Bill Pullman was hoping to come back to Broadway, just not exactly this way.
The film star and current U.S. president on NBC's "1600 Penn" found himself a few weeks ago frantically memorizing the script for "The Other Place" so he could replace the actor Daniel Stern. He had just five days to learn his lines.
"I've never done this before," he said at an empty lounge before a recent performance of Sharr White's play at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. "No process. Just product."
Somehow, he did it, even as he suffered through a cold. He learned the blocking in his apartment, watched Stern in two performances and had two short rehearsals with co-stars Laurie Metcalf and Zoe Perry. He then did one full show Feb. 5 behind closed doors. That night he made his debut, swallowing his coughs and his nose streaming.
What has he learned about himself through this roller coaster? "That I'm still flexible," Pullman says with a big laugh. "And you can overcome all the fear."
"The Other Place" is the story of a brilliant researcher in her early 50s who is wrestling with an unnamed neurological disease. Over the course of the play, what's real and what's not collapse in a heap.
Metcalf alternates between her two roles as coolly wry narrator and increasingly angry, confused patient. Pullman plays her trying-to-be-stoic oncologist husband, Ian.
He was at the Sundance Film Festival in late January when he got a phone call from Mandy Greenfield, artistic producer of the Manhattan Theatre Club, who asked him to check his email. She had sent the script and broke the news that Stern needed to leave the show because of family reasons.
Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the company, was elated when Pullman agreed to drop everything and come immediately to New York. "I was thrilled when his schedule finally permitted him to come work at our theater," she says. "He is an A-plus actor who brings compassion, tenderness and humanity to the role of Ian."
For Pullman, the draw of a Broadway play and the chance to work with Metcalf, whom he had admired as far back as the 1983 revival of Lanford Wilson's play "Balm in Gilead," was enticing. But there was a personal reason, too.
Pullman's father was a doctor and his mother was a former nurse who began to manifest psychiatric problems in her 40s. White's script transported Pullman back to his childhood, imagining what his father went through as a clinician forced to diagnose and treat his own wife.
"I think that was part of the hook that really made me take the part," says Pullman. "There was a moment where I was like, 'Whoa. I wonder what it would be like to walk in those shoes and put myself through that. Will I come closer to what they lived as a relationship?'"
Pullman, 59, had been sniffing around for a good Broadway part for a while, but nothing was panning out. He's hardly in need of work — in addition to being in his first ever TV series, he also recently filmed "May in the Summer" in Jordan and a short film "Indianapolis" from a Sam Shepard story. The documentary "Fruit Hunters," which features Pullman and other fruit-obsessed folks, was just shown at the Berlin Film Festival.
Movie fans know Pullman from "Ruthless People," ''Spaceballs," ''The Accidental Tourist" and "Independence Day," but the theater community knows him for David Mamet's "Oleanna" and Edward Albee's "The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?"
In Los Angeles, he's starred in new plays by Bill Mastrosimone and Thomas Babe. Last year, he and Ed Harris headlined the world premiere of Beth Henley's darkly funny "The Jacksonian," and he hopes to bring it to Broadway next year.
Pullman's first professional gig as an actor was off-Broadway at Playwright's Horizon. It was 1985 in a play called "Life and Limb," and Pullman was an understudy who went on only for its last night.
"Everyone thought the theater should have canceled the last show," says Pullman, with a chuckle. "They didn't know who the hell I was. But it turned out to be a great night."
It comes as no surprise that he's even put his body on the line for his art. While a student at the State University of New York at Oneonta, N.Y., he was appearing in Ibsen's play "Brand" when he slipped, fell backward 15 feet and hit his head, slipping into a coma.
"Theater can kill," he jokes. "It didn't get me that time but I recognized it's potential."
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