On a sunny afternoon this month in Los Angeles Jon Voight was feeling groovy. Tap dancing alongside Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, he sang, “Wild thing, you make my heart sing …”
True story: Voight’s brother, Chip Taylor, wrote the hit “Wild Thing.” And like the song’s title, this Academy Award-winner is a bit of a loose cannon, especially in this town.
“I’m an interesting person, to myself,” he said. “I’m interesting, very interesting guy. I know where I stand, and I have to say my piece, if I’m going to say it.”
And there’s plenty Voight wants to say. But first, let’s get to his career.
Over seven decades, Voight has been memorable and mesmerizing. He’s played cowboys, convicts, champs, and chumps. And at 82, he’s set to return as Liev Schreiber’s conniving gangster father in Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.”
No matter the character, the motivation is the same: “You’re trying to get to that truth of it, you know, that essence that illuminates this moment or story,” Voight said. “It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a spiritual thing.”
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A devout Catholic, Voight was born in 1938, 20 miles outside Manhattan – and a million miles from Hollywood. “I’m from Yonkers, New York. And I liked it. You can’t have airs when you’re from Yonkers, you know?”
Sid Caesar didn’t have airs. He was from Yonkers, too. And every Saturday night in the early ’50s, as the Voight family watched “Your Show of Shows,” young Jon found inspiration. “I give him credit for my career as an actor,” he said. “I used to imitate Sid Caesar doing his German professor, you know?”
After college, Voight found work on and off Broadway, with Robert Duvall in “A View From the Bridge,” and as Rolf in “The Sound of Music.”
In 1969, the break of a lifetime: with the support of his friend Dustin Hoffman, Voight landed the part of the naïve gigolo Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy.” Voight says much of the dialogue was unscripted.
“We used to improvise all the time. Dusty and I. We were walking across the street, and he hits the cab and says, you know, ‘Hey, I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!’ And ‘Up yours, you …’ whatever it is. And then he turns around to me and I’m thinking, This is great. Let’s stay in character. Stay in character, don’t cut. And we got it.”
To this day, “Midnight Cowboy” is the only X-rated film to win Best Picture.
Perfection quickly became opportunity, though not necessarily the right one. “I turned down ‘Love Story’ because I was smart enough to see that I’d mess it up,” he laughed.
“Why would you mess it up?” asked Mankiewicz.
“Because I’d make it too complicated.”
If he was looking for complicated, Voight found it in “Deliverance.” The 1972 classic is a brutal survival film. “Deliverance” earned a Best Picture nomination, and further cemented Voight as a heavyweight actor.
Six years later, Voight delivered another searing performance opposite Jane Fonda in “Coming Home,” this time as a Vietnam War Veteran who’s lost the use of his legs. Voight prepared by spending nine weeks in an L.A. hospital with wounded vets, and learning to live as a paraplegic. “These guys embraced me,” he said.
Voight won the Best Actor Oscar for “Coming Home” … yet to this day, what he remembers most about that night isn’t winning, but a brief moment backstage with Fred Astaire: “I’m crazy about Fred Astaire. I mean, he’s a magical talent. He said, ‘Let me step aside.’ I said, ‘No, no, Mr. Astaire – I have to step aside for you!’ And I don’t know why it touches me so much. But I think it’s– you know, it’s just because the value of our work and the appreciation for the greatness of this artist’s work, and all of the artists that preceded me.”
He doesn’t dance like Astaire, but Voight glides from genre to genre: thrillers, courtroom dramas, even comedies.
Lately, though, it’s not merely his acting that gets attention, it’s his politics. Voight is more than a staunch conservative – he’s a vocal Trump loyalist in largely liberal Hollywood. Critics of his latest film, “Roe v. Wade,” call it propaganda. The movie examines the circumstances that led to the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Voight plays Chief Justice Warren Burger.
“I’m a conservative, as you know, and I’m not so happy with government involvement in anything,” he said. “I’m very concerned about our country. I’m very concerned about this attack on free speech. I don’t like it that we can’t sit down and talk about everything. We’re all unique. There’s no one that’s different or better or whatever it is. We all are unique.”
Next, another potentially sensitive subject: his daughter, actress and director Angelina Jolie. They’ve had a turbulent relationship for years. Voight only has good things to say about her.
Mankiewicz said, “You have to be proud that your daughter followed in your footsteps and is so good at this, not just as an actor but as a writer, director, too.”
“Yeah, she’s really remarkable,” Voight said. “She’s got her own thing, man. She’s got her own way of dealing with things, you know? She’s very clear.”
“And as a director too, right?”
“Yeah, and as a director.”
“As you’re an actor, do you think you could handle being directed by your daughter?”
“She would be tough!” Voight laughed. “But yes, of course, I would love to work with her.”
Look, Jon Voight is complicated. He’s a Hollywood outsider who’s also an insider. After you talk to him, you don’t leave thinking about his politics or his famous daughter; you end up thinking about a man who truly loves the craft of acting … and his fellow actors.
“I do know I care about this industry,” he said, “and I do know that I still feel the same way when I get a part: that I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I’m excited to go on this journey and try to figure it out, you know?”
Mankiewicz asked, “You don’t seem like a guy who’s thinking about retiring?”
“No, I won’t retire,” Voight replied. “You can shoot me as a dying person in bed. You know, you can always do something. If I can move one eye, I can wink!”
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino.