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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

The light-filled, newly finished kitchen in James Woods' Beverly Hills home is aglow with warm woods and hand-embossed copper. The six-burner cooktop stove rests in the granite center island. The contents of the refrigerator and the cupboards are immaculately arranged. The kitchen has clean lines, yet it looks as if it was also designed to be messed up. Cooked in. Dined in. It is huge and homey.

James Woods grabs cans out of the cupboards and pulls the eggs and butter out of the fridge. Like he does most days, he concocts a meal that would make even uber-homemaker Martha Stewart green with envy, all the while carrying on a rapid-fire monologue about the sorry state of affairs between men and women at the close of the millennium. Concentrating on slicing the onions for the home fries, he takes a moment to fire up a Montecristo No. 2. Nattily dressed in a pair of olive corduroy pants with a perfectly pressed Ralph Lauren shirt (yes, he even does his own ironing)--James Woods seems like the answer to every woman's dream. Why isn't this man married?

Then, as he discusses the contents of the morning's Los Angeles Times editorial page, he opens a can of whole potatoes for the home fries. Culinary Secrets of James Woods, Lesson One: Don't be afraid to use canned food. As he scrambles the eggs, he wonders whether onions and cheese would be a welcome addition. He sets the table with some wonderful old dishes, talks about playing golf through back pain during the previous week's Pebble Beach Open, and squeezes fresh orange juice, all while watching over six pots on the stove, each one at a critical point. And, of course, talking seven million miles a minute.

Everything about the brunch is perfection--right down to the crisply cooked bacon, gently wrapped in paper towels to soak up the excess grease. Culinary Secrets of James Woods, Lesson Two: Pay attention to details. Which brings us to the most important Culinary Secret of James Woods: Stay in control. Complete control. And yet make everything look easy. Effortless.

Perched on a bar stool amid the pots and the plates of food, Woods muses over the "bad boy" perception that just about everyone seems to have about him. "I don't get why people don't understand this about me. I'm like the nicest guy on earth. I wasn't that bad to begin with. I was just a little insecure. I was scary in movies, I wasn't scary in real life. I was kind of a minor, minor, minor league little troublemaker. I wasn't a big one like most of them.

"One of the reasons people think I'm tough is, when you're insecure, you kind of compensate by being a little hysterical. I'd kind of have little mini fits every once in a while. Little 'poo-poo head in the schoolyard' fits. Now I realize that nobody's interested. It doesn't work. It doesn't help me at all. So I decided to kind of shut up and be an adult. To be a little bit less of an asshole and a little bit more of a man. And given this moment right now, I'm glad I finally did something with it. I'm glad I stopped the bullshit that I wasted my time with for the past 20 years. And for the first time in my life, I think I'm really, really happy. I guess I'm finally sort of accepting things I can't control anymore."

A Zen philosopher once said that you can never step into the same river twice. Well, the same holds true with the Woods. Yet he is always engaging. Consistently enigmatic. Exasperating. Often brashly charismatic. He is a man who possesses the appealing combination of being seriously smart and dangerously funny. He is a gentleman of the highest order, tempered by just enough of the rogue to keep you constantly off balance. He is opinionated, strong willed and unafraid to stand behind what he says, or what he has done.

Sure, he has made mistakes, many of them publicly, and has paid a higher price than most--usually in the media. But he has learned from all of them. The product of a loving family, he yearns for the companionship of an as yet unnamed soul mate. And, at 50, his biological clock is ticking. Loudly.

What distinguishes James Woods in an overcrowded con-stellation of movie stars is a consummate talent: a rare set of gifts and skills combined with passion, a creative fearlessness and a determination to achieve his vision. This alchemizes into an unstoppable artistic force that must always be reckoned with, offscreen as well as on.

"Actors of Jimmy's intensity and brilliance produce in the public mind an image that spills over into real life," says Frank Pierson, director of Woods in HBO's Citizen Cohn. "People tend to watch them closely, hoping to see when they might slip over the edge and do something really bad. So if they see him coming first, they can cross over to the other side of the street. Truly, Woods walks upon life's stage with the same white heat with which he acts. And nobody who knows him can call him unopinionated."

