Michael O'Keefe -- today's darling of the media

Is this year's new superstar Michael O'Keefe? Every now and then in the entertainment world there is one talented actor who seemingly strikes the fancy of major critics, producers, casting directors, and audiences all at once. He (or she) becomes the year's most-wanted talent for just about every worthwhile project produced for which the performer might conceivably be cast. In recent years it has been Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Michael Moriarty, Robert DeNiro, John Voight, Meryl Streep.

This year the chosen one seems to be Michael O'Keefe.

Michael is a young actor you may have seen in the movies in "Grey Lady Down," "The Great Santini" ("The Ace" on Home Box Office and Other pay-TV systems) and in "Caddyshack." On TV you may have spotted him in a Bette Davis miniseries a few years back called "Harvest Home," or as a guest on many series. Off Broadway, he did "An American Tragedy," and "Moliere in Spite of Himself" several years ago.

If you still don't remember him, chances are you will after viewing him ("A Rumor of War," CBS, Wednesday and Thursday, 9-11 p.m.) in the TV version of Philip Caputo's best-selling book, in which he plays a US marine, costarring with Brad Davis as Caputo.

It is a shockingly truthful and compassionate examination of America's -- and a few Americans' -- part in the Vietnam war. But it is such a universal story that viewers will feel they are watching the story of any war, even though many have come to feel that the Vietnam war was somehow "different." This gripping drama is a fitting and thoroughly effective TV companionpiece to the recent "Friendly Fire."

Now, lunching with me in a seafood restaurant, the young Michael (who has allowed his closely-cropped-for-the-part hair to grow out) looks very much like the young people of my own World War II generation, dressed in the currently popular 1980 version of "classic" casual clothes -- white buck shoes, blue corduroy trouser, dark blue denim leisure jacket. Missing only is a button-down shirt.

even though he is too young to have joined the Vietnam protest demonstrations , Michael makes it clear he would not have been inclined to take part during his teen years.

"I was i high school [in a wealthy New York City suburb] being a kid. I missed the draft by one year. I stayed in high school and I was very unaware politically. At the time I thought the demonstrators were idealistic and I was willing to accept the status quo. The war was nothing more than something I saw on television. I was being geared for a very conservative role at the time and I was falling for it.

"Then I got to college [New York University] and I became more aware of what the situation was politically -- and morally and ethically. My opinion really changed to the idea that it was an immoral war and it was unrealistic for us to be there."

Would Michael have gone if he had been called up in the draft?

"No, not at the point when I would have been asked to go. At first, when it was not realistic for me, I would have said yes. But as I got more informed, I would probably have said no. I think I would have been a conscientious objector. I would probably have thought about going to jail. But I wouldn't have fled to Canada. That's my own idealistic sense."

Michael is convinced that the strength of "Rumor" is that "it doesn't really judge the war. It's really the story of what happened to Caputo. It's all more or less true. He was a fiercely American youth who was very idealistic about supporting his country and making his mark in his generation. But when he got to Vietnam he found it to be quite a contradiction. Then he broke and was charged with murder by the South Vietnam government -- that whole 'savage is loose' sort of thing really happened to him.

"It was almost universal, though, for anyone involved in combat. It's interesting, isn't it, that the Marines would cooperate with a piece like this? Maybe that says something about how the military is coming to recognize the realities of war."

Michael not only seems to recognize the realities of war, but he is very aware of the realities of his own profession. He knows that while this season he is the "in" actor, not every season may be as good. "In just about every Broadway or Off-Broadway show that has a role for young man anywhere from 18 to 26, I'm being considered. He grins. "That's nice for a change. . . and it is a change. I've been acting for a long time. Now I'm making more money than I ever have before -- but nothing unreasonable. It's more important for me to work than it is to make money anyway. I'm not that interested in money."

Money certainly doesn't seem ot have affected his life style very much -- Michael is still "camping out" with friends, still dosn't have a home of his own as he moves from West to East coast for jobs.

Would he be tempted more by a play, a movie, a television special, a TV series?

