TV By Day
In a little over a year, Tom Berenger left an indelible impression on One Life to Live lovers as that rebel-with-a-cause, Tim Siegel. In fact, many thought that the lean six-footer with electric blue eyes was well on his way to becoming "the James Dean of the soaps." Both played disenchanted, cynical youths struggling to make sense out of both a world they never made and the personal torments they never understood. Personally, both developed an aversion to publicity and sought shelter from the limelight they never wished to bask in.
But there's where the analogy ends.
Tom is a self-confident, well-educated, and happily-married 27-year-old man who entered the acting profession for its emotional, not financial, rewards. With quiet strength, he firmly says: "I don't care about the trappings of success. I've starved before and I can do it again. What I really want is to be respected in my field."
To that end, Tom switched his major at the University of Missouri from journalism to drama, earning a B.A. degree in dramatic arts, spent a year in stock productions in the Midwest, and studied acting at the demanding Herbert Berghof Studio in New York. Tom's debut in the role of Tim Siegel in February, 1975, marked his first appearance on national television, although he had appeared on local Missouri TV programs before he settled into the serial.
Tom wasn't always so sure of his goals, however. Growing up in his native, Chicago, Ill., he first wanted to be a writer. "I don't know why," he confesses, "maybe because my father (now deceased) sold printing equipment to newspapers, but I started out wanting to be a journalist. Then, in high school, I seriously thought about going to West Point, but before I graduated I switched back to writing."
Pursuing that early interest, he enrolled in the University of Missouri School of Journalism--one of the best "J-schools" in the country--but while in college, he changed his mind again. "During summer vacations I worked on all sorts of heavy jobs--in a steel mill, in a chemical plant--and college seemed awfully boring in comparison. When I heard about auditions for a local play, I tried out. When I got the part, I changed my major--and my life." Once he found out that he was happier on a stage than behind a typewriter, he came to the realization: "My temperament is more an actor's than a writer's."
With the ink barely dry on his sheepskin diploma, Tom spent a year doing stock in Kansas City, and then traveled to Dallas to do commercial films. When employment opportunities didn't materialize there, Tom drifted back to Kansas City. Only this time, instead of taking curtain calls, he was answering calls--as a bellhop at the Almeda Hotel. He admits, "I took whatever work was available--I even did nothing for a while in Chicago until I got a job with Eastern Airlines. I worked in Puerto Rico for several months, but I realized it was inevitable that I had to go back to acting."
While he drifted from job to job, Tom also drifted in and out of a relationship with a beautiful brunette named Barbara Wilson. About the woman who was to become his wife, Tom confides, "Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, about seven years ago, I met her on the beach by Lake Michigan between Chicago, where I lived and Gary, Indiana, where she lived. We had a pretty serious romance that summer, but when school started we just couldn't keep up the long-distance business." Three years later, Tom met her again in Chicago. They dated again, wrote letters during another separation, dated some more, and finally decided it was time to get married.
After their February 24, 1974, wedding in the Chapel of the United Nations Building (a non-denominational service, since he's Catholic and she's Protestant), the couple took advantage of Tom's travel benefits with Eastern Airlines and honeymooned in the Caribbean. Barbara, a former elementary and junior high school teacher, switched to the advertising field when they made their permanent home in New York.
Tom, however, had less luck breaking into advertising--the lucrative TV commercial end of it, however, in which his tall, All-American looks would seem to be a natural. But he once admitted in an interview: "My acting is too 'method' for commercials." Fortunately, there was an alternative. It was the part of Tim on One Life to Live. "I took the job on daytime TV because I needed experience in camera media, " he explains with earnest professionalism, "and I thought the soap would be a good place to serve an apprenticeship in as much obscurity as possible. I just didn't realize that all this other stuff would go along with it. It really freaked me!"
What "freaked" Tom was that he, as Tim Siegel, would become almost a cult figure among millions of soap opera fans.
Tom continues, tactfully but honestly, "I just couldn't handle people wanting to know so much about me--asking me questions like I knew all the answers to everything. I'm not even 30! And I never thought I deserved to have my picture on the cover of a magazine--on newsstands all over the country--like I was saying I was Jack Nicholson or somebody."
When reminded that serial actors often reach a larger--and more devoted-- audience than a whole handful of movies stars of a Jack Nicholson's stature, Tom groans in agreement. "I'm not ungrateful for the exposure I received on One Life To Live, but sometimes I felt like hiding! Even when I went back to visit friends in Chicago, I'd always have someone come up to me and say, 'Hi, Tim.' Even when I was shopping! It's much worse outside New York, though, maybe because people are just moving too fast to notice who's walking by."
As much as he may have wished for total privacy, Tom's not yet ready to go into seclusion. He recently had a supporting role in the TV movie about the late President John F. Kennedy, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, for which, incidentally, he cropped his curls to their present shorter length. A soon-to-be released major motion picture. The Sentinel, was just filmed in New York and includes among its cast Tom Berenger, Ava Gardner and David Carradine. A couple more TV guest shots are in the works for Tom, too. And now that the initial glare of the daytime limelight has dimmed, Tom's even tentatively talking about signing with another soap.
Less reluctant to venture out, Tom accepted a spur-of-the-moment invitation to join business associates at the Love of Life 25th anniversary party (sparking rumors that he was to join that show). However, the one party Tom doesn't want to miss under any circumstances is his high school's 10th reunion. "What a kick that would be," Tom laughs, "I wonder if all the guys back home have changed as much as I have in the last several years. New York really does that to you. It's a pressure-cooker--not to mention it being too expensive and overcrowded. This city is such a study in contrasts: the very rich living practically side-by-side with the very poor, and so many ethnic groups making little version of the 'old country' within a few blocks radius. Chicago is a lot different, but I like New York better if I'm going to be an actor."
And an actor he will be--especially in the welcome anonymity of New York City.
Special thanks to Dutch