Faked Alaska

CBS's offbeat Northern Exposure has captivated viewers -- and taken over the little town of Roslyn, Washington.

From the People Magazine, November 18, 1991 • A Jason-K Exclusive!

by TOM GLIATTO TOM CUNNEFF and NICK GALLO in Roslyn

A lot of people are looking for a place like Roslyn,'' says Jerry Morris, who runs the only barbershop in this Washington town (pop.986) in the piney foothills of the Cascade Mountains. ''We've got lakes and clean air and Bambi.''

The 46-year-old Morris, who charges $6 per cut ($5 for kids and senior citizens), has never had to go looking. He was born and raised here. He was here when the last operating coal mine -- it was coal that put the town on the map in 1886 -- shut down for good in 1963. He witnessed the decline of the lumber industry. And he has seen the coming of Northern Exposure.

Roslyn, Wash., plays Cicely, Alaska, in the hit CBS comedy about an edgy New York City doctor, Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), transplanted to a northwestern community that is sweetly easygoing and not so much sleepy as dreamy -- occasionally even surreal. The show, a weekly hour of genial whimsy, instantly captivated critics (The Washington Post's Tom Shales called it ''one of those lighter-than-air vehicles that sails blissfully over the treetops'') when it debuted in July 1990, and gradually won over viewers when 13 episodes were rebroadcast last summer. Already it has matched the cult appeal of another quirky northwest product, the late Twin Peaks.

With its first regular season this fall, Exposure may have lost a little of its critical luster -- there have been complaints that there's a little too much self-conscious baloney in this Brigadoon -- but it remains happily in the Top 20 in the Nielsen ratings.

And Cicely remains blithely off-kilter. This is a town (pop. 840) where everyone can quote a line or two of Jung, Whitman and Shakespeare; where station KBHR's lanky, borderline-Zen disc jockey, Chris Stevens (John Corbett), may one week give off a musk that drives women wild; where bush pilot Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) thinks her dead boyfriend may have been reincarnated as a dog; where a young, amiably shaggy teenager named Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows) is positively encyclopedic about Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen; where the menfolk, after being cooped up during the cold winter months, shed their clothes and make a mad dash through town at the arrival of spring.

That streaking day was one of the few times Mayor Jack Denning -- who certainly appreciates the estimated $3,000 the production brings to Roslyn with each day of shooting -- wondered if his burg was getting bad exposure. ''The show has got to remember,'' says Denning, 53, ''they're guests in this town.''

Denning was not one of 136 residents who -- exasperated at parking restrictions, truckloads of snow and total strangers giving them directions on how to behave during shooting, which continues through April -- recently signed a petition asking Exposure to, in effect, check out. ''It feels like we're under siege,'' says Lea Beardsley, 35, co-owner of the Roslyn Brewing Company and the one who started the petition. For now, Denning has forged an uneasy truce by asking that the producers publicly post filming schedules.

Morris, for one, thinks having a show on location is ''exciting as hell.'' In fact he earns $50 a day when he's used as an extra. But even he doesn't quite know why eccentric Cicely has come to Roslyn.

The local color, he says, isn't really so colorful. ''We've got retired miners sitting around a coffee shop,'' Morris says, ''but none of them are all that crazy.''

The series' creators, Joshua Brand and John Falsey (St. Elsewhere and I'll Fly Away), initially toyed with the idea of a sort of Southern Exposure, set in the Louisiana bayou, but decided it didn't have the right kind of exoticism. Beyond geography, what they were looking for was ''an innocence, a sense of wonder,'' says Falsey.

After a three-week search, they settled on Roslyn, which is convenient to Seattle (an hour and a half by car) and boasts a compact, folksy downtown with a post office, a tavern and a bank that, legend has it, was robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's gang in 1892. (Most of the show's interiors are filmed in Redmond, an hour away.) Antlers were added to a few storefronts and totem poles propped up at a few street corners. An ''apostrophe s'' was stuck on the big sign for Roslyn Cafe, rendering it ''Roslyn's.'' (In the show's lore, Cicely was founded by Roslyn and her lesbian lover, for whom the town's name is a tribute. The real Roslyn ((Wash.)) was named for Roslyn, N.Y. -- hometown of the girlfriend of Logan Bullitt, vice president of the Northern Pacific Coal Co.)

The result of this mini-makeover was a drawing card for fans, who have swelled Cicely/Roslyn tourism from an estimated 5,000 per year to 15,000. Janine Turner, eating a grilled-cheese at the cafe, smiles for a tourist's video camera. ''Things sure are picking up,'' says Turner, 28. They've certainly picked up for the former Wilhelmina model, bit player on Dallas and Alec Baldwin's onetime fiancee (she has also been squired by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sly Stallone).

