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Allen Garfield Sheds His Heavy Reputation

IN CHARACTER: Third in a series of articles on the art, frustration and reward of being a character actor.

February 24, 1986|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

There's a big difference between the Allen Garfield who's holding court in his cluttered living room and the tubby fellow who's in the photo by his front door, posing with Peter Falk on the set of "The Brink's Job."

Almost 90 pounds.

For years, Garfield was known as the chubby character actor, the feisty fat man who specialized in playing the part of obnoxious, aggressive hustlers, always armed with a new lecherous scheme. But if you've seen him on film the last couple of years, either as a gambler in "The Cotton Club," a nutty film producer in "The State of Things" or a harassed high school instructor in "Teachers," you've seen a leaner new specimen--someone whose loss has been his gain.

"I was an addict whose drug of choice was food," says Garfield, an articulate, animated man who speaks with refreshing candor about what he calls his "amazing Humpty-Dumpty existence."

"Just look at me in that picture--was I porky or what? I mean, if you look at me then, you'd swear I weighed 300 pounds. After a while, I stopped counting."

With his bulk, there was little chance of Garfield landing many starring roles. In fact, he discovered that his obnoxious roles onscreen weren't so far removed from his combative attitude offscreen. Even worse, he began to lose sight of the pleasure of acting itself.

"There's just no way you can enjoy yourself when you're eating yourself to death. The weight was like a ton of misery that was keeping me from being happy."

For the last five years, Garfield has been a member of an overeaters' self-help organization, attending meetings virtually every day. He now weighs 170 pounds, down from a high of nearly 260.

Today, relaxing in the local apartment he shares with a friendly pooch he found in an Italian forest, the 46-year-old actor seems buoyed by an air of infectious self-confidence, like a man who has shed an extra, unwanted layer of skin.

He has a part in "Desert Bloom," a Columbia film starring Jon Voight that's due out next month, as well as a major role in "Stolen Dreams," an NBC movie-of-the-week with Ann Jillian, to air March 31. He also recently appeared in "Sins," the CBS miniseries with Joan Collins.

Though the show was savaged by most reviewers, several singled out for praise Garfield's role as a heavily indebted banker. The Washington Post's Tom Shales called it "the one affecting performance . . . that might vaguely be remembered 15 minutes after the incredibly stupid thing is over."

Moreover, Garfield's new slimmed-down look has changed his outlook toward the rewards of acting. "This has done more than just help me lose weight," explains Garfield, an ex-sportswriter and former drama coach at the Actors Studio in New York who's appeared in more than 40 films, including "The Candidate," "Nashville" and "The Stunt Man."

"It's really changed my entire personality. I had a terrible lack of self-esteem. The binges were really a disease of the spirit, not just of the pounds.

"When I was heavier, I was demanding, obstinate--very hard to get along with. Now I don't feel the need to tell a director how to do his film. I try to listen--I've become more diplomatic. I think about how I can get the director to see my point of view."

Diplomacy had never been Garfield's strong suit. Born Allen Goorwitz (a moniker he briefly revived as a stage name several years ago), he grew up in Newark, N.J. A pugnacious kid (and amateur boxer), he relished the role of enfant terrible, delivering his quips with as much punch as a left hook. In the past, when attending a play, he had few qualms about standing up and interrupting the performance--booing, hissing, lecturing cast members on what a disgraceful exhibition they were presenting.

"One time the audience thought it was really part of the play," he said with a laugh. "I felt if I didn't stand up and arbitrate that I'd be an accomplice to terrible art."

Garfield tapped his finger on his temple. "I always thought things had to be perfect. I used to pride myself on being the obstinate genius on the set. I had all the answers.

"Even when I'd go into an interview for a part that was just a formality, I'd tell everyone what needed to be changed so it wouldn't be like all the rubble everyone else made. And by the time I was done, I'd often talked myself out of the job."

However, when he slimmed down, he discovered that he'd shed many of his compulsions in the process. "It's as if I've come to the realization that the most beautiful thing about acting is that it's never going to be perfect."

This acceptance of imperfection has helped him survive several particularly tumultuous recent films--most notably, Francis Ford Coppola's "Cotton Club" and Wim Wenders' "A State of Things"--with his psyche intact.

With Wenders, a taciturn man who works largely on instinct, Garfield was on his own, improvising much of his role (which many critics saw as a thinly veiled caricature of Coppola, who had produced "Hammett," Wenders' previous film).

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