Woods' opinions carry over to such everyday considerations as cigar storage. He is unashamed to admit that, in spite of the elegant Dunhill humidor that graces a shelf in his library, he stores most of his prize cigars in a Tupperware container with a natural sponge and some distilled water. With his trademark grin and a devilish gleam in his eye, he says, "Aficionado, my ass. I just love to smoke cigars." As he takes the lid off the box and proffers a Hoyo de Monterrey, he adds, "The humidor is such a pain in the ass. I take them out and roll them every once in a while, and if they sound right and they smell right and they're not flaking, they are fine."

After he washes the dishes and finishes cleaning the kitchen, Woods continues the conversation in the library. The design and construction of his home, a seven-year undertaking, is nearing its final phase. With a distinct Frank Lloyd Wright feel, the home was built on the former site of violinist Jasha Heifitz's house. Woods even went so far as to have Heifitz's Wright-designed practice studio disassembled and reconstructed as a donation to the Colburn School of Music in San Diego. An iron gazebo, following the same architectural lines as the original studio, now stands in its former location.

"We spent four months sitting on this property on ladders, imagining what the sun would do at different times of day so that we could design the house," says Woods. "It's sort of like the Grand Canyon in the sense that there is never a moment when it ever looks the same as any other moment. The light is always different. It was a matter of envisioning the house and then building it piece by piece. I just wanted to see if I could create something that was beautiful and something that reflected my needs. I love to read, I always wanted a library--now I have one. I think it's a beautiful little library. I wanted a bright kitchen where people could enjoy themselves. I love gardens where I could sit and think. I said that I wanted it wide open and yetI wanted to have little cloisters, hidden areas, pockets of comfort that you find sort of out of nowhere where you can just disappear for a while and be by yourself. It was kind of an odd challenge. And finally I said, I want it to look like it was the newest house on the block--if it were 1936. I was going for a degree of difficulty here."

As he builds a fire in the fire-place and lights his cigar, Woods thinks for a moment about what caused him to take stock of his life and make the much-needed changes. In his case, the motivation for change was a lot of pain. "You always think that you're going to avoid a midlife crisis. But it just sneaks up and gets you no matter what. I had mine with a lot of help from my second ex-wife. She was really kind of a ship passing in the night; she just turned out to be the Exxon Valdez. It was kind of a lesson about how horribly another human being can treat you. You never really expect it. In my heart, I'm really kind of an optimist about human nature. But there is always a wonderful lesson out there with three sixes tattooed on its forehead that will teach you otherwise. "And I'm kind of glad that it did. It was kind of a purging experience because I've trusted the kindness inside of me rather than running from it like I used to in the old days."

Born on April 18, 1947, the eldest son of a military hero and a preschool teacher, Woods and his brother, Michael, grew up in Illinois, Virginia, Guam and Rhode Island. His father died when Woods was 12 and his mother, Martha, raised her sons as a single parent, while running a private school. "My parents loved each other," Woods recalls. "I was raised in a house of total love and respect. My dad worked very hard and my mother was incredibly devoted to him. I can unequivocally, without any peradventure of doubt, tell you that I was raised with the kind of love that we only dream of," Woods says. "My mother and my father loved me and my brother like we love the air we breathe--out of necessity. It was a necessity for them to love us in some deep inner genetic calling in their hearts and minds and souls. I have that as a standard."

His mother reports that as a young boy, Woods and his best friend would open a dictionary, close their eyes and choose a word at random. The pair would then use the word all week long--in school, at home, even on the playground, most of the time to the bewilderment of friends, playmates and teachers. "I was really bright as a kid and tested well, and it was clear that I was going to get scholarships to any schools I wanted. My dad always said I could be an engineer; at that time it was the elite of society: steady job, working in science, which was then the answer to every problem we had. It was kind of a mandate. Kind of a dream he had for me."

