Dressed in a natty sport coat and slacks, Jon Voight cuts a distinctive figure in the landscape of California casual, as he crosses the parking lot and enters the Beverly Glen Deli near Mulholland Drive on the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains.
His lank hair is still thick, faded from trademark towhead to white, not many gradations down the color chart. The blue eyes crinkle in amusement, flash with passion, always active and aware. With his ramrod-straight posture and tall, trim frame, he looks decades younger than his almost-77 years.
Voight is obviously a regular at this eatery near the tiptop of Beverly Hills, not far from his home: "The usual?" a waitress asks, which turns out to be a plate of steamed broccoli, turkey bacon and an English muffin, with eggs over medium. As he tucks into breakfast, he's asked how he stays in such great shape and flashes a quick smile, saying, "You're assuming I'm in good shape."
But the eye doesn't lie. The camera legendarily adds 10 pounds, but Voight—seen in swim trunks and open shirt around a swimming pool in several episodes of the recently completed third season of Showtime's hit series "Ray Donovan"—creates the opposite effect, with his lean physique.
"I do a little bit of exercise," Voight allows, "but I'm also very active as a person. I do an essential group of exercises to strengthen my core. I always do at least that. And I love to play with my grandchildren, when I see them. I like spending my time around children in general. I'm not an armchair grandfather—I'm interactive.
"At my house, in the middle of the living room, I've moved all the furniture around to make room for a Ping-Pong table. My property is not overly manicured, but I have this field that I keep mowed and we play flag football. Or baseball. Or the kids will take golf clubs out and hit some balls. I even invite the kids in the neighborhood to use it. The happiest sound for me is sitting in my house and hearing children and their laughing coming from the field."
Voight brings plenty of his own youthful enthusiasm to his work on the series. Inspired in his youth as a struggling actor by the work of Marlon Brando and Sir Laurence Olivier, Voight is game to try anything in pursuit of a truthful moment.
"He's extraordinarily dedicated to the work," says David Hollander, executive producer on "Ray Donovan," which was renewed for a fourth season in August. "He's a gentleman. He wears a sport coat every day; he's always well-dressed and very gentlemanly, incredibly well-mannered.
"He's been in the business a very long time and he has incredible stories to tell. But in no way is he a guy who holds that over anybody's head. Really, the most common refrain from Jon is, ‘Isn't this wonderful that we're here, working together, trying to figure this shit out?' "
And, despite his joking to the contrary, Voight is also extremely fit. "I remember we were shooting a scene and I'm directing," Hollander says. "And I turn around and Jon is down on the ground, doing 20 or 30 push-ups behind the camera so he'd be sweating for the scene. He's incredibly vibrant. He doesn't seem like someone my father's age."
Liev Schreiber, who plays the title character in the Showtime series, sports the gym-toned physique of a boxer, and marvels at Voight's stamina. "The other day," he recalls, "he and I had to pick up [costar] Eddie Marsan and carry him out of a hotel room and we had to do a few takes. I was asking for mercy long before Jon did. The guy's in incredible shape."
"Ray Donovan" has earned Voight an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award, for playing a character Schreiber describes as "a likable monster." Mickey Donovan is a small-time criminal with big-time ideas. Released from prison in Massachusetts after 20 years (after being set up by his son Ray), the Boston-to-his-bones Mickey has resettled in Los Angeles for his golden years. Over the show's three seasons, he's found ways to insinuate himself into everything from the movie industry to the world of medical marijuana to, in the latest season, a new incarnation as a paternal pimp.
Ray Donovan is a professional Hollywood fixer—Mickey Donovan is a destroyer, someone whose plans inevitably go wrong for him and those around him.
"They're a good combination," Voight says with a laugh. "Mickey will get you into trouble and Ray will get you out of it."
Asked how he'd deal with Mickey Donovan if he were to meet such a character in the real world, Voight gets wide-eyed. "I'd stay the hell away from him," he says. "And I'd advise everyone else to do the same. Mickey is a mess."
Yet somehow, as Voight plays him, Mickey Donovan consistently finds ways to surprise: with vulnerability, with brashness and an adventurous spirit that too often strays into self-centered impulsiveness. It was evident to the show's creators early on that Voight had tapped into something with the character that allows him to somehow remain charming while committing awkward and even loathsome acts.
