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His own universe

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'Torchwood' star flies high in series and as singer, actor, host

Meet Capt. Jack Harkness, prime time's newest superhero.

Brash, bold and unafraid to take on the grisliest aliens, he roams the universe with a confident air and the uniform of a World War II flyboy. Though based in present-day Cardiff, Wales, he has an American accent and a habit of referring to the 51st century the way lesser mortals might talk about last year, last night or three weeks from Friday.

Actually, he's not a mortal at all. The 51st century? Been there, done that.

Jack is the hero of "Torchwood," a "Doctor Who" spinoff that makes its U.S. debut this weekend on the BBC America channel. He's played by John Barrowman, whose resume, while not quite as remarkable as the Captain's. is fairly unusual. too.

Born in Scotland 40 years ago, Barrowman grew up in Aurora and Joliet, Ill. after his father's corporate relocation.

His first professional performing job, shortly after high school, was at Nashville's Opryland USA, but a return to Britain soon found him singing on the London stage in "Anything Goes," "Miss Saigon" and "The Phantom of the Opera."

He played Che Guevara in a Norwegian production of "Evita." On Broadway, he sang with Carol Burnett in the Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together." In 2002. he even brought his one-man show to Milwaukee's Stackner Cabaret.

While all this was going on. the alarmingly handsome Barrowman attracted the attention of American TV producers, who cast him in a pair of soapy, over-the-top dramas, CBS' 1995-'96 "Central Park West" and NBC's 2000-'01 "Titans."

He's also been hosting and guesting on British variety, talk and music shows for 14 years. And in 2006, the recurring character he had played on the BBC's venerable "Doctor Who" (seen in the United States on PBS and the Sci Fi Channel, as well as BBC America) was spun off into a series of his own, "Torchwood" — whose title, by the way, is an anagram of its parent series'.

A former prison of war and con artist, Jack was killed in "Who" while opposing the unspeakable Daleks but was resurrected as an immortal.

In "Torchwood," he leads a clandestine organization of the same name that, a voice-over informs us, is "outside the government (and) beyond the police."

The Torchwood team's primary mission is to fight alien incursions in and around Cardiff, which are surprisingly frequent and imaginatively varied.

As enigmatic as he is assertive, Jack is also bisexual.

In Season 2, he has an erotic encounter with a rogue played by James Marsters, the former Spike of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"He'll shag anything," a "Torchwood" colleague dryly observes of Jack, "if it's gorgeous enough."

In the U.K., the actor's personal life has received nearly as much attention as his professional one. In December, a kilt-clad Barrowman was united in a civil ceremony with his partner of 13 years, architect Scott Gill. In attendance were family, friends, "Torchwood" cast mates and the couple's beloved spaniels.

"What a day it was," gushed gushy OK! Magazine, "complete with frisky floppy-eared pups, cheeky kilt-raisings and lashings of delightful kisses!

Add in that the Times of London has called Barrowman a "national treasure" and that Capt. Jack has his own action figure, and its quite a biography.

Which, in fact, was just the thought of the people at the U.K.'s Michael O'Mara Books, who recently asked the actor to write his life story for publication.

Book report

His first response to the O'Mara people, the actor said this summer in an interview with TV critics in Los Angeles, was no thanks.

"I was quite surprised that they asked, because I don't really think I'm old enough to be penning such a thing," he said. Besides, added Barrowman, whose off-camera vocabulary is as colorful as Jack's on-screen adventures, as a writer, "I have no (bleeping) clue."

The actor would consent to the project, he told the publishers, only if he could dictate his memoir to his sister, Carole, a professor of English at Milwaukee's Alverno College who also happens to write book reviews and an occasional feature for the Journal Sentinel.

"I'm dictating into an iPod, and she takes it away and puts it onto the page," John Barrowman said.

"She does all the work, but they wanted me to say I was writing it. But I wouldn't have anything to do with that. I said. it's about me, but my sister will get the credit as the author on the book.

"It's my stories of my career, my trials, my tribulations, exciting things that have happened to me, my family situations, all sort of things."

At this point in the session with critics, the actor introduced his sister, who had been sitting quietly at the back of the room. Or, rather, she introduced herself in the following manner:

John: "I'm from a very close, tight-knit family, and my sister knows everything about me, so I have no problem telling her all this stuff.

"There's a couple of times she goes, 'Eeewww, I don't want to know,' but I think she's slightly got ... "

Carole, from the back of the room, helpfully: "Actually, five times."

