CENTURY CITY, CALIF. — Photos of Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King hang in Jon Voight's living room, to remind him, he says, of a simple truth: "If people of that stature couldn't finish the work that needs to be done, then who are we?"
While humility and Hollywood may seem incompatible, a sense of one's place in the larger scheme of things permeates the career of Voight, a man who made a big first impression with moviegoers 30 years ago with his Oscar-nominated performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy." He went on to acclaim for his role as a socially conscious paraplegic in "Coming Home" and as a stricken city dweller in "Deliverance."
After decades of roles, recently including a snake hunter in "Anaconda" and a traitorous spy in "Mission Impossible," the lanky blond actor with a hint of the cherub in his cheeks has shepherded his latest project to the screen. "A Dog of Flanders" is about a boy and his dog in the birthplace of the great artist Peter Paul Rubens.
Based on the classic children's novel, the story follows an orphaned child's ambition to become a great artist - despite poverty and illiteracy.
"One of the main messages of this story," Voight says, "is 'Don't give up, no matter what the situation looks like.' " After having made more than 40 films, the actor can relate. "You're going to make mistakes in a career. I still make them every day," he says, laughing.
"But the point is, we all have to face the moment of choice. People always have the option to just cut out. We wanted to show why it's so important to hang in there. You have to realize that you're put here for a reason. You might not know every minute what that reason is, but there's a point to your life, and you have to hang in there and keep pursuing it, no matter what."
The son of a Czech-American golf pro, Voight studied to be a painter. After finishing college with a degree in fine arts, he landed in New York to study acting. "I think you have to see what you are suited for and try to combine that with what comes from your heart," he says, describing how he made the transition from painting to acting.
Voight "is a very spiritual man," says Frank Yablans, a longtime movie producer and former president of Paramount Pictures. Yablans, who oversaw such films as "The Godfather" and "Chinatown," says he brought "A Dog of Flanders" to Voight because of the actor's sensitivity and intelligence.
Voight, who recently portrayed the biblical Noah on television, has immersed himself in social causes, such as rescuing children from the area around the Chernobyl nuclear accident. He says it takes more than ambition to create a meaningful life. He holds dear an Indian saying: "Strive, strive, strive, and behold." While often you won't know which direction the forces around you are moving, he says, "you need to stay the course. You never know what you do that might be important to someone else."
Indeed, Voight's character in "Flanders" serves as a mentor and father figure to the boy in the film, with unforeseen consequences. "We wanted to deal with serious issues that families raising children need to think about," he says, concerns such as what is a life well-lived. "Love is the deep ingredient," Voight says. "Unselfish love that's coming from a healthy source, that's the polestar."
Home is the crucible of that force. "Mothers are the true Renaissance person in our culture today," he says.
"A Dog of Flanders" has been served up on the silver screen several times, but the filmmakers felt it was time to dig beneath the surface of the classic tale.
"Integrity is ultimately the only characteristic that will overcome adversity," producer Yablans says. "The film is a celebration of the fact that if you keep the faith, and if you have strong moral character, you can overcome any disadvantages that may come because of birth, race, color, or ethnicity."
Besides, says Voight with a quick smile, "every film based on this book has been successful."
The film, which opens nationwide today, already has garnered the Bronze Gryphon Award at the recent Giffoni Film Festival in Italy, which focuses on family films.
"It's very unusual when you have a project that has something to recommend it," says Voight, indulging in a satisfied grin. "This film does, for me, for the entire family."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society