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CRITIC AT LARGE

Sam Waterston: A Labor of Love for a Versatile Everyman : Acting: The skilled performer is still waiting for his star to really shine with the studios. He's just finished work on a Soviet-American film project.

June 01, 1990|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | TIMES ARTS EDITOR

NEW YORK — Sam Waterston spent part of May on the Lena River in the upper reaches of Siberia, 12 air-hours east of Moscow, finishing a film interrupted earlier in the year when his Soviet co-star had a heart attack.

"A Captive in the Land" is the first Soviet-American co-production since George Cukor's "The Bluebird" in 1976, Waterston believes. It's an adventurous tale of two men with nothing in common forced to work together for their mutual survival. The enveloping symbolism is evident.

Just before he left for the Soviet Union, he came in from his rural Connecticut home to meet a visitor at his favorite French restaurant in Greenwich Village (in bachelor days he had an apartment nearby). He was stubble-bearded for the film.

Within the last year, Waterston has also played "A Walk in the Woods," inspired by happenings at the Geneva summit, on stage in both Moscow and Vilnius, Lithuania.

"Rare," Waterston says, "a rare thing for an American actor to play Moscow and Vilnius in the midst of radical and rapid change . . . or to spend nine months in Eastern Europe as I also just did."

Waterston says this with an interesting mixture of pride and dismay. "For the studios, it might seem a little off the beaten path, do you think?" He would like to be thought of--in Hollywood--as more than a reliable actor; a star actor would be better.

"I've set myself the challenge of changing these studio guys' minds. Maybe it would help if they just pretended to themselves that I was an English actor."

Like John Malkovich and the late Geraldine Page, to name two performers he admires hugely, Waterston is what might be called a pure actor--versatile, dedicated, intelligent and very good indeed, at home in any medium and any period. Leslie Halliwell's "Filmgoer's Companion" identifies him as "a general purpose actor," which is possibly accurate but annoying because it could be said with equal accuracy of John Gielgud (the reporter's analogy, not Waterston's).

Waterston co-starred in "The Killing Fields" as New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg. More often, in film, he has been part of the ensemble. In "The Great Gatsby" he was Tom Callaway, the observer, the alter ego for Scott Fitzgerald describing the times of Jay Gatsby. He was very good; he always is.

Most recently, he was, and was marvelous as, the rabbi going blind in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," his fourth film with Allen. (He was also in "Interiors," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "September.") He has done films as various as Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," the raunchy Frank Perry modern Western "Rancho DeLuxe" and Michael Cimino's rather different Western, "Heaven's Gate."

His value as an actor, you're tempted to say, is that he brings no pre-existing public persona to a role, no titillations of scandal, no lingering aura from playing a succession of deranged killers. He becomes the role at hand, blind rabbi or sympathetic witness. But his skilled versatility has a way of feeling like a mixed blessing to him.

He has been having a high old time, Waterston says, "playing Hamlet twice, and Prospero, 'The Doll's House' on stage, 'The Glass Menagerie' on television, to say nothing of film at all, and some silly and some sublime stuff on and off of Broadway, at home and abroad."

But, aye, there's a rub. "I don't want to stop doing these things," he says, "but I'd like it if the studios could learn to love it--if they could say to themselves, 'He's not a thing, to be defined and limited and generally spruced up to fit a certain niche in the market; he's an actor, so it makes sense that he plays different kinds of people, in different parts of the world, in different media.

" 'This doesn't make him less useful to us, it makes him more useful because, in fact, the idea that the film business is international wasn't just a cute hook to hang the Oscars on.' " In other words, it couldn't hurt that he has fans in several languages.

Last year he shot a film, "Mind Walk," with Liv Ullmann and John Heard, at Mont-St.-Michel on the Channel coast of France. "It may be the talkiest talkie ever made," Waterston says. It was directed by Berndt Capra and based on the writings of his physicist-philosopher brother, Fritoj Capra, whose book, "The Tao of Physics," stresses the interdependency of all the world's systems, the delicate balances that can't be jarred in one place without consequences at another.

Waterston says he knew at the age of 6 that he liked acting and spent the next decade or so fighting the inevitable. "I resisted for the obvious reasons. It was, is, a very tough business. It wasn't as socially acceptable even then as now. It wasn't thought to be a proper profession, despite James Stewart's being a Princeton man."

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