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John Corbett Plays With The Paranormal As Fox's 'The Visitor'

September 14, 1997|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Back in 1992, actor John Corbett was quoted in a newspaper article as saying, "I feel like a visitor just about everywhere."

It would turn out to be an eerily prophetic statement. Today, the former "Northern Exposure" actor is playing the lead role in "The Visitor," Fox's new drama series which debuts this Friday at 8 p.m.

Appropriately enough, psychic phenomenon and seemingly mystical powers play a strong role in the series. "The Visitor" finds a man who mysteriously disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle 50 years ago reappearing in the present with powers that may or may not be otherworldly.

Was Corbett's Adam MacArthur character abducted by aliens and returned to earth with extraordinary abilities? Like Fox's hit paranormal show "The X-Files," "The Visitor"--at least initially--is vague but tantalizingly suggestive about the existence and involvement of extraterrestrial life forms.

"We try to give the Visitor abilities that people can do now," explains Corbett, relaxing in between scenes on the show's Chatsworth set. "People claim to be able to do the things the Visitor can do. People claim to have ESP and to be able to communicate with animals. People can read fast [which the Visitor does with blinding speed on the show's first episode]. He can't fly or run fast. He's not the Six-Million-Dollar Man."

The series also possesses elements reminiscent of "The Fugitive." MacArthur's stunning reappearance leads to an intensive manhunt by the FBI and the National Security Agency, two competing government agencies that distrust each other. On the lam, the Visitor attempts to alter the course of human destiny and save civilization from total annihilation.

MacArthur appears to share a certain inner wisdom with Chris Stevens, the character Corbett played on "Northern Exposure" during the CBS show's 1990-1995 run. Stevens was the poetry- and philosophy-spouting disc jockey who helped unite the quirky series' tiny Alaskan town of Cicely.

"As an actor, I kind of have some strengths in those areas," says Corbett in regard to MacArthur's and Stevens' deep-seated humanism. "I think ["The Visitor" producers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin] wanted an actor with some of those qualities."

Like the character of MacArthur, Corbett is a bit of a man of mystery. He prefers to keep his personal life extremely private. He refuses to even discuss seemingly mundane matters such as where he was born and how he got interested in acting.

Up until he recently began doing interviews to plug "The Visitor," Corbett says he hadn't spoken to the press in about four years. After he signed on as the star of the Fox series, he agreed to speak to journalists because he felt so passionately about the project and badly wanted it to find a large audience.

"I really take acting seriously," explains Corbett. "It's what I do with my life. I thought if I wanted people to take me seriously, I needed to act serious and not reveal too much of my private life so people could seriously accept me in different things."

The unpretentious and engaging Corbett also intimates that he may have taken the media attention too seriously when he first began to get noticed on "Northern Exposure."

"It became less and less about what I was doing with my life everyday, which was acting, and more about what kind of press I could get or what magazine cover or what talk show I could get on," he recalls. "After that I said, 'I'm not going to do that.' I discovered that I act because I really love to act. I don't act because maybe it will get me a magazine cover or that I can get on a talk show."

The tall, thirtysomething actor did speak more openly about himself during his early '90s interviews. It was during this period when "Northern Exposure" established itself as a hit and Corbett began getting noticed as a TV sex symbol.

Early articles portrayed him as a young man who fell into acting quite by accident. According to published reports, Corbett grew up in West Virginia and moved to California after graduating from high school. He subsequently worked in a steel factory as a welder and pipe fitter for more than six years until a back injury forced him to quit.

Corbett then enrolled at Cerritos Community College, where he began studying acting after some friends invited him to sit in on a drama class they were taking. Two years later he moved to Los Angeles. Realizing he needed a backup profession in case acting didn't work out, he studied hairdressing for a year.

But his perming and styling career never really got off the ground. Corbett landed his first commercial job a week after graduating from beauty school. After that an avalanche of other commercial work fell his way. His big break occurred when he hooked up with "Northern Exposure."

Like the Visitor, Corbett comes across as a spiritually enlightened soul who belongs everywhere and nowhere--a true child of the cosmos.

It's hardly a surprise when Corbett reveals that he is indeed an environmentalist. "The Visitor" appealed to him partly because of its underlying message that man needs to exist in partnership with the planet.

"The Visitor's mission is to inspire people to live in some kind of harmony and to take care of mother earth," says Corbett. "This whole planet is a giant living organism and we forget that. There's a lot of things to remind us of that in 'The Visitor.' "

"The Visitor" premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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