A moment earlier he was calmly describing his open-door relationship with stunning actress Stacey Pickren, the woman he loves and has been with for the past three-and-a-half years. He was recognizing that he is, as he always has been, hopelessly love prone--willing to fall in love, but wary of being owned by love. "I think Stacey is a wonderful person, and I'm delighted to be with her," he remarks.
Storm clouds first steal across Jon's face when I question him about the success of his open relationship. "I think that once you say everything is wide open, you're going to get into a little difficulty," he suggests. "But if that's what you have to do, that's what you have to do." Honesty comes easily--almost compulsively--to Jon Voight. Conning himself or others is not the bag of this wise, witty, and uncommonly insightful superstar who reclaimed the dizzying promise of Midnight Cowboy with his mesmerizing comeback performance in Coming Home.
Winner of the prestigious New York Film Critics Award, The Golden Globe, numerous foreign awards, and by now maybe even the Oscar for Coming Home. Jon extends his new screen eminence with The Champ. Portraying the sympathetic boxer, Jon makes this a tearjerker to remember. Love is mainly responsible for making Jon the happy, unaffected man he is today. His love of acting compels him to great performances. He love of his woman, Stacey, makes him a complete human being. "I believe I have a lot of affection and a lot of love for an awful lot of people," Jon muses. "I believe I can fall in love with quite a lot of people. And I have certain respect for my responsibilities."
This includes devotion to his two adored children by his previous marriage, five-year-old son Jamie and three-year-old daughter Angelina. When Jon married the children's mother, Marcheline, in December, 1971, it seemed a marriage made in heaven. The handsome couple were always seen in public together; he always mentioned her during interviews, she always appeared in photos with him. Something, however, went wrong, and Jon hopes to learn from that. "It means that I'm trying to make it work with Stacey," he says. "I'm focusing on her. If she need somebody (i.e. somebody else) or I need somebody along the line, I can't say well that's lousy, and it hurts me so deeply I would leave you forever--although I may do that.
"But she's free to do what she wants to do," he continues, "and I'm free to do what I want to do. There are no rules, and there's no mortal sin as far as that's concerned. No great sin that can't be looked at and understood. If someone needs something, someone should be allowed to have it, as far as I'm concerned." Ironically, it is just after Jon delivers that personal proclamation of emancipation that he confesses about his personal battle against jealousy. He gives the impression of fighting it like some men fight alcoholism or drug addiction!
Shakespeare's tragic Othello, a man done in by jealousy, is Jon's favorite symbol. He makes no pretense of being impervious to the wounds of the green-eyed monster. "I can't handle the pain," Jon exclaims. "I'm trying to work it out. I don't want Othello to be taking over my personality, you understand. I'm trying to live with the aspects of myself that I think are more valuable." Jon deserts the overstuffed swivel chair he is sitting in behind a huge oak desk. We are in his new office on the bustling MGM lot in Culver City. It's the first office he ever had, and he savors it--and what it represents--with boyish enthusiasm. He talks more comfortably sitting on the sofa, with less distance between us, and between him and his tuna lunch. Jon was heavier for The Champ, but now he is back to his slim fighting weight. It's hard to believe he's 40. He looks fit as can be, his six-foot-three frame trimly encased in a dark blue shirt and light blue jeans, neither of which dulls the luminous blue of those eyes.
"It's terrific," Jon marvels over his first office. "Kathleen (a pretty Irish colleen who's devoted to her good-looking boss) is not my first secretary. She's the only one I've ever had that was mine, that I didn't share with other people, and she is a tremendous help to me. An angel from God was sent to me." He pauses but quickly interjects: "Not being a religious man, I don't know exactly what I'm saying." Considering Jon's background, that's a strange thing for him to say. Jon, the son of Elmer and Barbara Voight, was raised in a Catholic household. His father, a golf pro, died in an automobile accident several years ago. He was in his sixties, and if Jon thanks God for anything, it is that his father lived long enough for Jon to know and cherish him through childhood and into maturity. Jon's mother, Barbara, is alive and well and vibrant.
