He has been nominated for four Academy Awards and nine Golden Globe Awards. Winner of the 1978 Academy Award for best actor (for his role
as a crippled Vietnam veteran in “Coming Home”), he’s been called one of the greatest actors of his generation.
That actor, Jon Voight, B.A. 1960, was a standout as a student leader and scholar at Catholic University, though he acted
in only a few university plays. In fact, the most memorable of his CUA stage appearances — playing a nonspeaking “spear-carrier” role in Shakespeare’s Othello — was a painful one that he now remembers with humor.
Speaking from his home in the Los Angeles area, Voight recalls that role: “I was given the part of a rough soldier of the guard, but I looked like I was 14 years old — I was skinny as a rail and had this white-blond hair. So I decided to put on a beard and use some dark charcoal from the makeup box, and, of course, I then looked even more ridiculous trying to play a sturdy guard. I was given only one little thing to do: Another fellow and I had to lift the wounded, dying Cassio onto a stretcher and carry him offstage.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t any time to rehearse.
“It was opening night and we were supposed to carry Cassio offstage through a tunnel that was not designed to accommodate a 7-foot-long stretcher,” recalls Voight. “The scene came up and we brought the stretcher out to the wounded Cassio. The first thing that happened is I inadvertently kicked Cassio’s sword, which screeched all the way across the stage. I wanted to disappear but had to walk to the center of the stage to recover the sword. When I came back, my partner had put Cassio’s feet onto the stretcher and was looking at me to put the weight of the whole rest of Cassio’s body onto the stretcher. I couldn’t lift him, so I get on the stretcher and I’m pulling him across my body. Soon my backside is toward the audience and I’m struggling to get out from under him. All the while, Cassio is trying to speak his lines about being mortally wounded.
“When I finally got him on, his head was hanging way off the end of the stretcher. I couldn’t ask a wounded man to scrunch back down, so we pick him up and I go first, with Cassio’s head hanging against my butt, and I’m trying not to break his neck with my body. He’s heavy and we get him pointed into the little tunnel in the set and have to turn the stretcher. One pole of the stretcher hit one side of the tunnel, and the other pole hit the other side. We then proceeded to hit the side about 15 times before Cassio could jump from the stretcher and escape to the safety of the wings.
“It became like a Three Stooges comedy — a story about these two idiots with the hospital unit who couldn’t do anything right,” says Voight, who has his interviewer in stitches throughout the telling of this story. “It must have been one of the worst nightmares for the director.
“I don’t know if that was an indication that I was going to have success in the theater — but I showed that I could make a mark anyway,” quips Voight.
There were other occasions during his CUA years when Voight’s theatrical talent shone through and was recognized by others, however. In fact, when the multitalented student switched from being a drama major to a fine arts major at the end of his freshman year, Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, O.P., the founder of CUA’s drama department, tried to get him to reconsider.
“It was very clear to me that Father Hartke saw something in me,” Voight remembers. “He told me, ‘Jon, I’d love you to stay. You’ve got talent. You should be part of this department. If you have to go, I understand, but you will always have a home in this department.’ ”
Father Hartke recognized his talent, but considering Voight’s description of his own performance in Othello, his leap to national stardom only nine years later may constitute the turnaround of the century. In 1969 he was named best actor of the year by two of the nation’s most prestigious groups of movie critics: the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. He also was nominated for the Academy Award for best actor. All this acclaim was for Voight’s breakthrough performance as Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy,” which won the Academy Award for best picture.
According to reviewer Rex Reed, “Most of the success of the film truly belongs to Jon Voight, who plays ‘one helluva stud’ from Texas named Joe Buck with such coltish naiveté that he performs the miracle of keeping the audience in his pocket during the entire film. … Voight makes you care. He is half-clod, half-poet, and the effect of his power and sensitivity is scalding.”
Voight went on to dozens of other movie roles, including early-career lead roles in “Deliverance” (1972), “Conrack” (1974), “The Odessa File” (1974), “Coming Home” (1978) and “The Champ” (1979). Seven years after his Oscar-winning role in “Coming Home,” he was again nominated for an Academy Award for best actor — this time for his role as an escaped convict in “Runaway Train.”
In the past few years, Voight has become an even busier actor, attracting plum “character actor” roles in several motion pictures per year. In 2001, for example, he played President Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Pearl Harbor” and was nominated for an Academy Award (for best supporting actor) for his portrayal of sportscaster Howard Cosell in “Ali.”
That same year he played Lord Croft, the aristocratic father of Lara Croft — played by Voight’s real-life daughter, Angelina Jolie —in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”
His work prompted GQ magazine to describe Voight, in a recent article, as the greatest character actor in contemporary American cinema.
The British newspaper The Independent has written, “Rarely predictable, Voight is one of Hollywood’s most exciting, if mercurial talents. Critics mention him in the same breath as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.”
Moviegoers will be able to see a lot more of this acclaimed CUA alumnus in coming films. He’ll be in “National Treasure” (an adventure epic starring Nicholas Cage that comes to theaters at Thanksgiving) and in the ABC movie “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” to be broadcast Dec. 5. In 2005 he will be in “The Legend of Simon Conjurer,” which he describes as “an adult fable in which I play a complete madman who weighs 450 pounds.” He will also be in the Marvel superhero movie “Deathlock” and in a movie about the racially charged 1966 NCAA basketball tournament, “Glory Road” (playing University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp). In addition, Voight is scheduled to be in “Solo” (playing a detective confronted by a supernatural event) and “Ghost Rider” (another adventure film with Nicholas Cage).
Deciding to Take the Plunge
Voight was popular and successful as a Catholic University undergraduate. He was junior class president, prom king, president of the Sigma Beta Kappa fraternity and (during his sophomore year) chairman of freshman orientation. He played on the basketball, swimming and track teams. He graduated cum laude as an art major.
A talented cartoonist, he even painted the Cardinal mascot on the floor of the old basketball gym (the building that is now the Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies).
Moreover, it was on CUA’s campus that Voight made the fateful decision — during his senior year — that he would move to New York City and devote himself to acting.
“What caused me to decide to be an actor?” Voight asks himself out loud. “It must have been because I had great success playing the comic lead in a school play in sixth grade. In high school as well, I played comic roles in musicals, and I was very well received. My past successes had been in comedy and now I wanted to learn to do
the serious stuff.”
Voight mentions another contributing experience that took place in a CUA drama class taught by Father Hartke: “I directed a short dramatized version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I broke a few rules — by adding lighting effects and music — and knew marks would be taken off because of it. But my priority was to really move the audience. The response of the rest of the class was so thrilling — they were focused on every second and deeply moved by it — and the actors gave a great performance. I didn’t know all that I know now, of course, but I also didn’t know any fear. It was pure instinct. The experience taught me that I have some gifts in that area.”
At CUA he says he was also inspired by the brilliant acting of fellow student Philip Bosco, B.A. 1957, who has since gone on to win a Tony Award and be nominated for four additional Tonys.
Before Voight could decide to become an actor, however, he had to wrestle with and reject other talents and career interests: e.g., being a political cartoonist, painter, stage designer, politician or lawyer.
“Some gals were very helpful in my wrestling with all the possibilities,” he says. “I would hang out on the steps of the girl’s dorm bending some young lady’s ear, saying, ‘I have this talent and that talent, but I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate.’ And they would be kind and listen to me talk and talk and talk, trying to make a decision. Thank God for the nurturing of women. It helped, because I finally did make a clear decision.”
After Voight resolved to become an actor, Father Hartke was there for him again. “He was encouraging,” the actor recalls, “and he offered me the opportunity to work as an actor at a summer theater in Winooski, Vt., that Catholic University ran. I did go up there for two summers and it was important experience for me.”
Fond Memories of Alma Mater
“I had a wonderful time at Catholic University,” Voight remembers. “It was a blessing for me in many ways. Being in Washington was interesting. And it was a
co-ed school and I’d just come from an all-boys Catholic high school. It was nice to be around the gals.”
He reminisces about the only major acting role he had at CUA — in a 1960 production of a musical about William Shakespeare: “I must have been the worst singer that ever hit the stage, but I had this blond hair and an attractive costume and I picked up a little bit of fan-following among the ladies.”
He had a steady girlfriend during most of his years at CUA. “Her name was Pat Happ and I was crazy about her,” he says. “I still think the world of her and she has a wonderful family and has held a prestigious university position.” She is now dean emerita of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
For her part, Patricia Happ (now Buffler), B.S.N. 1960, recently wrote of Voight in an e-mail: “Jon was one of the most creative and fun-loving individuals in the class of 1960. He was also a strong scholar. Because of his delightful outgoing manner and his rather playful and refreshing approach to almost any situation, he was often in leadership roles in his fraternity and for the
campus. And when Jon was in charge (a role which he delighted in) it was certainly not business as usual.”
Now 65 years old, Voight was born on Dec. 29, 1938, growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., the son of Elmer and Barbara Voight. Elmer, himself the son of an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, worked as a golf pro at Sunningdale Golf Club in Westchester County. Jon recalls how his father could get people laughing and how he would entertain his three sons with fairy tales and stories about espionage characters or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His father’s example contributed to Jon’s own lifelong talent for improvisation and creating comic characters.
“The only CUA course I ever failed — Metaphysics — was one in which I was doing an impersonation of the teacher when he walked in one day,” recalls Voight. “He took offense, though it was really a playful, not a harsh, thing.
“It was obviously a more effective piece of work than I ever did in the theater at Catholic,” the actor says with a laugh. “But overall I have the fondest memories of being at Catholic University. I still remember many close friends. It was a very creative and happy time for me.”
‘If I Can Make It There…’
Moving to the Big Apple after graduation, Voight auditioned for parts and looked for training as an actor. One day in 1961 he was standing in the rain when a fellow on a motor scooter pulled up and asked him if he needed a ride somewhere. It turned out the man was a theatrical agent for musical acts and was able to get Voight an audition for Broadway’s original Mary Martin/Theodore Bikel version of The Sound of Music. This led to Voight’s role as Rolf, the delivery boy who sings “You Are Sixteen” to Liesl von Trapp.
During his first two years in Manhattan, Voight roomed with two fellow Catholic University alumni who were also trying to break into showbiz: Richard Krisher, B.A. 1960, and Jim Bateman, B.A. 1957.
“Jim Bateman and I prepared a comedy routine to try to make some money,” Voight recalls. “We played Henry and Harold Gibson, two sweet and loving hicks from the Ozarks who the State Department would send abroad as goodwill ambassadors and cultural-exchange people. Henry and Harold were so inept that every time they went into a foreign country, they would cause dissent and anti-American riots.”
Henry and Harold’s naive, hillbilly lectures to their foreign hosts included such topics as “How to Skin a Polecat.”
“I came up with the name Henry Gibson, after the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen — because if you say his name with a Southern accent, it sounds like ‘Henry Gibson,’ ” Voight says.
“One day Jim came back to the apartment and told me, ‘Jon, we got our big break today. I know a guy on “The Tonight Show,” and he can get us on the show to do our act.’ I told Jim, ‘If you can get on the show, go ahead and do it and take whatever parts of the material that I came up with. I don’t want to do it because I’m really not going in that direction. I want to be a serious actor. I don’t want to become identified as a comedian.’
“He tried to convince me to do it, but I was quite clear,” Voight recalls. “It was another moment of clarity about my direction.”
Bateman did get on the “The Tonight Show,” doing his comedy routine as the country bumpkin Henry Gibson, and he was a hit. Keeping the stage name of Henry Gibson, the CUA alumnus later became a popular comedian on America’s No. 1-rated television series of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Laugh-In.” He was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his role as a country-western singer in the film “Nashville.”
Meanwhile, back in New York, Voight did finally find the actor’s training he had been searching for, under the tutelage of Sanford Meisner. Something of a living legend, Meisner had been one of the acting teachers of Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall and Peter Falk.
Voight was soon getting more and more parts in off-Broadway plays and — by the second half of the 1960s — in Broadway plays, low-budget movies and TV shows such as “Gunsmoke.” Reviews began to single him out for the effectiveness of his performances (e.g., “Jon Voight Saves Play With Tour de Force”). In 1967 he won a Theatre World Award for his performance opposite Irene Pappas in the Broadway play That Summer – That Fall.
Then came “Midnight Cowboy” and suddenly Voight was being talked about as one of the leading actors of his generation.
An overnight celebrity, he recalls going into a store to buy presents and slowly becoming aware that 100 people were
looking over his shoulder, eager to see what he was purchasing.
The Man of a Thousand Faces
From the start, Voight tried to choose roles in which he could be what he calls “an actor of real substance, in the tradition of the great screen actors of the past.” He has continued to do that, and the past 20 years have seen an expansion of the types of roles he plays. The sea change came with his role as a mentally derailed escaped con in 1985’s “Runaway Train.” When offered the role, Voight reportedly told the film’s director, Andrei Konchalovsky, “I can’t do heavies.” Konchalovsky won Voight over by insisting that actors who play against type make the best villains.
That role won Voight the Golden Globe Award for best actor of the year.
The CUA alumnus went on to play villains in films such as “Heat” (1995), “Mission: Impossible” (1996), “The Rainmaker” (1997) and “Enemy of the State” (1998).
In the mid-1990s, Voight’s mother was dying of cancer and he invited her to accompany him to his film shoots. She said she’d love to see the Amazon. Thus the actor took the role of the nefarious snake-hunter in “Anaconda” (a film in which the 40-foot-long title “character” swallows him whole and later regurgitates his corpse.)
The range of his roles is huge. Voight sees himself as following in the footsteps of the early-20th-century actor Lon Chaney Jr., a chameleon-like star who played the Wolfman, Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame, and was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
“I’m interested in disappearing into a character and transforming myself,” Voight explains. “I want to change myself completely, physically, for a role. Sometimes I don’t know if I can make it. If I do make it, I’m always delighted and surprised.”
As entertainment writer Dominic Wills has said of Voight, “He could have done a De Niro — sought out roles that suited him and replayed himself over and over, his very intensity keeping audiences interested. Instead, he took the hardest route of all. He decided, after his first phenomenal success, that he should only take work of depth and meaning. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it, considering Hollywood’s perennial dearth of both. … Furthermore, he’s one of the very few convincing role models Hollywood might offer to the youth of today.”
Doing Unto Others
“One of the things I love most about Jon is his continuous compassion and loyalty to many charities,” says Kristin Ludwig, who has created a substantial fan Web site about Voight. Some of the many causes or groups the actor has supported include drug addicts in rehab, the homeless, farmers, immigrants, the elderly, Vietnam veterans, American Indians, the victims of Chernobyl and, especially, kids.
Voight speaks enthusiastically about the day he met Mother Teresa in Anaheim, Calif. He conversed with her about the plight of Native Americans, their contributions to civilization and the need to make amends for white America’s bloody past.
The actor’s soft heart toward minorities has influenced many of the views he has taken a public stand on — e.g., decrying the anti-Semitism that he believes might be engendered by Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
But if he has an especially soft heart, Voight is also more conservative than most Hollywood stars, suspecting, for example, that the war in Iraq will likely turn out to have been necessary.
“I don’t appreciate the bashing of our country and our president,” he relates. “I feel that George [W.] Bush has done quite a good job. Nobody wants war but sometimes people have to stand up to villains. There are many things we don’t know about Saddam Hussein, but certainly we know he was a great villain.”
Hard to pigeonhole politically, Voight might be described as an empathetic soul, equally critical of the Bush-bashing of Michael Moore’s film, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and of the attacks on Bill Clinton’s presidency related to Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky affair.
As he occasionally has told journalists, “Regardless of what I play on screen, I aspire to be one of Hollywood’s good guys in my real life.”
Younger CUA Grads Are Hollywood Successes
Susan Sarandon (B.A. 1968). Chris Sarandon (M.F.A. 1967). Jon Voight (B.A. 1960). Philip Bosco (B.A. 1957). Susan Anspach (B.A. 1964).
These are just a few of the stellar actors associated with Catholic University and Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, O.P., who founded CUA’s drama department and made it one of the foremost drama departments in the nation.
Although many of the department’s big names graduated from CUA during the “Father Hartke era,” which lasted from 1937 to the early 1980s, the university has continued to produce successful Hollywood actors from that time to the present day. They are the faces we see in numerous movies, television spots and commercials.
Among these alumni is John Lynch, B.F.A. 1986, who played Steve Carey on “The Drew Carey Show” from 1997 to 2003 and has appeared on “The West Wing,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Frasier” and “The Practice.” He also had roles in the films “Fargo” and “Gothika.”
Meanwhile, Lynch’s wife, CUA alumna Brenda Wehle, M.A. 1973, currently has a supporting role in the television series “Jack & Bobby” and has made appearances on “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Party of Five” and “Chicago Hope.” She also had a small role in the 1999 Academy Award-winning film “American Beauty.”
As character actors, Lynch and Wehle follow in the tradition of Pat Carroll, B.A. 1949, Frances Sternhagen and John Heard, former CUA students who have established long careers in motion pictures and on television.
“I’ve run into a lot of casting directors who are familiar with CUA’s drama department,” says Lynch. “That opened a lot of doors for me.”
Another alumna, Audrey Wasilewski, B.A. 1989, can claim the near impossible. From the first day she moved to Los Angeles in 1996, she has been able to act full time without moonlighting.
“I’m really fortunate in that respect,” she says. “I never had to take a day job when I came to California.”
Wasilewski has had roles in the movies “Something’s Gotta Give” and “What Women Want.” She also is the voice of the character Tuck on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series “My Life as a Teenage Robot” and has appeared on “Friends,” “The West Wing,” “ER,” “Ally McBeal” and “Monk.”
Some days Wasilewski has played as many as six different roles, plus a couple of voiceover jobs.
“We’re a pretty tightknit group of alums out here,” she says. “So if we hear of a job or script reading, we’ll pass the news on to each other. We always joke that each time one of us ‘makes it’ we’re all going along for the ride.”
Another alum, Michael Rodrick, B.A. 1992, has starred in several independent films and appeared on television shows such as “The District” and “Charmed” (sharing a kissing scene with series star and renowned beauty Alyssa Milano).
He starred as convict-turned-FBI spy Cameron Sinclair for more than a year on the soap opera “Another World.” He also has appeared in many commercials, including spots for Independence Airlines and Sears.
“Soaps are like acting boot camp,” says Rodrick. “You get 30 pages of dialogue a day and you have to think on your feet and get used to the camera. My CUA training really helped me because I was taught to embrace each word, syllable and comma, and say the words that are on the page.”
Christina Chambers, B.A. 1991, a friend and former classmate of Rodrick’s, did a six-month stint on “As the World Turns” and played Jaclyn Smith in the NBC made-for-TV movie “Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Charlie’s Angels.” She has done guest spots on shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “The Parkers” and “Wanda at Large.”
“My time at CUA instilled a respect and love for acting,” Chambers says. “That has helped here in L.A. So many people out here are cute and pretty, but don’t know how to get to know a character aside from just saying lines. CUA gave me that kind of discipline.”
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