Richard Burgi as The Sentinel's James Ellison.
Once again, I have decided to open up the interview vault and revisit some of the many interviews I have had the pleasure of writing over the years and that just appeared in-print and not on-line. In today's interview, actor Richard Burgi talks about playing the sensory-enhanced crime-fighter Lieutenant Detective James Ellison in the UPN series The Sentinel. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
In the late nineteenth century famed British explorer Richard Burton became aware of a curious phenomenon in his study of remote tribal cultures. He discovered that each tribe posted a watchman to patrol its borders, but this was no ordinary sentry. This individual was chosen because he had a unique genetic advantage over his enemies - a heightened sensory awareness beyond anything displayed by his fellow tribesmen. Sadly, Burton’s findings were not enthusiastically received by most of his peers and his research was nearly forgotten.
Although some people have a keen sense of sound or taste, no human has ever exhibited what Burton claimed to be the acute development of all five senses. In the UPN series The Sentinel, however, Lieutenant Detective James Ellison is the television equivalent of these gifted natives that the explorer met. An ex-soldier Ellison was the sole survivor of a disastrous reconnaissance mission that marooned him for eighteen months deep in the Peruvian jungle. During this time he honed the very same sensory skills developed by these tribal watchmen or sentinels. Nowadays, he uses these abilities to battle crime in the fictitious town of Cascade, Washington. Handsome actor Richard Burgi had just returned from Hawaii and working with ex-Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd on the short-lived CBS police drama One West Waikiki when he auditioned for the role of Ellison.
“I first worked with the show’s creators and executive producers Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo as a guest-star on their series The Flash and then I did a recurring role for them on Viper when it aired on NBC,” explains Burgi. “After I auditioned for The Sentinel I didn’t hear from them and the program kind of disappeared. Meanwhile I needed some time to clear my head and recharge my batteries after Hawaii, so my dog and I did a five-state tour of the California coast, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. When I got back they still hadn’t found anyone to play Ellison, so a couple of weeks later I went in and auditioned again. That afternoon I read for the network and got the job.
“One of the things that really attracted me to the series was the writing,” he continues. “The characters were clearly defined in that there were a set of parameters for each of them but at the same time there was lots of room in terms of developmental potential. Jim Ellison is a stoic, laconic, towing-the-line kind of guy who has a fairly straightforward view of right and wrong. He can also be a bit acerbic and cynical at times. Jim is sort of a throwback to the old-fashioned action heroes seen on television and in films during the sixties and seventies.”
In the show’s pilot episode Switchman, Ellison is on the trail of a serial bomber who is planning to blow up a lumber mill. While alone in the woods on a long stake-out the detective suddenly begins to suffer from symptoms that he attributes to mental stress. In fact, what he is experiencing are his burgeoning hyper-senses. When the Switchman succeeds in destroying his target Ellison blames himself and requests a leave of absence. Fortunately for him he meets anthropology graduate student Blair Sandburg (Garett Maggart), who offers the police officer an explanation for his recent feelings of uneasiness and disorientation. Ellison reluctantly agrees to let Sandburg observe him while on the job in exchange for helping him learn how to control his newfound powers.
“I think Ellison still has certain reservations about being seen in public with Sandburg,” jokes the actor. “I remember when I was a teenager I met this guy who had either been in World War II or Vietnam. He had this tremendous energy about him and an attitude of, ‘Unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve been indoctrinated, trained and broken down, I’ve got nothing to say to you.’ I can recall feeling, I think, what Sandburg must feel towards Ellison sometimes, which is that maybe he should do the right thing which is cut his long hair, go to the police academy and develop a stomach disorder. Because they’re so opposite, though, the two of them compliment each other. At first Ellison has reservations about allowing Sandburg into his private domain yet he’s someone that Ellison needs at this point. However, the more they work together the more they come to realize just how much they count on each other.”
Ellison and Blair report to Captain Simon Banks (Bruce A. Young), a veteran police officer who likes nothing more than getting out from behind his desk and taking an active role in keeping Cascade safe. Initially Banks is very reluctant to make use of Ellison’s powers but he finds them to be an invaluable resource in tackling particularly difficult and bizarre cases.
