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'Thirteen Days', Three Alums

Former William and Mary students Baker, Culp and
Esten headline film exploring the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

(c) W&M

March 1, 2001

By Jackson Sasser
Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), seated, and Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp) puzzle out part of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the film "Thirteen Days."

The last stage Dylan Baker and Steven Culp '78 shared--in school, performing Molière's "The School for Wives"--was a front-to-back farce full of "choreographed crashing doors, falling down, getting beaten," recalls Jerry Bledsoe, director and professor of theatre, speech and dance.

Boy, have they grown up.

Baker and Culp reunited in the recent motion picture "Thirteen Days," a production as different from their prior engagement as their 1600s and 1960s settings. A dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film tracks the two-week period in October 1962 when much of the world waited for nuclear war. Baker, who attended William and Mary for three years before transferring to Southern Methodist University, plays Secretary of Defense nd Culp portrays Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Charles Esten (Puskar) '87 rounds Robert McNamara, aout the alumni among the cast as Maj. Rudolph Anderson.

When United States U-2 spy planes captured, on film, Soviet-made medium range ballistic missiles during flights over Cuba, the government began a game of diplomatic red rover with the U.S.S.R. "Thirteen Days "portrays the pondering and posturing of President John F. Kennedy and his advisers largely from the perspective of Ken O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), an assistant to the president whose role is enlarged a bit for the sake of the story. According to the film, calmer Kennedy heads prevailed against hawkish military advisers who were all too ready to bomb Cuba into oblivion.

Each scene unfolds against that backdrop with a life-or-death feel, the characters all crossed arms and furrowed brows. Culp's Bobby Kennedy is perhaps the film's pivotal role--as was RFK himself the central player in the crisis--and Baker has the film's most wrenching scene. Though Chip Esten's Maj. Anderson is a smaller role, he too has a significant challenge--portraying the crisis's only American casualty.

"It was humbling to think that the way I played Maj. Anderson was the way most people will remember him," Esten said. "Even though he died so honorably, he's still a fairly anonymous character." In the film, Esten's character--a U-2 pilot--is shot down over Cuba shortly after a pep talk from Costner's Ken O'Donnell.

Steven Culp faced a challenge of a different sort when he became--in what he describes as an eerie physical transformation--Bobby Kennedy. "I spent hours watching video and moving with the film, trying to make his voice second nature," he recalled last week. "I also kept up an exercise and diet regimen to whittle myself down into this little Bobby Kennedy body. He was small and wiry in general, and in relation to JFK."

With the help of false front teeth and a bit of hair color, Culp's hard work paid off. "We were at a wardrobe fitting about two weeks before shooting started, and I looked up at this gaunt body in the white shirt rising out of these '60s flat-front suit pants, and I said 'That's him--that's the guy I've seen in the photographs and films.'"

Unlike Culp and Esten, Baker faced the challenge of playing a policy-maker who's not only still alive, but still involved in public life. "After I read his book and did a lot of research, I was ready to call him, but the producers talked me out of it," Baker said of McNamara. "He wasn't certain how he was going to be portrayed or betrayed in the film. So I didn't call him, but the other day I heard he was on CNN, and that he thought the film was well done--I guess it worked out for him."

Despite having some of the same credits--both have appeared on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "JAG," for instance--Culp and Esten met for the first time at the film's premiere party. (Esten did not have any scenes with either Baker or Culp.) "I don't remember how we got to talking about William and Mary," Esten admits. "Steven must have noticed my class ring."

All three of these men who once beat the boards at Phi Beta Kappa are stars on the rise. Each has already accrued extensive experience on stage, television and film. Culp--who portrays "JAG"'s CIA operative Clayton Webb--is currently reading for leading roles in motion pictures, while Esten is auditioning for television pilots while maintaining his guest-starring gig on "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" Baker will appear in several films to be released during the next few months.

Baker, Culp and Esten each say that the quality of the work is more important than the medium, and look forward to continuing their dynamic careers. Bledsoe, a former mentor to Baker and Culp, emphasizes that all acting begins in the theater. "I would submit to you that if you can do theater, you can do the others--they're an extension of the live performance."

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