Which is just what Voight does in the NBC miniseries Noah's Ark, donning a long-haired wig and sandals to rescue God's good creatures, two by two, during the time of the great flood. With the help of Jewish scholars, he spent months researching the role. "Acting makes you a bit of a detective," Voight says, "and I did a lot of digging into the Bible." Not that he needed to. "He is a paternal figure, so playing God's chosen one fit him perfectly," says costar F. Murray Abraham, who plays Lot.
The paternalism derives in part from Voight's deep affection for his son, writer-director James Haven Voight, 25, and daughter, actress Angelina Jolie, 23, both with his second wife, former actress Marcheline Bertrand. (They divorced in 1979 after eight years. Voight was wed to actress Lauri Peters from 1962 to 1967.) He even likes the fact that Jolie, the star of the 1998 HBO film Gia and this year's Playing by Heart, dropped "Voight" from her name to make sure it didn't boost her career. "Since she was a baby she wouldn't let you help her, even with her ABC's," he says. "She'd say, 'No! I do it. I do it.' That's the way she is."
Voight's own childhood was spent in Yonkers, a New York City suburb, where he grew up the son of professional golfer Elmer Voight and his homemaker wife, Barbara. At Archbishop Stepinac High School, young Jon was equally at home with a sketch pad or nine iron. "He could have been a golf pro, or even an artist," recalls older brother Barry, 61, a geoscience professor at Penn State. (Younger brother James, 59, a pop songwriter, penned the hits Wild Thing and Angel of the Morning under the name Chip Taylor.) "He was the guy everyone called on to do all the serious drawings for the school yearbook, cartoons, even sets for the plays."
But graphic skills took a backseat to Voight's showbiz ambitions. Following graduation from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1960, Voight moved to New York City, studied acting and landed minor roles in plays, films and television. His breakthrough came in 1967 when, after reading the novel Midnight Cowboy, he called his pal Dustin Hoffman and suggested that Hoffman would be perfect as the con-man protagonist, Ratzo Rizzo. Though Voight auditioned for the role of Joe Buck, the naive young hustler, he didn't get the part. At least not at first. When the chosen actor dropped out, Voight got the nod--and the role that launched his career. "I am still very impressed with that work; it stands the test of time," he says. "The high-water mark of my career."
Hoffman credits much of the film's success to Voight's keen sense of humor and compares their give-an-take as two losers to a George Burns and Gracie Allen routine. "For us, it had an element of vaudeville," says Hoffman.
Voight went on to make Catch-22, Delieverance, Conrack, and The Odessa File before his Oscar winning turn (opposite Jane Fonda) as a paralyzed Vietnam vet in 1978's Coming Home. His next Academy nomination came for his portrayal of the escaped convict Manny in 1985's Runaway Train. It was a part he at first thought was all wrong for him, even telling director Andrei Knochalovsky, "I cannot do heavies." Konchalovsky won Voight over by insisting that actors who play against type make the best villians.
And in Voight's case, one of the most complex. "Jon is one of the funnier guys you'll meet," says Matt Damon, his costar in 1997's The Rainmaker. But, Damon adds, "he also wants to talk about serious things and has big human goals in life that transcend what he does for a living." Among Voight's causes: the homeless and the plight of Native Americans. Says his friend Dorothy Paul: "He just wants to fight evil."
The causes he fights for are reflected on the living-room wall of his hillside home in Los Angeles, where photographs of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and the Hindu yogi Paramahansa Yogananda are accorded places of honor. It's a sparsely furnished three-bedroom abode with canyon views. "I've had gal friends come over and say, 'Jon, it's a very nice place, but there is no touch here,'" says Voight. "I'll say, 'Maybe to you, but to me it's cool.'" Which may help explain why there is no special woman in Voight's life at the moment. "I haven't done a lot of dating in the last six years. I kind of put it on the back burner. But you're always searching for the one," he says--preferably one with a sense of humor who likes to read.
Much like his own mother, who died of bone cancer in 1995 at age 85. (His father died at 64 in a 1973 car crash.) It was she who pushed him to keep working as long as possible, he says. "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," he says, sighing, "I feel the same way."