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Actors Savor Their Struggles

June 21, 1986|JOHN VOLAND

When Susan Dey and Tom Hulce sat on the concrete edge of Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles on a warm afternoon and looked around a little, they remembered.

They remembered how much trouble it took to get the modest film that they starred in, "Echo Park" (now at the Westside Pavilion), into theaters and film festivals. They remembered a thing or two about struggling with careers. And they recalled how they managed to keep the film, directed by Austrian film-maker Robert Dornhelm, from becoming something else.

"There was a lot of conflict in the making of this film," said Dey, who is probably best remembered as Laurie Partridge in the TV series "The Partridge Family."

"We finished it (the movie) terrifically--everybody very happy about what they'd done--then we get a call a month later saying we're all going to Austria to film some more. Robert said, 'It's coming down; they're going to take the film away. They feel that I'm not making a commercial American film.'

"Tom and I were horrified that the money people were going to take over the editing and cut it so it would be this love story between May (Dey) and Jonathan (Hulce). That was completely wrong. So we went to the Austrian State Film Board and said, 'You have a beautiful film here. You say you want to make movies. Why are you going to destroy it? You supported Robert's vision, and now you want to take it away?'

"And we won! We really couldn't quite believe it, except that we knew we were right."

For his part, Hulce regarded the creative contretemps as another means of illuminating Jonathan, a bashful young songwriter who delivers pizzas to pay the rent and imagines better days ahead.

"There is nothing that bands people together quite like obstacles," he observed wryly, nodding at Dey, who smiled. "The troubled film-making process became the raw acting material for me, because it was as hard to keep the set together as it would have been to get these characters together into a group. So, that means you can make an investment in what's going on on the set because you know it's going to pay off on the screen in another way. And investments were made. . . ."

For the "Echo Park" characters--Jonathan the quiet musician, May the in-your-face aspiring actress and August, the next Arnold Schwarzenegger--those investments consisted of dreams. For the actors--Hulce, Dey and Michael Bowen--the investment was using their pasts.

"I feel extremely lucky these days," Hulce commented. "You're talking to two people who seem to have had very fast success. And yet, for myself, I feel very far away from my potential, though perhaps not as far away as Jonathan does. But I can remember the struggles, and I see more coming."

"That's right," Dey said, nodding. "And even within the film, it's not just the struggle of these people in terms of Songwriter, Bodybuilder and Actress. It's the continuous struggle of trying to achieve any dream, and having the whole world out there telling you that you can't do it."

She laughed. "For instance, I don't really feel like I've made it, Partridges or no Partridges. I really feel like I'm still struggling. Maybe I need to feel that way."

A large part of the struggle Hulce endured for meaty parts--after playing a string of callow youths, as in "Animal House"--ended with his Academy Award nomination for "Amadeus," in which he played the volatile Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

He says he's glad that Jonathan is "the polar opposite" of that historical personage--introverted, bashful, tentative.

"That's exactly what I hoped for," he said with a grin. "I liked the story (of "Echo Park"), and I wanted to play a part that was as far away from Mozart as I could find. No need to type yourself too early.

"I also wanted to do something that takes place now. I mean, I have never been in a movie that took place in the year it was being made. 'Animal House' was set in 1962; '9/30/55' was 1955, obviously; 'Those Lips, Those Eyes' was '55 also. ("Amadeus" was set in the late 18th Century.) So I found myself going back and back in time, and I thought it would be great to be in a film that accounted for the time I was living in."

After "Partridge Family," Dey said that she "really got involved with the times I'm living in." She spent time working on political campaigns for former Democratic Presidential nominee Walter Mondale and others, programs for the homeless and organizations opposed to off-shore oil drilling.

"There were a couple of low-budget films and some production work in there, too," she added. "But in general I was burned out on Hollywood and needed a good, long drink of clear water. 'Echo Park' came at a good time, because I was really refreshed and ready to commit to something good."

Commitment was something both actors, veterans of more lavish productions and budgets, were eager and willing to provide.

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