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Photo Credit: Elizabeth Cleeland

By  Jan Lopreste


At the beginning of Highlander - The Series, Season Two, the audience was introduced to a new character names Joe Dawson.  What started out as a contract to do four episodes soon turned into a part that would bring Jim Byrnes into our hearts and our homes for the remainder of the run. My conversation with Jim Byrnes was like sitting down in a warm, comfortable chair ~ familiar and real.  With this interview I would like to bring you into that chair with me! Talking with Jim is not at  all what some people would think talking to a "star" might be like. That is because Jim Byrnes is a very real person and not at all assuming of his stardom or the fame that Highlander has brought to his life.  He's still just the "same old Joe."  How did he land the part of Joe Dawson?  Well, to answer that question, let's back up a bit further and find out how he got started in the business to begin with!


"Oh....ya know, it goes so far back!"  Jim laughs.  "I decided really as a kid all my life that's what I really wanted to do.  In high school I really got serious about theatre and every summer I did professional workshops. Went to NY every year to see all the shows on Broadway, all that stuff, and I majored in Theatre at Boston University.  And then, of course, the draft came along and I kind of got sidetracked a little bit."  He served several years in Vietnam.  "And then, at the end of all that I ended up having this car accident where I lost my legs." he says quietly. That accident happened in 1972.  Jim rarely mentions it.  He continues, "It was quite a long time......that's when I really started making my living, although I'd played music all my life, never really made a living at it, but then I started making my living as a musician.  But I kept getting out and going to auditions, trying to keep my ~ you know, every now and then I'd get involved with a play or something, and finally Wiseguy came along."  Jim played the character of "Lifeguard" in that series, and it was just the beginning of a long list of credits. 


"So, how did the part on Highlander land in your lap?"  I ask.


"Literally, my agent got a call who said that these guys start shooting in about 4 days and they are interested in seeing you.  I guess they had seen Wiseguy and stuff and knew me from that.  A lot of it was just the fact that I was in town.  They had originally thought that the part was going to be a British guy named Ian Dawson and they had offered it to a couple of pretty well known British actors and it was actually only for a guarantee of 4 episodes.  So anyway, they had turned it down or whatever, and they (the production company) were kind of under the gun, I guess...they were going to camera in a few days.  I happened to be in town and he said well, the producer would like to meet you.  I went down and I had some drinks with Bill Panzer and I was shooting a couple of days later!"


Hardly a mention of Highlander can now be made  without thinking of the wisecracking, head-strong, loyal friend to Duncan MacLeod that was Joe Dawson, or the man who made the character his own.  Jim acknowledges that when you play a character for that long, you do make "him" your own, and bring bits and pieces of yourself to the role. 


"How much are you and Dawson actually alike?"  I ask.


"Well, obviously there's a lot of things that are alike, although there's things that are different, too." Jim states.  Then, laughing, "I'm not quite as quick to pull a gun out of my coat!"  He's referring to the 4th Season episode of "Something Wicked" when Dawson shoots MacLeod to keep the "Evil Duncan" from taking Richie's head.


"We (almost) never interfere?"  I quip, quoting the Watcher's Creed.


"Yeah, right!"  Jim laughs.  He goes on to say more of how the role came to be.  "It's just a matter of taking the whole thing and it was not just my decision all of a sudden, you know when they shot some episodes and everybody had been in town and I said ‘Well, come on out and see the band' and everybody came out and then they realized that I could really play, etc...."


"And you decided to role that into the story line and the character of Joe?"


"Yeah, and then somebody ~ whether it was Bill or David or whatever ~ it was kind of like ‘Well, let's try this' and so my 2nd season (the show's 3rd season) Joe decided to get out of the book business and back into what he really loved, which was the bar business and it kind of, it gave everyone a, you know Joe's was a nice focal point to get the story told and get things done and it was a nice set where you could come in and make things happen, take the storyline from here to there and people felt comfortable with it."


