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MOVIES

He's having a heavenly time

Stephen Collins' career got off to a shaky start, but you'd never know it now.

February 01, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

STEPHEN COLLINS makes acting look effortless, whether he's playing the understanding father, the Rev. Eric Camden on the CW's long-running family drama "7th Heaven" or Diane Keaton's love interest, a sexy granddad named Joe, in the new romantic comedy "Because I Said So."

But the boyishly handsome 59-year-old Collins says that when he started out in the business he was just clueless.

Collins was a fresh-out-of-Amherst College actor in 1969 when he landed the male lead in the touring production of the hit comedy "Forty Carats," playing Barbara Rush's much younger love interest, a role that played into his preppy good looks and charm. (In a twist, Rush plays his mother on "7th Heaven" -- "It's sort of an Oedipal thing.")

That athletic build and collegiate demeanor also brought him an audition for the lead in a little film called "Love Story." Collins had to pass because of his contract with the play, and the part eventually went to Ryan O'Neal. The film went on to become a sensation after it opened in 1970. Collins was upset at the time, but says he realizes now that everything happens for a reason.

Mainly, that he wasn't ready for it.

"I didn't know much about acting at that time in my life," Collins said, relaxing in the living room of the Brentwood home he shares with wife Faye Grant and teenage daughter Kate. "I guess if I had come to that kind of success then I would have blown it, which is what happened early in my movie career anyway."

COLLINS' feature career began in earnest with a small but showy part in 1976's "All the President's Men." But he can't bear to watch his first major starring role in 1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

He describes his performance as "so stiff and humorless, I didn't understand the basic things of acting when I made that movie. I then did a movie called 'Loving Couples' with Shirley MacLaine. But it was a quick flop. I think at that point, the movie phone just stopped ringing."

Thankfully, the TV phone continued to ring. "I was working, but was not a good actor," he confessed.

His life and career changed when he met Grant, who guest-starred on his short-lived "Raiders of the Lost Ark"-style series "The Tales of the Gold Monkey."

She suggested he go to an acting class.

"Acting classes are famously full of actors who don't work," Collins said. "But more important, there is a small percentage of actors in acting classes who do work and many of whom are the best actors we have."

Living in New York at the time, Collins attended a class taught by Phil Gushee, who had studied under Sanford Meisner at the legendary Neighborhood Playhouse.

"I went and as soon as I was sitting in this class, I realized, 'Oh my God -- this is what I needed more than anything in the world.' "

Six months into the class, Collins got the lead role in the 1987 miniseries "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," for which he was nominated for an Emmy. "I think that's when my work became interesting," he says.

Collins, who is also a published mystery writer and performs locally with his retro garage band, doesn't attend classes anymore but works with two acting coaches.

Though "Because I Said So" was shot in Los Angeles, Collins felt he needed help with his first scene with Keaton, who plays Daphne, a meddling single mother of three grown girls.

"We were shooting a little fragment of a scene," Collins recalled. "It was just two lines with Diane in the kitchen. To me, there is nothing more difficult than starting a film with a passing scene. You want to start work on a film with a big chunky scene, so you feel like you are in the driver's seat. This felt like it would be 15 seconds of screen time."

So during a break in the film, he called his coach in New York, Harold Guskin, who not only helped Collins through the scene but also the entire film.

"It's hard to explain," Collins said. "Harold understands so many different things about acting -- how to ground yourself so you are not doing more than you need on a scene."

COLLINS and Keaton worked together more than a decade ago on "The First Wives Club" when he played the actress' philandering husband. And it was the Oscar-winning actor who suggested Collins to "Because I Said So" director Michael Lehmann.

"I felt it was important the person who played this role was someone Diane wanted to work with," Lehman said. "I really wanted her to be invested in [choosing the character]. At one point when we were asking her who she wanted, she mentioned Stephen Collins. I liked his work...."

And he liked Collins immediately. "He's such a great person and he had the right vibe for the role. The only issue at first was because Stephen had played Diane's husband in 'First Wives Club,' you don't want to reproduce a pairing, but it's a very different role."

Lehman remarked that both Collins and Keaton use music to get them into the mood for scenes.

Before a scene, Collins says he never tells anyone his song choice.

"Sometimes it's a song that reminds me of being a teenager and being happy. It is a weird thing about using music."

For the scene in which Joe meets cute with Daphne, Collins selected the Skyliners' recording of "Pennies From Heaven" to listen to on his iPod. "It's a very upbeat sort of rock 'n' roll version of the song," Collins said. "It makes me happy no matter what. I thought the underlying feeling he's feeling when he meets her [in the scene] is, 'Oh my God, something wonderful may be about to happen.' "

Collins says he doesn't know why "every actor on Earth" doesn't use music before a scene.

"The emotional charge of the music is huge," he said. "Any time work is being done on a film set, it is noisy and chaotic. And music also shuts out everything else on the set."

susan.king@latimes.com

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