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A Story That Hits Close to Down Home

Billy Bob Thornton can't abide rude Hollywood big shots. He'd rather make films with characters from his Southern roots, like those in "Sling Blade."

November 24, 1996|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to The Times

'Be afraid, be very afraid" is John Ritter's advice when he learns you are spending an afternoon with Billy Bob Thornton, the Arkansas-born actor-writer-director known to his friends as the hillbilly Orson Welles.

"Whenever I'm going to see Billy Bob, I always bring along a portable metal detector," Ritter adds with a laugh. "That way you know what kind of firearms might be in the vicinity."

Ritter, who's one of the co-stars of Thornton's new film, "Sling Blade," is exaggerating--but perhaps not that much. Since the 41-year-old Thornton arrived in Los Angeles a dozen years ago, he's developed a reputation as Hollywood's gonzo good old boy. Unwilling to suffer studio executive rudeness and inattention, Thornton has walked out on producers who kept him waiting and had such blowups with the top brass at Paramount that he refuses to do business at the studio anymore.

"Billy Bob doesn't have any problem with people who are nice human beings," explains Tom Epperson, his longtime friend and writing partner. "He only has trouble with people who are arrogant, hate writers and abuse their assistants."

Thornton held off making "Sling Blade," which opens Wednesday, until he could direct the film himself. The movie recounts the saga of Karl Childers, a semi-retarded man who returns to his hometown after 25 years. He has spent most of his life in an insane asylum after he found his mother having sex with the town bully and killed them with a long, scythe-like blade.

The film's eerie intensity is heightened by the fact that Thornton plays Childers himself. Speaking in a slow, rumbling drawl, growling after each sentence, he gives the character a homely dignity as he befriends a local boy whose home life is unsettlingly similar to Childers' own childhood memories.

It's hard to say if the movie will find an audience beyond the art-house circuit. But its critical plaudits have already transformed Thornton from an obscure actor-screenwriter (he co-wrote "One False Move" and "Family Thing" with Epperson) into the recipient of a multi-picture deal with Miramax Films, which paid 10 times the film's $1-million production cost to acquire "Sling Blade."

So far, the acclaim hasn't turned his head. When Thornton calls his agent, he still does it from a pay phone. He spent a recent afternoon recounting his career ups and downs at Outlaws, a favorite Thornton hangout that serves hamburgers the size of flying saucers--he admiringly calls it Three Mile Island food. Smoking cigarettes and sipping beer, he reminisced about his days as a struggling Hollywood actor, working at Shakey's Pizza and serving "fish heads" (Billy Bob-ese for hors d'oeuvres) at high-toned Hollywood parties.

If anything, Thornton is a bit frazzled by his sudden celebrity--he even developed high blood pressure touting his film to the media after its debut at the New York Film Festival. "All this attention is freaking me out," he says, picking at a green salad as a concession to his blood-pressure woes. "I feel like I'm Elvis Presley or something. Usually the only time the press talked to me was to ask, 'What was it really like acting with Kurt Russell?' "

To hear Thornton tell it, when he and Epperson first moved to Los Angeles, they were two starry-eyed rubes. Childhood friends from the hamlet of Malvern, Ark., they rented an apartment on Motor Avenue, taking it as an omen that the street began at then-MGM Studios and ended at 20th Century Fox.

The writers finally got a script to a producer, who took them to a movie before telling them their screenplay was awful. It was an apt introduction to what passes for manners in Hollywood. "We saw 'Rich and Famous' at the Mann's Chinese," Thornton recalls. "And what I remember most is that the producer and his friend spent the whole time making fun of the movie. I was astounded--I'd never been around people who made fun of movies before."

When Thornton and Epperson were younger, they would prepare for a big pitch meeting by stopping at a bar and having a few beers. When they were kept waiting for a meeting with producer Brian Grazer, they walked out and never came back.

Now that Thornton is having a little success, he notices that executives who were once "kinda" friendly are now "real" friendly. But he doesn't forget old grudges, especially his unhappiness with Paramount over "The Gift," a still-dormant Thornton-Epperson script based in part on Thornton's mother, Virginia, who has practiced as a psychic for years.

"When a studio treats me badly, I remember it," he says firmly. "I have no patience for studio executives who treat me like an idiot or tell me how my characters should talk."

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