KELSEY MCNEAL, FOX
Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) just before he sacrificed himself to save the life of the president on Fox's "24."

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — James Morrison wasn't so much surprised that his character suddenly exited "24" (8 p.m., Ch. 13) last week — in a body bag.

He was, however, kind of surprised that his character was still around 75 episodes after he debuted in 2005.

"I was only supposed to be there for one episode," said Morrison. "There was no indication of history or future, and that's what made it so much of a challenge and so exciting, actually."

Right till the end, when Buchanan set off an explosion that killed him and some of the terrorists who had invaded the White House. And allowed Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the FBI to take out the rest of the terrorists.

Morrision almost didn't audition for what became a most high-profile role. He was about to fly to Hawaii on a family vacation when his manager called and told him he had to meet "24's" casting director.

"I said, 'I can't go. I'm heading out in the morning,' "

"He said, 'No, you'll have to send your family without you and come and audition for this.' And so I did," said Morrison, who met his family two days later.

And a single episode turned into three seasons — first as Jack's hard-nosed superior/nemesis, then as an ally.

Bill went from being sort of a buttoned-down bureaucrat to a man of action. This season, we saw Buchanan running a rogue operation counter to the evil forces that infiltrated the top levels of the American government. And he was "in the thick of the action."

"I think, knowing Jack Bauer, you can't meet that guy and spend much time with him without being changed — irreparably," Morrison said with a laugh.

Saving the world on "24" is a long way from his birthplace in Bountiful, where he lived until he moved to Alaska when he was 9.

"I actually went back and forth quite a bit as I was growing up," Morrison said. "I still have family in Salt Lake and West Bountiful, though."

And he has done quite a bit of theater work in Utah.

"I used to work with Salt Lake Acting Company all the time," Morrison said. "I did my first play there in the mid-'70s. I've had a play produced there, I've directed some plays there.

"So all of the theater community in the Salt Lake area are dear, dear friends. I have some solid roots there."

And his Salt Lake theater friends have been happy to see his success.

"They love it. But to them, I'm still Jimmy," he said. "We're buddies. It's like family. It doesn't matter what you do, you're still who you are."

Morrison didn't necessarily see Buchanan's end coming when it did, but he also knew it could happen at any time. With all the characters "24" has killed off over the years, you know nobody is safe.

"It's Jack's world and we just live in it," Morrison said. "It's a one-character, plot-driven experience, and the satellites like myself, they're just making it up as they go."

We've seen the last of Bill Buchanan — the producers promise that, unlike Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), Bill won't be coming back from the dead. But we haven't seen the last of Morrison on network TV.

Next up, he'll be appearing in the final two episodes of "Private Practice" this season. And, apparently, there's a chance it could turn into something more long-lasting.

"But I've had a great time (on '24')," Morrison said. "It's been a great experience."

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