"At this point I would ignore an offer for a TV series, but a TV special, miniseries film, or play I would consider on its merits. WhatI am interested in as an actor is a role that will keep me in a progressive frame of mind. Whichever role is more challenging, more of a stretch -- that's the role I would choose. But I wouldn't want to get caught in a TV series playing the same role week in and week out at this point in my career."

Is there one special role he would like to play in theater?Hamlet, say? We both laugh and he nods his head.

"Sure, Hamlet. I've been working on Hamlet for three years and I finally feel qualified to make a bash at it and see what happens. Most actors get to a point where they refine themselves enough or tune themselves enough to be able to handle most of the classical roles. Those kind of roles are always challenges -- it's almost impossible to fulfill all of the demands of a role like that. There are very few actors who can -- maybe one or two in a generation. I hope eventually to be one, too. I feel like I could make a good try at anything right now."

He makes the gesture of feeling his own biceps, laughing just a bit embarrassedly at the confidence which he realizes he is exuding.

"Look, I know that when you step into those roles you're inviting disaster as far as any kind of critical acclaim is concerned. But I'm willing to risk it. I take the critics with a grain of salt. When I did 'American Tragedy' a lot of the reviews were nice. The reviewers who didn't like it, didn't like it because they wanted to see Montgomery Clift come back to life and relive that wonderful film experience which you can't have on stage. When they criticized my performance, they said I could never be Montgomery Clift.

"When 'Santini' was released, Rex Reed said I was the best young actor to emerge from obscurity since Montgomery Clift. So on the one hand it's a low-key insult and on the other hand it's an incredible compliment, depending on how you look at it. That's why I shrug it all off." He shrugs it all off.

Why is Michael so set against TV series?

"It's difficult to do of work of any real depth in a TV series because of the time factor. If you're in a dramatic series you've got to bring in 10 or 12 pages of work a day, and you exhaust the character. . . but it's not fair of me to be too critical because to be realistic, if I get to a position where I need a TV series, I would take one. Right now that's not important to me, so I can afford to be a little critical. . ." He laughs at his own obvious compromises.

Is Michael recognized on the streets of New York as a star?

"Recently I was walking with my sister on Central Park South in front of Essex House where one of the stars of "Dallas" was staying, and there was a throng of people waiting for her. I was recognized and mobbed, people asking for authographs, taking snapshots, etc. People told me "I've enjoyed your last two pictures, Mr. O'Keefe." Well, those were really my only two films, but they said it as if they'd known me for 50 years."

Michael wants to make certain the interviewer understands he is aware of what is happening to him and has it all in perspective. . . but the interviewer has already reached that conclusion himself.

"But I want you to know I'm well aware of the rarity and extreme good fortune involved in all this. However, I've always believed in making my own 'luck,' even though I know that it's been fortunate circumstance that these films came out at the same time. I may do a show at the same time, too. All three media at the same time! It's something most actors dream about. I realize it's all got to taper off in the near future. But I'm willing to enjoy it while it lasts. I'm much more interested in process than in goal. I don't want to 'arrive' yet."

Meantime, as Michael figuratively juggles his multimedia carrer, he physically juggles for discipline and relaxation.

"In the Moliere play I played a juggler and I learned how to juggle. Since that time I've developed to the point where I can teach juggling. It's become a physical and mental discipline. It helps my concentration and keeps me in shape.I use it as a dance form. I juggle balls, clubs, torches, rings -- anything I can get my hands on.

"For me it is just another way as an actor, just another dimension."

Michael O'Keefe doesn't consider himself a political person, even though "A Rumor of War" concerns the politics of war.

"I think of myself as an actor first. If I had been born five years earlier, I could have been very radical. If I had been born five years late, I could have been very gung-ho American because of this hostage situation. I think a lot of people five years younger than me are redy to nuke Iran. I was too late for the radicalism of the '60s (I was 14 in 1969) and too old for the nationalim that's hitting now. So I'm kind of in limbo as far as causes are concerned.

"But I think I understand America. I'm a product of it. I think I know where America lies."

If America is still the land of opportunity it has been in the past, certainly Michael O'Keefe has a great American future ahead of him.

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