There may be five other teen drama dads–Harry Wilson, Rufus Humphrey, Dan Scott, Sandy Cohen and Mitch Leery–but it’s likely none would exist if it weren’t for one Jim Walsh.
Jim, the very first teen drama dad, was played by James Eckhouse. We saw him deal with the stress of raising teenagers (twin teenagers, at that!), keep the romance alive in his marriage and get so many promotions that his job sent him to head the company in Hong Kong!
In our exclusive interview, Eckhouse recalls his audition, discusses how the show impacted his life and reveals whether he’d participate in a reunion.
TeenDramaWhore: You grew up in the Midwest and then came East for college. What made you then decide to head West for acting?
James: Eckhouse: Well, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. I went to MIT, ostensibly studying physics and biology or whatever but I was always doing theater, oddly enough. There was a great little theater company with a lot of people who were Boston-area actors. There weren’t that many of us dweeby MIT types who were interested in drama. I was doing a lot of plays. After a couple of years, I realized my heart was more into theater. There was a teacher there whose name was–he’s a pretty well-known American playwright–A.R. “Pete” Gurney. He wrote The Dining Room, Love Letters. Pete was kind of instrumental in saying “You know, I don’t think this is what you want to be doing”–being a scientist, which I loved but it wasn’t what I knew my heart’s long-term passion was about. So I did drop out and I moved to Chicago and got involved in a lot of theater in Chicago. It was a great time. It was just the blossoming of Chicago theater. I decided to get some training and I wanted to get to New York so I was very fortunate to get into Julliard. So then I went to Julliard for four years in the theater department. After I graduated, I did just tons of regional theater all over the States. Lot of off-Broadway, a little Broadway. That’s how it all started.
TDW: Do you remember what your audition for 90210 was like? They had a originally cast another actor in the role and had done some filming.
Eckhouse: That is true. They had actually started the process and the guy was a wonderful actor. I guess it just didn’t quite match the rest of the family. Nothing to do with the talent of the actor. He’s a very talented actor. What happened, actually, is I got a call and I was on my way to do another audition that I thought was more important and far more likely for me to get and I told my agents I wouldn’t audition for this thing. I wasn’t that interested. And they said, “No, no, no. You have to go.” And I did and I got called back.
I finally got into the final call backs and there I was–there were three actors, 2 of whom I knew well, who were very, very WASP. Very patrician. And I went, “Oh, this is ridiculous. Why is this Jew from Chicago going to be doing this part?” And I went in and auditioned with Carol [Potter, Cindy], actually, since she was already cast and they had started to shoot the pilot or they had a shot a version of the pilot. This is a funny story. I met Aaron Spelling and sat in the room and read with Carol. We both knew we had great chemistry together. We hit it off right away. But be that as it may, I came out of the room going, “There’s no way they’re going to cast this dark-haired, balding Jew in this role.” And sure enough, when I left the room, Aaron turned to the people who were there–and Carol was there–and said, “You know, there’s something about that Eckhouse character!” and Carol said, “Well, yeah, ‘cause he’s Jewish!”
It’s a long process to get on these series. They have these network auditions that you do where you go in and now you do the audition in front of a large part of the television network. In this case, FOX. I remember coming home and thinking, “That was terrible!” I called my agent and said, “Well, I really blew it. I didn’t do very well.” And he said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” He called me back two hours later and said, “Well, you’re right. You really weren’t very good.” And I said, “Aw, okay. So I didn’t get it.” And then he said, “But they cast you anyway.” So I got the role and hopefully I proved them right in having me do it. So we actually had to go back into the pilot that had been shot and insert me into it, which was kind of interesting. A lot of that was hard because some of the sets from the pilot weren’t there. They had changed them already into the permanent sets. But it was great. It was fun. I got on the show and became “the dad.”
TDW: When did it hit you that the show was becoming huge?
Eckhouse: We had done a season and went into the summer season, which put the show ahead. We had episodes that were airing in the summer. Other networks weren’t doing it. It was a very clever move by FOX. Up until that time, Jason [Priestley, Brandon] and I would take bets on when they would pull the plug. We were convinced. Five more episodes at the most. FOX was a fledgling network. They were just barely making it. Aaron was known for the soap operas of the 80s and he was looking for a comeback, too. He was well-known and sort of an icon but I think people had sort of written him off.
