Exclusive: James Eckhouse Looks Back on Beverly Hills 90210

7 02 2010

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!

TDW Interview Index

Exclusive: Christine Elise on Emily Valentine’s Pop Culture Legacy

23 08 2009

Christine Elise circa 1991 and today.

Aside from Beverly Hills 90210’s main players, there’s one character that still gets a lot of attention today: Emily Valentine.  Emily earned, let’s say, very colorful descriptions from viewers, including “stalker,” “crazy,” “fire-starter” and “freak” and sparked debates among fans that still occur today.  Some even argue she’s the inspiration for Silver’s character on the new 90210.

I recently spoke with Christine Elise, Emily’s portrayer, about the character’s genesis and legacy.

TeenDramaWhore: You joined the show as potential love interests for Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Dylan (Luke Perry). Did you have any idea the character was going to become the ‘crazy girl’?

Christine Elise: I was initially cast only for the first episode [ed. note: Episode 2.8, Wildfire] with the possibility of 9 more if things went well – whatever that means. I guess they did go well – because I came back.  Initially – I was very excited to play Emily because I saw her much as I saw myself in high school – as a girl with a personal style different from the mainstream and one that some others mysteriously found threatening.  I, too, was misunderstood & suffered many incorrect assumptions about what “kind” of girl I was.  I appreciated the “you can’t judge a book by its cover” theme of that introductory episode.   Later, as the shows progressed & it was revealed that Emily was nuts – I must confess to disappointment.  I felt they had betrayed her by – ultimately – saying “you CAN judge a book by its cover.”  It was pretty early in my career & a very big job for me.  I really had invested myself in Emily & I had a hard time with the things they made her do & say.  Still – in retrospect – that sense of betrayal might have informed my performance in ways I hadn’t intended.  I played her – even in the nuttiest scenes – as someone I felt really bad for – not a cold & wicked villain.    I think that might have saved her in the eyes of those fans of the show that related to her…and there were many.  Even today, kids that felt disenfranchised either because they were gay, or punk or new in town or poorer than their peers – whatever the reason – they still come up to me & tell me Emily was their favorite character.  I find that really gratifying.   And I hope it is due in part to how I played her & the sympathy I felt for her that allows her fans to forgive her for being such a kook. Or maybe her fans are all crazy, too!   Hahahah!

TDW: In all seriousness, your storyline touched on the important issue of mental health. Do you think people forget or overlook that part and just focus on things like the now iconic gas-throwing float scene (Episode 2.16, My Desperate Valentine)?

Elise: Well – let’s net get to taking ourselves too seriously <wink>.   I don’t think her mental health was covered with the same attention as her nutty behavior but that is totally fair.  After all – it was a soap opera not a PBS program.   As it turned out – the cure was Prozac – so she was simply suffering from depression, I guess.  Not to downplay the agony of suffering clinical depression – but she wasn’t, ultimately, portrayed as mentally ill in the traditional ways we use that term – despite the high drama of the early episodes.   It might have been interesting to show how much pressure is on kids when they change schools etc – and that not all deal as successfully as the Minnesota Twins [Brandon and Brenda] – but I think Emily was brought in not so much to tell HER story as to provide an antagonist  – or a catalyst for the stories of the main characters, you know? On a side note –  I couldn’t help but notice that the only other high profile, blue collar character – Ray Pruitt [Jamie Walters in seasons 5 and 6]- also went nuts & threatened & even injured a main character.    I wrote a Halloween episode once [ed. note: Episodes 6.8, Gypsies, Cramps and Fleas] that had Ray doing kooky stalkery stuff & I felt the same sympathy for him that I did for Emily.  Maybe something in the lunches at West Beverly makes poor people go NUTZ!!! I will also say that the float scene defined Emily in a way I still find pretty surprising.  I get asked two questions all the time: 1) What was it like kissing Jason Priestley? and 2) Why did you burn the float? and 3) Oh – and “Is Shannon [Doherty, Brenda] really a bitch?” I still haven’t developed a cute answer for any of these.  Kissing on camera is embarrassing & awkward & nothing like kissing someone in real life.  EMILY destroyed the float – not me (a detail overlooked by a shocking number of folks) and she did not ever burn it.    And the last question is less interesting to me than “Was BRENDA a bitch?”  – because I kinda think both Brenda and Kelly [Jennie Garth] were pretty awesome be-atchez despite being offered to the public as the heroines of the series.  They both were pretty judge-y  – especially considering the flaws in each of them that were revealed over the years.  But if that leads to characters spitting dialogue like, “Have fun at the GYNOCOLOGIST, Emily!!!” [ed. note: quote is from Wildfire]- well then I am all for it!!!!  Because that is some funny shit.

TDW: I don’t know if you’ve watched the new 90210 at all, but one of the characters, Silver, had a storyline similar to yours. Most of the press said she was either the new Emily Valentine or she was pulling  an Emily Valentine. How does it feel to know ‘pulling an Emily Valentine’ is part of the pop culture lexicon?

Elise: I think it is tremendous!  How many roles like that does your average actor get to play in a career?   I knew she was the Pinky Tuscadero of 90210 [ed. note: reference to a Happy Days character] – but I had no idea the extent to which she impacted people….or how enduring that impact would be.  There is a book called The Emily Valentine Poems and a band called Emily Valentine.   Nylon magazine devoted their ICON column to Emily a few months ago which I found super flattering.   There are several “We hate Emily” groups on Facebook.  I think it is all great.   I kinda felt the actress that plays Silver  [ed. note: Jessica Stroup] was offended by the comparison to Emily.  All I can guess is that she was NOT an outsider at school & identified more with the popular kids…hahahah.    Or maybe she, too, is invested in her character & feels protective of her – as I did Emily.    Clearly – she is no Emily fan.  [ed. note: related article] But, you know – I wonder if I would have liked or hated Emily if another actress had played her – therefore robbing me of the protective impulses I had toward her.  There is no way to know.  I didn’t come at the role from the perspective of the audience but from the inside out.    I still can’t watch the old episodes & really see the character objectively – or even purely as a fan of the show.  I just cannot separate myself enough to make that judgment   I can say that the show  – and my performances – crack me up now.  It seems so much, much campier in retrospect than it did while we were doing it.   I was so sincere & working so hard back then – desperate to do a good job.  Now – I watch & chuckle, with humor & nostalgia.

