Longest Way Home CHAPTER ONE
“Wanted: Eighteen, Vulnerable and Sensitive”
We had traveled just nineteen miles west—my childhood was left behind. Gone were the backyard Wiffle ball games with my brothers that had defined my summer afternoons, as was the small maple tree in the front yard that I nearly succeeded in chopping down with a rubber ax when I was eight; over were the nights lying in bed talking to my older brother Peter across the room in the dark before sleep came. We had lived atop a small hill, safely in the center of a suburban block, in a three-bedroom colonial with green shutters; now we would live in a long and low house in a swale on a large corner lot a half hour and a world away.
“It looks like a motel,” I said when I first saw our new home. Unwittingly, I had spoken to the temporary quality that our lives were about to take on. My eldest brother had just gone off to college, ending the daily battles with my father—no longer would my dad chase Stephen out the window and across the yard in a rage. Peter’s star, which had burned so bright, grew suddenly and temporarily tarnished—driving and girlfriends usurped the passion for sports that had occupied his early years, yet he continued to look after me with a fierce protectiveness. My younger brother, Justin, eight years my junior, was slotted into a new school and tumbled in the wake left by the rest of us.
Instead of feeling more confident after our move into the larger home, my parents grew tense. More and more often, when the phone rang, I could hear my father’s voice echoing from somewhere in the cavernous house, “I’m not here! I’m not here!” Whoever was looking for him, he did not want to be found. At the same time, my mother grew more remote due to an illness that we children knew of only vaguely—it was never discussed with us. In all this space, my family seemed to be coming apart. I was fourteen.
A quiet child, I’d had a rotation of friends and a cycle of movement in my old neighborhood, the loss of which left me untethered. There were woods across the road from our new home and I began to spend more and more time, alone, picking through the trees and building dams in the stream. Always in the shadow of my brother Peter’s athletic ability, my passion for sports waned. I was never a diligent student, and as the work piled up, my interest faded. Noticing my rudderless unease, my mother suggested I try out for the school musical, Oliver. Reluctantly, I went along. When it came to the final audition for the role of the Artful Dodger, I surprised myself with how much I wanted the part. Pitted against another student who, it was made very clear, had a better singing voice and was more desired for the production, I threw myself into my performance in a way that left them no option but to reward me with the role.
In describing first love, the playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote, “It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been in half shadow.” I experienced a similarly wondrous sense of discovery with that first role. I felt the power and belonging I had been searching for, without knowing that I had been searching at all. I knew my experience onstage was a profound one because I told no one of its effect on me.
A few years later, when the time came to apply to college, with few options because of my poor grades, I quietly took the train to Hoboken, then the PATH under the Hudson River, and went to a building off Washington Square in Greenwich Village. On the second floor of a windowless room I spoke a few paragraphs of a play I had read only a portion of, in front of a petite man with an effete manner who wore a bow tie and a waxed mustache.
“Sit down,” he said when I was finished. He wanted to know why my grades were so bad and why I wanted to come to acting school. He asked if I had another monologue I could perform for him. I could do some of the lines from the Artful Dodger, I said. When I was finished he looked at me for a long while. “Okay,” he said at last, “here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to get you into this school, if I can. I’m sure they’ll place you on academic probation to start. You’re going to get good grades and be grateful to me for the rest of your life.”
“Sounds good,” I said, slipping on an attitude of casual indifference to mask the thrill I felt.
“No son of mine is going to be a fucking thespian,” my father snapped when he learned of the audition—but when no other college accepted me, he had no choice.
This was the same man who then drove me into the city and knocked on door after door until we found an apartment for me to live in just off Washington Square Park when the university refused me housing. And it was during the buoyant ride back to New Jersey that we played “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” on his John Denver tape, over and over again. I bowed the air fiddle and he lowered the windows and the wind ripped through the car as we sang at the top of our lungs with our hearts wide open to each other.
As I packed my bags to leave home, my mother offered me a painting that I had always admired—a large canvas with the profile of a hawk, its golden eye staring boldly out at the viewer. When my father saw it leaning against the wall by the door, instead of on the living room wall, he grew enraged.
