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THEATER

Trying to Have the Last Laugh

Bud Cort, who became famous for his role in 'Harold and Maude,' is getting attention as a clown in 'He Who Gets Slapped.'

August 25, 1996|Scott Collins | Scott Collins is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Bud Cort sits in a Hollywood cafe, wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and flip-flops and picking at a bagel. One could almost mistake him for a Gen-Xer on summer vacation, even though he became a generational icon a quarter-century ago.

He's still best known for his role as a suicide-obsessed rich kid in "Harold and Maude," a 1971 cult film that turned him into a kind of midnight movie poster boy. For many viewers the quirky film--and Cort's wry, imploring performance--have proven unforgettable.

"I hear that a lot from young actors and I'm very flattered by it," he says. "My dream is to get that reaction for new projects, for new characters."

The goal is within reach. A veteran stage actor, Cort is drawing plaudits for his latest role as a disillusioned circus clown in "He Who Gets Slapped," an adaptation of Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev's tragicomedy at the Hudson Backstage Theatre.

Director-adapter Dan Shor, who had dreamed of doing the play for years, always wanted Cort for the lead. "He's been a hero to me ever since I was a young man, an angst-ridden teenager watching 'Harold and Maude' at the Waverly Theater in New York City," Shor says. "We needed someone with incredible sensitivity. . . . He's given me more than I could ever dream of getting in that character."

Cort's character, addressed as He, volunteers his services as a carnival troupe's punching bag to cauterize the pain of a failed marriage. The actor says he isn't surprised the theme resonates with many viewers.

"I think everybody can relate to a character who's getting slapped by life so violently and continually that he just packs a bag and opts for a totally different existence," Cort says. "The rub is that this other world that he embraces turns out to be as problematical, if not more problematical, as the one he left.

"It's just sort of an interesting metaphor for life. You really can't run away from your problems," he says.

*

Cort, who at 46 has overcome his own share of problems, is on something of a roll lately. Besides the play, he's finishing a book about his "Harold and Maude" experiences, and he also showed up recently in a small, unbilled part in the film "Heat."

Perhaps his greatest challenge, he says, has been trying to persuade casting directors and other industry types to look beyond his status as a cult-flick hero. "I was typecast to the point where I didn't make a film for five years after 'Harold and Maude,' " Cort says. "I only worked in theater where I was not typecast."

The Hal Ashby film, about the off-kilter love affair between Cort's character and a 79-year-old grandmother (played by the late Ruth Gordon), "was a blessing and a curse," he admits. "It closed a lot of doors in terms of my development as an actor, but on the other hand, it gave me the cachet to walk in a lot more doors than I would have been able to had I not made it."

Cort, who now lives in Silver Lake, grew up in a New York suburb. He decided early that he wanted to act. His mother worked in publicity for MGM, returning home with tales of glamorous stars like Clark Gable and Judy Garland. Young Bud spent a lot of time at home, tending to his father, who was ill with multiple sclerosis, and three younger sisters.

"It was basically a 'Cinderfella'-type of existence. I was fat, I was unhappy," says the now-wiry actor. "I read a lot."

After a brief teenage career as a local portrait painter (he quit after Westchester matrons asked him to match his palette with their fabric swatches), Cort landed at New York University to study design. But he'd already started moonlighting as an actor on soap operas.

"I remember the head of the [NYU] design department called me in one day and said, 'If I see you delivering telegrams one more time on "The Doctors," you're out of here,' " he says.

Soon he had quit school and begun a popular nightclub comedy act. It was during one of these engagements that Cort caught the eye of director Robert Altman, who cast him as Private Boone in the film "M*A*S*H." Leads in Altman's fable "Brewster McCloud" and "Harold and Maude" soon followed.

But with his career seemingly launched, Cort froze. He rejected a stream of "weirdo" roles, including one in the 1975 Oscar winner "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." "I should have done it," he says now. "I should have done everything that I was offered. . . . [But] I didn't want to be [a character type like] Tony Perkins, Maynard Krebs or Peter Lorre."

For a few years during the '70s Cort lived with his friend and mentor the late Groucho Marx. ("It was like a Fulbright scholarship to comedy," he says.) But then serious injuries sustained in a 1979 auto accident on the Hollywood Freeway almost totally derailed his career. He endured years of plastic surgery and litigation, he says, with some faint scars on his forehead a visible reminder of that painful period.

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