On July 12, 1990, Northern Exposure made its television debut. Twenty-five years later, here’s a look at the cast that introduced us to the weird, wacky, and philosophical world of Cicely, Alaska
In the summer of 1990, a quirky little show called Northern Exposure appeared on the CBS schedule as a mid-season replacement series. Only eight episodes were commissioned, but half a season turned into six seasons, which picked up over 27 awards along the way. The show’s fish-out-of-water premise soon gave way to the fun of exploring the weird, wacky, and philosophical world of Cicely, Alaska.
Guest stars reported that there was a real sense of family on set, enhanced by the frequent use of town locals as extras. And the guests came in droves. Among them were Adam Ant, Donal Logue, Patrick Warburton, Jack Black, Stephen Root, Regina King, Peter Bogdanovich, and Joanna Cassidy. Later additions to the show included Anthony Edwards, Adam Arkin, and Paul Provenza, along with a first season recurring role for Grant Goodeve of Eight is Enough fame. (Unluckily for him, he played one of Maggie O’Connell’s boyfriends, who had an unfortunate habit of dying before their time in strange and unpredictable accidents.)
Some of Northern Exposure’s actors were just as quirky as their Cicely counterparts. It’s been a long time since the show was on the air, so here’s an update on what they’re doing today.
ROB MORROW (Dr. Joel Fleischman)
Rob Morrow played Dr. Joel Fleischman, a diehard New York City boy uprooted to Alaska as payback for the scholarship that put him through medical school. It was Morrow’s first starring role; up until then he hadn’t done much beyond an episode of the TV series Fame and one Spenser: For Hire. He’d even been an uncredited extra in a Saturday Night Live sketch, having no idea that he’d be back on that same stage 12 years later to host the show himself. It was Northern Exposure that made him a star.
Near the end of the show’s run, Hollywood beckoned, and Morrow landed the starring role in the Robert Redford movie Quiz Show. Before the final season was over, he was gone, determined to parlay his fame into a film career. He did appear in a few movies, including a memorable turn as Albert Brooks’ brother and Debbie Reynold’s videophone-obsessed son in Mother, but he continued to find greater success on TV. He starred on the series Numb3rs for five years, recurred on Entourage, and made a name for himself as a director. He was recently part of the ensemble cast of the miniseries Texas Rising, and shot a guest spot on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer.
Fun fact: Just like Dr. Fleischman, Rob Morrow found the separation from New York City pretty challenging; once the show was successful enough to support him, Morrow arranged for fresh bagels to be regularly overnighted from Manhattan to Roslyn, Washington, where the show was shot.
JANINE TURNER (Maggie O’Connell)
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and raised in Texas, it made sense that Janine Turner’s first acting role (after a few years as a Wilhelmina model) was in the original Dallas series. She did a couple of soaps, playing Demi Moore’s sister on General Hospital, but after playing enough pretty, flighty women she decided to stop taking those types of roles, determined to make a change. As a result, she didn’t work again for a while, and by the time Northern Exposure came calling, she was down to her last eight dollars. She was thrilled to take the role of pilot Maggie O’Connell, a job that made her a household name.
After Maggie, she played Dr. Dana Stowe in Strong Medicine on Lifetime, and was in several movies, including the much-panned Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone, and Dr. T and the Women with Richard Gere. She was also June Cleaver in the Leave It To Beaver movie.
Turner is still acting, but her main passion these days is politics. She’s an active Republican who supported Sarah Palin’s 2008 campaign, and spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention. She’s also a regular on Fox News, where she speaks about her passion project: Constituting America. It’s an organization run by Turner and her daughter, with the goal of educating Americans about the U.S. Constitution.
Fun fact: Turner dated Alec Baldwin pretty seriously; they were engaged and even had a wedding date and a bridal gown ready before things were called off. Shockingly, it wasn’t their opposing political views that broke them up.
JOHN CORBETT (Chris Stevens)
The 6’ 5” John Corbett started taking drama classes for the first time after an injury put an end to his job as a steel laborer. He took classes at night, and went to hairdressing school during the day, getting his license in 1986 and supplementing his income until he finally started earning a living as an actor.
