Where All of the Characters and Actors from Northern Exposure Wound Up
For the final installment of our 25th anniversary look at this seminal television show, we take a look at all your favorite folks from Cicely and where they are today.
July 21, 2015
We’ve spent quite a bit of time in the last couple weeks writing about Northern Exposure, the greatest show you’ve never seen, and the magical quality of its episodes. We decided to round off our little packet of stories with this fond farewell to the denizens of Cicely, and to tell you what some of them are up to today. Thanks for reading and watching with us.
Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow)
Curmudgeonly New York Doctor Joel Fleischman, love him or hate him, was the heart of Northern Exposure. His clashes with the town’s more chilled-out residents were the source of much of the show’s comedy. But Joel’s quibbles often became stale, as brief glimpses of growth inevitably faded to peevish regression. These writing stumbles are usually forgivable due to Morrow’s excellent acting, which rounds out his character with moments of charm, empathy, and care. For all his New York posturing, the show always made clear that Joel was an excellent physician who was motivated because he cared for people deeply.
Morrow went on to star in Numb3rs as FBI Agent Don Eppes, and recently had a role in Cloud Atlas.
Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner)
Maggie was Joel’s inevitable other half. Inspired, likely, by the immensely popular love-hate relationship on Cheers, Maggie was Joel’s primary antagonist as well as his main love interest. A one-time debutante from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Maggie has made a new life for herself as a bush pilot and landlord in Alaska. She’s just as neurotic and insecure as Joel, and this was the source of their most delicious and most annoying moments together. But she was also a badass in her own right. A predictable, but always enjoyable recurring gag involved her flying over turbulent pockets of air deliberately to mess with Joel when he was her passenger.
Turner became a staunch conservative speaker and frequent Fox News guest, despite her character’s decidedly liberal bent.
Chris Stevens (John Corbett)
Chris represents both the best and the worst of Northern Exposure. He’s the easygoing antithesis to the perpetually agitated Joel, and in many ways the show’s most fanciful creation. He’s the ex-con from Wheeling, West Virginia who discovered Walt Whitman in prison and started over as an erudite DJ in remote Cicely. He’s the unofficial narrator, whose yearning radio monologues tie together many episodes. At his best, he’s whimsical and deeply profound. At his worst, he’s pretentious to the point of laughability. Many of the most memorable episodes involve his forays into sculpture and performance art, including a mishmash of lights down the main street in the dead of winter, an abstract representation of the Northern Lights, and a piano flung from a trebuchet. He’s also, let’s be real, a total babe.
John Corbett has kept busy, appearing in Sex and the City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and United States of Tara. He’s also a country musician, which is where his current efforts appear to be focused.
Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles)
Elaine Miles infamously got the part of Marilyn when she took her mother to an audition for the part and was persuaded to read herself. It’s hard to imagine that someone with no training or experience who didn’t even mean to be there could master Marilyn’s comedic timing as well as her occasional gravitas. As Joel’s taciturn office assistant (who shows up simply by saying “I’m here for the job”), Marilyn imbues every “uh huh” or “okay” with the most wonderful range of snark, boredom, care, and understanding that she quickly became a fan favorite. Although she was hesitant to portray a Tlingit woman (she’s actually of Cayuse and Nez Perce ancestry), her performance was received overwhelmingly positively.
After a cameo appearance in the excellent film Smoke Signals, Miles has laid low but today seems to work as a keynote speaker and participate frequently in pow wows.
Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary)
Shelly is an easy character to overlook until you really think about just how easy it would have been to get her wrong. She’s 18-year-old hockey groupie turned Miss Northwest Passage turned lover to 60-year-old bar proprietor Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum). She’s a pretty and unintelligent blonde. But she’s always played as a chilled-out, happy, friendly, real human being. She’s a “dumb blonde”, but she strips away all misogynistic laughs and sexual objectification directed toward that type of stock character and hold her humanity. Geary plays her beautifully, somehow managing to keep Shelly funny without ever making her a caricature.
Like Miles, Geary appeared in Smoke Signals. Afterwards, she has mainly stayed out of the acting world, focused on raising a family.
Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin)
Oh, Maurice. A surly ex-marine, ex-astronaut who devotes his energy (unsuccessfully) into developing Cicely into the next great resort town, Maurice is a stubborn, irritating bigot. As the AV Club aptly put it, he’s “the only regular character to whom the show ascribes a capacity for outright bigotry, which comes in handy whenever he needs to demonstrate his inherent nobility by rising above his worst instincts.” Though that gimmick does become tiresome when used often enough, those moments when Maurice’s kind heart shows though are some of the show’s sweetest moments. At the same time, whenever other characters get too sappy or pretentious, he’s always there to offer that much-needed eye roll or skeptical squint.
Barry Corbin remains an incredibly prolific actor, guest-starring in many TV series over the years. He was also on One Tree Hill.
Ed Chigliak (Darren Burrows)
Darren Burrows is fantastic as film fanatic Ed. His closest modern counterpart might be Community’s Abed—both are socially awkward film buffs whose understanding of the world is profoundly shaped by film. Ed could talk your ear off about Fellini but doesn’t know much about going on dates, the world outside of Cicely, or entering rooms without knocking. His kind heart and his naive joy at the world of film bring Cicely its most meta as well as its sweetest moments.
Burrows ended up quite literally writing the book on Cicely, Northern Exposed, which was published in 2013. He’s also guest starred on several TV shows.
Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum)
Holling, the personable proprietor of the town’s only bar and real gathering space, seems to perhaps be the show’s one drop of sanity. But it’s revealed piece by piece that he’s a complicated and unusual man who gave up hunting for photography and escaped an abusive father in his native Canada. His sometimes damaged friendship with Maurice really humanizes the harder character. Though he often plays the straight man, Holling always manages to bring out the humanity in others.
John Cullum has guest starred in some of the most high-profile series of the past decade, exercising his considerable dramatic and comedic chops. These include a stint as the CEO of Lucky Strike in Mad Men and an appearance as “Daddy’s Boy’s Daddy’s Daddy” (don’t ask, just watch) in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips)
Ruth-Anne comes to Alaska by way of Portland, Oregon after her husband died and her children were grown to start over again in Cicely. She runs the town general store, falls in love with a stockbroker-turned-trapper, and even once joins a motorcycle gang. Ruth-Anne was a fully realized character and when she became a series regular, she showed even more the many possibilities of life in old age. Much like her character, Peg Phillips went on a new path later in life, enrolling in acting classes after retiring from her accounting job.
Peg Phillips passed away in 2002. Her time on Northern Exposure was very much her dream, realized.
Lastly, a special, timely shout out
To recurring characters Erick (Don McManus) and Ron (Doug Ballard), the outstanding gay couple who bought the B&B in town, played hardball with Maurice, and got the knot tied in Cicely decades ahead of the recent Supreme Court ruling.
In the words of Chris: “You ready to file jointly?”
Outcryer would like to thank everyone who’s followed along with our short Northern Exposure series. We’ll definitely do more of these. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more stories! And send us your favorite character memories in the comments below. In fact, one final, indulgent quote from Chris: “Howl the eternal yes!”