James Eckhouse is the first person to admit that he’s built his thriving, four-decade acting career upon being a character actor who can fit into a certain type of role as a dad or director in infinite types of productions. But he’s also been in the enviable position of playing an iconic role, having portrayed lead father Jim Walsh for several seasons on the classic teen soap “Beverly Hills 90210” — a performance that led to him being named to TV Guide’s 50 Best All-Time TV Dads list.
Nearly 20 years after “90210” ended in 2000, Eckhouse has kept adding to his impressive resume of more than 120 TV and film roles. He’s also an in-demand stage director for some of Los Angeles’ top theater companies, and is currently helming the production of the satire “American Hero” for the IAMA Theatre Company in its West Coast premiere run at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse through Oct. 21.
“The play is ostensibly about three sandwich workers who work in an unnamed sub shop, based on a true story on [NPR series] ‘This American Life’ called ‘American Hero,’” says Eckhouse. “Playwright Bess Wohl optioned it and the story of this Quizno’s in Seattle where the franchise owner disappeared, just went bankrupt and bailed.
“This young sandwich worker without MBA training took over the shop buying their own breads and such because Quizno’s wouldn’t let them close,” Eckhouse adds. “They were making a dollar a day for two weeks but they felt it was the only job they had and had to keep it going and it was all the lead woman could afford to pay them. It’s the struggle of the average American worker against the corporate world, which has become so big and bureaucratic and cold to their employees. It’s very funny, with dark turns, and a little bit of surrealistic scenes that are very gorgeous and magical, and it’s more timely than ever.”
Eckhouse notes that working with IAMA as an official member for the past year and occasionally over the prior 12 years has established a fun sense of shorthand communication and trust with its performers in “Hero.” He also credits Playhouse artistic director Danny Feldman with having an adventurous spirit that opened the famed theater’s doors to the outside company.
The current positive experience is a marked contrast from some of his early stage endeavors. During his beginning years in his native Chicago, Eckhouse was part of a theater troupe that tried to bring the classic s “to 11 year olds at the Boys Clubs of Chicago” — an effort that often proved comically disastrous.
“I was with the Wisdom Bridge theatre, before it got famous, and we would do these tours of performing Chekhov one-acts for the boys club,” recalls Eckhouse, who originally studied to be a scientist at MIT before switching to acting . “T hose 11 year old boys were really into that. You’d unpack and have to put your costume on before you do that because there was no place to change.
“We’d be sweating like a mother, unpacking late 19th century chairs onto the stage for the sets, but the second you stood up the boys would run on stage and take the furniture, which they thought was hilarious,” he continues. “We finally had to sit the entire play and keep our hands on everything to make sure nothing was taken.”
Eckhouse has had plenty of highs and lows in the theater since then, having played Dracula in a musical and co-starred with Bryan Cranston in a Tony-winning production of “All the Way.” Yet his two most memorable experiences might be the time he chased an angry heckling couple out of a theater while delivering a monologue stark naked, and the first time he realized just how big “90210” was going to be.
“It’s an actor’s dream to have a steady role on a TV series for several years, and that was a really great show because the actors playing the kids were such great people,” says Eckhouse. “We really started to hit in the ratings during the summer after the first season, because Fox decided to do some extra episodes and put them on while the other networks were in reruns.
“My wife and I were taking our two sons to Lake Tahoe on the 395 and stopped at Bishop to graze the kids, and as I was pushing the youngest one in a swing I noticed a man and his teen daughter staring at us from 50 yards away,” he adds. “I didn’t know why, but then they walked off and so I thought nothing of it. Then my wife came over the hill screaming for me to grab my son and get in the car, and we both ran to the car, got the boys in, slammed the doors shut and were surrounded by 150 screaming teenagers who came at us like we were on ‘The Walking Dead.’”
“American Hero” runs through Oct. 21 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $36. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org. To hear the entire interview with James Eckhouse, visit ohmanthatsawful.libsyn.com/website/james-eckhouse.