On the evening of October 4, 1990, the FOX network aired the pilot episode of a show that would, over the course of its ten seasons and 296 episodes, expose viewers to a world of glitz and glamour while simultaneously redefining the concept of the modern serial drama. Beverly Hills, 90210 was the brainchild of acclaimed producers Aaron Spelling, Darren Star and Charles Rosin, and this week on Ten Minute Interviews, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the iconic show’s debut.
It is impossible to compile a list of the best TV fathers of all time without mentioning Jim Walsh, the father of twins Brandon and Brenda. Portrayed by veteran actor James Eckhouse, Jim Walsh — along with his on-screen wife Cindy — served as a strong guiding force for his children, helping them adjust to their new life in California while also helping Brandon, Brenda and their circle of friends navigate the inevitable pitfalls of their adolescent years. Though a job promotion forced Jim and Cindy to move to Hong Kong at the end of season five, they would return to Beverly Hills for brief visits in later seasons.
James Eckhouse has had a varied and distinguished career as an actor and director in film, television, and theater for over 35 years. Prior to his role on Beverly Hills, 90210, Eckhouse attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied physics and biology before receiving a BFA in Drama from the Juilliard School in New York City. Upon moving to Los Angeles, had small roles in films such as Trading Places, Fatal Attraction and Cocktail. He was a regular on 90210 from the pilot episode until 1995, and directed three episodes during seasons four and five. Since his departure from the show, he has appeared in numerous series including Days of Our Lives, The Good Wife, Las Vegas and CSI. In addition, he appeared as Senator Boynton in the 2012 Marvel Comics blockbuster The Avengers, and he stars in three upcoming films: The Boy on The Train, a Hungarian ‘dramedy’ shot in Budapest; Murder of The President, about the assassination of James Garfield for PBS; and Dead Awake, a psychological thriller.
Eckhouse lives with his wife, Keliher Walsh, in Los Angeles. They have two grown sons, Zander and Gabe.
What initially inspired you to pursue acting?
I had been a theater nut in high school but never considered that one (or particularly, me) could actually make a living at it. So I went off to college in Cambridge studying physics, thinking I would be a scientist.
The Acting Company was on tour in Boston during my second year. They were doing a beautiful production of Three Sisters with the first graduates of the newly-formed Juilliard School – Patty LaPone, Kevin Kline, David Ogden Stiers. I was blown away. I went through a bit of a crisis. Ended up leaving MIT and eventually made it to Juilliard studying with the same director who had directed that production of Three Sisters.
When you were first starting out as an actor, who were your biggest influences?
I grew up being an avid Marx Brothers fan. Somehow their harnessing the energy of total chaos was always insanely funny and inspiring… but in terms of acting with a capital “A”… DeNiro in Taxi Driver, seeing performances in London – Olivier, Gielgud, Tom Courtney. I loved going down and watching Philippe Petit weekends in Sheridan Square (he walked across the World Trade Centers after that). An amazing performer – insanely “present.”
Upon being cast as Jim Walsh, did you do anything special to prepare for the role?
Get used to being called “Jim” instead of “James.” Seriously, I had grown up in the Midwest. I had two kids of my own. I didn’t have to reach too far! I had a lot of friends who were business people. I spent time with them – to connect with the accountant side of him.
FOX was a fledgling network when 90210 began. What were the pros and cons of working for the network during their early years?
Well the huge “pro” was that we were given a lot more time to succeed than we would now. Jason and I used to make bets as to when they would pull the plug. We didn’t really get an audience ’til the summer. We filmed summer episodes while every other show was on hiatus. It was genius. We would have been yanked in today’s climate long before that.
During your time on Beverly Hills, 90210, did you have any favorite episodes or storylines?
Well, the show was definitely not focused on my character – and rightly so. So whenever Carol and I got to have a little storyline of our own (“17 Year Itch” episode, for example) we were both very appreciative. But that leads to the next question…
How did the opportunity to direct episodes of 90210 come about, and what did you learn from that experience?
Directing the show was the absolute high point of my time on the show. At first the producers were reluctant to have the actors direct. They didn’t want to become a Thirty Something (which is ironic – that was produced by Ed Zwick – who had hired me for a pilot and a couple of films – I went on to direct for him on Once and Again) – I had to convince them I was serious about it and was ready. I took classes at UCLA and would “observe,” as they call it, with as many directors as I could. One day a director dropped out at the last minute and they asked if I would step in. I jumped at the chance even though I had only a couple days “prep.” It was a blast. Incredible support, of course, from the crew. I was hooked!
Over the course of your career, which roles have provided the biggest challenge to you as an actor?
I just finished starring in a film over in Budapest. All Hungarian actors except for me. I was in every frame of the movie. It was a great challenge to “carry” a film, to deal with a completely foreign environment. We had a small budget – tricky to fulfill the needs of the story with very limited resources. It was exhausting, but ultimately very rewarding.
Are there any current TV shows that you particularly enjoy watching?
I can’t say I watch a lot of TV. And of course I binge watch now like everyone else when I do. I’ve enjoyed Transparent, The Honorable Woman (with Maggie Gyllenhaal), Peaky Blinders, I love Foyles War and yes, I was hooked on Downton Abbey. I’m an old fart, what do you want?
If you had to venture a guess, where is Jim Walsh now, and what is he up to?
I hope he has remarried and retired – living on a massive yacht that he sails out of Tahiti… Brandon and Brenda can come on board… occasionally…