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Grumpy.

Gruff.

Intimidating.

Irascible.

Ornery.

Prickly.

These are among the words that journalists frequently use following an encounter with Tommy Lee Jones. He's as no-nonsense as they come, and doesn't suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. As Sam Gerard, the U.S. Marshal hunting Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, Jones famously replied, "I don't care," after Ford proclaimed his innocence. Jones may care, but not about the artificial niceties of show business. A typical question and answer session with the actor elicits some unusually blunt responses.

How many horses does he own?

"I just don't look upon that as any of your business."

What kind of English did he major in at Harvard?

"The kind we're using now," he snorts.

Somehow, such borderline rudeness only helps make Jones more likeable, even as he scares the hell out of you.

"I think part of his appeal is simply because of the name," says Oliver Stone who has directed Jones three times. "Tommy Lee Jones. It tells you right off the bat the guy is a Southerner, that he's authentic."

Jones' authenticity is the one constant in a career that sputtered for years with too many roles in too many unmemorable vehicles until his portrayal of the relentless marshal in The Fugitive put him on the A list. 

Both his appearance and personality suggest a man who is not a stranger to hard times. Born in San Saba, Texas on September 15, 1946, Jones' father worked in the oil fields. His mother was a beautician, and, later a teacher. A younger brother died in infancy, and his parents would divorce and eventually remarry. The instability of Jones' youth wasn't eased by his parents' personal habits. 

"Both my mother and my father used to go to honky-tonk bars to do what everybody in that part of Texas did - drink," he remembered. "I'd wait for them outside in the car, alone. I remember hearing music and singing coming through the walls of the saloon to me in the car. I remember lying there, just waiting, just waiting, alone."

If it was a tough way for a kid to grow up, Jones doesn't acknowledge it.

"You are going to grow up whether you want to or not," he told a reporter. "It requires no effort."

His original ambition was to play football, and it was on a sports scholarship that he was able to attend the prestigious St. Mark's boarding school. Having come from an environment where, he admits, "it wasn't unusual to settle one's conflicts with physical violence," Jones had to adapt. "At St. Marks, one was expected to be a gentleman," he said. "I was in a different world."

His interest in acting began when he wandered into the school's drama workshop. Observing the preparations for a play, Jones "thought that looked like a lot of fun...I auditioned for the next play, and I've been doing plays, and movies, ever since."

After completing his education at St. Marks, he won a scholarship to Harvard where he majored in English literature, an interest he developed shortly before his involvement in theater. During his second year there, he roomed with future vice president Al Gore, and the two remain friends to this day.

Pursuing acting jobs in New York, he learned that Paramount was looking to cast the role of a Harvard football player in their production of Erich Segal's novella, Love Story. Initially rejected for the part, Jones called "an old Harvard guy" with ties to the studio. Jones was called in to audition and "I got the job and a union card."

When released for Christmas 1970, Love Story, advertised with the tagline, "Love means never having to say you're sorry," was a phenomenon that broke box-office records and saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. The attention, however, was almost exclusively placed on the film's glamorous stars, Ryan O' Neal and Ali MacGraw, and Jones was barely noticed.

Now settled in the Big Apple, acting roles continued to come along. There was a four year stint on the daytime drama One Life to Live, as well as roles on Broadway and off-Broadway. It was not a good time for live theater, however. It was, Jones recalled, "going through a phase of decay," so he moved to Los Angeles where he appeared in the pilot episode of Charlie's Angels and the 1976 Roger Corman quickie, Jackson County Jail. "It was a neat little film," Jones remembers.   

The big break came with the 1977 CBS mini-series, The Amazing Howard Hughes.

"Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly fine," DVD Verdict wrote when reviewing a recent reissue of the production, "able to assay the tricky transition from youthful to mature Hughes with body language and vocal modulation."

Airing only one year after the notoriously reclusive billionaire's death, curiosity about seeing a depiction of Hughes' considerable eccentricities may have overshadowed interest in Jones' excellent performance. Instead of moving on to equally challenging roles, Jones' resume for the next decade would be populated by such under the radar titles as The Eyes of Laura Mars, Rolling Thunder, Firebirds, and The River Rats, although in The Betsy, an adaptation of a Harold Robbins novel, he was in fine company, acting alongside Robert Duvall and Sir Laurence Olivier.

He was superb as the husband of Loretta Lynn who guides her to country stardom in Coal Miner's Daughter but it was Sissy Spacek who won the Oscar and the lion's share of praise.

