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MOVIES : Hot On the Trail With Mr. Jones : Tommy Lee Jones is the kind of guy you want on your side, not on your case--as Dr. Kimble finds out in 'The Fugitive.' So, what has driven this most distinctive of American actors to the edge, time after time after time?

August 01, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times

SAN ANTONIO — Eyes are what often first attract your attention in a film star. And the eyes of Tommy Lee Jones--dark, piercing, slightly wounded-looking--may convey as much ambiguous menace as anyone in movies since the young Humphrey Bogart.

Right now, they're staring at me--across a tape recorder and a hotel breakfast of scrambled eggs, juice and piles of crisp buttery toast--in San Antonio's four-star Mansion Del Rio. Outside, the San Antonio River--which has been broken up into a delightful network of channels, streams and walkways running along and under many of the city streets--glides by the terrace with a picturesque, near-Venetian placidity. Inside, Jones stretches restlessly in his chair, gobbles some eggs, gives some instructions to his 10-year-old son, Austin or "Bubba," who's along for the visit, and tells me cheerfully, "Ask any question you want to. If it's a violation of privacy, Bubba won't let me answer it."

A top-flight Texas actor, polo player, cattle rancher and ruminator, Jones--whose latest movie, "The Fugitive," opens Friday--may be one of the most intriguing and unsettling American film stars around right now. He mixes you up, scrambles your reactions, crosses over and over again the borderline between sympathy and intimidation--as some other interviewers have sometimes found, in personal encounters. (One of them walked out after four questions.)

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 1, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
"Fugitive" photo--In a scene from the movie "The Fugitive" on Page 6 of today's Calendar, the person with Tommy Lee Jones is misidentified. He is actor Joe Pantoliano.

That mix is evident also in "The Fugitive," a new thriller based on the paradigmatic '60s TV chase show, the old serial saga of a determined cop pursuing a condemned but innocent prison escapee across America. In it, Jones confirms the reputation for masterly scene-stealing antagonist roles he won in Oliver Stone's 1991 "JFK," and last year's "Under Siege."

Since 1970, when Jones made his film debut--improbably enough as Ryan O'Neal's Harvard roommate in "Love Story"--he's regularly scratched audience nerves, scarred their souls. Those eyes, that fierce gaze, drilling into your consciousness from the pocky face and ferociously prominent cheeks and jaw, sometimes suggest a thunderstorm rising over a bleak desert. They can radiate danger or calm, savagery or torment, bemusement or sympathy.

Andy Davis, his "Fugitive" director--who also worked with him in "The Package" and "Under Siege"--says of Jones: "He's got incredible presence and great power. And it comes off the screen; it jumps at you. If you have him do a scene nine times, it'll be different each time, and every take will be usable.

"He's always exploring, always investigating. He's also very chameleon-like. He looks sort of raw and rugged and tough, but, at the same time, he's very comedic, very subtle and sensitive."

His subtler, sensitive side, of course, began to appear first in his theater work, which commenced officially when he played in Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood" at Dallas' St. Mark's School. Asked about his happiest times on stage, he ponders.

"I'd say it's summer repertory in Cambridge, Mass., in the latter part of the '60s," he finally replies, recalling a student talent pool that included John Lithgow ("an inspiration to me: two years older and a foot taller"), Stockard Channing and MIT fireball James Woods. "That was the best experience I had in the theater. The audiences were very bright, very interested. And, when it counts, they were very demanding and discriminating. The themes that we concerned ourselves with (were) the world, its condition and its future. We did everything, anything. Shakespeare, Brecht, the Greeks."

Suddenly he waxes eloquent, as Tommy Lee Jones is wont to do. "And there was music in the cafes at night! There was revolution in the air! It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Theater really . . . it meant a lot. And I was young. And it was a huge adventure. I had only up until that time dreamed of engaging my imagination in something that seemed so important. So . . . I'd say that was my happiest time in the theater."

There's a pregnant pause--or at least a willing one--as we listen to the river flow. And in the movies?

He thinks longer; there are more years to remember. "That's difficult to categorize. . . . I was delighted when I was hired by Roger Corman to do one of his road films. (In 1976, Jones played the charismatic escaped con in Michael Miller's critical hit "Jackson County Jail.") "I'd always . . . I lusted after that situation. It was like doing classical repertory in some way. There's a classicism to it. There have been other, similar situations. Not landmarks so much as telegraph poles."

Like "JFK"?

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