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Combustible Woods

An incendiary afternoon with reformed bad boy James Woods.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 5)

"I accomplish more smoking a cigar, because I sit and I think," he adds. "I like to take little journeys in my mind about everything. I think it's kind of a male thing, it is something that we traditionally used to do. Nowadays, you can sit in Antarctica with your PowerBook and move the Hubbell Telescope on the Internet. I'm not so sure that is such a great thing. I mean, life did get kind of tougher and noisier, and needlessly so. I defy any human being to tell me that his life has improved with the advent of fax machines, computers, e-mail and beepers.

"My nightmare in life, my absolute fundamental, overwhelming, egregious nightmare, is Bill Gates' vision of the future, where there will be a video camera on every corner and every conversation will be recorded. Man, I'd rather put a pitchfork in my eyes than live in a world like that."

Instead of the pitchfork, Woods usually puts three espresso beans in a little Sambuca, fires up a Punch Punch and curls up in front of the fireplace by himself. Or, when he goes to the Cayman Islands with his family, he and his brother, Michael, sit on the beach at twilight, smoking cigars, with their mother, Martha, watching the tips of their cigars glowing in the darkness from her hotel balcony. It is with those shared moments that the Woods family reunites.

Whenever the two brothers pair up, trouble usually follows. Good trouble. "Coming through customs," Woods recalls, "my golf bag had the strangest lines to it, and the customs guy looked at me and said, 'So, Mr. Woods, you're coming from a Caribbean island with a golf bag with these big square corners sticking through the fabric and I know you're a cigar smoker. Should I just tell you, sir, that I am your biggest fan. And do you know how much it means that I am not going to ask you any questions about what is in your golf bag?' Let me tell you--it was the best fan letter that I ever had."

Woods' best friend, businessman Scott Sandler, feels that the actor's decision to turn to cigars has been a positive step. "Smoking cigars, playing golf with the guys and doing things other than being involved in the sort of crazy relationships he used to be involved with, saved his life to some degree," Sandler says. "And sure, he has his ups and downs. But we spend numerous nights planning, strategizing and scheming how we're going to obtain our beloved Monte No. 2s or our Cohibas. But the greatest moments are having your best friend with you and smoking a cigar. Somehow smoking a cigar is soothing for him. He gets level. Calm."

Michael Woods, who introduced his brother to the high art of combining golf and cigars, uses his cigar to balance out his swing. Much to Michael's chagrin, Jimmy is forever putting his lit cigar on the green while he takes a whack at the ball. Michael recently gave his brother a Tee-Gar in hopes that he can break him of that habit.

Although Jimmy Woods just finished playing in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he is fairly modest about his golf game. "I'm a pretty good duffer. Between the gambling and the handicap system and a great cigar, it's the best five hours of your life. I'm not a great golfer, I'm an avid golfer--there's a big difference. But there's room for me in the game. I'll smoke a double corona or a Churchill when I golf. I don't bring my Montes out in the morning, because it's a great evening cigar. Golf is a good game for me because it requires a degree of allowing it to happen. You line up your shot and you take a good swing at it. And sometimes that kinda means letting go a little bit. It's the same with acting."

One of Woods' little-known passions is photography. Thestunning photograph on the cover of Bette Davis' autobiography, This and That, was taken by him. Woods is an intuitive photographer who enjoys going behind the lens almost as much as he enjoys being in front of it. According to his friends and subjects, his portraits are riveting. His sense of light, angle and visual choices creates a sense of intimacy.

"I've never formally studied with anybody," Woods says, "but I've always loved great photography. I like to shoot people. I always like to get into faces when there is something happening. It comes from the same motive as acting--which is wanting to understand how people think and what they do. It feels exactly the same. You are observing human nature. I'm doing one by recreating it on film and another by capturing it on film. I just love studying human behavior.

"I like Henri Cartier-Bresson, because his stuff is of the moment; he is the soul of photography. I love Eugene Smith's commitment to what he did; to me, he was the heart of photography. He sort of did photography the way I like to act, which is, you don't take any prisoners. You go for everything. Ansel Adams and Mina Wright were more of the brain of photography. "


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