HitFix Interview: ‘Harper’s Island’s’ deceased Sheriff speaks

06.26.09 8 years ago

Chris Helcermanas-Benge/CBS

In his 30-plus year acting career, Jim Beaver had done everything from “Dallas” to “Matlock” to “NYPD Blue” to features like “Hollywood Shuffle” and “Sister Act.” But Beaver went from steadily working jobber to in-demand character actor when he was cast as Whitney Ellsworth in HBO’s “Deadwood.”

That role, as perhaps the moral heart of a marvelously amoral show, opened the door for extended turns on programs including “Day Break,” “John From Cincinnati” and, of course, “Supernatural.” It also led the producers of CBS’ “Harper’s Island” to target him for the character of Sheriff Mills.

Since I’m writing this story, you can probably guess that Sheriff Mills came to his unfortunate end in last Saturday’s (June 20) episode, as the show’s killer yanked him through a window with a rope tied around his neck. To make matters worse, the killer offed the sheriff with his daughter Abby (Elaine Cassidy) watching, following a lengthy and tear-filled confession/conversation. 

Beaver isn’t just an actor. He’s a writer whose credits include episodes of the mid-80s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” a biography of the actor John Garfield and the memoir “Life’s That Way.” He’s also penned more than 10 plays and worked as a film critic. When the feature “Hollywoodland” needed a historical consultant on George Reeves, they turned to Beaver, who can be reached by fans through Facebook and Twitter. 

That’s a little background for why this “Harper’s Island” exit interview may be a bit longer than the usual ones. When Jim Beaver talks, you don’t really want to trim what he says. 

HitFix: First of all, how did you watch this week’s episode?

Jim Beaver: I actually watched it prior to that, because I was in Canada and watched it when it aired there. I didn’t have to wait until Saturday. I was just alone in my hotel room.

HitFix: And what have the reactions from friends and loved ones been?

JB: Oh, I get a lot of people screaming, “Nooooo!” And then there a lot of people saying, “Oh, I knew it wasn’t you.” Everybody’s an expert at it. I think a lot of people were sorry to see me go, but I’ve been advising them, by all means, not to abandon the show, partly because don’t believe everything you see. But partly because it’s a great show and you should stick around for the wrap up.

HitFix: So should I ask you if I’m supposed to believe what I saw last week?

JB: Well, you can ask. Sometimes people go away. Sometimes people come back. Sometimes they don’t. I hope that’s suitably vague.

HitFix: Oh, suitably and appropriately. So do you have any count of how many times you’ve died on-screen in your career?

JB: You know, considering how many cops and bad guys and cowboys I’ve played, probably not as many as it feels like. I can only, off-hand, think of three or four times, but I’m sure it must be more than that. There are three or four specific instances that leap out at me. 

HitFix: Which are the favorites of those?

JB: You know, when I did the death on “Deadwood,” I was not happy, so it’s hard for me to say that that was a favorite. It was a favorite job of mine and that’s why I wasn’t happy. You know, this was a pretty good one. It’s not every day you get yanked out of a window by your neck. It was kinda a fun way to go. I was happy to let the stunt guy do it, but part of me also envied him, because I thought, “That’s got to be kinda fun. As long as it’s not real.” I got killed grabbing an electric hinge once on a show and that just felt silly. There wasn’t any electricity. It was just me shaking and quivering and feeling like an idiot. It’s a lot easier to get shot or have your head half popped off.

HitFix: Did you know this gig was finite when you signed on, or were you hoping you’d make it to the end of the show?

JB: I knew the series would be finite. I didn’t know how long my character would last. I don’t think any of us really had much idea. I’ve read Richard Burgi was told he’d be out in five episodes, but other than that, I don’t think anybody knew how long they had to go. By the time Episode 10 rolled around, I really had a gut feeling that I might last all the way to the end, or close to the end, so I was a little bit surprised when they pulled the plug on The Sheriff, because by that point I thought I’d make it all the way. There was no hint or clue from the people writing and producing the show. It could have happened at any moment and, I guess, for the ones who are still on, it still can.

