Tom Berenger 'Chills' out in adopted city

by Jane Sumner
The Dallas Morning News
November 7, 1998

Tom Berenger liked the city where most of the newly re--released The Big Chill was shot so much that he moved to Beaufort, S.C., after the filming. But not to Tidalhome, the large, Italianate- style house built in 1865, where most of the action takes place.The Big Chill

A reporter once wrote that he lived in the historic home encircled by the Beaufort River and shaded by two 300-year-old oaks covered with Spanish moss. He doesn't, but the unassuming actor has lived in the sleepy coastal town since 1983.

Not only is it pretty country, it's a continent away from Hollywood. The plain-spoken star who broke into films as a cross-dressing killer in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) makes no secret of his disdain for the dream factory.

"It's not just a place," he says. "Yeah, it's a place on the map, but it's not just there, it's a whole business which is also international. It's hard to figure out what's going on."

So hard that he was surprised when told The Big Chill would make the rounds again on the big screen. "This is all new to me, these re-releases," he says. "I don't know how these things do. I'm just as curious as you are. I don't know if it will be people who saw it originally or young people."

But the much-underrated actor who studied under Uta Hagen thinks he understands the appeal of the film that grossed more than $53 million and sold more than 6 million copies of its 1960s Motown soundtrack.

"I think it's just probably one of those things that everybody can identify with. Between eight characters, they can pick somebody who's somewhat like them, perhaps. Then also it's one of those generation movies like The Graduate."

But not everyone, he says, realizes that he was one of the campus radicals reunited years later by the suicide of their leader in The Big Chill.

"A lot of people didn't know that was me in there, or they didn't recognize me," says the actor, 48.

Maybe it's because the shy, unassuming guy from Chicago's South Side doesn't look as he did three years later in his most famous role, in Platoon. (Among female fans, he's best known for his role as the happily married cop smitten with the witness he's protecting in the romantic thriller Someone to Watch Over Me.)

In Oliver Stone's grim, autobiographical picture of the Vietnam War, he's Sgt. Barnes, a brutal, hard-eyed killer with a hideous deep scar on his cheek. The supporting role brought an Oscar nomination.

In Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill, he's Sam, an endearing nice guy with a head of wavy, blow-dried hair, Tom Selleck mustache and hit TV series. Embarrassed about his success as a bogus swashbuckling cop, Sam tries to demonstrate his character's trademark by vaulting his car door and landing behind the wheel. He doesn't make it.

While the seven housemates in The Big Chill all went to the University of Michigan (writer--director Kasdan's alma mater), Mr. Berenger went to the University of Missouri, where he studied journalism until a role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? realigned his interest.

But unlike the prosperous ex-radicals, who had protested the Vietnam War in their youth, he says, "I was kind of confused. I thought, "Well, if I get drafted, I'll go.' It wasn't like I wasn't paying any attention to it. Everybody was very concerned with it. I had friends who went. Some that came back and some that didn't. . . . I think at the time I felt I'm so young and this is so big that I don't really have any control over it."

Like the housemates turned careerists in The Big Chill, he hasn't seen much of his co-stars. "No, I remember seeing Bill Hurt in New York once. I talked to him on the phone around 1988 and that's about it. I was shooting in New York and somebody said Glenn Close came by the set. I believe she was pregnant and then she went on her way, but I didn't see her."

The actor and Lisa, his wife of 11 years, were divorced last December. He blamed her involvement with the Church of Scientology. She blamed his involvement with makeup artist Patricia Alvaran.

Mr. Berenger has two grown children by a first marriage, two by his second and a baby girl with Ms. Alvaran, his third wife. But the muscular, down-to-earth star says juggling family life and acting is hard. "It really is. My dad was a traveling salesman, but he was always home on weekends, so at least there was a kind of routine to it. It's difficult. To people outside, they think, "Gee, that's great. You get to go here and there.' The other side of that is our expression, "This is location, not vacation.' "

One of his location shoots brought him to Texas. His brave turn as Teddy Roosevelt, complete with buck teeth, spectacles and high-pitched voice in TNT's Rough Riders, won critical lauds and a Lone Star Award for best actor in a TV show shot in the state.

He not only starred but also produced the Spanish-American War epic and he's proud of it. "First of all, it was TNT's biggest hit," he says. "Apparently, it did better than Gettysburg [where he played bushy-bearded Gen. "Dutch" Longstreet], which surprised me a little bit. I guess it was the biggest hit in cable TV historically and it did something that never happens in television - it kept going up."

Just like the good old boy in Beaufort, S.C.


Copyright (c) 1998, 1997 The Dallas Morning News Company
Photo (c) 1983 Columbia Pictures

thanks to Bettye W. and Jean R.

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