Woods was first drawn to acting as a senior in high school in Providence, Rhode Island. "I did 'Little Foxes' at Pilgrim High. I won an acting award and I thought, 'This is a really cool thing to do.' " But the desire to please his late father propelled his collegiate career into a different direction. Woods was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship, majoring not in the physical sciences, but in political science. He also pursued acting, appearing in 36 plays at MIT, Harvard and the Theater Company of Boston, and performed in summer stock at the Provincetown Playhouse. He dropped out of MIT during his last year to move to New York and pursue acting full-time. "It was a very wrenching and painful decision for me--in my senior year at MIT, on high dean's list and full scholarships--to decide that maybe I wanted to be an artist. I think it is actually something that my father would understand. Whether I'm making 30 grand a day or union scale, I have found something that I truly love, and that is something he would have admired."

Woods loves to act--whatever the medium. Trained as a theater actor, he has made the successful transition from stage to film to television and back again. He is comfortable in all three, and understands the unique requirements of each discipline.

"I always have a rule that acting is acting and truth is truth and you just go out there and you do it," he says. "But what happens in each medium is that you have other responsibilities. The acting remains the same, but each medium dictates assuming other halves to make the acting work. When I'm working on a film, I just play the absolute purity of the moments. I don't worry about the pacing, because the pacing is going to be dictated by the director and the editor. On the stage I have to give pacing to the play. As an actor, you, in fact, become the editor of the piece, in terms of the timing. You are required to engineer the pace yourself. In television, everything is in so close, that you realize that most of what you do has to register in your thought process."

While many actors snub the notion of working on television, throughout his career Woods has found some of his biggest creative challenges on the small screen. "A cardinal rule of being a movie star, according to the agents and all the people who have wisdom, is that you should be aloof, do very little press and you shouldn't ever get on television. I don't think there is a piece of political film making in the United States that is a good as, let alone better than, Citizen Cohn. Let's assume that I am not even in the picture. I mean, just the writer of the piece, David Franzoni. I look at Promise, written by Richard Friendenberg and directed by Glenn Jordan, a wonderful director. Forgetting that I am in it, just looking at the material itself, My Name Is Bill W. would not have had the same impact if it were a feature film; it would have come and gone. But on television, 25 million people get to watch it all at the same time. So television has a power all its own and it has an allure all its own, and I think that television often deals with more meaningful subjects than many feature films do."

Yet Woods always returns to film, because of the scope of the medium. "I think Ghosts of Mississippi was a meaningful film and I think Contact [due out this summer] will be another. In film, the canvas is bigger, and you are in a big room with a lot of people watching it."

Capturing the viewer's imagination is something Woods has always been able to do. He first received notice as Barbra Streisand's guy pal in The Way We Were. Over the years, his career has taken him from the role as the amoral journalist Richard Boyle in Salvador, to the icy H.R. Haldeman in 1995's Nixon, both for director Oliver Stone. He has won an Emmy Award for portraying the schizophrenic "D.J." opposite James Garner in the ABC movie Promise, and also was honored for his role as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in My Name Is Bill W., also with Garner. (Woods gave up his profit participation on the video sales so the movie could be donated to Alcoholics Anonymous chapters.) He has gone from leading man as Sen. Joseph McCarthy co-counsel Roy Cohn in Citizen Cohn to the scene-stealing cameo role of Lester Diamond in Martin Scorcese's Casino. In the 1996 CBS made-for-television movie The Summer of Ben Tyler, he played a man who adopted a retarded black child in the 1940s. Woods said he took the role to cleanse himself of the oppressive psychic weight of turning in a haunting performance as the unrepentant racist Byron de la Beckwith in Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi, a role that earlier this year earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, his first Oscar nomination since the 1986 film Salvador. Then there's his tour de force in The Onion Fields, and his standout performances in HBO's Indictment: The McMartin Trial, and the 1995 film The Specialist. His résumé is as varied as the man himself.

Woods is clearly on a mission. "I'm now making up for an incredible amount of lost time. You lose time when you haven't defined what you want in your life. It is easy to achieve your goals--the tough part is defining them. Now I make a point of defining them. I said to my new agents at [International Creative Management], 'No more shit. No more [Creative Artists Agency] pay-the-rent shit. I want to work on the best scripts, with the best directors. I don't care about the money. I don't care about the size of the part or the billing and all that other stuff. But I want to do material that is great. With directors and actors that are great.'

"You see, I have always wanted on my tombstone: 'He Played the Part Better than Anybody Could Have'--whatever that part may have been. I don't ever want to say that I'm the best actor in the world. But I'd like to think that when I do a part, that people can't imagine anybody else doing it after I have done it."

