Copyright 2001 National Post Online

[ December 24th 2001 ]

It is 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.

He follows 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.

In 1969, 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.

Then, 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.

Even 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.

In Ali, 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 Three.

At the 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."

Cosell 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."

Voight 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.

Voight 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."

Not all 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."

Born 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 old."

The crown 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.

While 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."

Clearly, 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.

Cosell 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.

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