Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
Scott's Movie Comments

Name droppings V

Back in the late 1970s, I came home to California from a year of graduate study in Chile. I had proven rather adept at acquiring scholarships and fellowships, and it seemed as though I could continue going to school indefinitely. But I had had enough of the artificial academic life. It was high time that I finally entered the real world. Instead, I went to Maltby.

Three years before, my childhood best friend Eric, his parents (Ray and Jackie), his two sisters, one brother-in-law, one nephew, two large dogs, thirteen cats, and several rabbits packed up and moved from central California to Washington state. Eric’s dad had worked in the aerospace industry for years, so the logical thing would have been for him to get a job at Boeing. But Eric’s family never followed the same logic as anyone else. What they did was buy a sleepy, rundown general store in a quiet rural area, somewhere northeast of Seattle. They set about remodeling and revitalizing the place. I came up for a visit and wound up staying for, more or less, 24 years.

Ray and Jackie had been my surrogate parents for years. They were different from anyone else I knew in the small farming town in which I grew up. For one thing, they were Democrats. They were against the Vietnam war, long before it became fashionable. They were full of ideas and conversation. Things were never boring at their house. They collected people, the way other people might collect Waterford crystal. I met a succession of oddball, offbeat and interesting characters in their various homes in California and Washington.

For several months, I lived with them and worked in the general store. We sold a lot of cigarettes and beer, as well as many packaged snacks of an indeterminate shelf life. We also pumped a lot of gasoline and loaded bales of hay in the backs of people’s pickups. And we played a lot of gin rummy on the store counter between customers, and Eric and I drank a lot of beer after hours.

One day Ray and Jackie introduced me to a woman named Peg. She was a funny sort of older woman. Her head and her body were both shaped something like one of those inflated toys you punch over and it comes right back at you. She had a very distinctive voice, and a manner that made you like her right away. And she smoked. Ray and Jackie loved anyone that smoked. For all of their love of knowledge and information, they had blind spot about smoking. They were convinced that the health warnings were all propaganda. I can’t recall ever seeing either or the other of them without a cigarette in their hand. And they were now, finally, living in the ideal place: a country store full of cigarettes.

So, Ray and Jackie took to Peg. She was growing some kind of plants or flowers or something. (The exact memory of it all it is now lost to me in a haze of smoke.) Anyway, she convinced Ray and Jackie to sell her plants in their store. Everyone was so happy about the arrangement that we had drinks all around to celebrate and, of course, they had a smoke.

I saw Peg a few times after that, but eventually she stopped coming around. As happened so often with people that Ray and Jackie had a business relationship with, things soured. I never got the full story of what happened, but there was some kind of falling out and the store was no longer selling the plants, and we didn’t see Peg anymore. I never thought about here again. Until 12 years later.

In 1990 a new television series premiered called Northern Exposure. Other than Barry Corbin, whom I had seen in a few movies, the cast was unknown to me. But whenever I saw the quirky shopkeeper Ruth Ann, I had a strange sense that I somehow knew her. The feeling occurred every time she was on screen. Gradually, it dawned on me. Her face was more creased and her hair grayer, but I came to be 99 percent positive that Peg Phillips, who played Ruth Ann, was the very same Peg I had met in Maltby years before.

In one of those strange cosmic coincidences, as I was writing last week about the similarities between the Irish television series Ballykissangel and the American series Northern Exposure and mentioning how Aine Ni Mhuiri’s Wicklow shopkeeper, Kathleen Hendley, had her counterpart in Cicely, Alaska, the woman who played the Alaskan shopkeeper was passing away. Peg Phillips was 84 years old and had started her acting career at the tender young age of 66. In addition to her Northern Exposure gig, she made guest appearances on several other television shows and appeared in eight movies. She died of lung disease, and her home was Woodinville, a few miles from Maltby. How ironic that now she was the strong personality running the general store. Sadly, neither Ray nor Jackie lived to see their erstwhile business associate achieve fame on the small screen. But that is a whole other story.

I suppose I knew that Ruth Ann was “my” Peg when I saw an episode in which it was established that Ruth Ann was a unyielding smoker and that no amount of well-intentioned suggestions were going to make her stop. It was that feistiness that was so much part of the actor and of the character that made the audience (not to mention friends) love her so much.

* * *

As long as I am dropping Northern Exposure names, I might as well mention that sightings of cast members were not uncommon during the years that the series was filmed in a studio in Seattle’s eastern suburbs. Personally, I have a very vivid memory of (almost literally) running into Barry Corbin, as big as life, in the Redmond post office. He looked harried and had a near-panicked look in his eyes, sort of like a bull about to charge.

When the series ended, they auctioned off a lot of the props to whoever showed up at the studio. I didn’t make it, but friends of mine picked up a few mementos. (If only I lived nearer to where they filmed Babylon 5!)

But probably my closest claim to Northern Exposure hanger-on fame is the fact that, when a casting call went out for twin babies to play the newborn daughter of Holling and Shelly in the series’ last season, a married couple I knew at work answered the call. Their babies were chosen for the plum role(s) and, for a few episodes, many of us were watching the TV screen closely for any glimpses of the little bundle of joy—and wondering if we would be able to tell which twin it was.

-S.L., 21 November 2002

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