Joe's did become a pivotal place in the show, so much so that a recent book release was named "Weekend at Joe's" - a compilation of writings by cast and crew in which Jim has a haunting entry called "Letters from Vietnam."


When I ask what his favorite episode of Highlander was he groans, then laughs, "Oooooh, you know that's impossible!!"  I sympathize, but won't let him off the hook.  He obviously enjoyed any episodes where a bit of Joe's life could be revealed and "Glory Days" comes to my mind - where Joe's old girlfriend came to town and we find out that he was once a football star. "Well, there was that one,  but before it was the one where the kid played me in Vietnam, (Brothers In Arms) and, of course, the episode with Marcia was great and I really liked all the stuff that we did at the end of 5 and the beginning of 6 (the Archangel Trilogy) because I really got a chance to really do something with those."


And "do something" he did.  In that story arc, Dawson is tempted by the demon Ahriman, who wants him to sell out MacLeod.  In exchange, he is offered the return of his legs and the chance to walk and run again.  This is an idea that came to David Abramowitz, head writer, but he was hesitant to do it, thinking it might be a little *too* real for Jim and hit a bit too close to home.  He brought the idea to Jim, and after much consideration, it was decided to go with the story.  Jim pulled on very real emotions to give one of the most memorable and powerful performances in his run of the role.


"That was some very powerful, powerful acting." I say, admiringly.


"Yeah, and that's what you want to do it for.  So many times, because of the nature of the show or the nature of the part I ended up just doing sort of the exposition or being the expository paragraph and so when I actually got to do something more than expose the story it was good." 


On a bit of a good-natured side line, I asked Jim a question that my son Nick wanted me to ask.  Originally, I was not going to include the exchange in this piece, but Jim gave such a great answer, with such insight as to who Joe Dawson really was, that I felt compelled to include it here.


"Well, now, in "Something Wicked" and "Deliverance" when Duncan took that evil quickening, this question is from our roving Jr. reporter.  Nicholas would like to know how did it make Joe Dawson feel to see his friend turn evil like that?"  I ask.


"Well, obviously it was tough.  I mean, anybody who's your friend, when you see changes in people that are not, that you don't think are positive, and it's someone that you care so much about it goes to the, you really have to do some soul-searching and it was a tough time.  But, you realize that something's gotta be done and you also realize that there's a reason for this beyond your own personal involvement, that there's gotta be some deeper reason and you try to find that and see what you can do about it."  This is, perhaps, a bit of Jim's personal philosophy of life, as well. 


"Now, the chemistry between Joe and Duncan obviously came across very clear on the screen, and you have to believe in some way that there's that same chemistry between Jim and Adrian."


"That was part of the thing when I got involved with the show, they had a cast and a crew that had been together for a year and I kind of came in as the new guy and that's a little bit of a daunting project, but we got on right away.  Just because, I mean, at first, it's just a matter of, when you go on set and see somebody who's serious about their work, who takes care of business and so you start out and hope you'll have some respect for one another's craft, right?  And then, out of there, either a personal relationship grows or it doesn't and we got along and that was part of the deal when I came in, I was just gonna do 4 shows and 'whatever' was gonna happen. But everybody, cast and crew, we all got along.  It was more than just a professional 'roll 'em and cut' sort of thing and beyond ~ in the times other than that ~ there was a relationship that formed, too, and it was a good one.  A positive one."


The conversation turns at this point to Endgame, and how Jim first saw the finished product.  We had gotten a tip that he had seen the film with Adrian and Elizabeth. "How did that go?"  I ask.


"Well, it was fun!  It was completely, just a few days before, Adrian had phoned and said he was thinking of coming to see a friend of his up here (in Vancouver) and would I be interested, so he was comin' on up and it was a lot of fun.  And it just so happened that Elizabeth was here too and it just happened to be completely by chance that everybody was in town at the same time.."


"Well, that's fun though."  I comment.


