This is a story about a new leading man who can’t abandon his old habits. Walking down a street of his Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan, Jeff Daniels considers the high-rent restaurants and then chooses a clackety-clack coffee shop for lunch. Slinking into a booth, he says, “I used to come in here every morning and read the paper and wonder why I wasn’t working.” Although Daniels’ perspective hasn’t changed, his worries have. Tonight, for instance, he is hosting friends at a screening of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, the first movie in which he stars—and which he has yet to see. “I won’t really see it tonight either,” he says. “I’ll be walking around in the back.” Although he has the blond-haired, blue-eyed look of a charmed all-American, Daniels, 30, prefers a downcast, down-to-earth demeanor. “Back home in Michigan,” he explains, “you didn’t want to be in films, you wanted to be in movies.”
Fortunately Daniels’ screen enterprises have proved to be both films and movies. As Debra Winger’s faithless husband, Flap, in Terms of Endearment, he survived the set’s cross fire to receive critical approval (if no Oscar nomination). In The Purple Rose of Cairo, he performs double duty that could have been an actor’s double jeopardy: He plays an idealistic movie character and an egomaniacal actor who created that character but cannot control him. “This is the guy everybody has been looking for—the guy who can do light comedy,” says Woody Allen. A lot of people are impressed, but Jeff Daniels isn’t one of them.
As he stretches out in the coffee-shop booth, wearing a gold Central Michigan University V-neck sweater with no shirt underneath, he looks more like he’s going Sigma Chi than Hollywood. Onscreen, as off, he is an overachiever at underplaying. “I was taught the whole idea was to hide it, not to show the seams. But you can get in trouble. You can be boring.”
Or, in Daniels’ case, underemployed. Woody Allen’s first choice for Purple Rose was Michael Keaton. But two weeks into production, Keaton—in agreement with Allen—was dismissed as too contemporary for the period. Panic ensued, as did a procession of name actors to conferences with the director. “I heard everybody in my age group was applying for it: Eric Roberts, Dennis Quaid, Kevin Kline,” says Daniels. His meeting with Allen lasted “about a minute and a half,” recalls Daniels, “and it was bad.” But three hours later Daniels was given a screen test with Mia Farrow. By the next morning Allen wanted him for the role. “It was as though I dreamed the guy up,” says Allen. “He never once asked me, ‘What is this character about?’ ”
Until then Daniels had been the Suzette Charles of screen tests. “I was the guy who didn’t get it,” he says. As the perpetual first runner-up, he lost the role of transsexual Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp to John Lithgow, and the part of Diane Keaton’s lover in Shoot the Moon to Peter Weller. “We acted the scene and I had it,” moans Daniels. “Then she asked how old I was, and you could see it in her eyes. I was history.”
Terms changed that. It also inadvertently prepared Daniels for his Purple Rose trick of walking off the screen. One night Daniels went to a Times Square theater to see Terms. Behind him sat a loudmouthed patron who talked to the screen. The woman called Flap “a dip——-” and an “irresponsible bastard,” but by the end “she’s one of the biggest criers. The lights came up and I said, ‘Did you enjoy the movie?’ She looks at me and puff! She’ll never talk in a movie again.”
Daniels balances his sense of the ironic with his sense of integrity. Growing up in Chelsea, Mich., he worked summers at his father’s lumberyard “until it was painfully obvious that lumber was not in my blood.” Acting was an evening avocation: “Eighteen-year-olds doing Fiddler on the Roof, pasting on beards and spraying their hair gray. It was pretty good—I mean, if you see a blond kid in the lead role.”
At Central Michigan University he was spotted by New York director Marshall Mason, who offered him an apprenticeship at the Circle Repertory Company. Says Daniels: “I knew I didn’t want to do TV; that’s the trap a lot of guys get into.” Instead Daniels found critical favor as the hero’s gay lover in The Fifth of July, playing opposite Christopher Reeve. He liked the role but discussing acting is anathema. “No one cares except other actors, and they’re pissed off because they didn’t get the job.”
To understand Jeff Daniels, you need to know about his autographed Lou Piniella Yankee wallet, which he enthusiastically pulls out to display on the table. He ran into his idol Piniella once back in Michigan and asked him to sign the wallet. Daniels may not like to talk about acting, but he won’t stop talking about baseball. In Broadway’s softball league, he says, “I played first base, thank you. Some say I was the best first baseman in the league. It becomes your life. It should be a hobby. It’s not. It’s a sickness.”
In fact his love for the game influenced his wedding in July 1979 to Kathleen Treado, 25, who lived near him in Chelsea. They were married on Friday the 13th, “because I wore No. 13.” And he quickly adds, “I batted .361 that year.” Last November Kathleen gave birth to their first child, Ben.
In the coffee shop Daniels cocks an ear to the Muzak. “That’s the theme from Terms,” he says. It’s also an ironic signal that Daniels has escaped from obscurity. Upon reflection, even the ever skeptical Daniels admits, “Look, I’ve got the lead in a Woody Allen movie, and I’m 30 and Good Lord!” That’s one of the things to like about Jeff Daniels: He still uses phrases like “Good Lord!”