He’d done over 50 national commercials before he landed his first real TV role: one episode of The Wonder Years as Karen’s boyfriend. But it was Northern Exposure that really kicked off his career with the juicy role of Chris Stevens, DJ, philosopher, and general dreamboat.
He starred in the short-lived series The Visitor, but his next big break. came with the indie film My Big Fat Greek Wedding by writer-actress Nia Vardalos —and yes, he’ll be in next year’s sequel. He had a recurring role on Parenthood as Sarah Braverman’s ex, and even shot a scene for the series finale, although it was cut from the final version. He was a regular on The United States of Tara and is well-known to Sex and the City fans as Carrie’s former flame, Aiden. Next up, he’ll be a regular on the new Denis Leary series for FX, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, on which his former Northern Exposure co-star, Rob Morrow, will be a guest.
He’s also a country singer! He has two albums out, and has been a tour opener for ZZ Top, Lisa Marie Presley, and Charlie Daniels. He also appeared in Trisha Yearwood’s 2008 video “This Is Me You’re Talking To.”
Fun fact: Corbett has been living with Bo Derek for years; they met on a blind date. She appears in the video for his song “Good To Go” and has photographed both of his CD covers.
BARRY CORBIN (Maurice Minnifield)
Corbin, a longtime TV and movie veteran, was considered an acting mentor by co-stars Rob Morrow, Janine Turner, and Cynthia Geary, all of whom recognized a pro when they met one.
Named for Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, Corbin was born in Texas, and still lives there, making his home on a 15-acre ranch in Fort Worth. In 2009 he was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Corbin seems to have been everywhere, and done everything. He’s played so many sheriffs he can’t even keep count, learned how to shear sheep for the classic 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds, and played a prison warden in the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor smash Stir Crazy. His credits are far too many to list here, so we’ll just give you a few classics: WarGames, Any Which Way You Can, Lonesome Dove, Urban Cowboy, and the original TV series Dallas, where he was a natural.
More recently, he’s been on One Tree Hill, Anger Management with Charlie Sheen, Modern Family, The Closer, and since he has no reason to slow down at 74, he has multiple movies in post-production. He’s also the official “station voice” of KPLX-FM 99.9f The Wolf, in Dallas, Texas.
Fun fact: When he got the script for his Northern Exposure audition, he decided he’d better do something different, so he walked in, threw the script on the floor, and started doing push-ups. He did his lines, playing off the casting director, but kept doing push-ups. When he was done, he picked up the script, said thank you, and left. Next thing he knew, he had a steady gig as tough guy ex-astronaut Maurice Minnifield.
JOHN CULLUM (Holling Vincoeur)
Long before he became Cicely’s tavern owner and mayor, Cullum was a Broadway star. He won a Best Actor Tony in 1975 for Shenandoah, and was nominated again in 2002 and 2007. He understudied both Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell in Camelot in 1960, and by 1964, he was co-starring with Burton in the movie version. He hit Broadway yet again in 2010, in The Scottsboro Boys, and was back on stage the next year in New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, almost 50 years since the last time he’d done it.
He loved that Northern Exposure was shot in Seattle; he used to offer up his services singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in exchange for free admission to football, basketball, and baseball games. But the writers didn’t always remember he was a singer. In the second episode, a section in the script called for an angry Maurice to take over the radio station from Chris. Maurice starts playing Broadway hits, and the producers chose the song “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” from the original Broadway cast recording. Cullum had to tell them that if they chose that one, it’d be him singing the song! They switched it out.
To add to his theater work, he’s been a staple on TV for decades. He’s a familiar face to regular viewers of Law & Order: SVU as lawyer-then-judge Barry Moredock, and has had roles on The Middle, Nurse Jackie, The Good Wife, Royal Pains, 30 Rock, ER, and Mad Men. He’ll appeared on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with Ellie Kemper and is currently filming the indie movie Christine with Michael C. Hall.
Fun fact: Cullum is a former tennis star who suffered a fluke eye injury during a game; he lost vision in his left eye and now his eyes are two different colors, like Dan Aykroyd, Kiefer Sutherland, and Mila Kunis. He wears a colored contact for performances.
CYNTHIA GEARY (Shelly Tambo)
The character of Shelly Tambo, wife to Holling Vincoeur, was originally going to be of Native American descent. But when Geary came in to audition for the show (after one of the casting directors spotted her waiting tables), the producers loved her, and changed the role to fit the actress.
