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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : How Darren Burrows' 'school of hard knocks' landed him in Cicely


It's not your everyday career dilemma: Ed isn't sure if he wants to be a shaman or a filmmaker.

But Darren Burrows, who plays "Northern Exposure's" thoughtful and inquisitive Ed--Cicely, Alaska's resident half-Native American-- knows what he wants to be: an actor. Period.

Burrows, 27, is thrilled he's doing it, despite the show's long shooting schedule in Washington state that lasts more than 10 months in often-freezing temperatures. The actor's journey to the chilly north and the hit CBS show wasn't an easy one. At 16, he ran away from Kansas to Los Angeles.

"I was looking for adventure," he explains from a cellular phone somewhere in South Dakota, where he and his wife and their two Neopolitan mastiffs are camping. "I was a real rebellious kid and I had to figure it out for myself."

After running away, he never returned to formal education. He says he "graduated from the school of hard knocks."

"If you can believe it," he adds, speaking at a faster pace than Ed, which isn't hard to do, "I wanted to be an airborne ranger, so I was killing time until I was 18 and I could join."

He ate "a lot of ketchup and mustard sandwiches" to survive and, being only 16, "took a lot of part-time jobs. I worked in an ice-cream parlor, a pizza place, a printing shop and drove a forklift."

Burrows also discovered a way to express anger without any repercussions: acting classes.

"Hey," he says good-naturedly, explaining how he could fit auditions into his schedule, "I was a high school dropout, and I was starving anyway, so why not starve for the arts?"

"Acting is a great way to get people to feel things," he says. "That's a great thing about being an actor--you get to live your own life and then someone else's too."

Burrows managed to land roles in the high-profile movies "Casualties of War" and "Cry Baby."

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he declares. "I've worked with Brian de Palma and John Waters, all these great people who normally someone in my position wouldn't ever meet. Luck's all I can attribute it to."

After landing other roles in film, he adds, "I couldn't get hired for TV to save my soul, to tell you the truth. It took a weird show to cast me."

Burrows was dying to be on "Northern Exposure." Literally. The natural blond dyed his hair black for his audition. "I was worried it would drip down my neck from the sweat." Right now, he says laughing, "I have black hair, blond roots and a blond beard. I look pretty thrashed. But now I get paid for doing what I want to do."

And the consensus is he does it well.

"His performance is always tremendously thought-out and subtle," says Andrew Schneider, who, along with Diane Frolov, is the show's executive producer.

Burrows, Schneider says, was able to bring the original concept of Ed to life. "Ed's half and half--and walks in both worlds, straddling Western and Native American culture."

While Burrows has spent the last four years devoted to the show, he recently found time to host a TBS "Audubon" documentary on bears in Alaska. "It was a lot of fun."

He's thrilled that Ed's been given more to do. "He's really growing up--it makes it really fun. He's not just this big dumb kid with the same haircut."

His producers want to widen his range as well. "We're really broadening him," Frolov says. "We are doing a show where he plays a Native American in the past, a guide, a warrior different from Ed. Darren's just great and enthusiastic about it."

Schneider adds: "That episode shows how really handsome he is. He has a lot of leading man qualities that we haven't really exploited from Ed."

And that just gives Burrows more of an opportunity to act, which he defines in his own individual way as, 'There's a moment of epiphany in the groove and you're jammin'."

"Northern Exposure" airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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