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Cassavetes, a Man of Many Roles : With 'Twogether,' 'The Gods of Skid Row' and 'Mrs. Parker' to his credit, the actor finds his career flourishing. And the only son of one of cinema's classiest couples also has three screenplays in development.

Fast Track: Up and Comers in Arts and Entertainment

March 08, 1994|JAMES GRANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Virginia Cassavetes, 8-year-old granddaughter of Gena Rowlands and the late director John Cassavetes, is doing splits in the middle of her living room.

"Honey," says her father, Nick Cassavetes, the only son of one of cinema's classiest couples, "this man saw you in 'Twogether.' "

Little Virginia looks perplexed. "The movie?" she asks in a disembodied tone as her brunette pigtails jerk up spastically without warning.

"No, Virginia. The TV series," he cracks sarcastically. Then he laughs. "\o7 Yes.\f7 Virginia. The \o7 movie\f7 ."

Virginia smiles gleefully and grabs daddy's pant legs. She knew all along.

The strikingly handsome, 35-year-old star of "Twogether" (currently at the Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica) is a man of many roles, including actor, writer, director, husband and daddy to both Virginia and 6-year-old Sasha, who is presently beet red from crying because mommy didn't buy her the shoes she was desperate for at the mall. Could this possibly be the house of a privileged celebrity offspring? Where is the Lalique and the bad attitude?

Fortunately for his family, one role Cassavetes refuses to play is embittered celebrity progeny. No tell-all books or habitual rehab for him. In fact, Cassavetes appears to be downright, well, normal. He lives with his family in a three-bedroom house in Woodland Hills and prefers weekend barbecues to name-dropping.

"I spent a lot of time with both my mother and father growing up," he recalls. "I hear people complain about their parents. Mine were nirvana," he says unequivocally, lounging in an oversized chair, dressed in a beige T-shirt, shrink-to-stick Levi's and distractingly long, bare feet.

Born in New York and raised there and in Los Angeles, Cassavetes grew up in a loving family whose life was literally a walking improvisation. Lots of celebrity children spent their youth on movie sets. But few had their homes actually \o7 become \f7 the sets.

"My dad shot in our house a lot," he remembers. "In my room, there were film canisters hanging. My dad would come in in the middle of the night to see filmstrips hanging on the wall. He'd wake me up and say: 'Find me that piece of film,' and I'd say: 'Which one?' 'The one where your mother is scratching her nose in that take. . . .' So I'd take a flashlight and find it."

At first, Cassavetes was an ugly duckling. "I was a fat and brainy kid," he remembers. "I had nothing going for me."

Except a good jump shot. He landed a scholarship at Syracuse University in 1977 but tore an Achilles' tendon, ending his college basketball career, only a few months later. He then turned to acting. "It forced me to use other aspects of my personality than my physical abilities. And that helped me in the long run."

In 1980, director Peter Bogdanovich saw the young actor onstage in Los Angeles and cast him in his first feature role, in "Mask." He paid his dues in forgettable films like "The Doors," "Blind Fury," "The Wraith," "Black Moon Rising" and "Backstreet Dreams."

Yet Cassavetes has absolutely no embarrassment about any work he's done. "People will say to me: 'How could you do that movie?' How about: 'I love to work, and I wasn't doing anything that week'?" he retorts. "Look at my dad, who is considered an artist, right? He did more bad movies than I'll ever do! If you need the dough, get the dough."

He took the death of his father five years ago hard. "Yesterday, I visited the grave," he says solemnly. "I couldn't explain in a million words the kind of love he gave our family. The brilliance he showed as a director was nothing compared to what he was as a dad."

Papa would no doubt be proud as Cassavetes' career is decidedly on the rise. In "Twogether," he plays an unsympathetic, self-absorbed artist whose hobby is womanizing. While he is proud of the film, he allows: "It's a very strange movie. I watch it and sometimes I'm furious, but then sometimes I think: 'Oh, that's good. But \o7 never \f7 do I think, 'Oh, what a nice movie.' And I thank God for that."

"There was a complexity about Nick that I wanted for the role," says "Twogether's" writer-producer-director Andrew Chiaramonte. "He's not simple."

The unrated movie features some steamy love scenes. "Basically, I'm not really a shy person. But it was like 38,000 people looking right up my bum . . . \o7 that\f7 was uncomfortable."

The 200-pound, 6-foot-4 actor will show his obvious penchant for comedy in "The Gods of Skid Row," another independent film that he recently wrapped filming on in Greece. "It's a very broad comedy in a Mel Brooks/Monty Python sort of style," he says. Cassavetes plays two different roles: the Greek God Theseus and his descendant 5,000 years later.

He recently wrapped filming on "Mrs. Parker," under the direction of Alan Rudolph, with Robert Altman producing. In the film, to be released this fall, Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Dorothy Parker, and Cassavetes portrays author Robert Sherwood. "He was probably the smartest man of this century," he says, awe-struck.

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