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.
"I remember the scene that was one of our first introductions to Mickey," Hollander says. "He's driving and sees a gay bar, so he goes in. And he starts dancing with these guys. I recall us sitting by the monitor with glee, watching Jon, as Mickey, when he says to this other guy, ‘Show me your dick.' When we wrote the episode and that line, we thought: can we get away with this? But Jon has got a lot of gears. He makes Mickey so slippery that it's always ‘Anything goes.' "
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.
"They told me they didn't know where it was going to go—and that appealed to me," Voight says. "I decided to go for it and give it a try. We became collaborators from the first and that suited me perfectly. I'd get the script and go in with the writers and give them a couple of notes. We'd sit and smoke a cigar; that was fun."
The producers of "24," who were serious about their cigars, set up a private cigar room on set called the Calcutta Club. "I wasn't alone in the Jon Voight fan club among the writers. So to smoke cigars with him and hear about Midnight Cowboy and John Schlesinger—that's great cigar-room fodder," recalls Gordon. "What's unusual is that, for someone who has been around and has great stories, he's a great listener, too."
Voight adds, "Sitting with a cigar and talking loosens you up. The humor comes out. You become a little ribald, you let the rough edges show. And maybe that stimulates something."
While Voight says he is "not that sophisticated about cigars," he certainly enjoys them. "Andy Garcia is a friend of mine and he takes care of me quite nicely. He's always generous with his cigars and his knowledge. I do smoke cigars occasionally for celebrations, for a birthday or a gathering of people. I enjoy that but I don't really cultivate it. Burt Reynolds gave me a little humidor and I used to keep cigars in it.
"I'll occasionally go to the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills. But I also like to smoke at my house, outdoors. I don't like to go into rooms filled with smoke—I like to make my own smoke."
The combination of fine tobacco and good company creates an aura that Voight finds intoxicating: "There's something about it—maybe it's something in the DNA, but it feels so good. It's a nice thing to have a cigar with a friend. It makes you feel like another kind of person, the kind who takes his time and relaxes. I don't do that very often. I'm always full of purpose. But this helps me slow down for a little while."
Voight likes a stronger cigar: "It depends on the company I'm with, I guess," he says. "I've never played a character who smoked cigars. It's a good prop. I've got something on my plate about a guy who owns a ranch. It would probably be a good idea to have him smoke a cigar."
That kind of attention to detail has earned Voight four Oscar nominations over the years, beginning with his first starring role, 1969's best picture, Midnight Cowboy. He has four nominations in all, including for playing Howard Cosell in Michael Mann's 2001 film, Ali, and for his role as a cagey, desperate escaped convict in 1985's Runaway Train. He won the best-actor Oscar for 1978's Coming Home, in which he played a paralyzed Vietnam veteran who protests the war.
"I have my Oscar on my mantle," he says. "I keep it with some other awards I've received, and with my children's medallions. I look at it occasionally. It's nice to be part of the family of people who have held the Oscar. It gives me a certain idea that I've contributed to this business I love so much."
Voight had early indications that acting was his future: two different school plays in which he was drafted into the lead role at the last minute, only to bring down the house. Yet actually pursuing acting never occurred to him. The son of a golf pro and a teacher in Yonkers, New York, he went to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., with an eye toward being a set designer.
"I must have had a hidden agenda, because acting was not in the forefront of my mind," he says. "There was a trajectory I was on, I guess. I went to the acting department because I didn't get along with the guy who was in charge of stage design."
In his junior year, he began reading everything he could find about British acting giant Laurence Olivier—and that turned the tide.
"I realized that I wanted to be this guy," Voight recalls. "So I decided I would graduate and then I would go to New York and learn to act. Once I made that decision, the burden dropped. It was meant to be. Even though I hadn't really done anything as an actor, I knew I wouldn't give up."
He got launched quickly, landing a role as a replacement for the actor who played Rolf (beau to the oldest von Trapp daughter) in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music. He was then cast in a key role in the 1965 off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge that also starred another then-unknown, Robert Duvall. "Duvall was roommates with Dustin Hoffman," says Voight, which led to him meeting Hoffman.
Voight embarked on a theater career, hitting the trail to play regional theaters "which is what a responsible actor was supposed to do," he says. "I wasn't seeking attention; I was working at my craft."
Then he read a 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy that blew him away, Midnight Cowboy, which he sent on to Hoffman. Voight moved from theater to TV work, using the money to go to England—where he saw a film, A Kind of Loving, that knocked him out. When he then heard that the film's director, John Schlesinger, was scheduled to direct a film version of Midnight Cowboy, he felt destiny crook its finger in his direction.
"I felt like I'd found my director," Voight says. "Max von Sydow had his director in Ingmar Bergman. Toshiro Mifune had Kurosawa. I actually had those dreams—and I decided that this is the guy: John Schlesinger. And that I needed to play this part."
Convincing Schlesinger proved to be another story: "It was a long journey. There were a lot of fortuitous connections. Dustin had been cast already so he had clout. And after a lot of reading, it came down to me and Michael Sarrazin. And they went with Michael Sarrazin because he had a movie coming out with George C. Scott [The Flim-Flam Man].
"I never felt lower in my life. I had pains in my stomach—I was in such distress. And then I got a call saying, Hold on, it may come back to you. Apparently, Michael Sarrazin's representatives couldn't make the deal and made the producer, Jerry Hellman, angry. But Hellman and Schlesinger were still at a loss whether to go with me, an unknown. So they did another screening of both of our screen tests, in a scene with Dustin.