HitFix: Given the choice, would you have preferred to stay around to the end, or on a show like this is it better to have a great death scene?

JB: Ummm… The one with the bigger paycheck. I wouldn’t necessarily have liked to have gone all the way to the end and just been found dead of off-screen injuries or something. That wouldn’t have been interesting. And it was a terrific and emotional scene with a lot of impact, I think. So it’s 50-50. There would have been a little bit more money if I’d stuck around longer. Not a lot more. 

HitFix: As you said, the last scene was tremendously emotional and drawn out as much as it could be. Were you and Elaine [Cassidy] able to do any rehearsal beforehand?

JB: We didn’t really rehearse other than the standard blocking rehearsal. We didn’t have the kind of acting rehearsals you have on a play. We didn’t spend any time outside of the actual shooting working on the scene. And we both kept separate from each other while we were off camera. Elaine likes to listen to music. That puts her in a certain emotional place. I presume it’s music. I know before intense scenes she’s got headphones on. Maybe she’s listening to the news. Knowing her, I feel like she’s listening to mood music, as it were. I kept to myself. It was very intense. The fact that I have a daughter really impacted the way I related to Elaine and the way we played the sheriff and Abby together. I’m not sure that I would have had as much to bring to the part if I didn’t have a daughter. This is the first time I’ve ever played a scene with a daughter character of my own and I found it very rich because of my own real-life relationship with my kid. A lot of that translated both into the scene and the way I feel about Elaine Cassidy, because we’re very fond of one another. I really treasured the chance I had to work with her and to be around her. She’s a terrific person. You can’t play a scene that intensely with someone you feel that way about, without it giving a lot of depth to the scene. That was a fortunately set of circumstances and I think the scene was better for that.

HitFix: Was that relationship what drew you to the character in the first place?

JB: I didn’t know much about the character when I accepted the job. An interesting thing about the show is that they made up audition scenes that weren’t actually in the script, that never got filmed, because they were trying to keep secret what was actually in the script. I remember that the scene I auditioned with was a strong scene with Abby, but it wasn’t a scene that was ever repeated in the show and I sensed that there was some rich possibility there. But what really drew me to the role was that they wanted me to do it. That’s always a factor in my choosing to do something, that they want me.

HitFix: Well you’ve been working steadily for three decades, but does that allow you to more greatly appreciate this tremendous run you’ve had since “Deadwood”?

JB: Oh my gosh yeah. I have to confess that I’d worked frequently and with some consistency through the years, but as close as a couple weeks before getting cast in “Deadwood,” I was for the first time in my career thinking that I might have to get out of the business and do something else to make a living, because I just wasn’t working enough. I had gone many, many years thinking I’d never ever consider doing that, but I had a one-year-old and that changes a lot of your perspective about what you’re willing and not willing to do. It had occurred to me for the first time that I might actually have trouble making a living at this for much longer. Then “Deadwood” came along and changed everything and, knock on wood, it could stop tomorrow, but so far it’s been the best streak of work that I’ve ever had these past six years.

HitFix: I don’t want to say something as cliched as “imparting wisdom,” but when you’re in a cast like “Harper’s Island” with all of these kids, do they look to you for advice?

JB: If they do, they keep it pretty well disguised. There were a few times that some of the guys would, not so much look to me for advice, but they were kinda interested to hear stories about things that I’d done before. I can’t imagine any of these guys looking to me for advice or me particularly feeling like I had any to offer them. The whole cast, even the youngest ones, were all very professional and already pretty widely experienced actors. I don’t know if there’s a lot of wisdom that I could impart to them other than like, “Stick with it” or “Don’t count on today, keep your eye on tomorrow.” But that applies to anybody.

HitFix: And you mentioned before “Deadwood” possibly considering leaving the business. Had you figured out yet what you were going to do?

JB: Oh, I have no idea. That’s why it was so troubling. There aren’t a lot of things that I’m particularly good at. It’s fine to flip hamburgers and make corn chips when you’re 21, it’s a whole different thing 20 or 30 years later. I really didn’t have a good idea of what I might want to do. I just thought I might have to do something, because the kid’s gotta eat. But, as it turned out, professionally the next few years have just been amazing. It’s kinda surprising, because this isn’t a business that bestows most of its favors on people who have been around as long as I have. It helps to be 22 and gorgeous. I have a sinking suspicion that that ship has sailed.

