People come through the gates all the way from Milwaukee with their little Instamatics,” drawls Tommy Lee Jones, 31. But if shutters are bugging him, it’s only partly because he has rented the Brentwood house where Marilyn Monroe committed suicide 16 years ago. Jones is making the maps of stars’ homes on his own these days as Hollywood’s newest hunk. “He’s Bronson with a touch of Montgomery Clift,” says director Peter Bogdanovich. “He’s got the intensity of a McQueen,” echoes Irvin Kershner, who directed Tommy opposite Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars, the psycho-thriller that’s the latest smash in the movies’ biggest summer ever.
“I just try to stay out of grocery stores,” shrugs Jones, a Harvard man who is almost as publicity-shy as the billionaire he played in last year’s TV bio The Amazing Howard Hughes, re-aired on CBS last week. Next came Jones’ racy scenes with Lesley-Anne Down and Kathleen Beller in The Betsy, and he was propelled into the movie leading-man category. Jones almost rejected the Laura Mars role of an earthy New York detective who falls for fashion photographer Dunaway. “I didn’t like it,” he recalls. But producer Jon Peters wooed him over lunch at Jon’s and Barbra Streisand’s Malibu ranch. And after Tommy met Dunaway and found her “sensitive and smart and a good actress,” he capitulated.
As it turned out, something other than Leicas clicked on the set. Jones’ seven-year marriage to actress-turned-writer Kate Lardner was already breaking up—not, he says, on account of “my becoming famous. More people know the name Lardner than Jones.” (Kate is Ring’s granddaughter and was brought up by uncle Ring Jr. after her father, David Lardner, died in World War II.) While shooting Laura Mars, Tommy met actress-model Lisa Taylor, 26, who plays a glamorous mannequin in the movie, and the two of them set up housekeeping early this year. “It’s love,” he says. “There’s no reason to keep it secret—nor is there any reason to go into detail.”
An only child, Tommy Lee was born in San Saba, in the central Texas pecan country. His father, Clyde, an oil field roughneck and driller, “loved to see me perform”—but it was his mother Marie’s rodeo family “that got me started in acting.” Tommy made his debut in a second-grade production and continued drama at St. Mark’s prep in Dallas and at Harvard. Between theater and cum laude-level work in English, the 6’1/4″, 185-lb. Jones also managed to become an all-Ivy defensive guard on the Harvard football team that “won” the celebrated 29-29 tie with Yale in 1968.
His Namath knees ruled out pro ball, and Jones took off for New York and eight parts on and off Broadway in six years. He paid the rent with a daytime TV stint on One Life to Live, “but the longer I did it the worse it got.” His first role in a big movie was, appropriately, as Ryan O’Neal’s Harvard roommate in Love Story. Finally Tommy and Kate and her two kids from an earlier marriage split for Hollywood and TV shows like Barnaby Jones and the now historic 1976 pilot for Charlie’s Angels. “I saw Farrah work for four days and it didn’t surprise me at all when she showed up on all those T-shirts.” He caught Kershner’s eye in Jackson County Jail. His intense preparation for the two-part Howard Hughes TV movie included losing 30 pounds (“They thought I was too fat to play him”). He sweated Harold Robbins’ The Betsy less. Jones admits, “I tried to read the book, but I couldn’t make it.”
New properties are pouring in, but Jones has called a time-out to write a script about “cowboys before World War II” with Harvard pal Tim Mayer. Jones himself carries a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card and practices calf roping regularly at a nearby corral. He disdains the social circuit: “I go crazy; I get scared; I’m not any good at it.” And as for his new beefcake reputation, Jones snorts: “I don’t even know what a sex symbol is. I think one used to live in this house.”