Starring in several new movies this year, actor Tom Berenger may
finally realize the high-profile stardom that has eluded him so far.
Oscar nominee Tom Berenger flew into town in May to shoot some scenes from the movie Hollywood Sign, co-starring Burt Reynolds and Rod Steiger. As the plane approached from Los Angeles, Berenger’s mouth dropped open at the spread of the city and the size of the buildings on the Strip (not to mention the volcano).
After all, he hadn’t been here since 1978. Living in Beaufort, South Carolina, he is famously not a follower of the crowd, being one of only six known Americans who hasn’t come to Las Vegas in the past two decades. He’s probably only heard about Disneyland.
In an interview for this magazine, the 51-year-old says that he first came to the city when he was 7. “My mother, sister and I watched through the windows as my father gambled.” He recalls. “It wasn’t a kid-friendly town then.”
Then in 1978 , he returned to film Flesh and Blood, a boxing movie he regards as one of his best. “The first day, I got up at 5 in the morning to go out for a 2-mile run before I started my exercises, and when the elevator door opened I heard this pinging sound,” he says. “I was astonished to find people already up gambling.”
His new movie, Hollywood Sign is about three actors: a washed-out younger one and two distinguished has-beens. Meeting over drinks, they decide to visit the actual Hollywood sign and stumble upon a dead body, a victim of the mob. In a dark comedy described as a cross between Get Shorty and House of Games, they come up with a way to use the hit to resurrect their careers, which takes them to Las Vegas.
Whether the film, scheduled for release in fall, becomes a hit, Berenger calls the shooting the most fun he’s had in a long time. “Burt and Rod and I had great chemistry,” he says. “I came in on the tail end of the old school of Hollywood and we swapped lots of stories about the way things were and our personal lives.”
The high point came when Rod Steiger was convinced everyone had forgotten his 75th birthday: The surprise party gave everyone a lot of laughs, Berenger says. “He was just like a kid.”
“We started shooting right at [McCarran] airport and then moved to a restaurant in Harrah’s” Berenger says, who crashed at Caesars Palace each evening. He didn’t get a chance to see much of the city up close. And after nine weeks on location in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he was eager to get home. “You realize just how long you’ve been away when you get home and start dialing 8 out of habit so that you can get access to local calls.” he sighs.
He credits living in the country with keeping him from burnout and compromise that he sees some colleagues in Hollywood suffering from. “It’s a toilet,” he says of the industry there.
He is particularly upset because two of the films that were most important for him were effectively killed because of the strange ego-driven ethos of show business. One was Someone to Watch Over Me, the 1987 romantic thriller, costarring Mimi Rogers, which movie critic Leonard Maltin thought would be Berenger’s real breakout film. “I’m a fan of his because he’s really good and there’s an integrity and sincerity to his screen appearances I find very appealing.” Maltin says. “But this movie got overshadowed by the over-hyped Fatal Attraction that year.”
Berenger points to another reason he didn’t get the attention his fans expected. “The studio which made it got bought out before the release, and in this industry the new owners prefer to kill anything they weren’t responsible for, so they didn’t give the film any support.” he explains. “Can you imagine GM buying out Ford and then destroying the inventory?”
The lack of wide release and publicity also doomed Berenger’s long-time pet project last year, One Man’s Hero. It’s the true story of a group of Irishmen who left the U.S. Army in protest over their treatment and what they felt was an unjust war with Mexico, forming the St. Patrick’s Battalion in the Mexican Army. It was an unpopular war, denounced by Congressman Abraham Lincoln. In the end, 90 of the 320 San Patricios were hung and others were whipped and branded by the U.S. Army. The script had been around for 35 years and at various times director John Huston and Paul Newman were involved in trying to make it. Of Irish heritage, Berenger took a personal interest and spent a couple of years producing the movie for Orion Pictures, only to see the new boss, MGM, refuse to help. Berenger decided to premier it where he thought it would be much appreciated, in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Finally, MGM gave One Man’s Hero a limited theatrical release after fans harassed the studio, an effort coordinated by Jenny Hawran through her “Tom Berenger Online” Web site (www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/9124/tomindex.html). The movie has since gone on to an enthusiastic reception at video stores, thanks to a strong constituency among Irish-and Hispanic-Americans and military veterans.