''Every day, I say I'm happy I don't have to work in New York or L.A.,'' says Turner, who grew up in Fort Worth and now rents a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Kirkland (most of the cast live within 15 minutes or so from the show's Redmond studios). ''I can lead a civilized life here. I can breathe clean air and I have a horse,'' named Maggie (no, not named for her character), which she keeps in a stable in Kirkland.

After a while the show's stars even seem to start talking like Cicelians -- more or less to the point but never quite on the beam. ''You can make a lot of money and become famous,'' says Kansas-raised Darren E. Burrows, 25, who plays wide-eyed Native American cineaste Ed Chigliak. (Burrows is part Cherokee and Apache; he dyes his blond hair for the part.) ''But to me the important thing is still whether your mashed potatoes have lumps in them.''

John Cullum (tavern owner Holling Vincoeur) could almost see putting down roots in Washington State, even though his wife, Emily Frankel, is back in their Malibu log cabin, working on a novel. ''I'm more at home here than anyplace,'' says the actor, who won Tonys in the Broadway musicals Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century. ''I didn't think that would happen.''

Then again, did he ever think he'd be playing the rapidly thawing winter half of a December-May romance with a waitress and former Miss Northwest Passage named Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary)? ''I've been out of my trousers more in the last six months than in the last 50 years,'' says Cullum, 61.

At least he's not being smelled. Since the musk episode, ''women come up and sniff me,'' says John Corbett, 30, who plays deejay Chris Stevens and is rapidly becoming the thinking woman's Luke Perry. Corbett, who has never been married, can understand why fans might confuse him with Chris: He doesn't stray too far from himself for the part. Those Hopi rings Chris wears while quoting Nietzsche in the sound booth are Corbett's. So are the silver hoop in the left ear and the dusty jeans.

Unlike Chris, though, he doesn't have a passion for the great thinkers. ''I've only completed about five books in my life,'' says Corbett, who hails from Wheeling, W.Va., and made his mark in TV commercials (including one for Michelob).

Elaine Miles made her mark much more directly. In May 1990, Miles drove her mother, Armenia, down from Seattle to audition for the role of Marilyn Whirlwind, Dr. Fleischman's Native American assistant. Instead, Miles herself ! attracted the producers' attention. ''They liked my long hair,'' jokes the solemnly round-faced, 4 ft.11 in. Miles, who's in her 30s, is half Cayuse and half Nez Perce and previously worked mostly in clerical jobs. She still lives with her parents in Seattle and on weekends drives her mother -- ''my best friend'' -- to traditional Indian dances. Now she can afford to provide the purse at those dances -- $3,000 for a recent men's competition in Seattle.

So far, war dances have been largely absent on the set. ''There aren't any temperaments around here,'' says 51-year-old character actor Barry (WarGames) Corbin, although Darren Burrows got sore when a crew member surprised him with a birthday cake, and Corbin himself admits, ''I raise hell when the producers try to turn me into tapioca and tone down my character.'' But the man who portrays bearish former astronaut Maurice Minnifield knows when to play pudding. ''I've been asked if I'm the father figure around here,'' says the real-life father of three. ''People do talk to me a lot. I imagine that's because I don't give 'em any advice.''

Actually, Pop, the kids don't hang out as much as back in the fledgling, pre-hit days. ''Before, we all lived in the same apartment complex,'' says Cynthia Geary, 26, who plays Shelly the waitress. Geary, who rents a place on the water in Kirkland, has a May-May kind of relationship with Los Angeles real estate developer Robert Coron, 29. ''My family would freak out if I dated anyone older than my father,'' she says.

If anyone seems to be feeling older than his age in this enchanted village, it's 29-year-old Rob Morrow. ''It's like having a test at school every day,'' says Morrow. That's because his character, Dr. Joel Fleischman, is the show's focal point, and Morrow has the additional stress of wondering what will happen to his onscreen persona (not to mention the show's ratings) when the combatively flirtatious Joel and Maggie finally consummate their relationship.(It's inevitable, he says, but probably not this season.)

But Morrow does miss New York City (he has had fresh bagels overnighted from Manhattan), where he shares a brownstone with his girlfriend, theatrical producer Leslie Urdang. And the inveterate New Yorker empathizes with locals who feel put out by the series' presence. ''If you lived in a little town and had people taking it over,'' he says, ''you'd be a little peeved too.'' On the other hand, ''I'm sure the show is giving a big profit to that pizza place when we order 80 pizzas.''

But pizza is not inner peace. Merrily Lewis, a 37-year-old mother of two who has lived in Roslyn for 15 years (and has even been an extra on the show), feels that her town, like a small, woodsy Atlantis, is lost. ''Roslyn's been discovered,'' says Lewis. ''I'm ready to find another Cicely.''


Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Created 2/12/02
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