My wife and I and my two sons, who at that point were very young, were driving up to go to a vacation place in our beat-up old white car. We stopped somewhere in a little, sleepy town. I said we had to “graze the kids,”–you know, let them run around and all that sort of stuff. I’m pushing my little son; he was like 9-months-old or something. And I’m pushing him on the swings and I notice this couple. This girl and this guy. Maybe 100 yards off. Really far off. But they’re kind of looking at me strangely. And I’m thinking, “Why are people looking at me in this little town?” So I keep pushing my son on the swing and like 10 minutes later my wife is striding over to me with this look in her eyes. She’s got my other son in tow and she grabs me and grabs my younger son and says, “Just start walking!” I said, “What?!” “Just start walking! Go to the car!” “What’s going on?” “Just! Start! Walking!” I grab my son and I think, “What, is there a tsunami in the middle of the desert?” and I start high-tailing it to the car. I look back and there’s literally like 45 teenagers just coming at me. I was like, “What the bleep is going on?!” I had no sort of concept at that point that I was–you know, you forget that you’re doing the show and you’re in people’s living rooms every week. I know that sounds naive but you’re so busy doing the work, you’re not really thinking about what the effect is. I had two young kids. I’m doing all this remodeling in my house, which I did myself. I was not in “TV star” mode at all.
I looked around and we get in the car and people are thrusting stuff at us. “Jim Walsh! Jim Walsh! Autograph!” Had I been a little more prepared, I would’ve stopped and said hello and organized it a bit and signed autographs. But it was just so terrifying. And my kids were wide-eyed and didn’t know what was going on. We threw them in the car and just drove off. That’s when I knew my life had changed.
TDW: You also directed three episodes [Episodes 4.06, Strangers in the Night; 4.29, Truth and Consequences; 5.19, Little Monsters]. Do you remember what that was like?
Eckhouse: That was the best. That was just fantastic. I direct now quite a bit. It opened the way to something that was sort of a passion that I knew was in there and I knew that was where my life probably lay or was the direction I wanted to go in. It was a struggle to get them to let me direct, I have to say. They were worried about the rest of the cast wanting to direct which, of course, finally did happen but not for a long time. I had to go back and take some directing classes–which I had already done before but that’s okay–and prove to them I was really interested, which I was absolutely passionate about. What happened, actually, is the very first shot of the first scene I was in the scene. It was really tricky, actually. It was an interesting initiation into it. One of the directors had dropped out and they needed somebody and they came to me in the makeup chair one morning and said, “How would you like to start directing three days from now?” I was like, “Ohhhh…Jesus. Okay, fine.” Usually you have seven days to prep and you shoot for eight days. So I had three days to prep, which was obviously truncated, to say the least. But I stepped into it and loved it and got tremendous support from the crew and, I would say, most of the cast. I went on to direct a couple of more and I enjoyed it quite a bit.
TDW: At what point did it become clear to you that Jim and Cindy weren’t really wanted anymore?
Eckhouse: That’s a loaded question! I was well aware that my shelf life on the show was limited because the show was about the kids; it wasn’t about me or us. Originally it was but, you know, people want to see young faces, not old faces, on television. So it wasn’t really any kind of surprise or anything like that. I was glad to be on it for as long as I was. But after five years you re-negotiate your contract. Your contract is for five years. So that means if a show’s successful, it starts to become very expensive to have that large of a cast as regulars. It’s really strictly a financial thing, which now that I direct and produce, I completely understand. They wanted me to sort of sign on for a certain number of episodes and I had felt I really had done wanted I wanted to do. I did some directing. I was running a theater company at the time in Los Angeles. I loved the income but knew I had to move beyond it. I just didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being associated with being “the dad from 90210”–not that that’s so bad; it’s a great thing, but I knew I needed to move on.
TDW: Carol came back in season 6 with you [Episode 6.16, Angels We Have Heard On High]. You came back in season 7 without her [Episode 7.24, Spring Breakdown]. And then you both came back in season 8 [Episode 8.32, The Wedding]. Did the first two have to do with your schedules not aligning or was it storyline dictated or…?
Eckhouse: I’m sure it was just storyline. Carol and I are very close. We were very lucky to have each other on the show. Our chemistry was great. We loved each other’s families. It was really fun working with her.
TDW: When you look back now, do you think the show gave a realistic depiction of parent-child issues? ‘Cause many teen TV dads are compared to Jim Walsh and they’re held up to this Jim Walsh caliber.