"Oh, boy."   He laughs heartily.  Why do I get the feeling that "fun" doesn't begin to describe that evening?  I mean, imagine that trio walking into a movie theatre, ordering tickets and going and sitting down with the general public!  And knowing how Adrian and Elizabeth act like a couple of little kids whenever they're together, it must have been a riot!  Jim, diplomatically, does not comment further!


"What did you think of it?"  I ask.


"Well, you know, a couple of the scenes that we did, you know, stuff gets cut.  It's sort of like an amusement park ride!"  He laughs.  I agree wholeheartedly, also laughing.  "Which is what it's supposed to be.  I think we were able to, on the show ~ on the series ~ delve more into character and motivation and stuff, whereas this, because the powers that be wanted it to be an action piece...."  He trails off.


"Fast and furious and down your throat?"  I offer.


"Yeah, it's definitely fast and furious." chuckling again.


"Yeah, we were definitely encouraging people to see it more than once because the first time you're holding your breath."  I comment.


"Yeah, you're right and I'll probably go back now and see it again cause it's sort of like getting on the roller coaster and it has that same sort of effect.   I mean, 85 minutes.  It goes by pretty fast."


"When we talked the other day you mentioned that you had some new music projects in the works with Tim Hearsey (one of his band members) and something with Don Paonessa?  Tell me a little more about that."


"Well, it's gonna be pretty much just all acoustics ~ just a couple of guitars ~ and while  I don't know exactly what it's going to grow in to be, it's something that we've started working on.  We're working on the material and we're kind of shooting when we're sitting in the living room or in the studio trying to, you know, from the idea of a song until we're actually gonna perform it somewhere."  He explains.


"Oh, neat!  Kind of like "the process" of a song?" 


"Yeah, right, exactly.  We're gonna shoot a lot of the creative process and just have the camera rolling while we sit around and do things and then at some point we'll put on a concert somewhere and do all the stuff and shoot all that and see how it all comes together."


"Sounds wonderful!"  This would sell, wouldn't it?  I know I would buy one!

 "Yeah, I am pretty excited about it."  And I know all of Jim's fans will be excited and happy  that there is more music in the future for us to enjoy!

 "I hear that you work with something called the Variety Club Telethon?  What is that all about?"

 "I do Variety both here and in St. Louis every year, and it's just ~ you know what the Variety Club is, it raises money for children with disabilities ~ and I generally do, there's here that I do every year and I've been doing for God-knows how many years.  It's 20 years or whatever, and then there's the one in St Louis as well.  Depending on scheduling, I get over to Suskatchewan sometimes and I've done Winnepeg and I've gone down to Toronto and even done one in Los Angeles.  Variety is a great organization and it raises money for children with disabilities, and it's as simple as that.  Generally, it consists of probably singing a couple of songs, and doing some on-air hosting, that's generally what I end up doing."  Jim explains.

 "Well, one of our members, Lois Grubb, said that she and a group of her friends really had a great time when they came out to St. Louis last year. She mentioned that you performed at a club?"

 "Yeah, generally every year I tie it in to, when I go down to St. Louis I've got friends who own clubs and we put together a little, in fact this last year we had Lou Rawles was also in town doing something and so we borrowed Lou's bass player and drummer and (Mike) Kalange was with me so we went down to my buddie's club on the river and did the Lou Rawles rythym section and me and mike and it's fun.  We do something like that every year."  

 "If you had an opportunity, and you do, to say anything at all to your fans, what would you like to say to them?"  I offer.

 "I'd just really give them my thanks for their support adn their love and I appreciate it.  We've tried to do a good job on our end, and everybody sure has supported us.  Gotta give 'em a bow for that, and thanks for the blessing." 


Blessing is a good choice of words, here, because I am sure we all feel the same way about Jim.  Thanks for the blessing, sir.  You have touched our lives in wonderful ways and we thank you.  When next we meet, remind me that I owe you "a cold one". 


Jim shares some of his great stories and jokes at Legacy 2000


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