Pierson sums up working with Woods this way: "What is it like to direct Jimmy Woods? I wouldn't know. You don't direct him. You surf him. It's like surf-riding the biggest wave you ever saw. A moving mountain of energy and inventiveness and intelligence. And if you stay standing up, it's the biggest damn thrill of any director's lifetime."

Woods often makes surprising career choices, but there is a method to his madness. "If you star in movies, which I predominantly do, most agents would assume that you don't want to do a two-day part in a movie," he says. "But when you read a script like Casino and you know it is being directed by a genius like Martin Scorcese, you say, hey, I'll be an extra in this movie. I'll do anything. I called up Marty and said, 'Any part, anytime, anyplace, anywhere.' Because I want to work in good scripts with good directors, and this was a great script with a phenomenal director, it makes the choice really easy. We ended up making a two-scene part into a 10-scene part. Which proves my point. When you're working with great people and great material, you're going to milk it. I have learned that you can't be a champion unless you are in the championship zone. You can't win unless you're in the zone, whatever winning might mean. Right now, maybe they are not going to star me in a $100 million movie all by myself the way they would some other actor, but if I'm in that championship zone, I have got a shot."

Twice recently he has been in the zone, auditioning for and winning the roles of H.R. Haldeman in Nixon and Byron de la Beckwith in Ghosts of Mississippi. Unlike other actors of his level, Woods says he is proud to have auditioned. "One of the things that was a challenge for me [about Nixon] is that Oliver Stone did not want me to play the part of Haldeman. He said, 'You're not right for this part, Jimmy. This guy is very restrained, very cold, a very straight-edged, square guy. You're a mercurial artist. Impulsive. Passionate. Emotional.' And I said, 'Oliver, it's the old joke--it's called acting. I think I can do it.' "

The proof is on the screen. And with it, a valuable lesson in his own creative evolution. "I'm hoping that my inner life that is usually expressed in an outer way, if I keep it inside, will make the dry dimension of the character--the repressed dimension--more vital, because you can smell the chaos and the drive and ambition underneath the guy," he says, warming to his topic. "You can yell and scream all the way through the movie and usually everybody thinks that's great acting. The toughest part is to do all that--now lock it up and put it inside and be as cool as you can be on the screen. You have to have done all your work in the chaos department ahead of time and just have it under there and parcel it out in tiny little flashes. That's the hardest thing to do. Haldeman was one of the most difficult jobs of my entire career, and one of the ones of which I'm the most proud. And probably one of the ones that most people won't notice."

Oliver Stone, who has seen Woods on both sides of his personal transformation, says, "In the old days, I used to want to strangle Jimmy with my bare hands. But since that time Jimmy has mellowed out. And perhaps I have, too. And now I love him deeply. He has grown, actually, into a human being. And a fine one, too."

Characteristically, Woods steers away from the standard choices when he speaks about actors whose work he admires. "Robert Redford understands film acting better than anybody on the face on the earth," he declares. "You know how some carnivores get every bit of meat off of a carcass they can? Well, there's nobody who gets as much blood out of a moment as Redford. Within the range of his talent he knows how to get every single note available, and he is a genius not only at getting those notes but in making them fully accessible to his audience. He is one of the few actors that can play three or four emotions at the same time, and he is amazing; he truly understands the subtlety of film acting."

Woods once did a play reading with Holly Hunter. "Holly is such a fast, smart, wonderful actor. When we worked together, it was like a hot knife through butter. It was like clockwork. I would love to do a film with her."

He has just finished work on the film Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on the book by Carl Sagan. Due for a July release, Contact stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, with a stellar cast of co-stars that includes Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Rob Lowe and Angela Bassett. Says Zemeckis of working with Woods: "Jimmy's consummate talents are only exceeded by his boundless energy. I can't remember when I've laughed so hard in my professional career. Working with him is truly entertaining."

Woods excitedly shares the film's story: "Jodie Foster works in an area of science devoted to contact with extraterrestrials, which is sort of the 'lost stepchild' of the astronomy movement. And she receives a transmission of prime numbers being broadcast from somewhere in outer space, which, by definition, cannot be an accident--and we're off and running. The movie, oddly enough, is about faith. And God, in a strange way. Do we believe in what our senses tell us or what we hope can be true?