“That painting is not leaving this house,” he barked. “That is my favorite piece of art.”
My mother, who rarely engaged with my father when he lost his temper, pushed back. “I’m giving it to him,” she declared. “He is leaving for school and I want him to have it.”
A vicious fight ensued. I knew, even in the midst of the shouting, that this had nothing to do with a painting and everything to do with a mother losing her son in whom she had been overinvested, and a father who had resented their closeness.
A few months after I had settled in my apartment, my father made one of his many unscheduled visits, carrying the painting. He presented it as if it were a new idea to offer it to me. I tried to refuse but it was no use. When he left, I put the painting in the back of a closet, and when I moved from that apartment, I gave it away.
The man who had gone out on a limb and gotten me into NYU was Fred Gorlick. He rarely acknowledged me when I saw him at school, and he left shortly after I arrived. I never saw him again. I have been grateful to him for my entire life, but I could only keep half my word. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to attend my nonacting classes, and after two years, the powers that be at school asked me to leave.
A few months later another transient angel swept across my path.
“Wanted: Eighteen, vulnerable and sensitive” read the ad in the newspaper. I hadn’t seen it, but a friend called and told me about the audition. I got on the number 1 train and went to the Upper West Side. I sat on the floor of a hallway in the Ansonia Hotel on Seventy-third Street and waited for three hours with several hundred other eighteen-year-old, vulnerable and sensitive hopefuls. I had never been to an “open call” before; I had never been to a movie audition.
When I was finally called into the room, I handed my headshot to a man with soft features who immediately flipped it over to look at my résumé. I had acted in exactly one professional play, for one weekend. The play was listed there, alone on the white page.
“You spelled the author’s name wrong,” the man with the soft features said.
“Oh,” I responded meekly, “sorry.”
Then he looked over his shoulder to a woman with a head full of untamed blond hair, who was busy with work of her own. She looked up, glanced at me briefly, and nodded. The man with the soft features turned back and said, “Come to our office tomorrow.” He wrote the address and time on a piece of paper.
I went to the office the next day and was handed a scene from what I assumed was a movie script. I read it with the same man, whose name I learned was David, and went away. The following week I was summoned to meet the director of the film, Lewis Carlino, in his suite at a midtown hotel. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man with a trim gray beard. We chatted for a while, and then I left. As I waited by the elevator, David came out and asked me back to the office again the following day. We read the same scene I had before. This time, Lewis was also present and they were recording me on videotape. I was nervous and knew I was performing poorly, unable to follow the director’s suggestions. Worse, my eyes unwittingly opened wide, apparently giving me a look of frozen terror.
“Just relax your eyes,” Lewis said kindly.
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I left, disheartened, knowing that I had lost any chance for the part.
Six weeks later I pushed the button on my roommate’s new answering machine on the floor just inside his bedroom. And there was David’s voice, asking if I could come in to the office yet again.
Marty Ransohoff, the film’s producer, had seen the tape and saw something he liked. “He looks crazy, like Tony Perkins in Psycho,” Marty had said.
I was brought to Chicago to meet and screen-test with other actors, and finally I was flown out to Los Angeles to meet with Jacqueline Bisset—the role I was to play was that of her young lover and she needed to approve the choice.
At the Château Marmont hotel, beside the room where John Belushi had recently overdosed, I waited for the call. Marty picked me up in his Jaguar. He was an outsized man in every way, and as we drove up Benedict Canyon, he told me, “Just be yourself, kid.”
A tall blond Adonis answered the door. He spoke with a thick Russian accent. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said, and extended his well-tanned hand. It was Jacqueline Bisset’s lover, the recently defected Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov.
I entered the Spanish-style bungalow and slouched on the couch in the sunken living room. Marty parked himself in a plush chair nearby. We sat in silence. He never took his eyes off me.
“Just relax, kid,” Marty said after a while.
Then I heard a distant toilet flush, and I started to laugh. Jackie entered the room and sat on the ottoman across from me. She was gracious, interested, and extremely beautiful. I don’t remember anything I said, but after a few minutes she turned to Marty and said, “He’s cheeky,” in her lush English accent. “I like him.”
