In the explosive season 4 finale of Brothers & Sisters, writers of the ABC Sunday night family drama dropped multiple bombshells, but none registered quite so much as the revelation that Uncle Saul is HIV-positive. Played by veteran actor Ron Rifkin, Saul is a rarity on television —a newly out man in his 70s trying to reinvent his life and, in many ways, start over.
But critically acclaimed as Brothers & Sisters has been over its four-season run, since coming out, Saul has often been relegated to the periphery — a shoulder for sister Nora (Sally Field) to cry on and a faithful adviser and confidant for each of the Walker siblings. With the HIV announcement, Rifkin and fans had hoped producers would finally drum up a meaty story line for Saul, but a few weeks into shooting the show’s fifth (and rumored final) season, he says that so far nothing much is happening.
Rifkin talked to The Advocate about his frustrations with the story line, a glimmer of hope in guest star Stephen Collins as Saul’s boyfriend, and how producers could tweak the plot and make the actor more passionate about sticking around.
The Advocate: We learned a big bombshell about Saul in the season 4 finale. What were your thoughts when the writers brought you that story line?
Ron Rifkin: Well, you know, it’s very complicated. My thoughts were, fine. I think it’s important that anytime we have a chance to discuss it to discuss it intelligently, to take it seriously, and to engage people so that they understand that this exists. One of the reasons I was interested in exploring this character is we don’t often see a guy my age gay on television, explored in an intelligent, dignified, funny, serious way. So I thought, when David approached me with it three years ago and said, what if Saul’s gay? I said, bring it on. What happens in network television, often, there are restrictions. There are already two gay characters on the show — “Oh, my God, three gay characters? No. The old guy? No, I don’t know.” So it’s been sort of a struggle, if you understand what I mean. It’s been a struggle to really identify this character and give him some weight.
Has there been push-back from the network? Have you gotten any sense of that?
I don’t personally because they would never do that to me, you know ... I’ve been with this network a long time. Lately I feel the writers have — the character ... I shouldn’t be saying this ... but the character has become sort of peripheral over the last couple of years, and not as involved as he was the first two or three years. It’s been a frustrating struggle for me. It’s really been hard for me. And then, with the reveal of the AIDS thing, I thought, well ... maybe they’ll get into it, but it doesn’t seem to be what they’re interested in. I was hesitant to do this interview with you because I don’t have that much to tell you.
So it’s not something you think they’re going to get into even further down the road this season?
I don’t know. I certainly would like them to. I think they should. They’ve opened up an interesting possibility for the show. I mean, I think people think AIDS is over, and we know it’s not. There’s a little possibility. Stephen Collins [The First Wives Club, 7th Heaven] came on the show and played my boyfriend, and there was enormous chemistry between us. He’s an old friend of mine ... he’s just the greatest guy in the world. Something happened in the script between us, and there was such a dynamic between us that I think they’re going to bring him back. But we’ll see.
So the possibility for love for Saul is still on the horizon?
Since Saul’s come out, even though he’s sometimes on the periphery, when he is involved, he has dealt with a lot of pretty heavy issues that are a huge problem among older men in the gay community. Chief among them is this feeling of loneliness, that the best years of his life are behind him. How did you approach those scenes?
Well, I’m, 71. So I understand what that feeling is like. I’m surrounded by young people. I know I’m healthy and energetic, talented, attractive ... I know all that. I’ve been around a long time, I’ve done a lot of work, but still. I’m vulnerable and feel my age. I have those same feelings. Also, I had prostate cancer. I was diagnosed in June, so I’ve had to deal with that.
How is everything going with that? Everything is OK?
Yeah. I was diagnosed in April and had my surgery in June. You know, it’s all complicated. Actors really tend to use their inner world as much as they can. So certainly I can relate to all of that as far as Saul is concerned. Saul is my real name, actually.
Oh, yes, that's right.
Yeah ... it’s my given name. My best friend wrote this pilot, and so, originally, Sally’s character was named Iva, who’s my wife. When Betty [Buckley] did the show, the character was named Iva, but when Sally came along, they changed it to Nora. They felt that Sally wasn’t really an Iva. My wife was a dancer on Broadway.
And you, of course, have done tons of theater yourself.
Yeah, theater is my world.
I know TV schedules are busy, but during breaks, are you still able to do it?
Oh, sure. I did a [Brothers & Sisters creator Jon Robin Baitz] play a year ago at the Kirk Douglas, opened with Neil Patrick Harris, Josh Radnor ... we did that play [The Paris Letter], and Patty ... Patricia Wettig played my wife in it. So that was a year ago.
The cast on Brothers & Sisters is ...
One of the best on TV.
Probably. I would think so.
How many of you are on that show now?
Yeah, I think it’s gotten less. Emily [VanCamp, who played Rebecca] is no longer on the show. The kids are no longer regulars the way they were. I think it’s nine. Gilles [Marini] has been added to the cast.
How is the dynamic? You work with so many of them, but two in particular come to mind. What has your experience been like working with Sally Field?
You know, she’s an old friend of mine. We worked with each other at the Actors Studio going back 30-some-odd years. We really feel like brother and sister, so it’s really easy for us. And the scenes they seem to write for us usually are emotional scenes, usually dealing with a trauma of hers or a trauma of mine. It’s really easy clothing for us to wear. We just fall right into it.
