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Steven Culp went from Beach to Wisteria Lane

(c) Virginian-Pilot

April 1, 2005

By Larry Bonko

AH, THE magic of a prime-time soap. It transformed First Colonial High School graduate Steven Culp from a relatively anonymous character actor into a star.

He's been on the cover of TV Guide. "The sexy men of 'Desperate Housewives.'"

That's our Steven Culp.

Perhaps you were in Culp's graduating class at First Colonial in 1974. Maybe you lost touch. Been wondering what became of the guy with the good looks and the smarts who liked plunking on his guitar, who talked of being a writer?

He developed into a first-rate actor who's appeared on Broadway opposite Annette Bening in "Coastal Disturbances," played Robert F. Kennedy in the movies ("Thirteen Days") and on HBO ("Norma Jean and Marilyn") and has been working steadily in television for years.

Culp had continuing roles in four prime-time series in 2004 - four! - plus a guest appearance on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Last season, he was CIA agent Clayton Webb on "JAG," House speaker Jeff Haffley on "The West Wing," Maj. Hayes on "Star Trek: Enterprise" and medical student Dave Spencer (he romanced Dr. Elizabeth Corday) on "ER."

And, get this: Two of his characters, Webb and Hayes, were killed off in the same week.

Before Culp could begin to miss those two paychecks, he was cast in "Desperate Housewives," the Sunday soap with more dirty laundry than a college freshman's dorm room.

"Desperate Housewives" helped pull ABC out of the pits this season. It averages 22.6 million viewers, many of whom probably recognized Culp as that guy from "JAG" or "The West Wing" but couldn't put a name to the face until he became Rex Van De Kamp.

"It gradually happened that I became this very busy character actor," Culp said from the show's set on Wisteria Lane.

Would you believe that Culp almost turned down the role on "Desperate Housewives"? Almost blew off the audition?

"I'm very picky about what roles I take. I hesitated about auditioning for 'Desperate Housewives' because when I read the first script, I saw that the focus was on the women. I didn't feel that I would be comfortable in the role of Rex. I didn't feel good about the role. I said to myself, 'This guy sure is confused.' It's not where I want to go."

His agent and the producers convinced him that he should reconsider, reminding him of the high quality of the scripts and the classy cast assembled in the sexy suburbs. And there was the potential for becoming universally famous as the husband of neat freak Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross).

The role turned out to be a hoot when the writers revealed that Rex had cheated on his wife while waiting for a divorce, indulging in sado-masochism practiced by Maisy Gibbons (Sharon Lawrence). The cops nailed her for prostitution and bagged her little black book with the names of her clients in it. Rex's name is in there.

Remember when Maisy dug her high heels into his back while he lay face down on the floor of her bedroom? The scene was a scream.

"I do get my share of comedy," Culp said.

Yes, indeed. At times, he sounds like he's doing a set at The Comedy Store.

Rex to Bree: "I'm sick of you being so damn perfect all the time. I'm sick of the bizarre way that your hair doesn't move. I'm sick of you making the bed in the morning before I even get to use the bathroom."

Said Culp: "The thing that I love about Rex and Bree is that the writers give them the latitude to evolve from intense drama to comedy."

And how.

Rex has had his share of woe. He's been ill from the onions that Bree put in his salad. Didn't she know that he is allergic to them? Rex had a heart attack while romping with Maisy, and there is reason to believe that the pharmacist who has the hots for Bree is slipping who knows what into Rex's pills.

Rex said he's been feeling sluggish lately.

He turned pale when he learned about Maisy's little black book.

"We're only a couple of scripts ahead, so I have no idea what, if any, new secrets about Rex and Bree are about to be revealed," Culp said.

"But keep your eye on the pharmacist . "

Culp, a native of La Jolla Calif., said he has fond memories of Virginia Beach. He has two sisters who continue to live in Virginia. The Culps are a Navy family.

Doug Thompson, who attended First Colonial when Culp did, said he's not surprised that success has found his former classmate because he "worked hard for it." The two stay in touch.

After graduating from First Colonial, Culp majored in English literature at the College of William & Mary - "That's where I first fell in with a company of actors" - and then continued his education in England and later at Brandeis University.

His first job on television: Playing a psycho on "Another World."

The role of Clayton Webb on "JAG," on which he started in 1997, was his prime-time breakthrough. Soon after that, he was all over the dial.

Other actors beg for work. Culp's been busier than a three-fingered pickpocket.

"I have a very good manager." Obviously.

Culp is married to costume designer Barbara Ayers. They're the parents of twins.

With the success of "Desperate Housewives," Culp has been asked to do print and TV interviews and magazine cover shoots. He's strolled down the red carpets that lead to the awards shows. He's loving it.

"I never expected so much attention."

About that success, why is TV America nuts about the adventures of Bree, Edie, Lynette, Susan, Gabrielle and the men who love them?

No big mystery, said Culp. "We're doing a very entertaining show."

Might there be a spinoff featuring the desperate husbands?

"If there is, we could call it 'Rex in the City.' "


"Desperate Housewives," 9 p.m. Sundays on ABC.

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