We were done—Marty drove me back down the hill and dropped me at a taxi stand to get a cab back to my hotel.
The film, called Class, was shot in Chicago. I lived in a hotel off Michigan Avenue for the duration of the shoot. I was nineteen. The acting work was the realization of my youthful dreams, but it was in that room, a yellow-walled junior suite with a king-size bed and a partial view of the lake, that I felt at home in a way that I hadn’t before. Alone, far from everyone I knew, with work to do, I felt insulated and safe.
When the film ended, I returned to New York. I found no work for another year, except playing the role of Pepsi Boy in a Burger King commercial—it didn’t matter. My life finally had direction, and I followed it unequivocally.
At twenty-one I landed a part in a movie called Catholic Boys (someone later changed it to Heaven Help Us), and the success that happened next happened fast. That I was unprepared, or ill-equipped, to best capitalize on my good fortune is something best decided in hindsight. My life was rushing forward; I was not interested in stopping it. Nor would I have been interested in anyone’s advice on how I might do things differently, had anyone offered any. I was comfortable in my own company and convinced I knew my own mind.
Work led to more work and more travel. To Los Angeles, of course, and to Philadelphia and Kentucky, Kansas and Canada. I traveled to Paris and then London, to Italy and Brazil. Because of my natural inclination toward solitude I drifted away from the others after the workday ended and wandered the cities alone. I began to find comfort in the transience and invisibility of being a stranger in a strange place. Unnoticed and anonymous, I was relieved and excited as I discovered a world very different from the suburban New Jersey neighborhood of my childhood.
Success was something I craved—and yet it intimidated me. These mixed feelings were not new; ambivalence had already begun to assert itself in my life and had become hugely important in the most successful role of my early film work. I was an unlikely choice for the lead male role in Pretty in Pink—a now-iconic coming-of-age love story. At the time of filming, it seemed to me like a silly movie about a girl wanting to go to a dance. I was an oversensitive youth cast as a “hunk,” a twenty-two-year-old, middle-class kid playing a seventeen-year-old boy of privilege. What gave my portrayal impact and contributed to the movie’s popularity at the time, and its enduring relevance, was the ambivalence I brought to the role: the character’s uncertainty regarding his place in the world echoed my own and spoke to a generation of young women and men.
In St. Elmo’s Fire, that same ambivalence was amplified to an even greater degree and became the defining characteristic of a role that fit me better than any other. In that instance, because I was so actively living out my personal vacillations on-screen, I felt free—for the only time in my young life—to move fully toward a success I had decided I wanted. Only when the outlet of acting in that role was finished did my doubts and reservations return—and by then success was on its way.
Those films carried such weight with their intended audience because they gave credence to and took seriously the struggles of being young. Struggles I too was wrestling with at the time, and that I chose to ease through drinking. What began as a curiosity became a companion, then an emboldening habit, and finally an invisible albatross. Had I been interested in camaraderie, or allowing anyone to come close to me, someone might have pointed out that my drinking was in danger of derailing my plans—but it’s doubtful I would have listened. Alcohol became my master with impunity.
While still in my mid-twenties, I wrapped up work on a film in Berlin and returned to my hotel room alone with a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey. I toasted myself in the mirror for a job well done and then awoke in a different room. I had no recollection of changing rooms. Confused and still groggy, I rolled over in bed and called the front desk. A man answered the phone in a language that wasn’t German.
“Good morning,” I croaked.
“Good afternoon,” the accented voice corrected me.
“Oh, is it that late?” I asked, putting as much innocence into my voice as I could. “I must have overslept. What time is it?”
“It’s half past four, sir.”
“Oh, great,” I said, hoping to make this appear in accordance with my plans. Sounding as reasonable as I could, I continued. “What day of the week is it? I’ve forgotten.”
“Friday, sir,” the voice on the phone said.
“Of course.” I hadn’t misplaced an entire day. But I still didn’t know where I was. “Um, I’m just writing a postcard,” I lied. “Could you remind me again of the name of the hotel?”
“Hotel L’Europe, sir,” the voice on the phone said without hesitation.
This didn’t help to determine my location either. “Yes,” I said. ...