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For Single Father Jon Voight, Table for Five Is a Story Close to His Own Painful Experience

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In Table for Five, a film he co-produced and stars in, Jon Voight plays a divorced father trying to reenter the lives of his kids. And after many critics scoffed at the film’s sentiment when it opened last month, giving it a slow box office start, Voight has been making an uncharacteristically strong promotional effort to turn the film around. The push has to do with more than profit. “I’ve been there,” says Voight of his character, a business schemer and womanizer whose ex-wife has moved from L.A. to N.Y. and found a new man—a good provider his kids love.

Voight, twice divorced and the father of two, says he wasn’t alone in taking Table personally. Screenwriter David (Six Weeks) Seltzer, director Robert Lieberman and co-producer Robert Schaffel are all divorced with seven kids among them. “We all put a lot of ourselves in the mix,” Voight reveals. But none more than Voight. Despite first-class performances in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance and his Oscar-winning Coming Home, Voight says Table strikes closest to his experience. “In the film,” he explains, “I’m trying to say something about myself.”

Indeed, when Voight, 44, recently flew into New York from his L.A. base, it was part of his amicable custody arrangement with ex-wife Marcheline Bertrand to spend time with son Jamie, 9, and daughter Angie, 7. Since “Marche,” as he calls her, fled L.A. 15 months ago with a smog-related allergy, Voight’s been shuttling coast to coast for part of every month. It wasn’t exactly divorce orthodoxy, but he even bunked in Marche’s woodsy Rockland County retreat on his latest trip (she was in California, pursuing her acting career). More commonly, he stays at his mother’s home in Scarsdale, 25 minutes from Marche’s. Jon’s father died in a car accident in 1973. Voight admits his dad, a golf pro, was a lot like him—charming, out of town a lot and in need of constant approval.

Though Voight is critical of his own role as a father, he has worked deliberately at being a real presence in his children’s lives since his 1979 divorce. Before Marche, who had a small part in Voight’s Lookin’ to Get Out last year, moved the kids East, she and Voight lived close by and shared time equally with Jamie and Angie. After the move, which Voight did not oppose, the kids spent part of the summer in California with him, and he flew them to the Rome location shooting of Table. This March, during school break, Voight took them to Florida to vacation at his mother’s winter home. “The focus,” says Voight, “is always the kids. Whatever Marche and I go through, we consider how it affects them. We’ve each made mistakes. The kids are aware of the deep disruption that went on early in their lives. The guilt, anger and confusion made their way into their subconscious, and I don’t know what dues we’ll pay later on. But they will have learned how to deal with adversity.”

A veteran of numerous self-awareness therapies, Voight can use psychojargon like “the geography of failure” and “positive and negative energies.” But his concern is genuine. “My kids know their love for me and their desire to be with me,” he says proudly. “Their reaction to the film was very emotional. They recognize that dilemma in their lives.”

It would be difficult not to. Onscreen, Voight must compete for his kids’ affection with their mother’s new man. Since the Voight split, Marche has mostly been with UCLA filmmaking graduate student Bill Day, 30. “The kids are crazy about this guy,” says Voight. But he doesn’t deny a conflict. “There are male egos involved, and there is friction—the whole territorial thing,” he notes. “We don’t necessarily sync, but we each give ground. He’s crazy about Marche and really loves the kids. That discomfort—the balance of power—is similar to what’s in the film.” Day, for one, won’t take comparisons any further: “People see a connection between the film and reality, but it isn’t there for me.” Nor is it for Marche, though she allows: “Nothing means more to Jon than the children.”

Voight in turn defends and encourages the bond the kids feel for Day. “It’s good for them to have a strong masculine personality in their lives.” He says Day has enthusiastically drawn Jamie into his world of cameras and filmmaking gear. And he arranged for two of Angie’s numerous little drawings to be hung in a local diner. “That was a very lovely gesture,” says Voight. “It shows how sensitive he is. If the kids listed the people they love,” Voight continues, “it would be Mommy, Daddy, the other sibling, then Bill. That’s pretty strong stuff.”

Voight’s love life is not as secure as his ex-wife’s. A long-term relationship with aspiring actress Stacey Peckrin, who had a bit part in Coming Home, has “gone through some very, very rough times. I’ve been tough and possessive. Being ‘Jon Voight’s girlfriend’ may not have had such a good effect on her career. I’ve had to pull away and let her make her mark. I hope we’re cleaning that out. We’re still in constant contact.” He mentions a possible theater gig together this summer in New York. Then he adds: “I say all this in a very clear civilized manner. There’s really been quite a lot of pain.”

The pleasure in life for now would seem to come from the young ones. “To rub them down with alcohol when they have a fever, to look for the clean socks at 7 in the morning—that’s glue that holds families together,” says Voight. “It’s never easy. But I’m getting as much back as I’m giving. This is a precious time for me.”