Actor Brett Cullen took his first audition on a dare. A senior at Houston’s James Madison High School, and better known as a baseball player and surfer than a serious actor, Cullen gave into his friends and tried out for the lead role in the school play. To everyone’s surprise, he was selected.
“It scared the daylights out of me,” Cullen said. “I didn’t want to do it, but I did … and it went on to win several awards.”
That first acting success was just one of many to come. Cullen, who graduated in 1979 from the University of Houston’s Theater department, has garnered many roles in movies and hit television shows, including recent stints on “Ugly Betty,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Lost.”
Cullen, a great nephew of Hugh Roy Cullen, one of the university’s earliest and most generous donors, credits his time at the University of Houston as preparing him for years of steady work in Hollywood.
“The University of Houston enabled me to grow as a man, to grow as an artist,” he said. “And it gave me the ability to do what I do now.”
Arriving on campus with hair down to his waist and sand in his flip flops after a summer spent surfing in California, Cullen says he probably didn’t look the part of a serious actor. But very quickly, under the direction of Theatre professor Cecil Pickett, he began to learn the skills that would serve him well in his career.
It was actually an early failure that first cemented his bond with Pickett. Cullen auditioned for the lead in a play on campus, and Pickett didn’t cast him. He eventually was granted a lesser role, but after the play’s run, he knocked on Pickett’s door and asked him how he could improve.
“He was one of those teachers that made you shake … his critiques could be brutal, but honest and real,” Cullen said. “So I was shaking when I went to his door.”
After Cullen explained that he wanted to learn, Pickett agreed to help.
“If you really want me to teach you, I’ll teach you. But you have to be the first kid to volunteer for every exercise. You have to be the first person to do the scene,” Cullen said Pickett told him. “I said, ‘I’m in.’ And he became my coach. At that point forward, he and I worked hand-in-hand, and fought like cats and dogs at times, but he was truly, honestly, one of the greatest influences in my life.”
While at UH, Cullen, who commuted to campus, spent the better part of his days at the theatre department, attending classes in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoons and evenings. The hectic schedule, and the dedication required by Pickett from his students, taught Cullen the discipline it takes to be a successful actor.
He remembers one particular rehearsal when he showed up two minutes late, after difficulty finding a place to park.
“He said, ‘You are not two minutes late, you are 42 minutes late,’” Cullen remembers Pickett telling him. “He said, ‘There are 21 people in this class, and you wasted two minutes of everyone’s time. Don’t ever do it again.’ It taught me about being responsible, about being part of the whole, and about understanding the discipline for theater.”
Other lessons learned from Pickett included a love of English – Cullen said he was three credits shy of a dual degree in English by the end of his time at the university – and a willingness to take risks.
“He taught me to never be afraid to try anything,” Cullen said. “He said, ‘If you don’t fail, how are you going to learn?’”
In addition to acting and directing classes, Cullen took advantage of another unique opportunity at the university – the UH Fencing Club. Led by Theatre professor Claude Caux, the Fencing Club competed at tournaments against other schools in the Southwest Conference. The skills he learned there ultimately helped Cullen win the role of fencing coach Danny Gallagher in the 1993 film “By the Sword.”
Development of acting and fencing skills was just one part of the education provided to Cullen by the University of Houston. Another aspect of his university career was the actual experience he was afforded, both in university productions and during his four seasons with the Houston Shakespeare Festival.
Cullen says it was that professional experience that gave him the advantage over other acting school graduates with little to no stage experience on their resumes.
“I had the opportunity to do so much, and have so many more experiences,” Cullen said. “When I left the University of Houston, what Cecil Pickett taught me, what Claude Caux taught me, what Sidney Berger taught me, was that I was ready to work professionally.”
After graduation, that experience paid off almost immediately, when Cullen moved to Hollywood and landed a part on a television series – “The Chisolms” – within the first few weeks. There, he reunited with another UH alum – Dennis Quaid. Since that first role, Cullen has worked steadily for 30 years, landing more than 100 roles in television and movies.
“When I’m working, I pinch myself,” he said. “I still get a thrill out of creating a character, and working with actors and young kids … I get paid to do what I love to do.”
Cullen credits the university and its professors for helping pave the way for his success.
“If it hadn’t been for the University of Houston drama department, if it hadn’t been for Cecil Pickett and Sidney Berger, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” he said.