Brett Cullen Wants UH's Theater & Dance Department to Get Its Due

Fresh off his turn as a sleazy, womanizing congressman who gets kidnapped by Anne Hathaway's Cat Woman in The Dark Knight Rises, actor Brett Cullen was in Houston last week working on the details for the University of Houston's School of Theatre & Dance's upcoming fundraising event designed to raise money for scholarships to incoming freshmen.

In the last two years, Cullen, well known for his roles in the TV show Lost, and perhaps most famously as pro quarterback and all-around jerk Eddie Martel in the movie The Replacements, has become more involved in his alma mater, where he spent five years before graduating and walking out into the working world.

"I have made a living as an actor and never waited a table in 32 years," he says, attributing that to talent, doing his homework, tenacity and the training he got from the late Cecil Pickett and others at the University of Houston.

"Legacy: A Celebration of the UH School of Theatre & Dance" will feature Cullen along with Brent Spiner (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Independence Day), Robert Wuhl (Bull Durham, Batman -- the 1989 version, HBO's Arli$$), Broadway singer Sally Mayes, jazz singer Sharon Montgomery, and pianist and frequent Liza Minnelli collaborator Billy Stritch.

Last spring, Cullen was one of the recipients of UH's Distinguished Alumni Award. "We raised some money then, but not enough to do what we need to do," he says. So they decided to go further and put on a show. "It not only honors Cecil Pickett but the legacy of the UH Theatre & Dance department," Cullen says.

And while the department's sound system could use a little upgrading, the primary goal of the fundraiser, Cullen says, is to raise money for scholarships for incoming theater and dance students. "Yale, NYU come here and take the talented kids. UH needs to compete at that level."

Right now, Cullen said, all UH has to offer incoming freshmen is a promise of a work-study program worth $1,000 a year. And although the cost of attending UH is much lower than at schools like NYU and Yale, students don't always think of that when they're being offered several thousand dollars in scholarships from those schools, he says.

So he wants UH to be able to walk up to the best and the brightest theater and dance students coming out of high school and offer them significant scholarship help to come here. "We ought to be in the mix."

Cullen has another reason for wanting UH theater to be the best. His daughter is considering coming here. She's spent the summer here in a special session for theater students and is thinking about enrolling here instead of in the more expected Los Angeles -- where they live -- or New York. Cullen is all for it, believing that here she could concentrate on learning her craft without distractions.

Saturday night, Cullen and his wife were out at the last performance of Hamlet at the Houston Shakespeare Festival put on by UH at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Dressed in casual clothes, with a bottle of wine in a paper bag under one arm, Cullen was there to see the show again, a production he'd raved about the day before in an interview.

Cullen has done his turn at the Houston Shakespeare Festival, but was marveling at how much better it has become, bringing in professional talent like Mark Metcalf and Cindy Pickett, as well as Ruddy Cravens ("Man, he was so good") and recent UH grad Benjamin Reed. "It makes me want to come back here and do it again. And I'd said I'd never come back here because of the heat."

People should know what a great job UH is doing with its theater, he says, and part of the "Legacy" show will be to help do that. "I want to help elevate the perception of the school of theater and dance," he says.

"Legacy: A Celebration of the UH School of Theatre & Dance" is scheduled for 8 p.m. September 7 in UH's Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre. For information, go to the university's theater Web site or call 713-743-2929. Tickets are $25 and $50.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing