Oh, these hot young talents. Sometimes you just want to throttle them with the leashes of their Vuarnet shades. They’re so damn lucky, and they don’t know it. Take Eric Roberts. This acclaimed actor, 29, sits in the living room of his handsome Yupper West Side apartment—high ceilings, tons of books, nifty conversation pieces like the saddle he used to break his Appaloosas. His full mouth pouts and blue-green eyes glisten, fixed in a magnetic stare, as he talks about his craft. “Actors love to be in pain,” he says. “It’s called show business, not show art, for a reason.” Ahh, Eric, could you explain that? “I think it explains itself,” he replies. Hello?
We’re being unfair. Roberts actually has a sense of humor; it’s just difficult to take his pain seriously. After all, while he’s relaxing in his living room, his kitchen is a veritable seraglio of beautiful women. The lovelies include his two sisters, Lisa, 20, an actress, and Julia, 17, a Click model, and his fiancée, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, 23, the pretty cupcake Chevy Chase wins at the end of Fletch. He jokes that he met her at a tag sale where “she had a 25-cent price tag on.” In reality romance struck in that time-honored, “across a crowded room” scenario. Says Roberts: “John Heard [an actor pal] gave a party, and I went.” Inject his little sisters: “We all went.” “I saw this woman, and I chased her for two hours until I got her name. And then one thing led to another….”
The blond Wheeler-Nicholson (no relation to Jack) flits in and out of the kitchen on flower-arranging missions, and it’s during one of these that Roberts informs her that the blood tests for their forthcoming wedding were deemed A-okay: “We can breed and everything.” Sisters squeal, Dana beams, the cat purrs, the publicist glows, and Roberts is in paradise. This is pain?
On the work front Roberts isn’t hurting either. He reaped critical mash notes for his performance in The Coca-Cola Kid as a pep-propelled American salesman promoting Coke in Australia. Roberts plays a character he describes as real “white bread,” who is undermined by Greta (Camille) Scacchi as a bewitching, full-bodied little minx. Sounds like fun, even if The Coca-Cola Kid has, shall we say, lacked some fizz at the box office.
After all his films (King of the Gypsies, Raggedy Man, Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village), Roberts still has no smash on his résumé, which leaves him both resigned and a trifle touchy. “What can you do? Whether or not the crowd shows, you still gotta play ball.”
The Star 80 flop really hurt. Most of the media attention went to Mariel Hemingway’s breast implants. “Somebody did those for her,” Roberts complains. “I had to gain 35 pounds by myself [for the role].” Roberts still seethes at how little attention the film received.
He received plenty of attention, however, during a month-long hospital stay after a bad car accident in 1981. “I tried to climb a tree in a CJ-5 [brand name for his Jeep],” he says. Leaving the Wilton, Conn, house of his then girlfriend, actress Sandy Dennis, 44 at the time, Eric hopped into his doorless Jeep for a ride with her German shepherd. The dog leaned out too far. Roberts released the steering wheel to get a hold on the wayward pooch and ended up in a coma for three days.
Roberts grew up in Atlanta, where his father, Walter, ran a workshop for actors and writers. Roberts was such a quiet and withdrawn child that his parents suspected he was autistic. When Eric began to talk, a severe stutter impeded him. Only when he memorized lines, he later discovered, did the stutter go away. (It still shows up slightly in conversation, never in his work.)
At 16, Eric left Atlanta for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Then he attended its New York counterpart, the American Academy. He dropped out in his senior year and took a job on the soaps. But a six-week stint on Another World ended with a pink slip. “I kept falling over furniture, I mean literally,” says Roberts. “I would walk across the set and break a chair. I was the world’s worst soap actor.”
Roberts no longer bumps into furniture. He just finished filming Runaway Train in Alaska with Jon Voight—with no complaints from the prop department. Better yet Roberts is devising a nifty plan for taking the pain out of acting on long location shoots. He’s hunting for a film to do with Dana. With a generous arm throw, he points to his betrothed in the kitchen and gloats, “I’ve got the love of my life in there.” See, Eric, it’s not so bad.