Is it real or is it 'Northern Exposure'?


July 29, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- The quirky, wonderful world that is "Northern Exposure" seems to exist as much behind the scenes of this CBS show as in front of the cameras.

For one, there's the odd what's-real-and-what's-not? relationship between the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, and the real town of Bellevue, Wash., where the series is filmed.

John Corbett, who plays the eclectic disc jockey Chris Steven, struggled to put the odd appearance/reality dichotomy into words at a press conference here.

"In Hollywood, you go to Universal Studios and there's 'Leave it to Beaver's' house, but 'The Munsters' house is next door," Corbett said.

"But this town is exactly how it looks on film. We don't even sweep the streets. It looks just like it looks." Corbett said that it is strange to watch the show on Monday nights and see this lack of artifice.

"The radio station, the bar, the doctor's office, everything, it's just right there in town. Extras show up, wear whatever it is they're wearing, walk down the street of Cicely, then get in their trucks that are parked in Bellevue and go do whatever they do.

"If I'm having trouble explaining it, it's because it's strange. It's almost like 'The Twilight Zone.'"

The story of Elaine Miles could have been an episode of that series. She plays Marilyn, the Native American who showed up as Dr. Joel Fleichsman's assistant when the young medical school graduate reluctantly took on the post of town doctor in this Alaskan outback burg.

Miles got her job in similarly offbeat circumstances. She had never done any acting, not even high school plays.

Her employment history was long and checkered, including a stint at McDonald's during high school that only lasted a few hours because she couldn't keep up the heavy demand for the milkshake machine.

She was a secretary for the Salvation Army and the YWCA, didn't get into an Indian college, flunked out of a secretarial school in Seattle, got a job with the National Park Service in Astoria, Ore.

"But that was a seasonal job, and that was like 10 years ago," she said. "I was, like, a little homebody. I was home all the time. We used to go to powwows. I'm a Women's Northern Buckskin traditional dancer and I used to compete in contests and win and travel all over the country. That's about all we did."

Then she drove her mother to Seattle to audition for the part of Marilyn. The producers had sent word that they were looking for an Indian woman between 35 and 65.

Her mother and the casting director talked Elaine into trying out. She and her mother both made the top four, auditioned for the producers and Elaine was chosen over her mother.

"She was very happy that I got the part because it is a demanding job and my mom's got a lot of other things to do," Miles said. Her mother did appear on "Northern Exposure" as the medicine man's wife in the second episode last spring.

"It was a big adjustment for me because it all happened in, like, four days. The first day on the set, I was like a little kid in a candy store because I was working with all these people I've seen on TV and in the movies," she said. "And now I'm one of them."

Miles didn't hesitate when asked what was the biggest change that came about due to her new stardom.

"The money! The money changed everything," she said. "When I got my first check, I could not believe it. I mean I thought there was a typo or something. I think the most I ever made was minimum wage, so getting this check was something else."

The lady at the local bank -- "Her name is Glenda, she's seen me grown up'' -- talked Miles out of cashing most of the check and spending the money immediately.

Instead, Glenda said that Elaine should open a checking account. "I looked at her and went 'You mean I can have a checking account?' I had never had a checking account, I had never made that kind of money.

"So it was fun. She gave me my first checkbook, and the first thing I did was to go to the biggest mall in Seattle. I hit all the stores there and said, 'Can I write a check?'"

Eventually, she said, she saved some money to take her family to the Indian National Finals rodeo in Albuquerque, N.M.

"I told Mom, 'I'm saving my money. We're going to Albuquerque and I'm buying Albuquerque.' And I did. I think I blew, like, 4,000 bucks in four days."

Cicely, Alaska, seems like the perfect place to nurture such a naif. Martin Brustle, the associate producer of the show, said that he feels the wide range of selections mirrors the kind of town Cicely is.

"When they talk about Cicely being a state of mind, I think of it as a non-judgmental world, a place where all types, from an ex-astronaut to a woman bush pilot, can join together and have their own freedom of choices," he said.

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