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Jon Avnet: On the Brink of 'War' : The Director's Latest Once Again Shows He Stands Up for What He Believes

November 03, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of course, directing untrained child actors posed other problems as well, but Avnet found a handy tool in stunt camp--or rather, the threat of no stunt camp. The camp was called to get the kids in shape for the battles around the treehouse and a water tower. (The trickiest stunts were performed by grown-up professionals--really short ones.)

Wood says that Avnet, who lives in Topanga Canyon with his artist wife, Barbara Brody, and three children, was deft in dealing with his young cast.

"I think he's excellent with kids because he's got kids of his own," Wood says. "We all treat him like a dad, that's how cool it was. At the end of the film, he was like, 'If you ever need help in acting, I can help you,' or 'If you need help in regular life, I can help you also.' "

Universal was equally pleased with the top-billed Wood--enough to fashion an Oscar campaign around him which would, if successful, make the 13-year-old the youngest best actor ever. Costner reportedly agreed to be submitted as a best supporting contender to boost Wood's chances.

And Avnet soft-pedaled buzz that Costner butted heads with him over the actor's limited profile in the movie.

"Kevin looked at the movie in an early version and looked at it in a later version, and his ideas had to do with the movie, not just with himself," Avnet says.

What is not in dispute is that working with the sometimes obstreperous kids of "The War" touched on something that persists in Avnet's own psyche.

"I was the first person in the principal's office, and actually somebody said that kids are punished for the exact qualities that adults are rewarded for, and I was thinking, 'That's my autobiography.' I'm stubborn. I come up with things that no one else would think to do. These are the qualities that hopefully infuse the films I've done."

Avnet was born "in Gil Hodges' mitt," as his mother liked to say, declining credit for the job in favor of the erstwhile first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When he was 5, the family moved to Great Neck, Long Island, where his father, Lester, and grandfather built an electronics distribution company. But Lester's heart lay in the arts, and family lore has it that he turned down a job playing violin in the Warner Bros. orchestra in Los Angeles in the early '40s because he couldn't afford to relocate Avnet's mother, Joan.

"I think I'm playing the violin for him to some extent," Avnet says.

Avnet attended Sarah Lawrence College as one of the first men to integrate the women's school, gaining a ringside opportunity to explore his empathy with the other sex. And that trait later formed the foundation of his "Fried Green Tomatoes," which celebrates women's friendships, and "The Burning Bed," the award-winning TV movie on spouse abuse that netted Farrah Fawcett stripes as a serious actress.

Avnet got a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater and film, where he made an expressionistic film with an unknown actor named Richard Gere. It got him into the directing program at the American Film Institute in 1972. Avnet never finished, though, leaving in disillusionment after his protests of a dean's firing led to naught.

Avnet's early jobs in the business weren't any more gratifying. He worked for a while as an assistant to producers Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller, but ended up being fired. He says he was hired "ostensibly to direct films, but after 2 1/2 years of bondage, it wasn't going to happen and I was pissed off."

But Avnet, then only in his mid-20s, had learned something useful about his temperament and his calling.

"I imitated Vivien Leigh from 'Gone With the Wind' when she said she was never going to be poor again. I didn't want to be at the mercy of anybody for my directing, because it just meant too much to me. And I was headstrong and too sensitive and too vulnerable and just generally ridiculously immature, but very energetic."

He decided to enter the field as a producer, and when he had substantial control, move over into directing. In late 1977, Avnet hooked up with family friend Steve Tisch. They had worked together on '77's "Outlaw Blues" for Warner Bros. when Avnet was still with Weintraub-Heller Productions. Soon after, they launched a seven-year partnership that produced a spate of work for television and theatrical release that included "The Burning Bed."

"I think Jon had a tendency with most of the directors he worked with of co-directing," says his current producing partner, Jordan Kerner. "For him it was sometimes frustrating if he knew he could get this or that performance, and ultimately there was that imperative creatively as an artist" to move into directing.

When Avnet decided he needed to pull back from producing and pour his energies into directing, he and Tisch ended their seven-year partnership. But they remain close--they still work down the hall from each other in a jointly owned office building and they share stakes in real estate deals and the Hard Rock Cafe.

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