Those extra gears were eye-opening to some. "Jon's humor was a surprise," says Bryan Zuriff, who is also a "Ray Donovan" executive producer. "He really has a good time with Mickey. I remember one of his first scenes, he's dancing with a hooker in a hotel room—and I knew we'd made the right choice. His lack of inhibition is amazing."
Hollander points to a signature sequence of the first season: a love scene with Rosanna Arquette when Mickey misinterprets her sarcastic response to his suggestion that she give him oral sex ("With a gun to my head. Maybe.") and puts an actual pistol to her skull.
"What Jon can do that I don't think many actors can is to take a despicable action like that and put a humanity inside it so that, somehow, you feel sorry for his character instead of his victim," Hollander says. "The way he did it, you could see his pain when she started crying, but you could see how gleefully he put the gun to her head... When we saw him do that, we began to get a little more reckless in the way we were writing Mickey.
"Jon is always pretty unexpected in the best way. He's fearless, ferocious and very funny. I didn't expect any actor to be able to take this character to such extreme places and get away with it. But I've seen him do it again and again."
Schreiber, who also worked with Voight on the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, says, "There's a duality to that character, which is what every actor looks for. It's very rare you find those characters to play, but Mickey is a wonderful example of that. An actor lives for that, when someone writes a great thing."
Mickey has become a much larger character on the show since his first appearance. When Voight read Ann Biderman's script for the pilot, he noticed that Mickey wasn't in that first show very much.
"But every time he does appear, he's doing something amazing," Voight says, "something shocking, something crazy. Or else he was being talked about as this danger that was coming into their lives. I loved the humor of the character. I remember that, when I met with Ann and Bryan, most of what we did was laugh. The audacity of the character was fun for us. And Ann was so spontaneously enthusiastic about it based on our meeting that we couldn't walk away from each other."
Mickey is a conniver and a killer, ambivalently loyal to his sons: "But he's trying to be important to his family," Voight notes. "He wants to take care of them. He wants to be the father.
"But Mickey has to be watched. Carefully."
During the hiatus between seasons, Voight took as opposite a tack as an actor could, signing on to play college football coaching legend Paul "Bear" Bryant in an independent film Woodlawn, to be released late this year. A true story about an early 1970s Alabama's high school football team that battled racism by embracing Christianity, it offers Voight limited screen time. But Bryant, who recruited and coached one of the players on the team, makes several timely—and, thanks to Voight, memorable—appearances in the drama.
Voight was intimidated by the role, nonetheless: "It's an impossible character to play, really. You need a certain physical stature and a voice I can't hope to duplicate. He was a basso; he could have played Boris Godunov in the opera. I'm a tenor. Only certain voices can do that. It was hard for me to get down there."
Kevin Downes, one of the producers of Woodlawn, brushes aside Voight's modesty: "There were people who knew Bryant who saw the movie and said it gave them chills, because he played it so true to life. Bear Bryant is such an iconic figure and Jon was our first choice. He dives into his roles."
Says Voight, "I tried to use my intelligence to see how I could be photographed as him and get away with it. He had a certain physical stature, a certain integrity. He was a good example of the word gravitas. I had an impression of him that was very impressive to me; I understand why people held him in awe. I thought, ‘How can I create a man of similar dimension?'
"I like to say that playing Bear Bryant is like climbing the Himalayas. You get as high as you can. And when you walk away, the mountain is still there."
Though Voight was the biggest name in a cast of mostly unknowns, Downes says, "He treats every role like it's the only role he's ever done. He's got this great work ethic; he's in his 70s but he seems younger than me, and I'm 43. He's not out there mailing in his roles."
These days, the step from big-screen films to pay-cable series television is a no-brainer. But Voight pioneered the move 25 years ago, before it was fashionable, starring in a series of TV movie roles (as well as a memorable cameo in a legendary 1994 episode of "Seinfeld"). He tested the waters of series TV in 2009 with an arc on "24," as a ruthless private-security contractor bent on stealing biological weapons.
"He is, hands down, one of the great American actors," says Howard Gordon, executive producer on "24" during Voight's season. "So when his name came up for the show and he was gracious enough to accept, I was thrilled. He was so professional and kind—just a remarkable person."
On "24," Voight liked the fact that the producers and writers were figuring out the plot for later episodes as they filmed earlier ones—making it up as they went along, as it were.
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