Your relationship with Kevin, to me, is one of the more interesting on the show. The dynamic is flipped. He’s younger but much more comfortable in his skin than Saul is. How has that relationship been for you as an actor in trying to shape Saul?
Saul is pretty shaped. The fact is, and this sounds kind of trite ... we genuinely care about each other, this group of people. As a matter of fact, Dave Annable [Justin Walker] is getting married on the 10th of October, and he and Odette, his fiancée, asked me to marry them. So that’s how close we are. That’s why I do have to fly back from Long Island to marry them on the 10th. But we really are close and we’re champions for each other. And I’ve been very lucky. It was that way for me on Alias too, particularly with Jennifer [Garner], Victor [Garber] and myself.
And Jennifer was married by Victor, so the tradition goes on.
[Laughs] That’s correct.
So you’ve now had a 10-year run with ABC with two really well-regarded TV shows. Did you have any sense that would happen for you at this point in your career?
No, no ... I expect to get another one. [Laughs] I am. Whether or not it’s with ABC, I don’t know, but I’m definitely planning on another one. Hopefully it will last as long and be as interesting for me. Certainly Alias continued to be interesting throughout the run of the show. Brothers & Sisters has not. The first three years were very interesting, very satisfying, the last two have not been so, but, you know, that’s sort of what happens on television. You take the good with the bad.
What would you like to see happen with Saul, ideally?
I would hope that Saul’s relationship with his nephew and his nephew’s husband opens up a world for Saul in such a way that he can explore what he hasn’t had. If somebody like the character Stephen Collins plays comes along like that, suddenly there is a possibility for love, a possibility for a life he’s been longing for.
They’re written very richly for Kevin’s character. Why do you think that hasn’t happened as much for Saul?
Oh, don’t get me started on that. I think that’s a network thing. I think the network really dictates what can and can’t be done. One of the brilliant things about Robbie Baitz is that he writes like no one else. The first year of Brothers & Sisters, the writing was quite different. The story lines were quite different, and I think he ran into problems with the network. It’s something, obviously, I’m being cautious about. But it’s hard on network television, obviously, because they’re dictating to what they think is the audience for the show, and I just don’t think they give enough credit to people who are out there. It’s complicated to have a 71-year-old gay guy on television come out ... not only to come out, and people can go, “Ooh, he’s gay” ... and then to have him have AIDS ... “Ooh.” But it exists. It’s important.
While I have you on the phone, I have to ask you about two projects in particular that are, of course, quite loved among gay audiences. On Sex and the City, of course, you play Julian, who takes a liking to Carrie Bradshaw at Vogue.
Oh, yes ... that part was written for me. My character’s wife, if you remember, was a dancer. Iva and I are very close with Sarah Jessica. We’re family, she’s extended family and continues to be. We did Robbie’s play together, Substance of Fire, she played my daughter in that, and then we did the movie version together. We go back a long time. As a matter of fact, when Sarah and Matthew got married, they spent the night with us the night before so the wedding wouldn’t be divulged. So, for me, it was just delightful. It was the first year of Alias, I remember, and we had to get permission from Sarah Caplan, the producer, to be able to get me out of L.A. to New York to do the show. When I saw it, the producers gave me a copy of it, they were so excited ... I got a little freaked out by it because I’m so close to Sarah, and in the scene where I came on to her, it kind of weirded me out. But she’s the best. People still stop me about that. They go, “Hey, Cookie.” I guess I refer to her as Cookie in the show ... it’s funny.
Well, it’s one of the more memorable episodes of the show.
Yeah, and we got to shoot in the actually Vogue closet.
That must have been a trip.
It was a trip. It definitely was. That’s where I wore my Versace underpants.
How about Cabaret? [Rifkin won a Tony as Herr Schultz in the 1998 revival.]
Oh. That was wonderful. That was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was the same way that J.J. [Abrams] had some vision about Alias. When I first met J.J., we talked about me playing the father of Sydney. I had no idea he was really interested in me playing the evil one. I don’t think most people would have ever cast me in a role like that. But he saw something that was dormant in me and understood it and wanted it. I think that was magical, and the way Sam [Mendes] put together Cabaret — as a matter of a fact, I just got off the phone with John Hickey ... he was in Cabaret, now he’s on The Big C. That experience was amazing. I was in Cabaret for a year and a half, and it was one of the great experiences of my life.
Is there any role or character that you haven’t yet played that you’d like to?
I don’t really think in those terms, you know. I mean, I’m always attracted to roles that have some dimension and some challenge for me. I enjoy playing complicated characters. I’m complicated. Just ask my wife. Both of these roles have been very challenging for me, Alias and Brothers & Sisters. The thing about Arvin Sloane [his character on Alias] that was very challenging the first year, the dialogue I had was mostly exposition. A lot of foreign names and long, long speeches. I would get up at 3 a.m. and just start saying the words. Very challenging but also very satisfying for me. I love language, I love the theater, I love words.
There are rumors out there that this is going to be the last season of Brothers & Sisters. Do you get any sense of that?
I really don’t know that I can speak to that, but I think for me it would be if it was to go on. I think for me it would be.
Any change they could make to the character that would change that for you?
Yeah, of course. If they made it more interesting for me, of course, I would definitely consider it, but as it’s moving along now, I don’t see me being interested enough to go on with the show.