On Saturday, veteran actors Juli Erickson and Grant James will be honored for a body of work that spans more than five decades on the stage, in film and on television. The Video Association of Dallas will also pay tribute to the couple for their generosity in sharing their talents with Dallas-area filmmakers young and old, in a tribute at Dallas VideoFest 27.
“They are really, truly inspiring. We want to honor people who have had an impact and served our community,” says Bart Weiss founder and artistic director of the Dallas VideoFest and the Video Association of Dallas.
This is how they got here.
Lady acts a lot
In 1955, Juli Erickson was just hoping to land a job at the brand new Disneyland in California. And she got one—as a hula dancer on the Tahitian Terrace. “I remember how clean everything smelled and how the sun made everything glisten,” Erickson recalls fondly. “Mr. Disney used to walk through the park once a month and talk to everyone—he treated us wonderfully.”
“I was 15 at the time and when they told me anyone under the age of 16 had to be an entertainer, I didn’t know I couldn’t do it so I just did it!” she adds.
She learned the dance steps so quickly by going from the back of the line to the front, that the Disney staff encouraged her to do more. “Everybody helped each other then,” Erickson says. “We [Grant and I] have always tried to live up to that.”
She stayed busy for several years working in films, commercials, voiceovers and modeling while living in California, including in the Beach Blanket movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. She was also selected to be a contestant on game and quiz shows because of her upbeat, friendly and attractive personality. Erickson recalls working on the set of the the original version of You Bet Your Life, a comedy quiz show that aired on both radio and television, hosted by Groucho Marx of the Marx Brothers. As well as being flirtatious and of course, very witty, Erickson says Groucho’s show was partially scripted.
Years earlier she had married her high school sweetheart. In the mid-1970s the couple, along with their four children, left California for Idaho. There she did summer stock and kept busy auditioning and acting as much as she could.
“It fed that need in me – there’s something in here [pointing to her heart] that said to act, and I had to. That’s what I had to do and it was as simple as that,” Erickson says. She left Idaho and her marriage behind to pursue her passion.
In the early 1980s she moved to Texas where she continued to act and started a business as a children’s agent. She recalls a handsome young man, around 19 or 20 coming into her office one day. “He asked her politely, ma’am, do you think you might be able to represent me?
Erickson told him without hesitation, “I will for a little while.” The young man was confused by her answer and asked her what she meant. Erickson continued, “You’ll be gone, you’ll be in L.A.” And she was right. The young man was Matthew McConaughey.
For the next several years, based in Dallas, Erickson worked steadily in film and television throughout the country.
Sir acts a lot
Grant James’ started working on stage in the second grade when he was cast to play the largest goat in The Billy Goats Gruff.
“I got out on that stage and I said I belong here, but not as a goat!”
From that moment on, he wanted to be an actor.
Thanks to a crush James’ high school drama coach had on his younger sister, he got to study at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
“I told him if you write me a letter of recommendation, I will give you my sister. He wrote the letter and I did [give him my sister],” he guffawed. The two were married until his brother-in-law’s death a few years ago.
From there James earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and then a masters in theatre. He taught communications courses in England and Ecuador as well as in the U.S. His film career, which includes a role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, staring Brad Pitt; Tombstone, staring Kirk Russell; and a part in the soon-to-be-released Dumb and Dumber To, starring Jim Carrey, his career has taken him to more than 30 countries acting, writing and directing.
The couple admits that acting wasn’t considered a glamorous profession in the early days. There was concern from both sets of parents. When Grant told his father he wanted to study and be an actor, his father questioned him about how he would make a living. James was so convinced that he would succeed that he bet his father he would make more money than him the next year. And he did.
In 1980, James headed to Texas.
One agent, two hearts
On a spring morning in 1986 Erickson stopped by her agent’s office in Austin. While there she flipped through the headshot book on the table. Then she came across a man’s photo that caught her eye. “Oh, he’s cute,” she remarked to her agent who just happened to be James’ agent as well. She asked if he was married. Her agent said no. Erickson told her to tell him if he weren’t looking for some sweet young thing, she would like to meet him (Erickson is five years his junior).
James was working in the Texas Hill Country at the time. He got Erickson’s message, saw her headshot and said “wow!” A few days later she received a note from James that read: “Age is only important if you are a piece of cheese.”
Five months later on the fourth of July, two people claiming they had kissed their share of frogs and were as anti-marriage as they come, were married. Twenty-eight years later they are going strong. Between them they have 11 children, 42 grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren.
Working as a couple
“Of course it’s easy for us to have an instant relationship on screen, but we haven’t been cast as a couple as much as you would think because he is so tall and I am so short!” Erickson giggles. After all, she’s barely over five feet. He’s well over six.
But make no mistake about it; they understand what it takes to be in the business. “We audition separately as well as a couple,” Erickson says. “There is no jealousy if he’s working more than I am and visa versa. They liken themselves to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward or Hugh Cronin and Jessica Tandy—sustaining marriages with independent identities.
We are actors, that is what we do, not who we are,” Erickson says.
“You take that gift and you share it.”
Giving it out
Over the years Erickson and James have shared their gifts with many filmmakers who have benefited from their acting expertise. The couple explains what it is like working with young directors, including some of the challenges.
“I find that we have to reassure them that we want direction,” admits Erickson. “We want them to give us their input, so we can deliver the finished product that they see in their minds.”
James agrees with Erickson and adds, “The first thing we always seem to need to do is get them to stop apologizing for directing us. That in balance with: stop over-explaining the character or scene. In fact, much of this is a balancing act between experience and ego.”
James explains that many of the younger directors are more versed in technology than in human relations. “Most actors don't care whether you're shooting with a "Red" camera or a purple one! And, of course, younger directors [and writers] haven't lived long enough to understand what goes on in the human experience. I don't mean this to sound harsh. It’s just fact. Their wonderful brains haven't completely formed before 25.”
Fortunately, working with this gracious couple, these film students have learned a great deal. Erickson and James are comfortable enough in their own skin to be who they are and share what they know about acting. The result has been growth for all the actors, writers and directors they have lent their talent to the Dallas arts community.
And, they simply love being a part of it—as teachers, as competitors, as experienced professionals.
“Dallas is more like a community...a family, says Erickson. “Everyone helps each other. Yes, we may be in competition for the same role, but the only person you are really competing with is yourself. You can't be that 'other' person.”
James adds, “We live here because we choose to. Here, we can be ourselves and not be sucked into phony life styles. There’s virtually no nonsense.”
Erickson says that the most rewarding part of her career is the many friendships she has nurtured over the years. And for James, he recalls a lecture by Peter Ustinov he attended years ago. “He made me aware of the importance of learning everything you can about everything. The more you take in, the more you have to give out.”
And nurture and give out they have done and continue to do. With more than 200 films and TV projects to their credit, it’s no wonder this special honor will be bestowed on them.
Bart Weiss wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Theirs is the kind of selflessness that is rarely put forward in the world," he says. "And it’s important that we shine a light on them.”
» Grant James and Juli Erickson will be honored by Dallas VideoFest at 6:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19 at the Angelika Film Center Dallas.
» Read our story on Bart Weiss and this year's VideoFest here.
» To see the Dallas VideoFest schedule and info on dates, venues and pricing, go here.