Tim Robbins has grown since 'Bull Durham'

November 02, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

What a big boy is Tim.

You knew he was tall from "Bull Durham," when he played the long, tall, dumb-yet-gifted pitcher Nuke Laloosh, nicknamed "Meat" by Kevin Costner, who had a major league fastball and made it to the big time, but lost the girl.

But he's more than tall, he's giant, a good 6 foot 4, in rag-pickers blue jeans and hipster's tight-brimmed fedora, come to New York to explain his new film "Jacob's Ladder," which he and he alone must carry, there being no Susan Sarandon or Kevin Costner around.

But Tim Robbins looks like he's able to carry anything up to and including the Rock of Gibraltar.

Robbins is about as far from the goony Nuke Laloosh as could be imagined, being neither country nor dumb. An urban sophisticate, who grew up the son of musicians in Greenwich Village and was performing in street theater in his early teens, he went on to UCLA where he founded and avant-garde acting troup, with whom he still acts and directs. Extremely forthright and verbal, he's much more like the Jacob Singer of "Jacob's Ladder" than anything else, a long-legged intellectual comfortable behind granny glasses and radical ideology.

But he says "Jacob's Ladder" took him places no movie had ever done.

"It made me think about things you don't exactly think about. I had to approach my own dreams and I had to remind myself what it was like to look at a man dying and see the desperation in his eyes."

As Jacob Singer, Robbins wanders his hometown consumed with visions of demons from hell, tries to sort out his jangled memories of Vietnam and memories as well of an earlier life. He's a man with a head full of questions in a universe that doesn't have a single answer.

As intense and claustrophobic as the character is, Robbins said he tried to stay cool and distant from him.

"I tend not to get so far in that I lose myself. I have a sense that I will meet the character somewhere. The key is imagination. Not how I would respond, but how would Jacob? It was tiring and emotionally draining while I was doing it. I couldn't have a life while I was doing it. Mostly I was exhausted."

He says he found the ordeal "scary."

"But it's good to be scared. It makes you work harder. For that reason, I didn't make too many decisions beforehand. I don't make specific choices. Spontaneity is so important."

He did some research on the attitudes of the '70s but "specific philosophies I didn't deal with. I didn't want to overintellectualize too much. Whatever deeper meanings are there, that's for an audience to to figure out. There's no way to act deeper meanings."

Floating around Hollywood offices for 10 years, the script, by Bruce Joel Rubin, was legendary as one of the 10 best unproduced scripts in the town. The deal finally came together when Adrian Lyne, hot from "Fatal Attraction" and involved in pre-production on "Bonfire of the Vanities," decided instead to switch to "Jacob's Ladder," in search of making a more significant film.

And "significance" is something exciting to Robbins, too.

"That's what's exciting about it. What they're talking about is what they usually don't talk about -- the D-word [death], something we all have to come to."

Lyne himself saw Robbins as the key to making the film work.

"He is very sympathetic and has a lightness of touch to him. I think you like the man."

That undeniable likability has certainly been a major part of the Robbins career. In "Bull Durham," he was scripted as selfish and stupid. But the actor's charm kept peeping out from beneath the character he was playing, and the movie achieved a level of warmth it might not have.

"We all felt like we were doing something that was unique," he recalls, "and we had a great time. But the rule in the business then was that no movie about baseball had ever been a success. So nobody was expecting the ultimate success."

But at the same time, " 'Miss Firecracker' [based on Beth Henley's play] was also a blast to make, and again we were all down in a small Southern town. But when the movie came out, nobody wanted to see it? Who knows what makes a success. Maybe it's the music. I thought the music they put into 'Miss Firecracker' was appalling."

Now he's playing a man trying to get into heaven, which is in some sense a comedown from his first role. When he was in grade school, he went on stage in a school production. He played St. Peter!

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