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MOVIES : Actor Anonymous : Scott Wilson hopes 'Dead Man Walking' will lead to the visibility that has long eluded him in films.

March 17, 1996|Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell, film critic for the San Jose Mercury News and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, is currently a National Arts Journalism Fellow at USC

Scott Wilson made the cover of Life Magazine in 1967. To prove it, as much to himself as visitors, he has a framed copy of the May 12 issue hanging in his study. It depicts Wilson, then 24, Robert Blake and Truman Capote--stars and author of "In Cold Blood"--posing on a lonely stretch of Kansas highway.

Under the words "Nightmare Revisited" is a caption that would portend much to come in Wilson's 30 frustrating years as one of Hollywood's most respected but least utilized character actors: "Truman Capote stands between actors playing killers in movie of his book."

Who are these anonymous actors? You have to look inside. No cover ID. Director-screenwriter Richard Brooks wanted it that way. He wanted to further his film's documentary-like realism by making the public think Wilson and Blake were Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the young drifters executed in 1965 for murdering a Kansas farm family.

He succeeded only too well in Wilson's case.

"Every actor in the English-speaking world wanted those two roles, including Newman and McQueen," recalls Wilson, who plays the prison chaplain in the current "Dead Man Walking," another Oscar-nominated film about capital punishment. "Brooks hired two 'unknowns' and he wanted to keep it that way. We were treated like two killers he had somehow run across."

Verisimilitude was pushed to absurd lengths in promoting the crime thriller. It wasn't enough to have the young stars' eyes glowering down from a Sunset Boulevard billboard: "Brooks had the poster with our eyes taken down and replaced with one of the real killers' eyes."

Wilson, cautiously mounting a comeback at 53, says he never saw himself as "star material." He was always introverted, temperamental, distrustful of authority.

"It was the late '60s," he explains, drawing on a cigarette. "I was anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam."

Never trust anyone over 30, right?

"Yeah, I took the sound bite and went with it."

Wilson applied his generation's motto to the Hollywood bureaucracy, which insisted upon typecasting him as Dick Hickock's evil twin.

"I didn't handle things well," he acknowledges during an interview at the West Hollywood apartment he shares with his artist wife, Heavenly. "There were some dark holes in my--I don't know if you want to call it 'a career'--in my time out here."

After "In Cold Blood" and two offbeat but unsuccessful follow-ups (Sydney Pollack's "Castle Keep," John Frankenheimer's "The Gypsy Moths"), Wilson couldn't find work--at least not on his terms. It was a calamitous turn of events for someone now recalled by a director friend as "the Sean Penn of his day." Penn and co-star Susan Sarandon are nominated for Oscars for "Dead Man Walking"; he plays a silver-tongued death-row inmate, a role that might have been modeled on Wilson's Hickock.

Wilson is flattered and made uneasy by the comparison. "I do see some of myself in Sean. He doesn't play the game," observes the Georgia-born actor, who will next be seen in "The Grass Harp" (another Capote adaptation) and "Shiloh" (from the award-winning children's book).

When the conversation turns to his best qualities, Wilson looks away, kneads the back of his neck.

"I think you always get a credibility out of me," he finally offers. "I think you always get a believability out of me."

Wilson's directors--including Walter Hill, Steve Kloves and Richard Fleischer (who cast Wilson as the disillusioned rookie in 1972's "The New Centurions")--agree with this self-assessment. They also think Wilson is scandalously under-employed.

Says Kloves, who used Wilson as a penny-ante thief in "Flesh and Bone": "Scott is one of those guys who's powerful, perversely, because he doesn't call attention to himself. . . . I'd love to find something just for him, to write a movie where he's the guy."

Action director Hill relied on Wilson for key moments in "Johnny Handsome" and "Geronimo." "Scott brings a quality of both anxiety and pain to his parts," Hill observes. "I don't know where he gets it from, but there's a kind of melancholy he brings to things."

In the upcoming "Shiloh," directed by Dale Rosenbloom and featuring Michael Moriarty and Rod Steiger, Wilson handles villain chores. He plays Judd, the West Virginia hunter who mistreats the hound dog of the title.

Rosenbloom didn't want a stereotypical bad guy. Wilson delivered a villain with a past. "It's the eyes," he says. "There are stories in those eyes."

Charlie Matthau cast Wilson as a grieving father in "The Grass Harp." "You instantly see the grief in Scott's face," he says. "He conveyed everything in a look."

The "look" to which many allude could come from years of rejection and disappointment. Or it may just be, as Robert Blake would have it, "your basic dark side, man."

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