Berenger, now 51, grew up on Chicago and went to the University of Missouri, intending to become a journalist. But when he was cast for a school production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he was hooked.
In the mid-1970s, he became something of a
heart throb in the ABC daytime soap One Life to Live, then
in 1977 came to national attention as the psychopathic killer in Looking
for Mr. Goodbar with Diane Keaton and Richard Gere.
In 1983, he got what looked like his big break, playing a TV private detective who gets together with old college buddies, reconnecting at the funeral of a friend who committed suicide. The Big Chill became a cult classic for children of the ‘60s because of its storyline, which explored whether idealism can survive in the everyday world. But it didn’t do anything for Berenger’s career (though it did introduce him to Beaufort, where it was shot). In fact, he couldn’t get much work at all for several years until Oliver Stone rescued him from his return to obscurity.
In 1986, Stone cast him as another psychopath, Sgt. Barnes, who, in a rage, kills innocent Vietnamese in Platoon. It was a performance for which Berenger was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
But the self-effacing star isn’t eager to repeat the unpleasant experience of being at the center of Oscar madness. Instead, he has plodded along in movie after movie doing his job, trying to pick roles that provide an opportunity to grow, regardless of box office prospects.
Stone, who also cast Berenger as the recruiting officer in Born on the Fourth of July says the actor has an unusual ability to submerge his own personality so that he fully takes on the character. “He’s a quiet actor with the moral stamina and possible longevity of a Frederic March or Spencer Tracy,” says Stone.
Another fan is Constantine Cost-Gavras, best know as the director of the 1969 classic Z. He directed Berenger in 1988 in Betrayed, the controversial tale of a violent racist farmer. Co-star Debra Winger told Berenger it was his best work ever (he regards her with equal respect, saying she is not only the most intelligent actress with whom he’s worked, but the one with the best value priorities). Costa-Garvas has called Berenger “an incredible powerful actor.”
Over the years, Berenger has appeared in dozens of feature films, from the highly popular comedies Major League and Major League II to the well reviewed The Field (which got him thinking about moving to Ireland). But nothing has propelled him to the first-tier stardom his peers and fans think he deserves.
“In my opinion, his strength as an actor comes from his ability to go beyond the black and white of heroes and villains and to find the infinite shades that make his characters shine with all the good and evil that make up real people.” opines his publicist, Peggy Villines.
Berenger also has had some significant accomplishments on the cable channel TNT run by Civil War buff Ted Turner. Berenger appeared as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet in the acclaimed 1993 mini series Gettysburg (now on video). Longstreet tried to dissuade General Robert E. Lee from making the disastrous frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge.
Then last year Berenger reached another high water mark in his career, producing and starring as Theodore Roosevelt in TNT’s Rough Riders. It drew the biggest audience of any mini-series or original movie in cable history.
“Teddy was such a media hound that I was able to study a number of news reels of him.” Recounts Berenger of his preparation for the role. “He had lots of energy despite only sleeping four or five hours and reading several books a night. Had a high I.Q. and photographic memory, spoke several languages and could cite poetry in Czech,” he says.
Just as Stone had prepared his actors for Platoon with a boot camp those in Rough Riders had a week of rough training. And Berenger repeated the experience for the cast of One Man’s Hero to lend authenticity to the battle scenes.
Berenger has several movies in the can, including Takedown, Cutaway and Detox, a murder mystery set in a rehab clinic that co-stars Sylvester Stallone and Kris Kristofferson, to be released in fall.
But if Hollywood Sign flies,
taking Berenger’s career with it, the underrated actor will finally have
the last laugh.
Thanks to Leigh