To hear some tell it, Rob Morrow doesn't just play Joel Fleischman on TV, he IS Fleischman: an arrogant, rude, egocentric, nitpicking, insensitive, drive-you-nuts kinda guy.
They call Morrow creepy, ominous, a jerk, a snob, a spoiled brat star. Then they start with the unprintable words.On "Northern Exposure," the CBS Monday-night hit series Morrow is leaving, one director described him as "the first actor I've ever had who was absolutely undirectable."
But others around the show find him a perfectly acceptable fellow committed to his craft.
"I think he's a nice guy," said one crew member, joining a couple of others who said they've had no problems with Morrow they haven't had with other actors. "It's a pretty taxing business. A lot of times people just have an off day."
But, as Morrow himself argues, it's too easy to label him just one or the other, the well-meaning Dr. Jekyll or despicable Mr. Hyde.
He's some of both, according to John Cullum, whose 38 years as an actor, some as a Tony-winning Broadway star, encompass the entire life of Morrow, 32.
"All the things you write negative about Rob are going to have a grain of truth in them," Cullum said, "and all of the things that I will say positive about him have a grain of truth."
Cullum (Holling Vincoeur on "Northern Exposure") said Morrow "is a talented guy, who has a lot of energy and sense of responsibility, a lot of drive, and he works harder than almost anybody, as hard as most stars work."
Morrow, who has lived in the Seattle area for four and a half years while shooting "Northern Exposure" in Redmond and Roslyn, Wash., has chosen to leave the series early, even though he's finally at a place where he could, in his words, "make the big bucks."
He said he doesn't like the increasing confinement of playing the same role for 100 episodes or the breakneck pace of weekly TV, and he's afraid of career complacency nursed by financial security.
Instead, he'll pursue films, fast on the heels of his first high-profile feature role in Robert Redford's "Quiz Show."
That movie earned Morrow a mixed bag of praise and pans. He's also being critically hammered for a new book of candid photos he took on "Northern Exposure" sets and locations, a collection he says is more for fans than lovers of photography, his longtime hobby.
But Morrow said he reads critical reviews and stories about himself less and less.
"I'm adopting more of a casual attitude about it," he said, "because ultimately my work is what's important to me. The game that gets played on the periphery is not that significant in the long run."
It's significant, however, to his colleagues on "Northern Exposure." Many mark him down for "works well with others."
"He's so involved in his own problems - and young people are that way - that he has a tendency not to see other people's problems," Cullum said.
"I don't condone or admire that behavior in other people, any more than I condone or admire it in myself, because I have been exactly the same way. I have been arrogant and I have treated people badly, and I've forced issues when it concerned my career in a way that looked ugly and self-serving and totally ruthless, but I also happen to know it's a ruthless, cutthroat business."
Morrow's problems, Cullum said, are born of a complicated parentage: self-focused dedication to his work ... pressure of being a lead actor ... immaturity ... pressure to be as good as he says he is ... not knowing how to handle the power earned by his talent ... playing a character not particularly likable ... and believing in the illusions created by being catered to as a star.
In the future, Cullum said, Morrow will meet up with his past.
"Sooner or later he'll find out what he can only find out with experience," he said, "and that is, you eventually end up paying for everything. It all comes around. That'll be the test of whether Rob really is a strong person. And I think he is. I think he'll come out of this great. I just hope he turns out as nice a guy in the future as I know he can be in the present."
Morrow feels he has made progress during his run on "Northern Exposure."
"The lessons I have learned here will carry me for the rest of my life, both about my craft and about working with people," he said in a recent, wide-ranging interview.
"Some of us have different approaches to the work. If you want to be in a comfortable environment, you have to learn to embrace other people's differences."
Tackling the criticism aimed at him, Morrow echoed Cullum's words, saying "there's probably a grain of truth" in the personal shots fired his way.
"I'm certainly fallible," he said. "I'm certainly capable of making mistakes. I'm certainly capable of having a temper and yelling for something that may be trivial.
"But I'm not ... megalomaniacal. I don't see it as MY show. ... I am completely sensitive to other people and their needs. I wouldn't want anyone to be having a bad trip on my account."
For the most part, he said, his image has been poisoned by venomous critics - for reasons he can't fathom - or cast and crew who don't understand how he works.
"Acting is a very self-involved, at times narcissistic pursuit," Morrow said."I love my craft. It's religion to me. ... I take it seriously and I'm passionate about it and I stand up for what I believe."
As practiced by Morrow, it's an approach that exudes what Cullum calls hubris, an arrogance born of pride or passion. Such arrogance is common to talented people and easy to criticize, Cullum added, "but if you don't have it to a certain extent, then you don't deserve to be at the top."
As Morrow continues his climb up the career ladder, he leaves behind some who feel he trampled them.
"I don't know anyone among the 150 people I work with who likes him," said one prominent person on "Northern Exposure."
For four years, Morrow's Fleischman has been a pesky New York fly caught in a sticky mix in Cicely, Alaska, whose townfolk couldn't shoo him away, much as they wanted to at times.
In the same way, some in the cast and crew couldn't rid themselves of Morrow, much as they might have fantasized. Now it's about to happen.
His character is in the midst of a storyline that will write Joel Fleischman out of the series.
In his final episode, called "The Quest," Fleischman and O'Connell set out to find the fabled "Jeweled City of the North." Barring a TV miracle, we will see no more of Fleischman, or Morrow, on the show. Some staffers on "Northern Exposure" - many, if a recent round of random interviews was representative - will find that a relief.
Morrow isn't the lone target of criticism on the show. His co-star, Turner, is infamous for quirky demands and over-the-top tantrums.
"I think the producers would have been happy if a script had put (Fleischman and O'Connell) on a plane and had it crash and the show went on without them," said one industry representative with connections to both the cast and crew and the production company.
But executive producer/writer Diane Frolov chose a positive line to address Morrow's actions on "Northern Exposure" and his departure.
"We all value Rob. We don't want to see him go," she said.
In fact, according to Morrow, he wanted to leave after last season but was asked to return for 13 episodes so Fleischman's farewell could be handled creatively.
"There is no war going on (with Morrow)," Frolov said. "There's nothing like that. Rob wants to leave the show. He's been unhappy, and this is going to make him happy.
"Just say we are parting on good terms, and let Rob speak to his own behavior."
Apart from Frolov and Cullum, those interviewed about Morrow, while they freely shared anecdotes and opinions, were not willing to be named, for fear of career damage, even if they took his side.
Many were forgiving of Turner's wild mood swings, but Morrow was seen by some as one who could and should do better.
Said a former crew member, who has been around many shows and stars: "He is a perfectionist and remains focused when he works. He's concerned about the quality of the product, and I think that's good.
"But there's a balance that other cast members and other people in the industry have found. They put out quality product and remain focused, but they don't completely disregard those around them in the process. Much, much bigger stars (than Morrow) have managed to do that."
Maybe, said Cullum, "if he were confident of himself, he wouldn't be so aggressively superior in his attitude."
Morrow is a loner on the set, which offends some who feel he could at least nod, smile or say "hi." He took flak in print for ignoring a little girl when he walked past her on location.