By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
Jim McMullan is a triple threat: a prolific character actor, artist and writer whose career in all three mediums has spanned almost 60 years, and he’s not done yet. Born in Long Beach, Long Island, 20 minutes from New York City in the late 1930s, McMullan recalls, “It was an amazing place to grow up, surrounded by water, near Jones Beach. I had great friends, played sports, worked as a lifeguard, and was always building things, creating and inventing.” That explains why he went off to NYU and Parsons to learn more about art, design and architecture.
Feeling the urge to wander away from home, McMullan transferred to Kansas University to continue his architectural studies because, “I thought I’d see cowboys and Indians there,” he laughs. When a college girlfriend asked him to be in a play, Desire Under the Elms, by Eugene O’Neill, “I’d never even thought of acting before, but boy, I got the bug.” After graduating in 1961, shortly after President Kennedy started the Peace Corps, McMullan applied “to see the world and help people.”
But serendipity had other plans. While waiting to hear if he’d been accepted into the Corps, McMullan visited a friend in California who just happened to know the famous playwright, William Inge, and he arranged a meeting. Inge, who was working on Splendor in the Grass at the time, told McMullan, “I like your look. Go meet my agent.” The agent sent McMullan to do a screen test at MGM for Sam Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country. McMullan didn’t get the part, but his test was sent to Universal, and that turned into a 7-year contract with the studio, where he earned $150/week. “It was an amazing time. I had an apartment across the street and free reign at the studio. I could walk in and go anywhere, onto sets to watch Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, and I got to know Robert Duvall while he was filming To Kill a Mockingbird. But my favorite place was the Scoring Stage. I could watch the orchestra play live while the movie played on the screen in front of them. It was magical.”
While working within the system had its perks, “the studio owned me. They could get rid of me anytime; I had to go wherever the handlers sent me and take any role they wanted.” During that time, McMullan got his chance to play out his cowboy dreams, guest starring on several Westerns like “Wagon Train,” and “The Virginian,” and sometimes branching out onto shows like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
After two-and-a-half years in the studio system, McMullan’s agent managed to negotiate him out of that contract, and he was immediately cast in the film Shenandoah, playing Jimmy Stewart’s son. Stints on Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare followed, getting McMullan noticed by Robert Redford and Michael Ritchie, who were casting for the 1969 film Downhill Racer. “It was the greatest meeting I ever had. All they wanted to know was, ‘Do you ski?’ ‘Yeah, I ski.’ I was hired.”
1968 was a lucky year for McMullan personally as well. He met Helene, the love of his life and the woman who would be his wife for coming on 50 years. “My girlfriend at the time invited both Helene and I to a party at Liberty Records. There was an instant spark. I went to do Downhill Racer, came back, and we’ve been together ever since.” Always on a quest for the path to enlightenment, McMullan briefly explored the world of Scientology. “I was doing a lot of transcendental meditation with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, and heard about this brand new ‘Celebrity Center’ L. Ron Hubbard was starting in Hollywood. I decided to try it out. Helene joined too. The whole point was to be ‘clear’ and not get dragged down by the mind, which I thought was fascinating.” McMullan took courses, rose in the ranks, got “cleared” at the highest level, and was being groomed to teach others, until he and Helene married in 1970 and wanted to honeymoon in Switzerland. “They said no. They were scared to let us go away. So we quit.” Undaunted, the McMullans have continued pursuing their lifelong spiritual quest, following teachers, pathways and practices, always “looking for the light to come on.”
The next 20 years were a very busy time, as the McMullans raised their two sons while he acted continuously in television, commercials and some features. He appeared in dozens of national TV ads from Heinz Ketchup to Castrol Motor Oil. He worked extensively for Quinn Martin Productions, producers of several popular TV shows at the time. “Once you got one, you got them all,” including Barnaby Jones, Cannon, and The Streets of San Francisco. McMullan appeared in the most well-known TV shows of the day, including The Fall Guy, The Rockford Files, Hart to Hart, The A-Team, and even the daytime soap opera, The Young and the Restless, which McMullan says was “the toughest work I ever did. We’d have to do a whole script every day, and I didn’t use the prompters. I memorized all my lines.” McMullan’s work caught the eye of Aaron Spelling, which led to starring roles on the short-lived shows Chopper One with Dirk Benedict and Michael Crichton’s Beyond Westworld, and a featured role on Dallas, playing Senator Dowling in Season 10. “It was great. The cast was so friendly. They made you feel a part of a family.”
Throughout his life, McMullan has always continued to express his artistic talents through drawings, watercolors, and his favorite medium, multi-media pieces from found objects. “I see things in objects a lot of people would throw into the trash. I see what they can be.” This creative outlet led him to another: writing. He put together Actors as Artists, with actor Dick Gautier, as a tribute to the hidden artistic talents many actors have, which includes over seventy works from performers like Gene Hackman, Katharine Hepburn, Peter Falk and Pierce Brosnan. McMullan followed up with Musicians as Artists, and one of his personal favorites, Happily Ever After: The Wit and Wisdom of Marriage, which he wrote with Helene. McMullan has published nine books to date, many available on Amazon.com.
In 1998, after working in the business for almost 40 years and living in the Pacific Palisades for 30, “things got really slow, and I started to get tired of it. Helene and I started talking. We wanted a change.” That’s when Disneyland Paris’s Buffalo Bill Wild West Show fell into his lap. The McMullans packed up their family and moved outside Paris for the next four years so that Jim could play the title role. “I had five week paid vacations, and we did a lot of traveling. It was a very special time.” You can watch McMullan’s stint in the show on YouTube, along with clips from many of his television roles and commercials.
After the family returned from Paris, they bought a home in Island Heights, New Jersey. “Helene’s hometown, a wonderful village right on the water. We go every summer, visit, go sailing, and I built a studio next to the house so I can work on my art.” You can find McMullan’s pieces by his alias, “Harry Kovair,” on his website, harrykovair.com. “It’s a play on hericots verts. I came up with it in France. My artwork often has a humorous element. I like to play on puns, so it seemed fitting.” Looking for another home base on the West Coast, McMullan discovered the Kern River Valley.
“Our son, Tyson, was doing kayaking, rafting and his photography here. We came to visit and just fell in love with the place.” The McMullans bought 2 acres and their “cabin in the hills” above Wofford Heights, where they happily spend most of their semi-retirement. “It’s very peaceful. We have a stream, hammocks on the deck. I still work on my art in my studio here, but it’s a quieter life. I enjoy visiting friends and family. It’s time to slow down a little, and I can’t think of a better place to do it.”