James Eckhouse Knows Best

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:01

The veteran actor makes his Broadway debut in All the Way James Eckhouse's most recognizable role will always be sensible Jim Walsh, paterfamilias to Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty) on the iconic 1990s hit Beverly Hills, 90210. But now East Coast audiences have reason to be excited, as Eckhouse has joined the cast of the forthcoming new play, All the Way, which opens March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre. There's even more cause for celebration, as it marks a major career milestone for the veteran actor ? it's his Broadway debut. All the Way, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch, focuses on the political maneuvering required of President Lyndon B. Johnson in his first year of office, laboring to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the tumultuous months following President Kennedy's assassination. Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad takes on Johnson, while Eckhouse joins the ensemble as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (He also portrays the Democrats Senator James Eastland and Governor Paul B. Johnson, and flip-flops over enough to also play Representative William Moore McCulloch.) While he plays several characters who may be in opposition at times to Johnson, Eckhouse is full of nothing but praise for the president's portrayer. "Bryan is the captain of our ship," and, as everyone will tell you, he is the real deal," Eckhouse avers. "He is a graceful, giving, funny, self-deprecating guy, and as the center of our play, he is deserving of all of his kudos." Cranston and Eckhouse had not met before this show, although both live near each other in Los Angeles. Curiously enough, however, it is the role of McNamara itself that Eckhouse seems to have been circling. First, he directed Katy Hickman's Bright Boy: The Passion of Robert McNamara at Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, in 2006. And he also happened to catch All the Way's first run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "I was visiting a friend up there, and decided to see it on a wing and a prayer," he explains. "And I thought it was phenomenal." With his sons now grown, Eckhouse decided now was the time to pursue uncharted territory: a perch on the Great White Way. When he heard the show was Broadway-bound following a run at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater, he flew himself out to audition; now, he and actress wife Sheila Kiliher Walsh will spend the next few months in New York as he enjoys working in his first Broadway show ("Bill is a low-key, graceful director, and the show is a well-oiled machine.") He hopes to work more frequently on both coasts in the future. "It has been a dream come true!" While his 90210 role offered the Juilliard-trained Chicago native greater exposure and financial security, it also enabled other opportunities ? and closed off a few. "It was a fun show to do and a huge opportunity, occupying a particular swath in the firmament of people's consciousness," he says. "But occasionally, I had to remind people that I had a huge theatre background. I maintained a low profile, which opened up other things." Eckhouse started a career behind the camera, directing several episodes of the long-running series. He received a further boon in that path from Ed Zwick, with whom he worked in the recurring role of Lloyd Lloyd on the beloved series Once and Again. "I had worked with Ed a lot, and he took me and about five or six other actors interested in directing and did a seminar at lunchtime, even showing where he had made mistakes," he recalls. Eckhouse has gone on to direct both feature-length and short films, and can still be seen on-camera, most recently on the Showtime series Masters of Sex and in 2012's top-grossing movie, The Avengers. Conversation with Eckhouse, who enjoys successful careers as both a director and also an acting teacher in Los Angeles, never goes long before an innate enthusiasm pops out. Sentences like "I am incredibly blessed to be working in this play" and "I work with amazing people" continually pepper the conversation, without even a hint of pretension. It's clear that the actor is an optimist and trusts that life has a way of working itself out, as embodied by his seemingly fated journey to the role of McNamara. "I always tell my students to follow the path," he says. And even in an interview, Eckhouse's paternal side comes through. When discussing the endurance run that is performing the three-hour-long All the Way eight times a week, he explains that a regimen of swimming and yoga (a French teacher introduced him to it when he was still a teenager) keeps his stamina up. As I then share my own personal trepidation of yoga, the journeyman actor then launches into the most sensible explication of the practice's merits I have ever heard. "It's not about how you look or what you can do. Yoga means unity ? it unifies mind and body and soul and intellect," he says. "It puts all the pieces together. It is very personal. It renews you and refreshes you, and spills your mind of all doubts and chatter. It enables to go, 'Oh, I see.'" (About five minutes after this interview concluded, I sought out the yoga schedule at my local gym.) "Yoga teaches you that you are always a beginner," Eckhouse continues, "in life, in art, it's how I approach every role." The actor shares this outlook with his students, and Eckhouse credits his work as an instructor as the most gratifying experience of his professional life ? one that he agrees, after I mention it, shares certain similarities with parenthood. "Everyone should teach, but especially actors," he says. "Actors should teach because while it is terrifying, but it makes you clarify how things work. It is such a challenge, and a big responsibility, but you learn so much from it. You learn more than your students." Spoken like a true father. For more information on All the Way, go to www.allthewaybroadway.com