John, unabashed: "Yeah, five times. (But) I think she's got over that."

That evening, at a BBC America party to promote "Torchwood" and another new series, "Hotel Babylon," I sat down to talk with Capt. Jack's sister and official biographer.

Carole Barrowman, who bears a decided resemblance to her eight-years-younger brother, was a teenager when the family left Glasgow.

Like John, she can enter Glaswegian mode at will, with "Scottish" pronounced "Scaw-ish" and "heard" emerging as "haird." But most of the time, she sounds like the Milwaukee and Wauwatosa lass she's been for the last 20 years.

"Being a ghostwriter wasn't really something I aspired to," she told me. "But John said he wouldn't do it otherwise — and I'm getting a percentage ci the profits.

"I've never taken a summer off in my 20 years of teaching, so he said, 'What would you need to make (to take time off to write the book)?'"

She smiled.

"He was very good about negotiating a deal."

Storied past

Early in the summer, Carole spent six weeks on the "Torchwood" set in Wales as John and the rest of the cast shot the second season.

"He doesn't have a lot of down time, but when he was sitting in his trailer I probed him for stories." she explained. 'Mostly what we did was act silly and laugh a lot."

When neither of them could recall the details of a childhood escapade, they'd call their parents, John Sr. and Marion, who now divide their time between Brookfield and Florida.

Not all the stories were funny.

"John was bullied a lot in high school, which I never knew." Carole said.

"When he came out (as a gay man), I think it was in the U.K., (the family) was, Like, 'OK, no big surprise."'

Years ago, she recalled, "he did a scene in 'Central Park West' where he was supposed to jog. Well, John does not jog. I called him up and told him, 'John, that was such a gay jog!'"

In addition to talking to the "Torchwood" cast and crew, she interviewed Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose music John has frequently performed and recorded, and David Tennant, who plays Doctor Who. She's still hoping to get Ian McKellen — Gandalf of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy — who, like John, is an activist for gay causes in Britain and beyond.

Though her graduate work was in British history and literature and the evolution of literacy among women, she has more lately been teaching advanced writing, mystery and science fiction at Alverno.

Yes, of course. she said, she'll definitely mention her "Torchwood" experience in class this fall.

She smiled again: "I always get extra points for bringing in stuff about him, because he's so ... cute."

Carole has been working on the final manuscript. which is ducat the publishers in October.

A role model for gay Brits

In addition to the "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" anecdotes calculated to bring in the fans, the book will also recount John's emergence as a role model for young gay men in Britain, who send him heartfelt e-mails talking about their experiences and thanking him for his public stand.

It will contain the story, already well-reported in the British press, about John auditioning for the lead in "Will & Grace" and being told he was "too straight" for the part. And it will feature this encounter with the late Aaron Spelling, producer of the short-lived "Titans," and a fellow cast member much more famous for her work on "Dallas."

"I was with (Spelling) in his office, and the butler came in with sandwiches," John Barrowman told critics.

"We were talking about (Barrowman's) character, and there was a phone call. He answered the phone and said, 'John, I just want to introduce you to somebody. She's going to come in. I'd like you two to meet.' "

The door opened, and in came Victoria Principal.

"She's going to play your mom," Spelling told Barrow-man.

The actor happened to be on another phone at the time, speaking to his own mom.

"I went, 'Mother, for (bleep's) sake, Pamela Ewing is my mom!'

"And Victoria just looked at me, and she went, 'I am really going to like you.'"


What "Torchwood"

When: 8 p.m. Saturday. Repeated 11p.m. Saturday: 4 p.m. and midnight Sunday

Where: BBC America (available on satellite and digital cable systems)


John Barrowman was killed in "Doctor Who" but has been resurrected as Capt. Jack Harkness in BBC America's new "Torchwood." On the side, he is working with his sister Carole, a professor at Alverno College, on his biography.

Some think of John Barrowman as a "national treasure'

Carole Barrowman is writing her brother's story.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to

  • APA 6th ed.: Weintraub, Joanne (2007-09-05). His own universe. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel p. Cue, p. 1.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Weintraub, Joanne. "His own universe." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [add city] 2007-09-05, Cue, p. 1. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Weintraub, Joanne. "His own universe." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, edition, sec., 2007-09-05
  • Turabian: Weintraub, Joanne. "His own universe." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2007-09-05, section, Cue, p. 1 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=His own universe | url= | work=Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | pages=Cue, p. 1 | date=2007-09-05 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=16 April 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=His own universe | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=16 April 2024}}</ref>