Playing George Hazard, the Yankee whose friend becomes a Confederate officer in North and South, Read got 12 hours of prime-time exposure when ABC ran the blockbuster miniseries last November. By the time North and South: Book II finishes its May 4-11 run, viewers will have seen Read evolve from a West Point cadet to a Union general for a total of 24 hours. A day's difference has already given the 32-year-old actor industry recognition, though it probably won't make him instantly recognizable. "With a miniseries," Read says, "I don't think you enjoy—or suffer—that kind of audience identification."
One result of North and South that he is enjoying is a relationship with Wendy Kilbourne, who plays his wife, Constance. The two started dating in February 1985, a month after Book I began production, and although location romances aren't known for longevity, Read and Kilbourne will watch Book II together. "We were the Ozzie and Harriet of the Civil War," says Read.
He joshes. His friends tend to define him in bolder terms. Says North and South co-star Parker Stevenson: "We talk about adventure and taking chances in life."
Read's choice of acting as a career was chancy. Raised in Schenectady, N.Y., the son of a phone company executive and a housewife, he attended the University of Vermont, intent on becoming a forester. "I had this romantic vision of driving a Jeep and feeding the deer," he says. "But I had absolutely no aptitude for the sciences needed for forestry. The only A's I got were in poetry and creative writing, so that began to tell me something about myself."
So did a hitchhiking trip he took through Europe after dropping out. Read became stage struck after seeing plays in Stratford-upon-Avon and London's West End. Returning to America, he studied drama at the University of Oregon, graduated in 1976 and pursued theater work in New York and Denver before moving to L.A. in 1981. Between stints on Remington Steele and Cheers, and in such roles as Darryl Webster in Lace II and Teddy Kennedy in Robert Kennedy and His Times, Read has developed a dashing yet unflashy style. "He's more interesting than most TV actors," says Kilbourne, "because he's not vain. He's more interested in having the character look right than in having every hair in place."
Born in L.A., Kilbourne, now in her 20s, came to North and South with credits in The A-Team, Matt Houston and Riptide. Her charm seems to have crept up on Read. "I can't remember a day when it [love] happened—it just happened," says Read, whose five-year marriage to a studio executive ended in 1983. "Being on location with a group of people is like being on a lifeboat. You get to know people quicker and better."
They've had plenty of time to get even better acquainted. Besides spending 10 months filming Books I and II, the couple vacationed together in Italy and Alaska. They maintain separate homes (Read lives in Laurel Canyon, Kilbourne in Sherman Oaks), and he's teaching her how to sail his racing boat, while she lets him fly her Piper Cherokee. "We have an incredible appetite to learn about new things," says Kilbourne. "It's more exciting that way."
Read believes the romance has added spark to North and South. "It's certainly easier playing a love scene with someone you like than with someone you don't," he reasons. But though the relationship has made it "through all the testing periods," as Kilbourne puts it, there are no wedding plans. They'll probably have to film Book III to reach that stage.
You remember the Civil War, of course; it was in all the papers at the time—a nation divided, great bloody battles, brother against brother. For James Read, however, the Civil War wasn't total hell. Besides being good for his career, it was great for his love life.