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Prime Timer

(c) The Star-Ledger

February 25, 2004

By Alan Sepinwall

STEVEN CULP has one of those faces, handsome but just a little bland, that lets him blend into any crowd and disappear into any role without great difficulty. He could be a politician, or a schoolteacher, or a secret agent, or even a soldier from the future, and seem plausible as any of them.

In fact, he's been all four of those things this season, with one of the busiest, most versatile years prime-time television's seen in a while.

While certain actors will pop up in guest-starring roles in a number of shows in a single season, it's rare to see a performer have more than one recurring part at the same time. This season, Culp has had four: CIA agent Clayton Webb on "JAG," military expert Major Hayes on "Star Trek: Enterprise," Republican Speaker of the House Jeff Haffley on "The West Wing," and now schoolteacher Dave Spencer, a potential love interest for Dr. Corday on "ER." (He appeared briefly three weeks ago, and returns in tomorrow's episode at 10 p.m. on Ch. 4.) He almost had a fifth semiregular role on "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," but the show was canceled before he had the chance to continue with it.

Culp's crowded schedule isn't quite Deion Sanders playing in a baseball playoff game and NFL contest on the same day, but it's close, especially since he's done other one-shot work in between the recurring parts.

"There was one point where I was doing an episode of 'Lyon's Den,' and we did a location shoot on the Paramount back lot that went until 3 or 4 in the morning," he recalls, "and I was back on that lot at 9 a.m. to continue this episode of 'Enterprise' that I'd already started. On the last 'ER' I did, it was a little tense at 'Enterprise' because we were trying to finish this stuff to get both shows done on schedule."

Obviously, playing different roles is part of the job description for any actor, but Culp has had to push himself to keep track of all the identities he's worn in such a short period.

"It's challenging," he says, "but if you prepare whenever you can grab the time, by the time you show up on set you can easily click into it. I have 2-year-old twins now, so I find in a way that's made me more focused and organized, so when I have stuff coming up I secrete myself and prepare with the scripts."

"There's something about Steven that he really does commit himself so fully to those characters," says "ER" producer Bruce Miller. "I don't think of him as anything other than who he is on our show; when I see him on 'The West Wing,' I think of him as that guy."

Culp does occasionally let different lines on his r?m?leed together. When he was cast to play Haffley, the new conservative antagonist for the Bartlet administration, he drew back on his time playing RFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis film "13 Days."

"It's so easy to make those Republican characters on 'West Wing' cold and bloodless, and I really wanted (Haffley) to be the idealistic young firebrand of the right. I was looking at it as a combo of Newt Gingrich, Ralph Reed and Bobby Kennedy ."

While Culp has auditioned over the years for regular parts in series pilots, he's not sure he wants that kind of commitment. He's been with "JAG" since it moved to CBS seven years ago, and at one point his agent asked if he wanted to push for a permanent role on the show. Culp said he preferred to remain a free agent.

"This is the best gig," he explains. "I do a certain number (of episodes) a year, it's fun, it's a nice job to have in my back pocket, and it enables me to go out and do things like '13 Days' that I couldn't do if I were tied to 'JAG every week."

He doesn't know if or when he'll be back on "West Wing," which shoots on the same backlot (and shares producer John Wells ) with "ER." But his newest job often reminds him of that one.

"When I was on the 'ER' set, (producer) Jonathan Kaplan kept calling me 'Mr. Speaker.'"
For the record

Friday, February 27, 2004

And furthermore ... Fans of Steven Culp wrote to thank Alan for his profile of the busy actor ("JAG," "West Wing," "ER," "Enterprise"), though all seemed to have the same minor complaint about his description. As Denise Vanneman of Glassboro put it, "'Bland'? I think not."

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