The Vietnamization of Hollywood has been escalating ever since the money men figured out—some 10 years too late—that the DMZ wasn’t a mind-altering chemical and that the Tet offensive wasn’t Freddie Silverman’s new programming strategy. Now the light at the end of the tunnel is coming from the projectionist’s booth. Henry Winkler had already made his statement on Vietnam in Heroes; Nick Nolte and Francis Coppola are soon to be heard from. Quite possibly, however, the most passionate antiwar vehicle is already here. A decade after Tet and his own career breakthrough in Midnight Cowboy, Hollywood maverick Jon Voight has not only sent admiring reviewers to the thesaurus but has also just won the best-actor award at the Cannes Film Festival as the paraplegic Vietnam vet in Coming Home. “I think he’ll win the Oscar,” predicts co-star Jane Fonda. “I can’t imagine any other actor who tops that performance.”
Voight’s mastery of the difficult role represents an impressive recovery for an intense, self-questioning actor who freely admits his career was “in a bad spot” and his life worse. “It was a rough time,” says Jon, a deceptively boyish 39, who followed Midnight Cowboy with one smash (Deliverance), one underrated effort (Conrack) and a run of losers like The Revolutionary. “People sense that I don’t have it all together, and I’m sure they don’t want the headache of working with me,” admits Voight, whose obstinacy and perfectionism on the set often try his colleagues. Overanalytical and complex, Jon turned down the Ryan O’Neal role in Love Story and Richard Burton’s in Exorcist II and didn’t have a box office winner for four years. “I was in bad shape,” he says. “It was an accumulation of fear and lack of success.” His father, to whom Jon was very close, had been killed in an auto accident in 1974. His six-and-a-half-year second marriage, to actress Marcheline Haven, the mother of his two children, began to dissolve. He fell into debt and reentered therapy, which he had started during Midnight Cowboy.
His turning point came when Voight, long one of the movie colony’s activists, ran into Jane Fonda on a fund-raising trip for the senatorial campaign of her husband, Tom Hayden. Jon had collaborated with Hayden on an anti-Vietnam war slide show and was, says Fonda, “an old friend by Hollywood standards.” She mentioned Coming Home and the part of her Marine captain husband (eventually played by Bruce Dern). The director was then still hopeful of casting Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino as Jane’s crippled lover. But Voight found himself hung up on “the anger and pain and humanity” of the character. “He forced himself down our throats,” Fonda reports, “and I’m forever grateful. He was like a dog getting his teeth into a bone.” Of course, the movie’s original polemics were not over the war but the script. “I don’t want to be a nice boy on the set and pussyfoot around,” explains Voight. “I want somebody opposite me sophisticated enough to understand I don’t give a damn if I make an ass of myself or if I’m stupid or crazy or unwholesome.” As Fonda remembers it, “We argued the way people can when they know they care about each other.”
Voight immersed himself in his role by living for 11 weeks at the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital near L.A. with “the other chairs,” as he calls them. (He still keeps a wheelchair in his home that he sits in when ex-Gl friends visit. Director Hal Ashby marvels, “Here I had an actor who felt bad because he wasn’t a paraplegic or a vet.”) Jon was especially painstaking about portraying the vets’ sexuality accurately. “Not having any feeling in the genital area was the scariest part,” he says. “I asked every kind of crazy question, and I had 500 guys telling me how they did it.” The resulting love scene between Voight and Fonda (who was replaced at times by a “body double”) demonstrated what Ashby calls “the gentleness in Jon. I watched the way his hands would move and express things. He’s so aware of women.” Observes Voight: “The definition of a sexual experience as people coming together and touching each other is very moving for me, very beautiful and powerful. It’s a big thing when I’m comfortable and sex goes well and the lady is happy and I’m happy.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Jon’s first marriage, to actress Lauri Peters, whom he met when they both appeared on Broadway in Sound of Music in 1962, ended five years later. He and Marcheline separated in 1976. Since then Jon has lived with actress Stacey Peckrin, 24, who played Ophelia to his Hamlet in a Cal State Northridge production and had a walk-on as a hooker in Coming Home.
A liberated male who coughed up $1,000 at the recent ERA rally at Joan Hackett’s house, Voight shares child care with Marcheline, dishwashing with Stacey and is deeply concerned about both women. “Those two ladies are very important to me,” he says, “and it bothers me that they don’t have their own identities yet—everything now is tied to who I am.” He backs “Marche” (who has a new man herself) in her Lee Strasberg acting class and film work at UCLA and is cheered by the “strength and poise” she’s gained since they separated. As for Stacey, Jon raves, “She’s going right to the top, that kid.”
Voight dates his own performing ambitions to Scarsdale, N.Y., where he grew up the middle son of a story-telling golf pro at a Westchester County club. Jon’s first credit was as stage designer and actor when his mother, Barbara, roped him into a grammar school play she was directing. After graduating from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Voight tried summer stock and studied, along with Pacino and Robert DeNiro, at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse. “I started out as a comedian, thinking I was funny,” he recalls. “But I got bored with it and realized I was being a pain in the ass.” He met Dustin Hoffman off-Broadway and the two of them made one of the screen’s oddest couples—Voight’s Joe Buck and Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo—in Midnight Cowboy. The film won Voight the New York Film Critics Award as best actor and an Oscar nomination (not to mention, between marriages, a brief live-in companion in Jennifer Salt, actress daughter of Waldo Salt, the writer of both that script and Coming Home).
“I had big success as a fairly young man,” says Voight, “and it’s not been easy to live with that kind of pressure.” Initially uncomfortable with the perks of stardom, Voight is now adjusting to his new sex-symbol image. “When you’re hot, everybody’s available,” he says. “You look into their eyes and they seem to be saying, ‘It’s here if you want it.’ It’s flattering and a temptation, but I’m not in that place right now. I’m not a superstar and don’t have that kind of personality.” Ever fretful, he continues, “I’m still going to have my ups and downs. But I’ve learned from my mistakes. Popularity is not the answer. Good honest work is the answer. Then the success is real.”
Typically, Voight was not promenading for paparazzi in Cannes but had already left for Miami to resume shooting Franco Zeffirelli’s remake of The Champ when the news came of his award. “Stacey heard first. When I walked in the door she was going crazy and I thought there must be a large lizard in the house. She usually only reacts like that around bad animals.”
Between locations, Voight and Stacey share an unassuming, pool-less Hollywood Knoll home, a half-hour’s drive (in his Ford) from Marche and his son James, 5, and daughter Angelica, 3. The Cannes prizewinner still studies acting with his lady under Samantha Harper. Voight’s other interests are his causes: ecology, solar energy, gay rights, the alternative press and the Hayden-Fonda Campaign for Economic Development. “I would like to see the world adjust itself so everybody could do what they enjoyed and not have to crawl all over each other to get to the top of the mountain. The air,” Voight has found, “is pretty thin up there.”