Jon Voight: The lone ranger rides again

Midnight Cowboy made him a star, but 10 years later Jon Voight's career was in freefall. Now he's back, as he tells James Rampton
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The Independent Culture

It's one of those moments where an interviewer doesn't know where to look. I have just asked the veteran actor Jon Voight about his tempestuous relationship with his daughter, the actress Angelina Jolie - and a disturbing silence has fallen. As he tries manfully to master the feelings that are clearly seething within him, the term "emotionally charged" scarcely does justice to the atmosphere.

Jolie, the twice-divorced star of the Tomb Raider films, has recently declared publicly that after receiving a hurtful letter from Voight she wants no further contact with him. The actress says "I no longer see us as father and daughter. I won't have unhealthy relationships in my life. That's why it was easy for me to divorce, and easy for me not to speak to my father. I don't regret it."

Hence the loaded hiatus when I venture on to this touchy territory. After a pause during which I wish several times that my armchair would swallow me whole, Voight finally musters the composure to make a comment. "Let me just say this," he sighs, his voice cracking with emotion. "I'm crazy about Angie. I love her deeply. My greatest happiness in life has been the times where I've held her hand and laughed with her.

"At the moment, I'm running round doing a lot of different things, but that's where my thoughts are. I'm hoping that we can put all the stuff that's going on behind us and have those lovely moments together again." Struggling with his feelings, Voight breaks off again, before adding: " Nothing is more important to me than my daughter's health and happiness." This emotional turbulence is typical of an actor who pours his heart and soul into everything he does.

A thoughtful, passionate man, he possesses a face that bears the lines of someone who has lived an eventful life. Rarely predictable, Voight is one of Hollywood's most exciting, if mercurial talents. Critics mention him in the same breath as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. He has thrived in portraying those at - or beyond - the margins of society. The unloved and the unhinged are his speciality. As People magazine once put it: "the characters he plays are usually the kind of guys you might want to leave behind if you were about to sail on a boat with limited seating capacity."

The son of a golf pro from Yonkers in New York City, Voight attained stardom early on. After being spotted in a Broadway production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, he was cast as Joe Buck, the likable but naive Texan cowpoke who becomes a New York gigolo in John Schlesinger's Oscar-winning 1969 movie, Midnight Cowboy.

It proved his big break, and a string of seminal 1970s movies followed - Catch 22, Deliverance, The Odessa File and Coming Home, a moving film in which Voight delivered a memorable performance as a bitter, paraplegic Vietnam vet.

This last role was a good example of the risk-taking that has characterised the actor's career. "No big-name actor of the time wanted to risk his reputation," he recalls. "I'd already played a male prostitute in Midnight Cowboy, so nothing worried me. I've always known an actor has nothing to fear if the material itself is good and he gives it his best."

But despite all the plaudits at that time, Voight admits now that he was already starting to make some wrong turnings. He failed in his attempt to land the lead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "Unfortunately," he laughs, "they had another young guy called Jack Nicholson in mind. They offered me Love Story, but I thought it was too corny." In 1979, the year after winning the Best Actor Oscar for Coming Home, Voight divorced his second wife, Marcheline Bertrand, and his life appeared to be spiralling out of control. He remembers pacing up and down a beach in Malibu muttering to himself: "I don't know what I'm doing with myself, I don't know if I do can this much longer."

He says now that the early 1980s "was a time when I questioned many things. I was going through a lot of personal stuff. It was one of the toughest times in my life. I was struggling to be close to my children and to be proper with their mother, and I just didn't feel good about myself. I was thinking about making the world a better place, yet I felt I had destroyed it in some sense. I was doing some much-needed soul-searching, but it played havoc with my career."

And how. Although he received an Oscar nomination for playing a deranged convict in 1985's Runaway Train, that was the sole success during some lean years for the actor. Who now remembers such duds as Lookin' to Get Out, Table for Five, Eternity, or Chernobyl: The Final Warning? Voight's career seemed to be in freefall - indeed, for five whole years (between 1985 and 1990) he didn't make a single movie.

Slowly but surely, though, over the last decade Voight has turned things around. His comeback picture was 1995's Heat in which, playing a slippery criminal, he more than held his own against Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. Since then, the hits have come thick and fast: Mission Impossible, Anaconda, The Rainmaker, U Turn, Enemy of the State, The General, Varsity Blues, Pearl Harbor, Tomb Raider (in which he appeared opposite Jolie) and Ali (which earned him another Oscar nomination). Truly, the days of giant, self-basting turkeys are behind him.

It looks very much as if Voight will have another smash on his hands with his latest offering, Holes. An adaptation of Louis Sachar's best-seller, which beat Harry Potter to the title of most popular children's novel in a recent poll by Read magazine, this engaging modern-day fairy tale took $51m (£30m) at the US box office in its first month of release.

Voight turns in a delicious performance as Mr Sir, a preening, pomaded guard at the desolate Camp Green Lake children's detention centre, where the inmates are forced to spend their days digging pointless holes in the broiling Texan desert sun. On the rare occasions when he is not admiring his ludicrous sideburns in the mirror, Mr Sir makes life a misery for the film's hero, the unjustly convicted and palindromically named Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf).

"If Mr Sir weren't in his current position of lording it over the kids, he' d be in prison himself," Voight explains. "The key to his character is that even though he is obviously a disgusting man, in his own eyes he isn't loathsome at all - in fact, quite the opposite. So when I was sitting in make-up one day, I suddenly came up with the idea of these laughable Elvis-like, Spanish sideburns. I thought, 'Eureka! That's it, that's his character.' He's just appallingly vain."

Beyond the comedy, though, Holes has some serious points to make about prisons. "Whenever you give someone control over another human being, there's always danger there," the actor reckons. "That applies to every aspect of government. Abraham Lincoln said that every man can show strength in adversity, but if you really want to test a man, then give him power." This ties in with one of Voight's many bugbears - the privatisation of the penal system. "Prisons should be a humane experience, they should make people better," he contends. "We're very far from doing that if we turn them into money-making vehicles."

Someone who probably wasn't out waving banners for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Voight is an old-fashioned Hollywood liberal whose living-room wall in LA is adorned with photographs of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Hindu yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda. The actor is a long-standing campaigner for such diverse causes as the rights of Native Americans, the homeless and Vietnam veterans. At present, he is spearheading an effort to have children air-lifted from contaminated areas around Chernobyl. He is equally passionate about the indoctrination of young children: "In certain parts of the Middle East, children are being raised on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a viciously anti-Semitic book that Hitler used. Teaching children to hate is the highest form of child abuse."

For a long while, Voight had what the critic David Thomson describes as " one of the least explicable American careers" - that is, he was all over the shop. But after a few years of turmoil, maybe it is only now, as he reaches the age of 65, that he is truly finding his niche as a magnetic character actor. He is embracing more mature roles, while holding on to the youthful, enquiring outlook that has always informed his best performances. Despite the sadness in his personal life, things have rarely looked better for Voight professionally.

"Old age is not my enemy," he muses. "I'm invigorated again. It's a wonderful feeling, so I don't intend to retire for a very long time. Before she died, my mother said, 'In my head, I am 18 years old. I haven't changed at all - but look what's happened to my body.' You know, I feel the same way."

'Holes' is on general release