“There’s something about agriculture that gets into your reptile brain,” says the actor Bill Pullman. It first entered his in 1985 when, on a visit to Los Angeles, he encountered a tree heavy with oranges in the middle of someone’s tidy front yard. He couldn’t resist plucking one. “It was warm from the sun,” he recalls. “The sugar content was amazing.” But as he stood there, on the verge of another bite, he heard a window whoosh open, and an angry voice shooed him off the lawn. Ever since that epiphany—that “zing,” as he puts it—Pullman has been obsessed with fruit: growing it, eating it and sharing it with neighbors. These days, he and his wife, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, have a home orchard where they love to host what he calls “old-fashioned threshing parties,” with friends and family pitching in to harvest and preserve—and taste—whatever’s in season.
For Pullman, who will headline the new NBC sitcom 1600 Penn this fall, fruit is not just an eccentric diversion. With an acre of mostly exotic trees in his backyard and a thriving nonprofit called Hollywood Orchard (hollywoodorchard.org), which harvests fruit from neighborhood trees for use by local food banks, Pullman’s obsession might constitute a second career.
Before moving to Los Angeles, Pullman had read up on sustainable agriculture and was determined to find a “south-facing solar catchment” someplace on a hillside, where he could construct terraces—an ancient Incan technique for maximizing scarce water resources. Serendipitously, the plot he and Tamara found, in Beachwood Canyon, was already home to a white sapote, three Marsh grapefruit and (zing!) five orange trees. Over the last 20 years, Pullman has been adding to his orchard, acquiring rare berries and stone fruits the way other movie stars collect Italian sports cars. He now maintains more than 40 different species: kumquats and loquats, Persian mulberries and persimmons, jujubes and jaboticabas (a grapelike import from Brazil).
Last year, with a camera crew in tow, he set out to sample exotic fruits he’d never tried before and meet the far-flung farmers who grew them. The result of this odyssey is a film called The Fruit Hunters, by Canadian director Yung Chang, which is due for release this fall. At a mango festival in Miami, Pullman discovered varieties that tasted like piña colada and orange sherbet. In Hawaii he braved the durian, a fruit with a notorious aroma that has been likened to surgical swabs and vomit. (He was aided in the latter endeavor by the fact that he lost his sense of smell in the 1970s—it’s a long story involving Henrik Ibsen, a human pyramid and a fjord.)
Along the way, Pullman picked up valuable farming advice. From an expert on Hawaii’s Big Island, he learned to be “more mercenary about pruning.” Allowing a specimen to keep growing because he liked the foliage was a prodigious misuse of water. “Get over it, Pullman,” the expert admonished.
This waste-not ethos was the inspiration for Pullman’s most recent pickling-and-preserving party, with chefs Ernest Miller of Farmer’s Kitchen and Minh Phan of Beachwood Cafe, whom Pullman calls the “guiding lights” of the Hollywood Orchard project. Miller prepared a fig, orange and pistachio conserve, while Phan made salty-sweet pickled plums to stir into sodas that everyone sipped as they huddled around the old farm table in the front yard, cheerfully pitting and slicing. The Pullmans’ daughter, Maesa, dropped by, along with a couple of neighbors.
Pullman’s involvement in The Fruit Hunters and Hollywood Orchard is partly a way to create a community after decades of reticence about his fruit obsession. “People don’t like hyphenates,” says the farmer-actor, so he rarely discussed agriculture with movie-industry colleagues. And yet, today, backyard farming has become hip. Little did Pullman know he was onto the Next Big Thing. He wouldn’t call himself a trendsetter, but he admits, “I’ve kind of figured something out here.”
Lila Byock is a Los Angeles-based writer who has contributed to The New Yorker and Mother Jones.