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The Rhett Stuff

November 13, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Timothy Dalton really doesn't know why he takes risks.

"I often say I like a challenge, but I begin to wonder where you draw the line between a healthy creative challenge and something that is potentially self-destructive," acknowledges the 48-year-old Welsh actor.

"Whether it becomes about ... can I survive it? Or can I, against all odds, be good? One wonders. I'm not quite sure where the line is between something that's perverse and masochistic and what's challenging. I sometimes feel I strangely have to test things all the time and see if I can survive and, hopefully, do well."

The 6-foot-2 actor did win critics' approval when he took over the role of James Bond from Roger Moore in 1987's "The Living Daylights" and 1989's "Licence to Kill." (Earlier this year, Dalton passed the Bond torch to Irish actor Pierce Brosnan.) But he had less luck as the brooding Heathcliff--the part that made Laurence Olivier a superstar in 1939--in the turgid 1970 remake of "Wuthering Heights."

And now the actor has taken on what may be the biggest career challenge of his life: starring as the dashing rogue Rhett Butler opposite Joanne Whalley-Kilmer in "Scarlett." Dalton acknowledges that Clark Gable, who received an Oscar nomination for his indelible performance as Rhett in the classic 1939 movie, is a hard act to follow.

"Clark Gable was pretty damn wonderful," Dalton says, puffing on a cigarette at the Bel-Air Hotel. "He didn't play it like Gable. I was hoping in an odd sort of way that Gable, who I thought was wonderful, was just being a wonderful Clark Gable, and that Margaret Mitchell would have written something that was very different that I could pick up. But when you read Margaret Mitchell, you realize Clark Gable was being a wonderful actor. He was playing the Rhett Butler she had written."

Though Dalton's Rhett still possesses the mustache, killer smile, hearty laugh and charm of Gable's Rhett, Dalton creates his own Rhett--more laconic and subdued than Gable's larger-than-life portrayal.

As for following in Gable's footsteps, Dalton acknowledges, "Some people would say it is deeply foolish to do it." That wasn't the case with Bond. "At least three people played him before, so people, I think, got used to the idea that different actors were going to play the role. It's a bit more buffered with Bond. But with this, we don't have the luxury."

"Damn ridiculous" was Dalton's first reaction when he heard about the "Gone With the Wind" sequel. "It was stupid and wrong and how the hell could anybody make something that was the continuation of 'Gone With the Wind?' Why should they make a continuation of 'Gone With the Wind?' And if they are asking to step into Clark Gable's shoes, you're mad. I'm ashamed to say I did shout at my agent on the phone."

But then that certain something inside Dalton urged him to do it. "You get hooked," he says with a smile. "In the end, I would have turned it down if I didn't think the piece was going to be any good, with no qualms whatsoever. But knowing the director (John Erman) and knowing his approach and knowing the cast he was getting, there was every chance in the world it would be real good."

In "GWTW," Rhett was pursuing Scarlett, and in "Scarlett" she is trying to get him back. "She's after him," Dalton says. "I'm sure it's still with the awful juvenile immaturity she seemed to display in 'Gone With the Wind.' "

Though "Gone With the Wind" ends with Rhett throwing the infamous "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" line at Scarlett, Dalton believes he still loves her. Still, he says, "she has treated him bad. It's his own fault. He took that chance, but she has pretty much treated everybody bad through the entire 'Gone With the Wind' story."

And Rhett, he says, "certainly has had enough. He loves her, no question. I think he loves her even when he says, 'I don't give a damn.' What he's really saying is, 'I don't trust you. I don't believe you. I don't care anymore. I've had enough.' This is a man and a woman who are obviously made for each other dealing with a situation where he doesn't want to have anything to do with her, but can't rid himself of that passion in his heart.

"She's not like any other woman in the society," Dalton continues. "And in many, many ways, she is a horrible, horrible woman. She treats people appallingly. She's full of fire and determination. She's mean, ruthless, ambitious, selfish."

And, he adds firmly, "I think she's worse than a bitch to a lot of people in ('GWTW'), but she's a complete one of a kind and he recognizes that. She's the woman for him but he can't win her."

Dalton laughs. "Well, I mean, guys are often just stupid . You fall in love with somebody and that's it. You get obsessed. Rhett always thought he would make her love him. He thought he would make her grow up and love him. In 'Scarlett,' I think, ultimately all the rigors that she faces in this eight-hour soap opera, she gets to the stage in her life that she's a lot more mature and recognizes Rhett for what he is and really feels for him."

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