HitFix: With the acting coming as steadily as it has, where do you find time to write?

JB: Actually, my writing has suffered these past few years, partially because I’ve been so busy acting. I don’t do nearly as much as I used to. I have a lot of projects that are gathering dust waiting for me find time to devote to them, especially because I’ve been doing so much work out of town. I’ve been spending a third of the year in Vancouver these past few years. There’s always a certain amount of downtime, I just don’t find it as easy as I used to. I still have writing projects that I intend to get to, but when I’m acting, that seems to take most of my focus. I’m a voracious reader. I’m always engaged in something. I’ve found that you tend to make time for the things you most want to do and what it seems I most want to do is act. I’ve always managed to make time for that. 

HitFix: You also find time to be available to fans, both on Facebook and on Twitter. What do those outlets do for you in terms of connecting with fans and with the public?

JB: It’s interesting. Probably like most people, I got involved in MySpace and Facebook because it was a way of keeping in touch with my friends. It’s been a lot of fun in that regard, but at some point point, I happened to mention in an interview that I was on MySpace and I started getting friend requests from fans and while I’ve got my private side and I like to keep a certain kind of insolation around my private life, at the same time it struck me as a very safe way to be more in touch with a greater variety of people. I just thought it might be kind of interesting to open the doors, rather than close them. I found it really rewarding. The one thing that’s kind of disheartening to me is that the numbers have grown so large that I can’t be in personal contact with every single person who e-mails me. I really feel bad about that. I was a fan of a lot of actors and shows when I was a kid and I know exactly what it feels like to write to someone and hope for a response. I looked this morning and I have 4100 people on my Facebook account and sometimes it feels like I hear from all of them in a day. I really wish I could be as one-on-one with everybody as I’d like to be. That’s been the real disappointment. It’s been a really rich experience hearing from fans and from people who like the work that I’m involved in and getting a sense of what it is that we do that matters to them. It’s very cool. It wasn’t something that was really available to other generations of actors. You’d get your fan mail, but if somebody sends me a Facebook message that really catches my attention or affects me emotionally, I have the option of being immediately in touch with that person. The only difficulty is keeping up with everybody. I never expected at this point in life to have anybody other than a handful of friends interested in anything I was doing, so it’s very rewarding.

HitFix: Much less to have 4100 new friends caring? 

JB: Yeah. That’s kinda a shock. It was kinda a shock when it got up to 40. It’s kinda astonishing now. Sometimes I want to grab all these people by the neck and shake them and say, “What are you, crazy? Have you looked at me?” I don’t feel as interesting as some people seem to think. The fact is, it’s really the shows I work on that have caught the attention of a lot of fans and the fact that I’ve made myself a little bit more available in this mode, which allows them to express stuff. I think it’s a neat deal. I don’t think it’s so much me. I think anybody who was playing some of these terrific characters I’d gotten to play would get the same response. So I just feel lucky that it’s me.

HitFix: Oh, I think you’re plenty interesting, but CBS might have concerns if I talked to you all afternoon. So going back to “Harper’s Island” for just a second. So who do you think is working with Wakefield? What are we going to learn in these next couple weeks?

JB: You know, I hate to be a disappointment, but frankly the whole thing is an utter mystery to me. There hasn’t been a day that I’ve been involved with the show that I’ve felt like I could make a good guess as to who’s behind it. I think that’s a real mark of admiration on my part for the writers. I’ve written mystery stories and they’re really difficult to construct in a way that makes sense and far more difficult than almost any other kind of story. And this one’s 13 hours long. The intricacies involved are just astonishing. I’ve written a lot of television, but this isn’t a show I’d want to write, because I think it would have driven me insane. I think they’ve done a great job of keeping everyone both interested and bewildered and I certainly count myself among the bewildered. Almost anything could happen now and I’d go, “Oh. Oh yeah. OK. That makes sense. I didn’t see that coming.” I can’t really hazard a guess.

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