Jon had every oppurtunity of becoming a doctrinaire Catholic. He attended Archbishop Stepimac High School in his native Yonkers, New York, and went on to Catholic University in Washington, D. C. He had diplomas in Catholicism, you might say, but somehow it didn't stick. Jon has left the Church, but not in bitterness or angry renunciation. Today, he avows to be totally non-denominational. "I wouldn't be able to describe me in any other way," he says. "I don't know what the hell I am, but I'm on my way to finding out!" Concerning religion, Jon's motivation seems akin to his approach to love, to his insistence that he be loved without being owned.
"This horrible thing," Jon remarks, "of telling a child that only people who are members of the Church are going to go to heaven! I would say, 'Well, that means all my buddies, who are Protestants and all those other people, are going to go to hell'. What a terrible thing to walk around with as a kid. I was always trying to be a liaison between the attitudes I was being taught by the Church and my buddies. I would say, 'Well, you don't have to take it that seriously.'"
So Jon Voight appears to have made his peace with himself, even if he isn't religious anymore. "I got a lot of information from the Church," he concedes. "I got a lot of spiritual input that I still think is valuable. I have more respect for the things that are turning around inside me." Whatever may lie ahead, he is prisoner of the need to chart his own course--prisoner, contradiction though it may be, of his obsession with freedom. "I have to find out about my own weaknesses and my experiences," Jon insists. "No one can protect me from hurting other people or from being hurt, or from doing things that I think are difficult to live with. Dogma can destroy people just as easily as anything else."
There may be an inherent dogma in marriage that scares Jon off. He waxes lyrical about the ideals of marriage, but seems to tremble at the thought of falling captive to it once more. He will admit that he felt "a little locked in" in the two marriages which didn't last, the first when he was "a young 20," the second to Marcheline. On the other hand, Jon Voight simply can't bring himself to badmouth marriage. He says anyone who represents him as soured on marriage is coming down with a "lousy approximation" of his views.
"Those would never be my words," Jon proclaims. "The idea of two people getting together and making a commitment, if they can get there, I think it's very beautiful. It's very touching--always. It's the reason we cry at weddings, because what we're doing, in a sense, is saying something that's impossible. Marriage is wonderful," Jon goes on, "because people say I love you forever. It's a magnificent statement, and so courageous and powerful and beautiful; and I'm very moved by it. I'm glad people attempt it."
Glad other people attempt it, apparently. I ask Jon about the likelihood of his making still another attempt at marriage, since he's plainly in love with Stacey. Jon doesn't like being put on the spot like this, but answers by reciting some passages from a James Taylor song. They echo Jon's feeling that love is now, and is not to burdened with promises for the future. "I take it one day at a time," he says. "I'm trying right now to be less possesive of the things I love and people in my life--and with my children, too." Some people have plaques hanging on their walls--especially the walls of their first office--or maybe autographed pictures with fellow celebrities. Jon has his own momento in his office: It is the wheelchair he rode back to stardom as Jane Fonda's paraplegic lover in Coming Home.
He'd planned to give the chair to Lou Carillo, a real paraplegic who appeared in the film with him. When the time came, Jon just couldn't give it up; it had become a sentimental reminder of the film and the courageous people who lived confined to a wheelchair. Happily, the film studio kept Jon's promise by buying Carillo a brand-new chair. Jon still keeps up his friendship with the real paraplegics he met while doing Coming Home. He becomes chairbound again when he visits with them and they play basketball. "On an eye-to-eye level." Jon says with a touch of pride. Then he recalls wryly what they tell him: "Yeah, you're just like us--except that you can get up and walk away."
Jon is visibly touched when he repeats these words. He truly cares for--even loves--these men who showed him a new meaning to life. I think of his earlier words, that he could love many people. It's really true: Jon Voight is one person who cares about absolutely everybody.