TDW: Emily’s romance with Brandon was ill-fated. First Emily got ill in season two, then they reunited in season four but she was moving across the world and then when she came back in season five, he was with Kelly. Were you rooting for them? And did you get any flack from “Brelly” fans?

Elise: Of course I rooted for them!  It would have meant more work for ME!   And that show was a lot of fun to work on.  But, yes, I get a lot of flack from fans – mostly in online message boards that called me things like Emily Frankentine  – and they mocked that Louise Brooks bob [ed. note: reference to a model] I had in the Kelly/fire episode [ed. note: Episode 5.13, Up in Flames] by calling me a “donkey in a Dutch boy wig.”   Those kinda things actually hurt a lot more than you think they might.   Sometimes they made me cry.  You have no way to fight back or defend yourself – and people are incredibly nasty when they are hidden in anonymity.  And though you KNOW you shouldn’t read it – it is nearly impossible to tear your eyes away.  I mean, even Tina Fey addressed those online bullies at the Golden Globes when she named a few by their handles and suggested that they “suck it.”  That was awesome & every actor with a computer knows exactly what she was talking about.  Everyone has read mean stuff about themselves & taken it harder than they wanted to….even if they won’t admit it.   I can also say, however, that nobody has ever sad anything mean to my face.  I am not sure if that is because people that hate either Emily or me don’t approach me.  I tend to think that the excitement of meeting someone you watched on TV over & over kinda trumps whatever bad feelings you might have about the character they played.  I know it does for me when I see actors around whose shows I love.   Also – though I tend to imagine my peers as the ones behind the cruel online posts – it is more likely random 10 year old girls who wouldn’t dream of confronting me in person to tell me my hair-do sucks.  Hahahaah!    Whatever the reason, I am relieved to report that, though I am approached all the time by 90210 fans – I have never had any of them be mean to me.  WHEW!!!

TDW: In your last appearance, during Up in Flames, Brandon and Emily share a kiss and retreat to her hotel room. Viewers don’t see what happens next but Brandon feels quite guilty about it. What do you think happened?

Elise: I never really thought about it but if I had to guess – I would say nothing much more happened.  Brandon was an enormously integrity-ridden character.   I imagine he would feel all the guilt he seemed to over just the kiss.  And as a chick – I gotta say – he SHOULD HAVE!   A kiss is cheating!!!  Does anybody think it is odd that none of the characters on the show thought it a sinister coincidence that Kelly was burned in a fire the very day firebug Emily showed up???

TDW: You co-wrote a couple of later episodes. How does that experience differ from the actor experience?

Elise: Writing is fun.  And writing on a serial like 90210 is easy-peasy.  They hand you a pretty substantial outline of what is going to happen & you essentially just fill in the dialogue.  I got to make a few personal touches, add some inside jokes etc – but, for the most part, I had to stay true to the structure they handed me.   I would happily do it again.  I am very grateful for the unique opportunities that show gave me.  But – it is very different from acting because when you write an episode – you can go from start to finish & never walk on the set.  You do it all from home & the occasional meeting with the writing staff.  So – it is an almost solitary experience – where working on a set as an actor is a very social affair & you work with everyone (from the crew to the cast) to get stuff right.  It is more of a collaboration  – in almost every minute – than the writing is.  If I could only do one – I would choose acting.  I like the social elements of being on set.

TDW: Without getting too personal, you dated one of your co-stars. How do you keep that separate from your work life and  professional relationship?

Elise: I am not sure what that question means.  Do you mean – did I get jealous of KELLY???  Haha.  No.  Though many fans have a hard time separating the actors from the characters – I certainly do not.  The entire cast & crew of that show was like a huge extended family.    I never took any storylines personally.   And both Jason & I were actors before we met & think of working on a set with the same casual attitude that other people approach their jobs.   Work is work.  There is never any confusion about that – nor does it complicate one’s life any more than any job with odd hours might.   But – I will admit – sometimes it is a drag to watch your boyfriend kiss a new gal every week!!!  But he had to watch me, too, so – it’s all just part of the deal…and you get over it pretty quickly.


Christine and Jason during their multi-year relationship.

TDW: Are you still in touch with any of the cast?

Elise: Jason (and his wife, Naomi [Lowde-Preistley) and I are still very close.  I see Tiffani [Amber Thiessen, Valerie] quite a bit, too.   Beyond that – I only rarely run into the rest of the cast at auditions or  – like – at Jason & Naomi’s wedding.

TDW: You’ve taken a few small acting gigs in recent years but mostly focus on art.  What kind of stuff do you and where can fans see your work?

Elise: Photography has become quite a passion of mine & my stuff can be seen at www.MyPinUpArt.com. I have driven from Los Angeles to Boston & back more than half a dozen times.  I like to photograph the decaying Americana along Route 66 and the little things that make each state unique.  I hate that uniformity is the order of the day today.  I hate that every mall in any city has the same stores.  I hate Starbucks & McDonalds taking over where mom & pop shops used to rule.  I hate how generic this country is becoming.  So – I try to preserve some vintage beauty with my camera.

Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!

%d bloggers like this: