Interview: Actor Jon Voight
by Scott Holleran
September 8, 2007

Box Office Mojo: What's your first recollection of watching a movie?

Jon Voight: I don't remember the first ones. I don't know. I know my adolescent favorites were The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and stuff like that. But my dad loved great acting and he recommended Spencer Tracy and John Barrymore and we saw [Humphrey] Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I think I related to Lon Chaney—I loved changing myself and adapting to things. I had this book of reviews by Kenneth Tynan and I had earmarked all the places where he had reviewed Laurence Olivier. I used to look at the way Olivier had composed these pieces and a lot was written about that—how there was a beginning and an end to the way he approached [a role], that the gesture he showed in the beginning was going to pay off in the end and all these very extraordinary things he did physically to complete the roles. I was very observant of his charting the course through [William] Shakespeare's great tragic characters. I think that was my love; Olivier was this great actor who changed himself and became these guys. That idea—of a great actor—was exciting to me. There was a connection. It was a lineage to great acting. We used to listen to records of John Barrymore doing Richard III, which was extraordinary.

Box Office Mojo: Was Midnight Cowboy's controversy—including its X rating—a concern?

Jon Voight: I didn't think much about that stuff. I loved the movie. I thought we had done what we had set out to do. I was very pleased with the human statements. Everything was taken care of—the producer Jerry Hellman kept everything away from the set, so we never felt any friction from the outside and we had the time to do it. If [director] John [Schlesinger] didn't get it right on a day's shooting, he would return and revisit. He was a perfectionist. He was very pure—all of us were in it to do the best work we could.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy
Box Office Mojo: What is the most underrated aspect of Midnight Cowboy?

Jon Voight: I think it's been embraced by everybody. People love that movie. Everybody got their due—the actors, the director, Waldo Salt, the screenwriter, Adam Holender, this young Polish cinematographer, who added something very exciting about the way it was shot. It didn't look glossy; it had a raw reality that added another dimension.

Box Office Mojo: What was the hardest part of making Midnight Cowboy?

Jon Voight: I understood it early on. I knew that the loneliness of the character was essentially the base of the character—that he didn't find himself comfortable or accepted anywhere, so he was trying, and this swagger was a mask, essentially. He wanted to belong. I felt that if I didn't do the role, it probably wouldn't have come alive like I thought it should. I thought I had the inside [track] on [getting] the part and, in fact, looking back, I did. I came to it knowing the story and knowing what I thought was the fun of it. I was in competition with three other fellas, and finally it came down to two—myself and Michael Sarrazin—and he had just done a movie with George C. Scott called The Flim-Flam Man and they made the decision to go with the more commercial fella. I was devastated. This was at the time when I was somewhat philosophic about things. If things didn't go my way, I'd say, "well, that's not meant to be." Sometimes, I would be offered a role and I would recommend somebody else—I was that kind of person. Yet this one stopped me because the thing I was excited about for this piece wasn't going to happen. I felt quite sick about it. Then I got a call from my agent saying, "Jon, it may not be over—they may be coming back to you." Apparently, they were looking at a screen test of Michael and, because Michael's people, whoever they were, decided to play games at that time with this deal, to raise the price that they had agreed to prior to the screen test and to push off the date, to wait for a film, Jerry Hellman, who was a very strong producer, didn't like that kind of nonsense. He just said, "well, that's the end of that." He couldn't wait to get on the phone. I felt badly about Michael, who's a very gifted actor. It came back to looking at our screen tests back to back. Apparently, Marion Dougherty, who was the casting director, was in the room and said, "well, there's no doubt who's the best actor." John Schlesinger said, "who?" And she said, "Jon Voight." Then, Dustin was called in to look at the tests and apparently he said, "when I look at my scene with Michael Sarrazin I look at myself—when I looked at my scene with Jon Voight, I look at Jon." That was a huge compliment. I think between these comments, that's what tipped the balance and then John came forward so I was very fortunate.

Box Office Mojo: So the hardest thing was almost losing the part?

Jon Voight: Yes.

Box Office Mojo: Who were the other two actors in contention for the role?

Jon Voight: A fella named Kiel Martin (Hill Street Blues) who has since passed away and another fella I can't remember.

Box Office Mojo: Another one of your early roles was playing a corrupt Army soldier in Catch-22, Mike Nichols' adaptation of the Joseph Heller satirical novel about World War 2—?

Jon Voight: There were all these great actors down there [in Mexico]: Stacy Keach was originally down there, Richard Benjamin, Artie Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, Tony Perkins, the great Alan Arkin, Paula Prentiss, Martin Balsam, Bob Newhart—so we're all down there and, all of sudden, Orson Welles was going to show up and do a couple of days' work and everyone's waiting for Orson Welles. Mike Nichols is there, Buck Henry is there. Mike Nichols was making a joke to John Calley about meeting Orson Welles and how they were up until three o'clock in the morning when Orson Welles finally said, "…and then I was four…" In other words, he was telling his life story.

Box Office Mojo: In the audio commentary, Mike Nichols says he can't remember how he cast you, but that he thought it was because of Dustin Hoffman—with whom he had worked on The Graduate—and the implication is that he had seen you together in Midnight Cowboy. Do you recall how you were cast in Catch-22?

Jon Voight: I came and I auditioned. I was being touted because I was this new guy on the block. No one had seen Midnight Cowboy but they had heard about it. Mike had me in and I read. But who knows—Dustin was very close to Mike. He might have called and said I could do it. When I got the part [of Milo] I was thinking "Dusty can do this better."

Box Office Mojo: Your character really makes an impression without getting a lot of screen time—?

Jon Voight:—That was before we had CGI and the shots were real. There's a scene where Marty Balsam and I are talking and I have this long speech and there's this plane coming in, tipping and weaving, doing a very dangerous kind of ballet, almost hitting its wings on the runway. If anything had gone wrong, we would have been in jeopardy. We were right in front of that plane. Then it goes past us and then they had set up the shot where you seen the damaged plane that was already in view—you see that the plane had crashed. It's one of my first shots. I was praying with every pore of my body, trying to focus and do this thing right and we did—we did it.

Jon Voight
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
Box Office Mojo: That was another counterculture picture, like Midnight Cowboy. There was a lack of traditional leading man roles. Did that concern you at the time?

Jon Voight: A guy like Cary Grant—he has this touch, and I have a little of that in me, too. Perhaps I could have done that kind of thing—or a Jimmy Stewart—if I had worked for [Frank] Capra. But then again, I would have probably wanted to push the envelope to do different kinds of characters. Midnight Cowboy was a good part for me because I do my character work and then I could do the stuff with Dusty—very good light comedy. We had a great joy doing that. I have great admiration for the guys who could pull that other thing off which is what they did in the Thirties and Forties. They found one character that they solved. When you look at Cary Grant's career, up to a certain point, he was full of potential but he wasn't really Cary Grant [yet]. Then, he discovers this guy—and he discovered it by doing a dark film—this kind of smooth, very suave character. Once he found that, he knew how to do it. He said later on "I'm not really Cary Grant," which sounds like a funny thing to say but it really means that Cary Grant was a character that he discovered and he was quite a magnificent character and he could do all sorts of things with that character. I liked that stuff—I was a fan of all those guys. Now Bogart was a great character but most of his work was around this one type—it was brilliant—it probably achieved its zenith with The Maltese Falcon, this kind of tough guy, this way of delivering things. Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest was a version of that.

Box Office Mojo: Is anyone in that league today?

Jon Voight: You have [Paul] Newman, [Robert] Redford—Redford is certainly a classic movie star. Kevin Costner is the same way, Tom Cruise, they have that same quality.

Box Office Mojo: What about you—you say you have a little bit of that. Do you wish you'd been able to indulge that more?

