William Bell Sullivan fondly recalls villain role

MAKING GOOD OF BEING BAD

June 03, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

Sometimes bad guys have more fun.

At least that's what Baltimore-born actor William Bell Sullivan learned after playing the villainous Gary Swanson in the CBS daytime serial, "The Guiding Light."

"The role is a blast, a lot of fun," says Mr. Sullivan, who was in town this weekend to take part in a benefit for his alma mater, Grace and St. Peter's School. "Gary Swanson is one of those characters whose popularity I've never really understood because he's so bad. But I think I've added such a strong element of humanity and love to his villainy that people understand his character. They like him that way and they support him -- 'Yeh, go get 'em, Gary.'

"I've gotten an incredible amount of fan mail, and I'm still getting letters."

Fans still dote on the character even though Mr. Sullivan left the show six months ago, when the story line had the conniving Swanson thrown into the slammer for his misdeeds. In reality, the change was made to give the writing staff time to feel their way into the story, perhaps to change direction.

For Mr. Sullivan, who had been on the show for 18 months, this afforded a breather from a demanding five-days-a-week schedule, often stretching out to 15 hours a day, and a chance to evaluate other career possibilities.

"It was done amicably," he says of the separation, "and the door was left open for me to come back if the fans support that."

Mr. Sullivan is relaxing in the living room of the Riderwood home of his grandmother, Evelyn Stevens, as he discusses the ins and outs of show business. He routinely makes the trip from his home in New York to Baltimore to visit friends and relatives, and returned here Friday and Saturday to be the featured guest at a fund-raiser for Grace and St. Peter's, the church-affiliated Episcopal day school he had attended through the sixth grade before he and his family moved to Michigan.

He declines to give his age for professional reasons, saying the mystery enables him to play the roles of men between 25 and 35 years of age. On this day, he is wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt over a 6-foot-1 athletic frame, kept trim by jogging and working out.

His good looks partly explain the thousand or more fan letters Mr. Sullivan receives each month, often accompanied by mementos from admirers, from snapshots to uplifting books to panties. Women occasionally propose marriage, and at least two young mothers have named their sons after the soap opera star.

He conscientiously answers each of the many letters with a brief note. The task eventually became so daunting that his mother, who lives in West Bloomfield, Mich., volunteered to organize the William Bell Sullivan Fan Club and serves as president. Dues are $19 a year, of which $5 goes to a charity designated by the fan.

Members receive a newsletter four times a year, along with a signed autograph and a personal birthday card from Mr. Sullivan. Members are also eligible for a monthly drawing for a phone call from the bachelor actor.

While all this requires a lot of time and effort, Mr. Sullivan feels it's little enough to give back for his success.

"I believe in my fans," he declares. "Without them, I'd be absolutely nothing as an actor."

Since Mr. Sullivan first stood on stage at Grace and St. Peter's as a preteen, portraying a cherry tree in a school musical, he's played a variety of parts. Over the years he's been everything from romantic lead to loony to manipulative liar. This versatility has earned him roles in such movies as "The Hunt for Red October," along with appearances on leading TV shows, such as "Designing Women" and "Another World." He last appeared on stage off-Broadway in New York in "The Runner Stumbles."

From his earliest days, Mr. Sullivan wanted to be an actor. While studying theater and psychology at Northern Michigan University, he won $10,000 in the lottery, dropped out of school and headed for Los Angeles to pursue his destiny.

"It was my calling, my purpose, my vehicle to do what I needed to do," he says of acting. "I never questioned it, never planned it, never calculated. Of course, it didn't happen by itself. I had to work at it, and I still do, fine-tuning it."

He feels the years he spent as a pupil at Grace and St. Peter's helped to provide him with the values and determination needed to realize his dream.

"When I think who I am and what I've become, I have to credit not only my family but Grace and St. Peter's," he says. "The school set a firm foundation for me on a social, religious and academic level."

That moral sensibility prompted even a TV bad guy to recoil from causing harm. Once on "Guiding Light," the script called for Gary Swanson to beat up a woman. Mr. Sullivan felt the violence was gratuitous and unwarranted by the story. He vigorously protested the part and the script was changed.

"I didn't want to act as an advocate of abuse," he says. "That's a social disservice I would never promote."

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