Actor Michael O'Keefe shares a sense of commitment with character he plays

January 12, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Michael O'Keefe has told it to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

Now the actor -- who has appeared in the uniforms of all four branches of the Armed Forces -- is back in uniform again as Lt. (jg.) Daniel A. Kaffee, the starring role in Aaron Sorkin's "A Few Good Men," which begins a one-month run at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday.

O'Keefe is probably best known as a military brat -- the sensitive son of Marine bully Robert Duvall in "The Great Santini." But he's also been in the Marines in "A Rumor of War," in the Army in "Streamers," in the Navy in "Gray Lady Down" and in the Air Force in "Disaster at Silo Seven."

In "A Few Good Men," however, the 36-year-old actor can relate )) to a lot more than just his character's uniform. Kaffee is a Navy lawyer appointed to represent two Marines accused of murder. Coincidentally, the role that brought O'Keefe the most widespread recent attention was that of a defense attorney in the Fox television series "Against the Law." Nor does it hurt that, in real life, O'Keefe comes from a family of lawyers.

"I've done so much research in the past about military behavior and responsibilities and also legal responsibilities, that I'm probably better off than most actors would be from the start," O'Keefe acknowledged over the phone from New York during a break in rehearsals.

But while these factors may make O'Keefe well-suited to the role on the surface, director Don Scardino says the actor's sense of commitment is the strongest trait he shares with Kaffee. In fact, O'Keefe was the director's first choice from the beginning -- back when "A Few Good Men" began its 18-month Broadway run in 1989.

At the time, however, Scardino says the producers felt they needed "a higher voltage star." The role went to Tom Hulce instead; Tom Cruise will play it in the movie, which is currently being shot by Tri-Star.

In the meantime, O'Keefe gained a higher profile -- largely due to the 1990 Fox series -- and the traits that originally attracted Scardino have, if anything, been enhanced.

"Michael has those two basic qualities that make the role of Kaffee really sing: He's got a wicked sense of humor, and he's got this passionate commitment to the truth, which is the journey that our central character takes," explains the director, who has known O'Keefe since they were both actors auditioning for the same roles some 20 years ago.

As an example, Scardino mentions the time he directed O'Keefe an episode of "Against the Law": "I found him to be the most deeply committed person on the television series. He was more involved than the producers, more involved than the writers in making sure that the episodes really told the truth."

O'Keefe's sense of commitment also carries over to his offstage life, much of which he devotes to advocacy for the homeless. A Zen Buddhist, he first became concerned with the plight of the homeless six years ago when he attended a retreat at the Greyston Family Inn in Yonkers, N.Y., a homeless center founded by the monk with whom he studies.

The actor also met his wife -- singer Bonnie Raitt, whom he married in April -- through his work for the homeless. Despite their shared commitment to social causes, Raitt was reportedly hesitant to commit to marriage. To help win her over, O'Keefe -- who is a published poet -- wrote a poem that subsequently became the lyric for the song, "One Part Be My Lover," on her latest album, "Luck of the Draw."

Knowing what he wants is nothing new for O'Keefe, who says he can't remember not wanting to be an actor. The oldest of seven children of a Larchmont, N.Y., lawyer, he began appearing in television commercials and off-Broadway showcase productions while still in his teens.

As an undergraduate at New York University, he was cast in a small part in a play called "Killdeer" at the Public Theatre; he

promptly dropped out of college. His parents, he recalls, "took it the way parents always take it -- they were upset."

He also became very involved with a small theater called the Colonnades Theatre Lab, where his fellow actors included Jeff Goldblum, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. Then came "The Great Santini." His parents stopped being upset, he says, "right around the time I got nominated for an Academy Award."

O'Keefe didn't win the award, but the movie still brought him a host of TV, stage and film work -- ranging from the role of a caddie in "Caddyshack" to the young seminarian in the Broadway production of "Mass Appeal." For a while, he seemed to be the hot young actor. But interest in him dropped sharply in 1985 when he starred in a $20 million debacle for Columbia Pictures called "The Slugger's Wife."

He blames the movie's difficulties partly on a switch in studio heads. But whatever the source of the problems, the outcome was that "We were designated as kind of the failure of the month, and when that kind of thing happens, Hollywood begins to take a second look at whether they want to be associated with [your] name."

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