Things seem to be back to normal in Cicely, Alaska--or at least as normal as it can get in the fictional outback town that is the setting for the quirky CBS hit “Northern Exposure.”
The owls are hooting, the moose is walking through town and Chris-in-the-morning, the philosophical radio deejay, is back on the mike spouting his metaphysical sayings to the oddball residents.
But perhaps more important, the doctor is in--although it looked for a while as if he might be out for a long time.
Rob Morrow, who was just nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Joel Fleischman, the yuppie New York doctor reluctantly spending his residency in Cicely in return for the financing of his education, said last week that he is “happily” back at work on episodes for the fall season after resolving a contract dispute with Universal Television and CBS.
News stories reported that he was seeking to increase his salary of about $20,000 per episode to $45,000 and that he staged a 12-day strike when his demands were not met. Universal filed a breach-of-contract suit against him, and rumors that he might be replaced began circulating.
Saying he was stung by the “erroneous” reports, Morrow made a house call to Los Angeles late last week from the show’s Washington state location to counter the perception that he was greedy and unappreciative about a show that turned him from a struggling unknown into a star.
He also said he received support from his co-stars and that the dispute has not resulted in any tensions on the set.
“I would say about 75% of what was reported was erroneous in terms of figures and requests,” Morrow said as he munched a pepper-laden salad near the pool of the St. James Club in West Hollywood.
“I mean, I didn’t miss one single day of work. Not a minute. I was characterized as someone who was not grateful or was biting the hand, which was so off the mark. There were many extenuating circumstances.”
Morrow and officials for Universal and CBS have refused to discuss specifics of the settlement, or how much of a raise Morrow received, but Morrow said all parties are pleased.
But when asked if he had been prepared to leave the show if no agreement could be reached, Morrow paused.
“I don’t know if I should talk about it,” he said quietly. He said that he never told the studio he would walk out but that “the inference that I was very serious was there. I guess that was implied through my attorneys.”
In Morrow’s case, the situation was difficult for producers and the studios because of the nature of the show. When the series started out, it was largely about Fleischman and his “fish-out-of-water” predicament. But it has evolved into more of a ensemble drama, although Morrow remained an important part of the ensemble.
“If Rob had not reported back to work, it would have created production problems,” said co-executive producer Joshua Brand. “I was distressed professionally and personally. I do think the series could have survived without Rob, just as it could survive without me or other people here. It’s not a single-lead show. But I wasn’t hoping to find out if I was right or wrong.”
As he discussed his dispute, Morrow seemed to have left his days as a struggling New York-based actor far behind him. He also appeared to be the complete opposite of Fleischman. His outfit, from his small-brimmed fedora to his intricate leather sandals, was black. His left ear was adorned with two earrings--one dangling, one a diamond stud.
Only a few years ago, Morrow probably would not have been seen inside the swanky St. James Club. His biggest credits before “Northern Exposure” were a Johnny Depp film, “Private Resort,” and a role in the 1988-89 NBC series “Tattingers.” He was deeply in debt and unable to make ends meet as an actor, but agreed to lower his asking price when he was offered “Northern Exposure.” He said he made a long-term commitment because of his belief in the series.
Explaining why he took such a hard line soon after the turning point of his career, he said, “You have to look at the whole history of television, you have to look at the nature of a television contract, what the life of an actor is like as far as the uncertainty. You have to look at where I was when I made the contract.”
In addition, he said, he is so closely identified by the public with Fleischman that he may have difficulty getting work for a while after the series comes to an end.
Most of all, Morrow insisted, he felt he had to renegotiate a contract that he considered something of a “Faustian pact” that he made when he was first offered the show, which premiered in 1990.
“Everyone entered into the show with the sense of taking a personal risk,” Morrow said. “I believe in that. I really strongly believe in sacrifice and in being a team player. If you believe in something and it hits, you get rewarded in the back end. If it doesn’t, that’s life.”
He added: “This wasn’t a case of an actor saying, ‘I’m a big star now, the show’s a hit, give me whatever I want.’ It was not about that. I just wanted to be brought up to at least the low side of someone who does what I do. I’m nowhere near the excessive level. Not even close.”
He argued that his salary should not be considered out of context from the rest of his career.
“If you amortize what I’ve made over the last 11 years, the figure is not all that impressive,” Morrow said. “Plus now I have agents, I have publicists, I have accountants. I have, like, a company. That’s easily 20% off the top.”
Morrow noted that he still receives less than many television stars: “There are performers who get $100,000 to $600,000 per episode, and they work less of a workweek than I do.”
Mark-Linn Baker and Bronson Pinchot of ABC’s “Perfect Strangers” make about $70,000 per episode. Ted Danson of NBC’s “Cheers” reportedly makes about $250,000 per episode. In 1985, it was reported that Gavin MacLeod was making about $58,000 an episode for “The Love Boat” while John Forsythe of “Dynasty” was making roughly $62,500 per episode. At the high end, Tom Selleck was making about $200,000 for an episode of “Magnum, P.I.”
Morrow is just the latest in a long line of celebrities who became stars in a successful series and then demanded more money. Some have gotten their way while others have been removed from the show, a fate that reportedly faced Morrow.
At the same time that Morrow was asking for more money, Michael Chiklis, star of ABC’s “The Commish,” was also threatening to walk off his show if his salary were not raised. He reportedly withdrew his demand when officials threatened to take the show off the air.
Brand said that he spoke to Morrow briefly only when it looked as though there would be an impasse in the bitter dispute.
“I just wanted to tell him that whatever happened, I thought it would be hurtful for the show,” Brand said. “But I told him, not as a producer, but as a friend, that I thought it would be unfortunate for him, and that several years from now, he would question whether he was happy that he left the show.”
So far, the controversy does not seem to have affected the atmosphere on the set between cast members, Brand said.
Janine Turner, who portrays Maggie, an independent bush pilot who is reluctantly attracted to Fleischman, said, “I feel that Rob and I have a respectful and rewarding relationship together. . . . We all have a lovely ensemble family bond and chemistry. I would hate to see that messed up. As far as I’m concerned, this will not strain things.”
Morrow said that he didn’t sense misgivings on the first day of shooting. “I think people are supportive. I think we’re all in the same boat up here. They benefited from me taking a stand.”
Right now, Morrow just wants the episode to blow over.
“I’m just someone who loves to act; I hope people like my work. I feel really fortunate to be making a living at what I chose, and I hope that’s how people think of me.”