JON VOIGHT TELLING
IT AS IT IS
Copyright 2001 National Post Online
[ December 24th 2001 ]
not until the man crosses the hotel's dim hallway
and stops at your feet that you can be sure it's
Jon Voight. Wearing a crisp pair of khakis, Rockports
and a sky- blue sweater that looks like a sensible
Christmas present, Voight seems more like somebody's
golf-happy father than a movie star. Which is
appropriate, given that he has come to be known
as Angelina Jolie's daddy.
you through a doorway into a small hotel room.
Reading Voight's face, you can't help but be reminded
of his daughter. The two share the same small,
flat features and blue feline eyes. But then,
as the 62-year-old actor lowers himself on to
the couch, something else emerges. He regards
you sternly, and you're caught off guard by the
intense, Christopher Walken-ish aura that rears
its head. He sits still, like an animal about
to pounce on its prey. There's definitely something
sinister about him, even if he does have a cellphone
dorkily clipped to one of his hips. And for all
the tabloid reports of his daughter's blood vials
and liplocks with her brother, it's the father
in the preppy clothes who seems frightening.
Voight leaped into the public's consciousness
when he played a male prostitute in the moody
Midnight Cowboy. He pressed on for the next decade,
playing one smouldering leading man after the
next. His role as a damaged Vietnam veteran in
Coming Home won him a best actor Oscar in 1978.
in the early Eighties, at the same time he was
getting over his divorce from Angelina's mother,
Marcheline Bertrand, Voight's career calmed down
some. He looks back on that period now as the
darkest of his life. It wasn't until the early
Nineties that Voight reappeared on the moviegoing
radar. No longer young enough to compete with
the likes of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, Voight
was reborn as a character actor. In the past five
years alone, he has taken on almost 20 film roles,
including a creepy stint in Tomb Raider. He played
Angelina Jolie's father.
if he isn't a heartthrob any more, Voight still
takes care of himself. He exercises and swallows
15 vitamin pills a day. On the table across from
him sit a cup of herbal tea, a glass of water
and a whole wheat roll. Voight takes dainty sips
of the liquids, but does not dare touch the roll.
Michael Mann's Muhammad Ali biopic (released tomorrow),
Voight has taken on another character role. He
plays sports journalist Howard Cosell, the infamous
host of ABC's Wide World of Sports. While this
role could be clumped together with all the others
from the second part of Voight's career, it surpasses
them. Voight is by far the best supporting actor
in Ali, projecting a touching blend of warmth
and gravity that could very well lead to an Oscar
nomination. It seems Voight is embarking on Act
suggestion that this role carries Voight into
the next stage of his career, the actor seems
to sadden, as if he was just told he is about
to die. "This is," he says, appearing to be taken
aback, "I don't know what it is, the last phase
of it -- I'm going toward that."
was raised in Brooklyn during the Depression.
He studied law and used his legal training to
engage athletes in hard-hitting dialogues that
went beyond the standard superficial sports chatter.
Before he was a television star, he would appear
at his subjects' doors bearing a clunky recording
device. "He aspired to do more with sports journalism
than just reportage," says Voight. "He approached
his responsibilities as a journalist like a warrior.
He suffered bigotry against Jewish people growing
up. He was hurt, injured," Voight winces. "He
fell into sports because it was relief in the
time of difficulty."
is eager to discuss Cosell's character, which
he has researched thoroughly. While Will Smith
was busy piling on 30 pounds of muscle to play
boxing legend Ali, Voight was hunkered down in
a library carrel, reading up on the kid from Brooklyn
who made good. Throughout the interview, Voight
repeatedly refers to Xeroxed pages from Cosell's
autobiography, and reads aloud from highlighted
passages with the passion of a young actress at
her first audition.
also studied a tape of Cosell wishing Ali a happy
50th birthday that was made 10 years ago, when
Cosell was in his deathbed. "It was an emaciated
Howard but it was pure Howard," says Voight. "He
said, 'I can't believe that you are 50 years old.
Your name is Muhammad Ali. Congratulations. I
love you." Voight's face becomes red and swollen.
Tears starts to roll down his cheeks and he wipes
them away. "It's just so pure, you know."
of Howard made it into the film. He suffered a
palsy and had a severe drinking problem. "His
hands were shaking," says Voight. "I didn't put
that into the film because I didn't have room
for it, really."
in Yonkers, New York, Voight has a voice that
is a little nasal to start with, but to capture
Cosell's manner of speaking, he had to work hard
to convey Cosell's unique and undulating tenor
-- one that can best be compared to an ambulance
siren. And he had to turn his taut Slavic face
into the face of a Jewish man from Brooklyn. "I
had to put a nose on, ears and lids -- Howard
had kind of hooded eyes. My face is a specific
kind of face and difficult to be Howard Cosell
and we figured out how to do it. I have an artistic
background -- when I was three years old I was
an artist. I used to paint when I was three years
jewel of Voight's physical transformation was
the massive brown furball that perches over his
real hair, creeping down on to his forehead. "We
raised my eyebrows, giving me the impression of
having a short forehead," Voight says.
Ali follows the boxer through three love affairs,
the film's warmest moments don't occur in the
bedroom. They're between Ali and Cosell. On air,
the two sparred like cats; off air, they bandied
about like brothers. Cosell understood the enigmatic
Ali, and helped him promote himself throughout
his career. "They both had an agenda beyond sports,"
says Voight. "They both felt a responsibility
in terms of politics, in terms of ethics, in terms
of influencing young people. In that respect,
they were very much alike."
one of the reasons Voight was attracted to the
role was that Voight, too, sees himself as a champion
of worthy causes. He is known to have portraits
of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and
Helen Keller hanging on his living room wall.
He refers to the time when he shot Midnight Cowboy
as the time when John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther
King were killed. He says if he weren't an actor,
he would be a schoolteacher.
walked around with stooped posture, a satchel
weighing down his back. Standing at over six feet,
Voight had to bend over in an almost crippled
manner. "He's got very bad posture, the worst
posture, and yet he walks like he is tremendously
charming. See?" Voight gets up and skulks around
the table, walking like a creaky old pimp. He
laughs, returns to his seat and, at long last,
takes a bite of the roll.