Eckhouse: Hm. That’s interesting. I should ask you that. How do you think they’re held up? It’s an interesting question. I’m sure in some ways it looks pretty naïve today. But people still come up to me and say they really appreciate the show. It wasn’t so much “Oh, I’m a good dad” or “a bad dad.” It wasn’t about that. I think what it did is it opened the way for families to have discussions that they might not otherwise have had. It was a show that some families could sit down and watch with their teenage kids. Maybe not teenage–that’s probably stretching it. Maybe their seventh or eighth grade kids, before the proverbial “S” hit the fan, you know? It was a vehicle for a family to sit down together and actually watch something that would bring up issues. It’s not necessarily that we tackled them in the most realistic of ways. I will say that my first season and second season were far more insightful and more compelling and more daring than the last three, which became, to me, more of a soap opera.
I think in the beginning [Charles Rosin, executive producer], god love him, really was trying hard to make every show about an issue. He and I both had kids the same ages, were very much involved in education and obviously knew what it was like to grow up as a teenager and so forth. That was his passion, to bring up teenage drinking and suicide and drug use and pregnancy and all that sort of stuff. I think the first two years we did go to places where other shows hadn’t gone to. How it holds up now, I have no idea. I think probably now shows are allowed to be a lot more hard-hitting because of the influence of cable and the web and all that. The network shows have to be more daring. They have to go more towards [shows like] Sopranos and Oz and Hung, that go where the network show can’t go. So I think that it’s challenged them. I’m sure they’re probably a lot more racy and daring than we ever were.
TDW: Do you have a favorite episode or storyline?
Eckhouse: My favorite episodes were when I was the coach, when I was the baseball coach [Episode 1.20, Spring Training] and when I was the hockey coach [Episode 2.19, Fire and Ice]. I spent three days down on a field in Beverly Hills with the UCLA team as ringers playing my heart out. Sweating, driving the makeup people crazy because I just wanted to keep playing baseball when I wasn’t on camera and I couldn’t care less. I was just having a ball. And then when we were doing the hockey episode, I hadn’t played hockey in a long time but I got to play hockey with the UCLA hockey team. So those were my favorite episodes.
TDW: Do you have any thoughts on the new 90210? They mentioned your character last year in a really terrible dream sequence.
Eckhouse: Oh, really? I didn’t even know that. I haven’t seen it. I have no interest.
TDW: You’ve been doing some stuff with Charles and showbizzle, right?
Eckhouse: I did. I did an episode of showbizzle with his daughter and him, which was just a hoot.
TDW: What exactly did you do? And for those that don’t know, what is showbizzle?
Eckhouse: Showbizzle is kind of this combination of reality and fiction, where they do a series of interviews with young people, mostly, who are moving to Los Angeles–actors, would-be directors, producers–dealing with the show business, dealing with “the biz” and their escapades. So they’ve created these characters that people can actually write to–they’re fictional characters played by actors and the actors write back as if they’re the characters. And every week they’re putting up new episodes and it kind of combines reality because some of the people actually tell their own stories, some of the guest people. I came on and did this wonderful monologue about being a sound guy so completely not who I am but it was fun. It was scripted but I got to play around with it and Chuck’s daughter, Lindsey, is fantastic. She’s so talented and, of course, I’ve seen her from the time she was a little girl. So to see her grow up and now be a writer and a director in her own right is really exciting.
TDW: Are you in touch with anyone else from the cast or crew?
Eckhouse: I see a few occasionally. I saw Ian [Ziering, Steve] up at Sundance a couple of years ago and that was fantastic. I go over to Jason’s house and play with his little kids some times. Luke [Perry, Dylan] came to see a play I was in. Gabby’s [Carteris, Andrea] kids go to the same school that my kids went to so I got to see a lot of her. Tiffani [Amber Thiessen, Valerie] and I were part of the same theater company so we got to see a lot of each other. So it’s great.
TDW: That is great. This fall it will be 20 years since the show debuted.
Eckhouse: Wow. That’s scary.
TDW: Would you be willing to participate in some reunion event, like a panel?
Eckhouse: It depends upon the circumstances. Probably not. I understand in fans’ minds it’s nice to have that continuity but for an actor, you need to reinvent yourself and I’ve kind of moved on to other areas like directing and so forth. So it depends on the circumstances. I’d have to see what it was. But I don’t think they’re going to be asking me, to be honest. The show was carried by the kids, as it should be.
Come back next week for another exclusive interview!