She’d already been in some commercials and a few TV shows, but Northern Exposure was her first gig as a series regular. Shooting in Seattle gave her a permanent taste for the Pacific Southwest, and she still lives in the area with her husband and two children. Like Shelly, she’s a tavern owner: she and her husband own the Paragon Bar & Grill. She still does occasional guest roles in TV shows and independent films and shorts; she’s been in two of Sherman Alexie’s films (along with co-star Elaine Miles). Back in 1998, she briefly starred in the sitcom You’re The One, but the show went off the air after about a month.
Fun fact: Geary played the mother of the Olsen twins in the made-for-TV movie To Grandmother’s House We Go.
DARREN E. BURROWS (Ed Chigliak)
Burrows didn’t exactly have a showbiz childhood. He was born in Winfield, Kansas, in a house with no running water, and no outhouse, let alone cable TV. Prior to Northern Exposure, he’d been in a few TV shows and movies, including John Waters’ Cry-Baby. But he’s best known as Ed Chigliak, a half-Native American orphan and aspiring filmmaker.
Since Northern Exposure, Burrow guest-starred on The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen, Sunset Strip, NYPD Blue, and had a small role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. These days, he’s not doing much acting. He lives on a farm in Wichita with his wife (a French chef), and their four sons.
He wrote a book about the show called “Northern Exposed,” which was crowdfunded on Indiegogo in 2013. The book covered the hopeful beginnings as well as the sad decline near the end, providing great detail for fans who were hungry for behind-the-scenes tales.
Fun fact: Lead singer Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver named his record label Chigliak Records, as a tribute to Ed.
ELAINE MILES (Marilyn Whirlwind)
When Elaine Miles showed up at the auditions for Northern Exposure, she wasn’t there to try out; she was driving her mom there, who was up for the role of Marilyn, Dr. Fleischman’s assistant. When the producers saw Marilyn sitting in the waiting room, they asked her to audition, then gave her the part. (Don’t worry about her mom, though; she was on the show periodically, eventually playing Marilyn Whirlwind’s mother. )
After she finished shooting the first episode, Miles went up to producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey to thank them and say goodbye, and they laughed and told her they’d already booked her for the rest of the first season. She stayed on the show throughout its six-season run.
She still acts a little; like co-star Cynthia Geary, she was in two Sherman Alexie movies, Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing. But she’s better-known in the Native American community for being a prize-winning traditional dancer and performer.
Fun fact: Miles has been in two episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
PEG PHILLIPS (Ruth-Anne Miller)
A late bloomer, career-wise, Phillips took up acting as a profession at age 64. At four, she knew she wanted to be an actress, and used to perform in dinner theater as a hobby, but she became an accountant instead. Once she retired from accounting, she planned to enroll in drama school, but she never got her degree because she kept getting too much acting work to make the time to finish her studies.
She had a few bit parts when she was first cast in Northern Exposure as storekeeper Ruth-Anne Miller, who was supposed to appear intermittently on the show. The character was popular, though, and started appearing more frequently until she finally became a series regular, scoring an Emmy nomination in 1993.
After that, she popped up on some of the TV staples of the 1990s: Suddenly Susan, Touched by an Angel, and 7th Heaven, where she played Mrs. Hinkle in multiple episodes. She even did an episode of ER, and had an uncredited role in the Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire.
A lifelong smoker who took up the habit at 13, Phillips died of lung cancer at age 84, but spent the last happy years of her life as the founder and artistic director of the Woodinville Repertory Theatre.
Fun fact: Like co-star Cynthia Geary, Phillips also did a movie with the Olsen twins! She played their godmother in the made-for-TV movie How The West Was Fun.
When the show wrapped in 1995, the cast as well as the audience knew that the timing was about right. The ratings had slipped and the show had lost its voice to some degree, and although the sixth season was generally seen as a disaster, nothing could tarnish the image of the first five. We’ll let DJ Chris Stevens have the final word:
“I’m gonna make a toast, to those of us who give their all and fall flat on their face. I mean, what’d they say? It’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all? And if they didn’t say that, they should’ve.”