Thirtysomething's Timothy Busfield Is Spending Summer on Broadway

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If Timothy Busfield were really Elliot Weston, the quixotic advertising art director he plays on thirtysomething, last month would have been an unmitigated nightmare. On one episode this spring Elliot spent a sleepless, anxiety-filled night before directing his first TV commercial. But was Busfield rattled when he had to replace Tony-nominated Tom Hulce in a Broadway play with only six days prep time and no full-cast rehearsal? Nah. "I was very calm for opening night," he says. "I wasn't going to put pressure on myself to dazzle the audience my first time."

Despite a few flubbed lines, Busfield came through unscarred as Lt. Daniel Kaffee, the wisecracking, novice Navy lawyer who represents two marines accused of murder in A Few Good Men—a compelling court-martial drama that was compared with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial when it hit Broadway last fall. "I was totally impressed," says Stephen Lang, who plays opposite Busfield as a rabid, conspiratorial Marine colonel.

"It's a wonderful part for me," says Busfield, 33, who is thrilled to be back in a theater and making his Broadway debut. Five years ago, before Elliot, he was best known as J.T., Pernell Roberts's son in Trapper John, M.D. But he also boasts more than 65 stage acting, writing and directing credits, including many for children's theater, his passion.

Busfield dreamed of being Sean Connery when he was a child growing up in East Lansing, Mich., where he lived with his divorced mother, Jean, then a secretary. His father, Roger, taught drama at Michigan State University, and Timothy was a huge fan of James Bond films. "When I was 9, I wanted to change my name to Sean," he says. "I'd see the movies 10, 11 times and yell out all the lines before they happened. One time they actually stopped the movie, came looking for me with a flashlight and called my mother." But for a time, Busfield, a baseball fanatic, planned on a more down-to-earth career: teaching gym. "I thought, what an ideal life, to sit around in sweats all day and coach a high school baseball team," he recalls. A separated shoulder he suffered at East Tennessee State University helped turn his thoughts away from sports, and he switched to drama. Playing Puck in a children's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream decided his fate. "I fell in love with that audience of children," he says. "Playing to 400 bug-eyed, mesmerized kids gave me an immediate rush."

In 1979 Busfield left school to act full-time, spending summers at a children's theater in Vermont and the balance of the year with the Actors Theatre of Louisville. By 1983 he was working in New York City but decided some time in Hollywood might boost his box office appeal. He moved to L.A., landed some TV work and played the preppie Arnold Poindexter in Revenge of the Nerds before hiring on as a regular on Trapper John.

But Busfield missed children's theater and in 1985 decided to form a troupe to perform in schools. He based his Fantasy Theatre in Sacramento, away from the distractions of L.A., and when the offer came to film a pilot for thirtysomething, he accepted, partly to promote his troupe. "I knew it was my exposure in the professional world that was our selling point," he says. Then, when he got the role, he had to turn over day-to-day control of the theater to his brother, Buck, 38 (though he still writes scripts and appears in at least one production a year).

In other ways, too, the thirtysomething role has intruded on his life offscreen. In 1988, after Elliot temporarily separated from his wife, Nancy, played by Patricia Wettig, people approached Busfield on the street and urged him to reconcile. And the episode in which Elliot's son suffers nightmares about the separation "kind of messed me up," he says. Busfield had divorced his first wife, Radha Delamarter, an actress with whom he has a son, Willy, now 8. "That show hurt because I was feeling a lack of responsibility to my son as a protector," he says. The ability of the thirtysomething writers to "get into people's hearts and guts," Busfield believes, accounts for its broad appeal. And Elliot, jerky behavior and all, "is everything an actor would want to play," Busfield says. "He's a romantic lead. He's a goofball. And he's the tragic end of the show in many respects."

Still, the identification with Elliot can sometimes be too close for the comfort of Busfield's second wife, Jennifer Merwin, a fashion consultant he met on the show's set. "I don't like it when I see him kissing Patty," says Jennifer. "I know they are acting, but it's still lips on lips." Though she finds that Busfield is, in fact, "kind of a guys' guy, like Elliot," he's "really sort of a feminist, too." Busfield helps out with their 14-month old daughter, Daisy, and enjoys nothing more than getting the family away from L.A. to their secluded home near Sacramento.

Meanwhile, Elliot has done for Busfield exactly what the actor was hoping for when he went to L.A.—put his name on a theater marquee. "There are quite a few actors my age who can play leading men, and these roles aren't written 'red-headed and puckish' in their character description," he says. "My part in A Few Good Men establishes that I can drive a Broadway drama. I need to be able to do that if I'm going to survive."

—Charles E. Cohen, Toby Kahn in New York City

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