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Joe Don Baker Gets Mad--and Gets Even

July 11, 1986|BART MILLS

Joe Don Baker is one angry Texan. He's upset about being consigned lately to one-shot bad-guy parts, he's scornful about Hollywood's artistic shortcomings and he's up in arms about America's careless treatment of nuclear waste.

Baker is big all over and he's mad all over.

Baker doesn't just get mad, he gets even. He got himself the good-guy part of a lifetime by going to England and making an award-winning miniseries called "Edge of Darkness" that exposes the hazards of leaving plutonium lying around.

"Edge of Darkness," which won the British TV Academy's best drama award for 1985, is being syndicated in America to independent stations this summer and fall. It airs on KCOP Channel 13 Aug. 4-6.

For its complexity, intellectual depth and virtuoso performances, the BBC-made "Edge of Darkness" invites comparison to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

Baker plays a flamboyant and sharp-witted CIA man who follows do-and-die orders to stop an international plutonium conspiracy. His character, Darius Jedburgh, drives a Rolls, wears a 10-gallon hat, drinks whisky for breakfast and winds up on the side of the angels, guns blazing.

"Darius is the best part I've had in years," Baker says. "He's a good soldier. Rotten as he may think something is, he'll follow orders, but he'll give you headaches in the meantime. All he wants is to have a helluva time and die a glorious death."

Baker has played noticeable good guys before, like Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser in "Walking Tall" in 1973 and New York Detective Earl Eischied in the 1979-80 series, "Eischied."

What distinguishes Darius is his sardonic wit. Of his previous work in Central America the character says, "I figure we'll have to kill half a million people to make the region safe for democracy." Darius comes from Dallas--"that's where we kill our Presidents; the Jews have got their Calvary, we've got Deeley Plaza."

Watching a British TV show about ballroom dancing, Darius cracks, "Nobody dances like the British--they deserve the Falklands."

You don't hear this kind of trenchant dialogue on American TV. "By the time the networks get through worrying about who they're gonna tick off," Baker says, "they wind up with nothing."

He shakes his big, graying head. "There's a world of difference. So many things in this show couldn't have been done in America. We had a great script by Troy Kennedy Martin, which he was on hand throughout to revise as needed. In Hollywood, they've chased away all the good writers. You never meet the writer when you're making a TV movie in America--they're too ashamed to show up and see how their work has been mangled by some committee.

"I hate the thought of showing up on another TV movie set in America. All they care about here is whether you remember the words. In England they take the time to get everything right. I was there six months to make six hours. That's a little more than twice as long as it would take in America."

The producer of "Edge of Darkness" has said that Baker and the show's composer, Eric Clapton, "suspended their normal financial expectations." Baker confirms this: "We worked cheap. Hell, I'd do it every year. For a part like that, I'd work free.

"In 'Fletch' I had a bit. It was just a couple of scenes (as a corrupt sheriff). I was on the payroll two weeks, but I only worked three or four days. I got paid two-thirds of what I made in England in six months."

Part of Baker's animus against Hollywood comes from the frustration he's had trying to get a movie made from a Western novel called "Gallagher and Me." It's about a father and son in 1863 who ride into a Montana town where the sheriff and all his deputies have just been hanged by the townspeople.

"I've had the book three, four years. It's hard to get Hollywood interested in anything different. And since 'Silverado' they've got a particular thing against Westerns. That turkey--'Yuppies Go West,' I call it--cost $35 million, and I guess it broke even, so they don't want to spend $5 million on 'Gallagher and Me.'

"They want huge budgets, which are easier to steal from. The studios don't seem to mind losing hundreds of millions--they can write it all off. The rest of us can either pay to see their lousy movies or be taxed to cover their write-offs."

On the bright side, Baker says he has a group of Houston financiers interested in bankrolling "Gallagher," and he may get the film shot this fall.

Going to Hollywood was far from Baker's mind growing up in central Texas, in Groesbeck, just east of Waco. He never got on a stage until his senior year at North Texas State College. After the Army, he began a career waiting tables in New York. He joined the Actors Studio, worked off-Broadway in shows like "Blues for Mr. Charlie" and fell into movies with "Cool Hand Luke" in 1967.

He says, "I very seldom get good parts offered me now. I had better parts before I became a so-called star in 'Walking Tall.' Darius Jedburgh, he's a real human being. I love that Darius. I've been showing a tape of 'Edge of Darkness' an hour every week to the girl that comes and massages me. It's the third time I've seen it. It's like 'I, Claudius'--I could sit and watch it every night."

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