"I heard later that when Schlesinger asked Dustin what he thought, Dustin said, ‘When I look at the test with Michael Sarrazin, I'm looking at me. But when I look at the test with Jon Voight, I'm looking at Jon.'" He got the part.
Midnight Cowboy, the only X-rated feature ever to win the Oscar as best film, made Voight a star at the age of 30: "I think it gave my family a sense of relief that I wasn't going to be a failure," he says with a smile, adding, "It gave me a sense of relief, too.
"That film changed my life dramatically. I wanted to get my shot at doing things I wanted to do, things I wasn't seeing. There were certain stories I wanted to tell. I thought I had something to contribute."
So did other people. In a career that has spanned such classics as Deliverance, Coming Home, The Champ, Heat and Ali, Voight has worked with directors ranging from Schlesinger to Mike Nichols, from Hal Ashby to Francis Ford Coppola. His filmography runs the gamut from big-budget thrillers like Mission: Impossible to wild comedies such as Zoolander. He shifts easily from working with Oliver Stone (U-Turn) to a Vince Vaughn comedy like Four Christmases.
"He's legendary," Bryan Zuriff says. "He's up there with the greats. He's done great work in every decade—and he's still doing great work."
"Jon is a leading man with the chops of a character actor," Schreiber says. "One of Jon's greatest strengths is comedy. What he does is walk a very thin line, pushing the character farther and farther."
"I'm a character actor," Voight concurs, noting that, like many actors of his generation, he was influenced by the emergence of Marlon Brando.
"Brando came in playing a person that had never been seen—he wasn't an upstanding guy like, say, Gregory Peck," Voight says. "He was playing this kind of—well, the seeds of Mickey Donovan are in those roles. That's why I like those guys.
"He worked hard to dig into his roles. When Marlon did something, he changed himself. Sometimes, he missed, but he always went for it. And when he achieved it, it was remarkable."
Besides creating roles that have been indelibly etched into film history, Voight has had his share of chances to play real-life characters, Bear Bryant in Woodlawn being only the latest example. Among the historical figures he's embodied are President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Pearl Harbor); writer Pat Conroy (Conrack); Howard Cosell (Ali); college basketball coach Adolph Rupp (Glory Road); cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (Last of His Tribe); Nazi commandant Jurgen Stroop (Uprising); and Karol Wojtyla, otherwise known as the title character in the TV movie Pope John Paul II.
"With John Paul II, I heard his voice on YouTube and thought that I could do him convincingly," Voight says. "To match his height, I had to walk with bent knees under the robe. And that walk was very similar to his gait. You find these little things that let you into the character."
The father of Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie and filmmaker-actor James Haven (from a marriage with the late Marcheline Bertrand that ended in divorce), Voight has had his public ups and downs with his children. Having endured well-publicized estrangements and reconciliations, he is hesitant to discuss those relationships at any length.
"I love my daughter, and I'm very impressed by her directing," he says. "I thought Unbroken was brilliant. And I just worked with my son in a short film he wrote and directed. He did a good job; now I'd like to be directed by her. I'm crazy about her and my grandchildren."
In a career that has spanned a half-century, the disappointments sometimes balance the triumphs. Voight calls himself a man of faith; raised a Catholic, he fell away from the church. "I thought I was smarter so I let it go. Then I was brought to my knees."
Without mentioning specifics, he continues, "I've been humbled in my life. I know that sometimes you achieve the things you set out to do. And sometimes you're brought to your knees from your own behavior. I've made some big mistakes in my life. I've had to look at myself pretty honestly. It's a hard thing to do. It's still hard.
"I think when we want to do something for the good—to help other people—we get the help we need. At one point in my career, I made that commitment, and I got help. I am a person who prays, who acknowledges that there is a God, a beneficent, loving being. And there's a purpose for me being here, to learn my lessons. The hardest lesson is to acknowledge my own weakness and to forgive myself for my mistakes. And to overcome my meaner leanings. But self-forgiveness is a big deal."
An outspoken critic of President Barack Obama and his policies, Voight is deeply troubled by the recent accord negotiated with Iran and by the direction the country appears to be going.
"I was a liberal—I was against the war in Vietnam," he says. "But I wasn't really in touch with so many facts and truths that I needed. When we pulled out, 2.5 million people were slaughtered. It turns out that stopping the Communist takeover of Vietnam was the appropriate thing to do.
"I think the word ‘progressive' is a very devious term. It was created as a substitute for ‘communist.' What they propose is the reverse of progress. It's something that does taste of communism and Karl Marx's pernicious philosophy."
Voight has worked fairly steadily for 50 years in TV and films. Still, he decries the tendency of what he sees as a liberal Hollywood establishment to avoid hiring actors who are outspoken about their conservative political beliefs.
"There are a lot of conservatives in Hollywood, and they're not very welcome," he says. "It's a big surprise that we've come to this juncture where people with patriotic thoughts could not find a home in Hollywood.
"People hire who they like. I'm sure I've lost some parts, but that's not important. I've had enough of a history that people know when I come to work, I come to work. I'm not there to proselytize."
He's energetic, happy to be involved with a role as juicy as Mickey Donovan and a show that offers him the kind of room to maneuver that "Ray Donovan" does.
"What keeps me vital is my work," Voight says. "There have been good years, and there have been bad years, good roles and not-so-good roles. I've managed to achieve some things. Sometimes you catch people's imaginations; sometimes you miss the mark.
"It's been a wonderful journey in many ways."