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Ready in the wings

He's played it cool, he's been a cad, he's played it for laughs. Through it all, Jeff Daniels has kept his focus on his art, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't mind a little more acclaim.

October 09, 2005|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

AS Jeff Daniels recalls it, writer-director Noah Baumbach suggested that the actor grow a beard for his role of Bernard Berkman, a once-promising novelist turned middle-aged academic in Baumbach's indie film "The Squid and the Whale."

But when Daniels arrived on the set to begin the 23-day film shoot, it was obvious his beard had another role in mind: Grizzly Adams.

Baumbach said the whiskers festooning Daniels' cheeks looked like a "forest was protecting him." Costar Laura Linney said Daniels' beard reminded her of the rock group ZZ Top. "And the colors in that beard!" she marveled. "There were beautiful shocks of white. It was remarkable. I just found myself staring at it."

A similar, seemingly unexpected blooming marked Daniels' work in the movie. Though he's often seemed almost invisible on-screen, with his low-key manner and man-of-the-heartland good looks, his role in "The Squid and the Whale" breaks the pattern -- and may well garner Oscar-season speculation for the 50-year-old actor.

In the film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, Daniels and Linney play a couple whose marriage is failing as her career as a writer begins to take off and his past glory as a novelist is quickly fading. Their sons, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, are left to grapple with their confusing and conflicted feelings after their parents separate.

There is much for moviegoers not to love about Daniels' character.

Bernard Berkman (whose unruly beard was trimmed before cameras rolled) is an insufferable know-it-all, a man wallowing in self-pity; a husband who isn't above showing up his wife during a friendly game of tennis or his youngest son at ping-pong; a man who freely dispenses advice but isn't willing to critique himself. But it's the kind of role that actors, especially ones who are stage-trained like Daniels, yearn to inhabit.

"There's a lot of pain, there's a lot of truth, there's a lot of tragic behavior [in Berkman], but he's also funny," Daniels said. In fact, it was the character's humor that drew him to Baumbach's script -- and convinced the director that Daniels was right for the part.

While Linney had been attached to the project for four years, Daniels came into the picture much later. By that time, though, Baumbach said, the film had been downsized with a meager $1.5-million production budget.

He turned to Daniels because "I always wanted someone who could be funny to play the part," said the director, who drew on his childhood experiences when writing the screenplay. "I didn't want it to be a comic portrayal, but I wanted someone who could be inherently funny -- and also someone who is a great actor. Jeff is both."

Baumbach said it is through the actor's eyes that Berkman is revealed. "There is something very sad about his eyes to me," Baumbach said. "They tell you he's someone who wants to be revered but also be taken care of."

As if to showcase his range, Daniels also appears in a supporting role in George Clooney's new political drama, "Good Night, and Good Luck," currently in theaters, playing an entirely different type of character.

The film examines CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow as he takes on communist-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the height of the Red scare in the early 1950s. Daniels portrays "Sig" Mickelson, the head of the CBS Network News and Public Affairs division, a corporate news executive with Brylcreem-slick hair and padded shoulders in his suits who has to deal with Murrow and his group of uncompromising journalists as they battle McCarthy on the air.

"He's so overmatched. He's just a corporate guy," Daniels said of his character in the film, which was co-written and directed by Clooney, who also has a supporting role in the film.

Speaking from his home in Chelsea, Mich., Daniels said he took the role not only as an opportunity to work with Clooney but also because "Good Night, and Good Luck" resonates in today's political climate.

"I love how one man in the press stood up and said, 'Wait a minute, there is something very wrong here,' " Daniels said of Murrow. "Especially in the last several years, the press has not done that or not been allowed to do that -- take your pick. We don't have McCarthyism today, but history is repeating itself.... Money is everything, there is an arrogance of power, people speak up and are demoted. It's a wonderful time for this movie to come out."

No paucity of roles

FOR more than two decades, Daniels has been considered one of Hollywood's most durable yet unheralded character actors. While he has worked with directors such as James L. Brooks in "Terms of Endearment" and Woody Allen in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," stardom has eluded him as an actor.

Yet filmmakers know they can rely on Daniels, whether it's for a serious drama, such as Stephen Daldry's "The Hours," in which Daniels played the ex-lover to AIDS-stricken Ed Harris, or Peter Farrelly's 1994 comedy "Dumb & Dumber," in which Daniels played a dog groomer alongside the zany Jim Carrey.

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