuquerque to Vancouver, Cullen is no doubt a star passenger in any airline’s frequent-flyer program. He loves to surf and will travel to Galveston or all the way to Australia to try the waves there. Or drive two thousand miles to Baton Rouge, Louisiana just to feel the South beneath his feet again.
The youngest of four children, Brett still has ties to Texas. His parents and sister Christol’s family live in Houston. “If you ever go to Texas, the Cullen family is very well known in Houston,” he says. “Not my side of the family, my cousins who are very wealthy and powerful people. I never had any of that influence. I never suffered, I never was without. I didn’t have a lot of money as a kid but being the baby, I obviously had more than the other children because the baby is always spoiled a bit more than everyone else. I love my family. They’re all alive, thank God.”
Brett’s dad financed his venture into television. “I didn’t plan on getting into TV, I planned on going to New York and getting into the theater,” he says. After studying with the man Cullen says had the greatest influence on him, teacher Cecil Pickett at the University of Houston, he graduated from college and soon thereafter read with John Travolta for a part in the movie “Urban Cowboy.” That role didn’t work out, but Travolta’s agent told Brett to go west. He quickly shelved plans to continue his theater education in the masters program at Florida State. “It was a very, very fortunate lucky deal that happened to me,” he remembers. “I walked in here one week, I had an agent the next week, they sent me out on an audition the following week, then I got a series.” “The Chisholms,” a Western that ran briefly in 1979 and 1980, starred Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris, Ben Murphy and Mitchell Ryan. Jimmy Van Patten played Brett’s brother in the series and they used to raise hell together.
“Jimmy and I would be off on the mountain skiing down on a board while they were shooting and we’d come flying through and they’d have to do the shot again,” Brett says with a half-smile, giving the impression that he still wishes he’d thought better of his early on-the-set hijinks. “You know, I was still a kid and I realized after that show and after the mistakes I’d made, that if this is what I’m going to do, then I’d better take it pretty damn seriously. I learned that an actor has a certain obligation to the people who hire him to be there and to do the work and not to just think it’s all fun and games and it’s great that you’re in a series and you make a lot of money.”
That sense of professionalism was further instilled by working with two of Hollywood’s most demanding actresses, Barbara Stanwyck in “The Thorn Birds” and Jane Wyman in “Falcon Crest.” “Missy was a class act, a class woman,” he says of Stanwyck. “She had a sense of humor, a love for what she did and loved the people she worked with. She was fair to everyone, all across the board. That’s the same thing with Jane.”
Cullen did not meet Wyman until they actually rehearsed their first scene together, in which Dan Fixx parked himself in the Falcon Crest vestibule and demanded a job. “I was sitting in the chair I was supposed to be in and she walked up, we did the scene and as soon as they said, “OK, cut,” she said, “Jane Wyman,” and I said, “Brett Cullen,” and she went, “Who the hell didn’t introduce me to him?” Chewed out the first day, in a joking manner, just to let them know that she sets it up.”
Cullen’s role on the long-running serial is based on the character Paul Newman played in the film, “The Long, Hot Summer,” which was based on William Faulkner’s novel “The Hamlet,” a barn-burning rebel without a cause. Cullen’s character was originally called Ben Quick. Changing it to Dan Fixx gave him one of the catchier character names on prime-time television. An ex-con framed for murder, Dan Fixx had Angela Channing (Jane Wyman) for a guardian after she had mowed down and crippled Dan’s mama in a car accident. With his father missing and his wife in a coma, Dan had no one to turn to when he got out of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, except Angela. That’s when his story began on “Falcon Crest.” Brett says he has known men like Dan Fixx. “Back home, there is someone I know very well who’s not so much in essence like Dan’s character, but who has been in the pen and who’s lived a sort of drifter’s life. He still does, but is someone I respect because that’s what he wants to do with his life. He’s not out there to make a whole lot of dough; he makes enough money to get the rent paid. This particular guy travels all over the world and surfs and that’s what he does. And he spent the early years of his life in prison. This was back in the days when marijuana possession was a federal offense. You got caught with a joint, you went to jail. This guy did and he went to prison back in the sixties. So I know some people like that, I know guys back home that I grew up with who are a lot like Dan. They do have that heart and that soul and that sense that they’re their own man and they’re not going to let anyone tell them what to do.”
Dan Fixx is his own man until it come to women. Then he’s a chump. His weakness for the rich girls of Tuscany Valley, like petulant Vickie Gioberti (Dana Sparks) and erratic Melissa Agretti (Ana-Alicia), has definitely made Dan seem hardly like the type of rugged individual who calls the shots. Cullen is very aware of Dan’s latent doormat tendencies. “The thing is when you have a character like Dan, he’s sensitive and he’s caring and he’s overly…what’s the word?…He puts himself in situations with women always to get screwed over, you know. I don’t particularly try to do that in my own life.” While Cullen will defend Dan’s relationships with Vickie and Melissa, he readily admits that his most challenging work on the show occurred last season when Dan visited his (until recently) comatose wife Suzanne (Danni Minnick) in Oklahoma. “It seems to be the most powerful emotional relationship that Dan has had,” the actor says. “Your first love is always the one you remember with the most fondness or the most depth or the most intensity because it’s so young and new and fresh. I think that’s why the relationships he’s had (since) and is having will not work because they’re not what he’s had before.”
Brett Cullen lists his age at “around thirty” and has never been married. But his romantic prospects are much rosier than Dan Fixx’s. He is currently involved with an actress named Michelle Little. “We’ve been together for about three and a half years so that’s a really solid relationship,” he says. Viewers may have seen her in “Bluffing It,” the recent TV-movie that starred Dennis Weaver, or in the feature films “My Demon Lover” and “Out of Bounds.” Brett has been studying acting himself with acclaimed actress Kim Stanley and was looking forward to doing a play called “Café 50s” on his break from the show. At this point in his career, he claims he is still unfettered enough to live without the comforts television salaries afford an actor.
“I didn’t become an actor so that I could make tons of dough,” he declares. “I became an actor because I love to act and if I can’t make money acting, I’ll act anyway, even if I have to go into construction like I did in Texas. I used to work construction during the day and do Shakespeare at night. Even though I got a little dough for it, it wasn’t much, it wasn’t enough to support me. Now when you get to be thirty five, forty, fifty years old and you have a family, you need to make some dough, point being when you’re a young artist and you’re out there swinging with the big guys, enjoy it and put that money away because there’s going to be a day when the money is not coming in as freely.”
Until that day comes, Brett Cullen will kick back and relax, riding his horse, an Arabian mare named Serena, along the beach north of Malibu. Or maybe book a flight to Tibet. Where he goes next is anybody’s guess.
© 1988 Soap Opera Digest