Never too old for John Jay
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog correspondent Adam Stern recently sat down in John Jay Dining Hall to speak with Brad Sullivan over a plate of eggs and hash-browns. Brad Who-ivan? Well, the answer to that question lies in another. It is a question that we have all asked ourselves at some point while sitting in the first-year dining hall: Who is that old guy eating over there? Why is he here? Man, he looks so familiar. I know I have seen him somewhere before… Brad Sullivan is “that guy” from films including Sister Act II and The Untouchables.
Can you tell us a little about Brad Sullivan, the early years?
I was born in Chicago, but when I started high school my family moved to Cape Cod. I went to the University of Maine and got a degree in agriculture. The army interrupted my time there, so I did not actually graduate until 1957. The Korean War was on in 1952 and I was not in ROTC, so I was subject to the draft. I was in a rifleman infantry company and spent time in Korea both during the war and after.
How did you make the move from agriculture to acting?
I love farming, but agriculture was precarious. Where was I going to do farming? I remember that while I was in Korea I was sitting in a foxhole and I started to think about those posters that you see around campus that advertise auditions for this play or that play. When I went back to the University of Maine I tried out for acting parts and I took elective courses in acting. I eventually came to New York to the American Theatre Wing, which is now defunct. I got a degree there and then I pursued the business. It took over thirty years before I finally knew I had a career in acting.
Some students on campus might recognize you from your roles in The Untouchables, Bushwacked, and Sister Act II. What had been your experience in the acting world?
I’m glad I went into acting. I am in three unions, so I get three pensions. I’m not messed around like if I were in corporate America. I am grateful to the Lord for that. Counting my training, I was in the business for 45 years. About 4 years ago I stopped because I got tired of living out of a suitcase. The last job I did before I retired was on Law and Order. I am done acting, but I always wanted to play a missionary doctor, preferably to Asia. If God brings that on, then I’ll go.
Are there any roles that you particularly enjoyed playing?
Two of the most gratifying roles I played were I’ll Fly Away, a television show about the 1960s civil rights movement. It must have been on NBC. The other was Nothing Sacred, which was on ABC. Those are my favorite. They are award-winning shows, but they are things people don’t look at. That is also why I am no longer in the business. I am not into sitcoms— they are the lowest of the low. I also remember that there were two jobs I was fired from. A role in a play and a regular character on a television series. It is just as well. I wasn’t comfortable in the roles. What is worse, to be dismissed before the show begins or to stay on and open in it and get lousy reviews? I would have gotten lousy reviews.
I can remember seeing you eating in John Jay Dining Hall as early as my first-year here in 2002. What is your relationship to Columbia?
I have been at Columbia for five years. I originally came to audit a course, which is the only official connection I have ever had to the university. I got to know the Christians on campus and became involved in the International Christian Fellowship. We have dinners and Bible studies and other activities. Volunteer-type things, get to know the students. Got to know everybody, it is great.
Have you been involved in Christian groups for long?
I have been a Christian interested in International Christian Ministry for a long time. I started doing Christian work with the staffs in Chinese restaurants around the city beginning in the early 1990s. I remember I was doing a Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending, and then filmed a version for television. When I got back from that I started. During the matinees I would go over to West Side Cottage for some food and got to know some of the people who worked there. I would share ministry with them and pick things up for them from Chinatown. Then I wanted to expand to Columbia.
If you are not officially a student, why do you eat at John Jay hall? What is the appeal?
I just love to eat here. It is cheap when you think about it. They don’t make any money off of me. If I were in a restaurant and had bacon, toast, coffee, a waffle, an omelet, it would be way more that the prices at John Jay. I won’t come here more that twice a week, though, I would just eat too much. When I was at the University of Maine we were lucky to get seconds if they had any left over. It was nothing like today. I keep a record of what I eat. The fat, the fiber, and the calories that I burn in a day. They also have a new head chef and the chefs they have are good. Someone once told me that these colleges get top chefs. Some get burnt out in the restaurant business and apply to universities, because the hours are good and the money is good.
Other than your work on campus, how have you been spending your retirement?
I also do tutoring. There is a middle school over there, Booker T. Washington. I went to a parent teacher conference once with a friend who didn’t speak English (I had met him in one of the Chinese restaurants). After that, the teacher got me involved in going on field trips and tutoring students. It’s really about being a mentor. A lot of Chinese want to learn English, so also I do conversational English with them. It is all volunteer, I don’t want to get paid for any of it.