Jon Voight: No. I'm perfectly happy with the career I've had. My mom loved Conrack [based on the novel by Pat Conroy]—[Mr. Voight's daughter, actress] Angelina [Jolie] loved Conrack; it was her favorite [Jon Voight movie] and that was closer to me. That was my Cary Grant guy.

Box Office Mojo: How did Conrack do at the box office?

Jon Voight: Not too well. It's an awful lot of people's favorite film of mine. But it wasn't a big success.

Box Office Mojo: Why?

Jon Voight: I don't know. I really don't know. Maybe people wanted something harsher or more negative. Conrack wasn't.

Jon Voight in Catch-22
Box Office Mojo: Milo in Catch-22 is an American military figure who becomes a fascist—?

Jon Voight:—He was this crazy profiteer and certainly there are those people and that's who he was but that's not the main body of our [armed] forces. I was in the Army reserves in the Sixties and it seems like those characters are possible. I saw Catch-22 as the commentary on the other side of things. I was an artist so I was a pain in the neck to the military but I'm much different now. I have a great respect for the military and now we have a situation today, since 9/11, that we've come to understand the severity of this [enemy] force that's been building ever since the Seventies really—this [Islamic] totalitarianism. We're starting to see how pervasive it is and how well planned it is. It's a very frightening time.

Box Office Mojo: Catch-22 was released at the peak of the Vietnam War. Did veterans chide you for playing Milo and the U.S. military as fascists?

Jon Voight: No. It was a disturbing time. When I look back, we were all in confusion. I have to say, I think we were traumatized because we had our great president [John F. Kennedy], whom we believed in so deeply, this great young man of Camelot—and it was dashed by an assassin's bullet. Then, a couple of years later, it was [U.S. Senator] Bobby [Kennedy] and Martin Luther King [Jr., who were both assassinated in 1968]. That set off a tremor that we really didn't know how to deal with. We were traumatized in the Sixties and all of that behavior—the dancing in circles, the smoking pot and saying "all we need is love"—it was because we couldn't identify evil; we couldn't believe in evil—we didn't want to believe in evil so we just hid from it. It was a very disturbing time. Some of it—let everybody do their thing and all that stuff—was OK in terms of getting to the truth of things and that was a nice energy. But, really, overwhelmingly, it was a very bizarre, selfish and hedonistic philosophy that wasn't very helpful. It attacked the family—the attack on the family was very severe because not only was there this idea of [indiscriminate love] and that would solve the world's problems, which gave rise to teen pregnancy, but also this idea not to trust anyone over 30. This was from people who were over 30 and bombed out of their minds with every kind of drug they could put into their system. Then there was the romanticization of the drugs—there were people coming out with [pseudo] scientific evidence that [drugs] increase your enlightenment—it was devastating. Today, I find that people look back at that time in a romantic way and that's as dangerous as anything is. It wasn't a romantic time. It was a time of great distortion.

Box Office Mojo: You co-produced a picture in the early Eighties, Lookin' to Get Out, that displays a comic sensibility—

Jon Voight: There's stuff in that film that's classic.

Box Office Mojo: That was released in 1982. It did seem like you were choosing different roles in the early Eighties. With Runaway Train, which was not a box office success, you earned renewed critical praise.

Jon Voight: I was up for an Academy Award for that [performance] and, if it wasn't [distributed by] Cannon, it probably would have had a wider release. It was a terrific film.

Box Office Mojo: You also did Table for Five. Is that one of your favorites?

Jon Voight: It is. I'm very moved by it and I think it's an important film. It was made for an audience of people who had come from broken families. It was a good film for kids to see.

Box Office Mojo: What's your least favorite movie?

Jon Voight: I don't have one. But, I'll tell you, I initially wasn't very happy with End of the Game, with Martin Ritt and Maria Schell. Donald Sutherland plays a corpse. But I saw it again recently on television and I liked it.

Continued . . .

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