"There are some amazingly clever things in the movie, and the canvas is so complex and so large, and Robert does it all in his head," Woods says. "He has a cutting-edge sense of this new medium of computer-generated graphics. Robert loves to do things with computers that can actually give emotions to the scene.

"My character's job is to provide national security for the United States, which is, basically, to prepare for the worst. I'm basically the guy who is the anti-touchy feely element in the piece, or the voice of reason, depending on how you look at it. This role is sort of my farewell to this stuff, in a way. I don't think I want to play any more 'hard guys in suits,' only because I have done it enough. I want to do different things."

Woods worked hard for his role in Ghosts of Mississippi. "I love doing great material. And if you want to do great material, you must devote yourself to it 24 hours a day and go out there and make it happen. I sit here every night and I read scripts. I don't let anything escape my purview. And most of the greatest experiences in my life were things that I have found. There have been times when I have honed in on something that I have really liked. When Ghosts of Mississippi started, of course the agents were working on it, but they were working on another part in the picture. It was a smaller part, but they were working on it. And I saw the role of de la Beckwith and I said, 'Wow, that part is great, but that's completely out of the picture. Unless you're Jimmy Woods and you don't take no for an answer.'

"So I started lobbying for it, and fought for it, and fought for it. And I got it. Without a doubt that's the thing that nobody ever thinks to do. It's all in the audition." He convinced Rob Reiner to allow him to audition and do a makeup test for the role. The role was one of the biggest challenges of his career, demanding that he play white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith both as a young and an old man.

"This is where it really paid off. It was fun for me. Tremendously challenging. I have a theory that Northern actors should never play Southern characters. This is one of my cardinal rules. So I thought, well, here I am breaking one of my rules. I spent literally three months, every single day, working on the accent. And I had all of the tapes of the real de la Beckwith memorized to the point where I could do all of his speeches with him by rote. It was a matter of building the character. The accent. The look. The makeup. You know, people thought I wore a fat suit for the old stuff. I didn't. It was actually all physical posture. The young makeup took an hour and a half. The old makeup took almost four hours. And I think Ghosts of Mississippi speaks for itself. I played a character, an actor's dream in terms of the challenge and in terms of the degree of difficulty, and did it with people that I enjoyed working with. I inhabited the skin of this kind of horrible man for three months. It was tremendously challenging."

Often drawn to unsympathetic characters, Woods feels that memorable villains are integral to the storytelling process. "Film is a dialectic. This is the thesis. This is the antithesis. And there is the synthesis. You guys have your great protagonists and great antagonists. It is a battle of wills. All great movies have that kind of a mano a mano thing going. I never make judgments about the character that I play. Never. I just play them. I mean, that's who he his. This guy [de la Beckwith] is so evident in the interviews. He was so evident in the press. I saw all of his subterfuge and all these kinds of levels of bullshit. And how crafty he was. You know, I'd admire the guy more if he said, 'Look, I just don't like people who are different from me and I'd shoot them any chance that I get.' If you can convince me of that, fine. At least I'd say, 'Well the guy's a lunatic, but at least he has the balls to stand up for whatever lunacy he believes in.' But on top of everything else, he was a coward and a liar! I mean, he shot a guy in the back and then he lied about it!

"I liked doing the movie because I wanted people to see this guy, to see the unbelievably naked, sort of hard edge of racism. It is so ugly when it that naked and that raw. We all fall into the politics of the piece. I'm so sick of all of this political correctness. Nobody ever deals with things as they really are. They are always going to deal with it as they think it should be--he's the villain of the piece, she's the heroine, so he's the comic relief--so automatically now they are falling into a mold of something that we've seen a million times before, so it is never very refreshing or very intriguing. I say, 'That's who the guy is. Period.' I don't make any judgments. I don't editorialize. He's a very charming, kind of nutty guy, and if you are a reasonable human being I have to believe that the effect will be chilling. He is saying these horrible things and it will be even more chilling against his kind of oddball charm."

