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Classic Hollywood: 'Castle's' Susan Sullivan reflects on varied road

The one-time Playboy Bunny who has been on stage and screen and currently stars in 'Castle' has had several career highs.

February 25, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Susan Sullivan plays Richard Castle's flamboyant actress mother on ABC's "Castle."
Susan Sullivan plays Richard Castle's flamboyant actress mother… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Sometimes Susan Sullivan, who plays the flamboyantly effervescent actress-mother of a mystery writer on ABC's hit "Castle," has needed a little career push.

And even a little padding.

While attending Hofstra University on Long Island 50 years ago on a drama scholarship, Sullivan was working in New York City doing showroom modeling to earn extra money.

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"There was this big ad in the New York Times for Playboy Bunnys," she recalled. "Not that I wanted the job or I could even do the job because I was in school, but I wanted to see the Playboy Club because in the 1950s Playboy magazine was erotic, exciting and dangerous."

So she put some padding in her bra, wore a slinky dress from the showroom and went for an audition. "You had to try on the outfit," said Sullivan, with a laugh. She told the woman running the audition that she wasn't voluptuous enough for the Bunny outfit.

"She said 'get over yourself, everybody is padded to the hilt,'" she recalled.

So Sullivan put on the pink Bunny outfit and became Bunny Sue on weekends at the Playboy Club in Manhattan while she finished her studies at Hofstra.

Her father provided the next push. When she graduated from Hofstra, Sullivan left her native New York for the venerable Cleveland Playhouse in Ohio.

"I wanted to be a theater actress, everybody did," said Sullivan, a vivacious 70-year-old who doesn't look much different than her days as the warm-hearted wife and mother Maggie on the 1981-89 CBS prime-time soap, "Falcon Crest."

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During a recent interview on her day off from "Castle," she's relaxing in the family room of her expansive designer house nestled in the hills off Mulholland Drive, which she shares with her companion of the past 25 years, psychologist and author Connell Cowan.

"I did a couple of seasons at the Cleveland Playhouse doing really major plays," noted Sullivan, who is still active in theater and is a member of the Antaeus Company and L.A Theatre Works.

But her father knew best. She needed to leave the security of the playhouse and come back to New York. "He said to me 'Susan, you are going to be there for the rest of your life if you don't leave now.' He was right."

Within weeks of moving back to New York in 1968, she made her Broadway debut opposite Dustin Hoffman in the play "Jimmy Shine."

A few years later, her longtime agent gave her another nudge. Sullivan was happily ensconced and making good money on the daytime soap "Another World." But in 1975, her agent thought she should test the waters in Hollywood. Sullivan finally agreed, but only if she had the option of returning to the soap after three weeks if she couldn't get an audition.

Near the end of her three-week trial, she read for the part of a girl in a bikini in the action-series "S.W.A.T."

"I was doing [the audition] and they said, 'How are your legs?'' she recalled. Sullivan said that she lifted up her skirt a bit and said "Help me mother, I am in L.A. with my skirt up to show them that my legs are fine. I got the part."

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With that her daytime soap career was over and her Hollywood career had begun. Sullivan's charm and talent have graced such TV movies, miniseries and feature films as "Rich Man, Poor Man — Book II," for which she received an Emmy nomination, "The Incredible Hulk" and "My Best Friend's Wedding."

She's been blessed to star in three hit series: "Castle," "Dharma & Greg" and "Falcon Crest," with the legendary Jane Wyman.

No one had to push Sullivan when it came to auditioning for the role of Martha Rodgers in "Castle," which stars Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle, a mystery writer who helps solve cases with NYPD detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). Castle shares his tony New York apartment with Martha and his teenage daughter Alexis (Molly C. Quinn).

"I think Susan is a remarkable actress and a fun actress," said Andrew W. Marlowe, the creator and executive producer of "Castle."

"I think her character was originally a lot broader," noted Marlowe. "But working with Susan and understanding what she could bring to the role — she could be broad and she could be grounded and be a terrific foil for Nathan's character — allowed us to actually evolve the character."

Sullivan imbued a lot of her late mother into the part ,especially Martha's joie de vivre.

"I even worked in one of her lines into the show," Sullivan said. "She would love to say-'Susan, you is who you is and if you ain't who you is, who is you?"'

susan.king@latimes.com

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