“My character is more on par with Banks in that Ellison has a military background and he definitely understands rank as well as the role Banks plays as his superior officer,” explains Burgi. “The captain is a by-the-book type of guy but he has a big heart. Because of his ethnicity he’s worked twice as hard to get to where he is and perhaps holds his people accountable twice as much as other captains because of his high ethics and standards. He’s a valued individual and I mean this about Bruce Young the actor as well. He and Garett are two of my favorite people. They bring their characters to life with a wonderful blend of spontaneity, humor and compassion.”
In The Sentinel’s three seasons on the air Ellison and Blair have faced an elusive serial killer who adopts the identity of his victims (Cypher), prevented the distribution of a deadly new “designer” drug (Blind Man’s Bluff) and stopped a poaching syndicate responsible for killing endangered animals (Poachers). In addition to the show’s pilot Burgi has a few other episodes he counts among his favorites.
“We did a story involving a Mafia family last year [The Inside Man] that I really enjoyed. I like The Rig which takes place on an off-shore oil rig and also Vendetta involving road rage. That one was directed by a fellow by the name of Tim Van Patten, who used to be on The White Shadow. He’s a terrific guy and a great friend. We always have a lot of laughs working together. Incidentally, it was written by a close personal friend, David Thoreau, of the Thoreau lineage. I have fun on all our episodes except that once in a while I get frustrated because I want the material to be great, all of us do. Occasionally, though, a story comes along that is less than brilliant but we still try to do our best with it.”
Last season’s Sentinel ended on a dramatic but downbeat note with the episode Sentinel Too. In it one of the show’s regular characters is left for dead and a female Sentinel named Alex, alias Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan, arrives in Cascade bringing with her a dark and disturbing secret. This past September Ryan returned to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the show is filmed, to reprise her role for its fourth-season opener.
“Jeri is a sweet lady,” says the actor. “She’s very talented and extremely professional. We lock lips a fair amount in this new episode,” he laughs. “Jeri is a real trooper and we had a lot of fun working together.”
While UPN continues its struggle to find its audience base The Sentinel has performed particularly well for the network and has developed a loyal viewer following. The first convention for the show was held in Vancouver this April and a CD soundtrack was recently released by Sonic Images. With all this support it is no wonder that Burgi and the rest of the cast and crew were taken by surprise when The Sentinel was not renewed for the 1998-1999 fall season. Happily, the network had a change of heart - greatly influenced by the fans and their massive Save The Sentinel campaign - and is bringing the series back as a mid-season replacement beginning Monday, 25 January 1999.
“I was somewhat disappointed when the network people pretty much overlooked us last season,” he continues. “The series has proven itself and it feels as though they’ve never gotten behind it for one reason or another. I was hurt and I took it personally because I looked at the show as a family that I didn’t want to break up. Of course, I experienced the usual feelings of self-doubt and failure. That just made me want to redouble the efforts of everyone on the show, especially the writers, to really come up with fun and riveting material that all of us can get behind this season.”
“The fans are great,” he continues. “They’re certainly one of the reasons why we’re coming back,” enthuses Burgi. “Besides the fact that The Sentinel is one of UPN’s better-rated shows, the fans were so vociferous when it came to dealing with the network. They flooded UPN with phone calls and e-mails to the Internet site demanding the show’s return. They’re very sweet and particularly generous. We recently held a successful fund-raiser to benefit Pediatric Aids and the Elizabeth Glaser Foundation.”
Burgi grew up in Montclair, New Jersey and began training early for his future career as a television detective. “When I was a kid I remember reading a book called The Secret Service and wanting to become a secret service agent. My brother and I even opened up our own little detective agency in our parents’ garage,” he chuckles. “However, when I was, I think, fifteen, I heard a little voice in the back of my mind telling me what I was going to do when I grew up and it’s what I’m doing now which is acting.”
The actor began his career at the age of twenty-eight and has not looked back since. In addition to his television and film roles he has also appeared on stage in such productions as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Suddenly Last Summer. With The Sentinel having wrapped production in December and its fate dependent on how it fairs opposite Fox Network’s popular Ally McBeal, Burgi has no idea what the immediate future holds. “All I hope is that I’m able to work on something like The Sentinel where the people are committed as well as compassionate and allow you stretch yourself as an actor while also offering you a sense of security,” he notes.