With a career full of intense roles, Woods never seems to have any trouble putting work aside. "I am one of those guys who could do the most emotional scene and crack a joke instantly. I'm lucky. I'm just like an idiot savant. I have one enormously enjoyable, pleasurable--for me--talent, which is being able to act. I do it without any confusion or restriction or ambivalence or hesitation, and it just flows, almost as naturally as anything in my life. So I don't have a big burden about it. I'm not one of those 'method' guys. I'm tired of the Actors' Studio bullshit that has ruined movies for 40 years. All these guys running around pretending they are turnips or whatever the hell they do. You just play the character as he really is. As a loudmouth, blowhard, coward, shithead. You know, it's OK to be just who the guy is.

"One of the reasons that I'm not very good about talking about the process of acting is that so much of it requires you to be unconscious [of it] when you do it. When you're aware of what you're doing, it's never very good. If you just let go and you're in the scene, all of a sudden, it's good. I can't act; I swear to you, I feel like I can't. I dread it every time I do it. I feel like the more I do it, the less I know. Which is a good thing."

Woods has often used cigars to help create and define a character, beginning in 1984 with his role as a gangster in Once upon a Time in America. But during filming of Ghosts of Mississippi, cigars posed a slightly different challenge. "I'm torn between being an actor and a cigar lover," Woods says. "In Ghosts, de la Beckwith smoked these long thin cigars, which I hate. I like a thicker cigar with more draw. I had to smoke these chicken-shit cigars during the entire shoot. And they got these cheaper cigars, and the prop guy didn't know anything about keeping them fresh. You'd crack them and they'd be dry and flaky. It was like getting a titanium rod wrapped in some horrible leaf. It wasn't even like a cigar; it was like smoking a cane or something. But this particular cigar was a great prop, because de la Beckwith is one of those nasty old guys who chews on some crappy old cigar; yet it just lent a certain kind of aesthetic weight to the character."

In June, Woods brings to life the role of Hades, Lord of the Underworld, in Hercules, Disney's animated retelling of the tale. The cigar smoking Hades character bears a striking physical resemblance to Woods--although Woods' hair is rarely on fire. And though he has yet to master Hades' trick of lighting his cigar with flaming fingertips, knowing Woods, he is probably working on it.

Woods created the character over the course of several years with famed Disney animator Nik Ranieri. It was a true creative collaboration. "Hades is the Lord of the Underworld and he sounds like a cross between a slick used car salesman and a Hollywood agent--a really slick shmuck," Woods says. "And what's funny about it is he's down there in Hell with five million dead stiffs, and there's not much to do. It's kind of boring. So we gave him great stuff to do, like eating worms and smoking a cigar." And what cigar does the Lord of the Underworld smoke? Without missing a beat, Woods says, "He'd probably smoke Montecristo No. 2s, because if I had my way, if I were the head of my own dominion, that's all I'd ever smoke. They are the perfect cigar."

Joining an elite cadre of Disney villains such as Cruella De Vil and Captain Hook, Woods eagerly anticipates the impact of this role. "I was in Roy Disney's office the other day and I thought, 'My God, you may be creating what will be for this generation of children, a character that will have the impact on them the way the Wicked Witch in Snow White had an impact on you!' It's fabulous to think that children are quite possibly going to relate to this character for the rest of their lives."

The work that he did to bring this character to the screen led to a new set of hurdles for him. "We gradually created this sort of strange, bizarre, slick, very funny, fast-talking villain. And it was an experience to create a character with my voice. It was difficult because I'm not a really 'voicey' person. I always think of my acting as more emotional and intellectual. I'm just not one of those actors that can do a million things with my voice. For some reason I kind of pulled it off, and it was an incredible challenge to do it."

Woods is a relative newcomer to the joys of a fine cigar and is not afraid to admit that his first smoking experience was somewhat lost on him. "I really started about four years ago. I had quit smoking cigarettes, which I found to be tedious. It was just like a job. And I found it was easy and pleasurable to smoke a cigar. I have a rule: if it is something a normal person wouldn't whine about, but just a feminist would, then, you know, it's all right. Cigar smoking is the kind of thing a feminist would whine about: [doing his best whiny feminist impression] 'Sure, you don't inhale them, but people can smell them four miles away.' And that's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. Anything to piss off a feminist, he said with a smile. Or a chuckle at any rate." It takes a few minutes for Woods to stop laughing.

