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Chris O'Donnell Gets a Lucky Break

Theater * The 31-year-old film actor combines good fortune and stage presence to land the main role in a summer revival of an Arthur Miller fable.

July 24, 2001|BLAKE GREEN | NEWSDAY

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In that much larger theater arena to the south, there's been much musing about another Hollywood star making his stage debut, but up here at the summer festival that bears the name of this bucolic burg, the conversation is all about Chris O'Donnell, not Tom Selleck.

True, it's a vastly more protected setting here for such an artistic launching, but live audiences are daunting, wherever you find them. "I am absolutely terrified," O'Donnell readily confesses after a day of rehearsing "The Man Who Had All the Luck" at the red brick Grange No. 366 on the outskirts of town.

"Even auditioning--something I haven't had to do in movies for a long time--I was nervous," says the refreshingly enthusiastic 31-year-old actor, whose film career was launched in 1990 with "Men Don't Leave" and includes 1992's "Scent of a Woman" opposite Al Pacino and two turns in Robin's tights and codpiece in the '95 and '97 big-screen "Batman" adventures.

Arthur Miller's play, which bears the subtitle "A Fable," was the playwright's own debut in the theatrical world--when he was 25 in 1944--and it is running, in a rare revival, on the festival's main stage through next Sunday. (The play had its first revival since 1944 in Los Angeles at the Ivy Substation in Culver City last year.)

Miller did not have much luck with "The Man," which was panned and closed after only a few Broadway performances, but comparisons certainly can be made between the fate of O'Donnell's character, David, a young mechanic increasingly less comfortable with an incredible string of good fortune, and the actor's own career.

"'All of this just happened to me,"' Scott Ellis, the play's director, says O'Donnell told him by way of explaining his somewhat untraditional journey, which started in his teens with a McDonald's commercial (opposite Michael Jordan). Ellis says the actor's eagerness and his admitted fear were factors in his casting decision.

"I respected the fact that he'd put himself on the line, push himself," says Ellis, who thought the actor's clean-cut looks and "the innocence about him" were perfect for the role. "I felt that he understood David's dilemma: the essence of someone looking around and wondering, 'How did this all happen to me?"'

O'Donnell, of course, knows how it started, back in Winnetka, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, where, the youngest of seven children, he developed a peculiar fascination with movies.

"Ever since I was about 12 and saw those kids running around in 'Star Wars,' I thought they were doing such cool stuff. I really wanted to do that," he says with a laugh. "It became kind of a joke in our family. I'd call up agencies in Chicago and pitch myself." To no avail.

At a wedding, a sister met a talent scout and asked "if she'd at least talk to her crazy 13-year-old brother," he continues. "And that turned out to be my break. I did commercials, and four years later I auditioned for 'Men Don't Leave,"' in which he got the plum role of Jessica Lange's son.

As compelling as the movies seemed, O'Donnell says that he arranged his film work around getting his degree from Boston College, not in drama, but in marketing. "I wanted to keep my options open--and I liked business. My buddies I hang out with are still part of that world," although he concedes that by this point, "I can't see myself going to Morgan Stanley and getting a job as an analyst."

Film stars regularly appear at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but Ellis insists that O'Donnell never would have gotten the role "if I hadn't felt he was stageworthy. A lot of names out there just aren't."

Several days before the show's recent opening, O'Donnell, anxious to retire to his rental house with his wife, Caroline, and their two small children, who are here from Los Angeles for his five-week commitment, admitted exhaustion--just one of the surprises for the actor about the stage process.

Since his string of luck has gone through some setbacks with lukewarm reviews for recent films, such as last year's "Vertical Limit," perhaps it's time O'Donnell's career went in a new direction. Michael Ritchie, the festival's producer, points out that "all of the Miller plays done here have been hugely successful and all have moved to Broadway."

"I want him to get hooked," Ellis says of O'Donnell and the theater, seeing a similarity with Woody Harrelson, whom he directed at Williamstown in "The Rainmaker" several summers ago before the production transferred to Broadway.

What does O'Donnell think? "Just let me get through this first one," he begs.

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