He straightens up in his chair, and takes a look at the cigar in his hand. "I think the reason it is happening is that all of us boomers are growing up. We don't eat fatty foods. We all try to be healthy. In this day and age of safe sex and non-fattening foods, you just have to have a little tiny something in you life where you feel just a little bit naughty, or wicked, or indulgent, or spoiled. I know how liberals whine about cigar smoking, and it's like, fine, I'm going to have to listen to feminists on television all the time, too. There are just some horrors in life that you cannot avoid. Getting hit by the onslaught of the price of feminism is certainly worse for you than smoking a cigar."

Woods truly enjoys the cigar experience, seeing cigars as a safe haven from the modern intrusions that are part of a busy life. "Like Freud said, if you don't smoke cigars, you miss out on one of the great experiences of life. I love to sit down in my library at night with the fire on and read. I light a cigar and I ruminate, which is something very few people do anymore. It is a lost form. It's like being a traveler or an adventurer rather than a tourist. Cigars are like little vacations where I take stock. They are a respite from the events of life and give you time to marinate the details and decisions of your life.

"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. "

As he approaches the end of his Montecristo No. 2, the conversation turns to women. Woods is uncharacteristically quiet, reflective, almost philosophical when he says, "I'd really love to get married again. This is a softer, kinder, gentler version of my 'old public persona.' But, in fact, I would just love to get married. The biggest challenge in life is to find someone in your contemporary world who can resonate both traditional values and that love for you," he says. "I think there are a lot of really good women out there. I really do. But I think that women have really been pounded by this feminist stuff. I think the mean-spiritedness of the feminist movement has been very destructive to women's naturally kind instincts and I think it has hurt all of us. I think we are finally starting to realize, 'Hey, we've got to get over it and find a way back to each other.'

"What nobody gets is that it's great that we're different. Women tend to whine a little and guys tend to not want to talk about anything. Women could reasonably argue that the reason they whine is because 'you guys won't talk to us about anything important.' Like relationships. My fervent hope is that if I ever get married again and have children, that the marriage will stay together no matter what. I have that as a standard, and I think that is one of the reasons that it has been so difficult for me to find a wife."

The struggle to balance love and work, creativity and commitment, Hollywood success and hearth and home, is apparent. "My goal right now is to have a family. The thing I want more than anything else is a wife and children. Work for me has been an ongoing dialectic. Work is important for me--a basic, inbred part of me that I, in the best sense, take for granted. To work and to love. I need work; it's just a given, and I'm as excited about it every day as I was in the beginning. And as for love," he wryly offers, "let me give some advice to women--if you want a teddy bear, go to FAO Schwartz. If you want a man, come over here, OK?"

In a new house that does indeed look like it has always been there, in a cozy library surrounded by his books, his awards and the American flag that was draped over his father's coffin, James Woods shares his view of mid-life. "When you're 30, you want to make a lot of money. When you're 40, you hope you're not going to die. When you're 50, you start to realize: How do I make peace with all of this? For the first time in my life, I'm starting to think about how many films I have left in me. And I think, I'm turning 50. How old do you think I will be when I'm teaching my kid to play golf? What will it be like when all of those inevitable things that we dread happen to our loved ones and to us?"

It isn't surprising that James Woods gets every last, savory puff out of his cigar. When he is finished with it, there is almost nothing left. He places the butt in the ashtray. "Sure, I tend to be a bit of a worrier and a little obsessive, and my biggest fear is that I will fuss and worry myself to death." Clearly, that's where cigars come into the picture. "When you smoke a cigar, time stops. And you can sort out your thoughts. Contemplate. You can just kind of hold it and puff it and just drift down the stream of your thoughts for an hour or so. Thank God for cigars. At least there is one place where I can be quiet for a moment and actually be alone with my thoughts." He gazes into the fire as if the answer to one of life's great questions is encoded in the flames. And the mischief dances in his eyes. That knowing grin that borders on a smirk reappears. And right now, finally, James Woods looks ready to have it all. Because he just won't settle for anything less.

Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer living in Malibu, California.

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