Television proved his salvation once again when he was cast in the lead role of the 1982 mini-series based on Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize winning The Executioner's Song. As Gary Gilmore, the death row inmate who generated headlines when he insisted his death sentence be carried out, Jones won an Emmy. The role may have also helped stereotype him as a specialist in villainy, a notion he does not take to very kindly.

"Villains?" he once snarled to The New York Times. "I don't play just villains. I like to have parts that are not simply villains. And I find this entire subject, you know, just very uncomfortable and borderline stupid."

In 1985, Jones was a superb Brick in a television version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Jessica Lange as Maggie. He was still active on the big screen, but how many people saw or remember Yuri Nosenko, KGB, The Park Is Mine, or April Morning?

Almost everyone remembers Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurty's epic novel began as a 1970's film script for a western that would star John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. In 1988, it became the most watched mini-series in television history when it aired on CBS. Of his character, Captain Woodrow Call, Jones said, "He believes in the great struggle between good and evil, and he's on the side of the good, wants the world to be good, has an idea of what a fine place the world could be if people would just act right. Not everybody does, and those are the people that he wants to talk to."

The Package disappeared from theaters almost as soon as it arrived in 1989, but the thriller, which The Washington Post's Rita Kempley praised as "the best in mindless entertainment," was significant as the first of Jones' collaborations with director Andrew Davis.

Oliver Stone's J.F.K. was more than a movie. It was a bonafide media event when released in December 1991. The film, which Roger Ebert found "hypnotically watchable," questioned the Warren Commission's official report that concluded a lone gunman was behind the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Those attempting to discredit Stone's thesis pointed to the film's reliance on evidence uncovered through the investigation of former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison whom the media dismissed as a crackpot. Cast as Clay Shaw, the shady New Orleans businessman whom Garrison brought to trial on conspiracy charges, Jones interviewed the former D.A. for six hours.


"By the end of the six hours," he said, "I was convinced he was right." As for Garrison being a discredited figure, Jones asks, "By whom? I mean, how did that get established? Why, all that means is that there were a lot of negative headlines in the newspapers, and that's not reality, now is it?"
 
J.F.K. was another turning point in Jones' career. He would earn his first Oscar nomination, this one as best supporting actor.
 
The following summer, Jones was back, once more as a villain. Under Siege was unique for a film starring Steven Seagal. It earned rave reviews, even finding its way onto many critics' ten best lists. Set on a ship taken over by terrorists, the film, Jones' second with director Andrew Davis, became a showcase for Jones' particularly nasty and deranged villain whom the actor patterned on rock star Alice Cooper.
 
"It's Jones who walks away with the best lines and the most vivid performance," wrote Richard Harrington in The Washington Post, "as an unrepentant '60s radical and renegade CIA killer whose cannons have been loose on the deck for a long time." Entertainment Weekly gave the credit for the film's success to Jones' "rhinestone nuclear cowboy with a vision of new world disorder." 
 
"I liked Under Siege," Jones told Roger Ebert. "I thought it was a lot of fun. I thought it was pretty too. I liked all that blue and red. I liked the boat. I just like it. I thought it was cool."
 
The Fugitive was cooler still. Based on the long running '60s TV show in which David Janssen's Dr. Richard Kimble is falsely convicted of murdering his wife and is hunted by a Javert-like marshal upon his escape from prison, the big-screen reinvention took everyone by surprise when released in August 1993. This was no brainless action movie trading on nostalgic memories of a popular TV show. As Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "It's something cannier (and rarer): a suspense thriller rooted in character."
 
With Harrison Ford as Kimble, Jones, working for a third time with director Andrew Davis, had a role that might have been tailor-made for him. U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard is coldly efficient but with an almost mad obsession about doing his job right. When he learns that his prey is innocent, he is equally dedicated to protecting him.
 
The Fugitive began shooting without a completed script and the actors frequently wrote their own dialogue. As Jones said of director Davis, "working with Andy is a continual process of coming up with desperate, last minute solutions to impossible problems."
 
 The Fugitive earned rave reviews, seven Oscar nominations, and won the best supporting actor prize for Jones. At age 46, Jones was no longer just a "name." He was a star.
 
In 1994, he was also one of the most ubiquitous actors, appearing in no less than five films. He was an Irish terrorist in Blown Away, a deranged prison warden in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, Jessica Lange's husband in Blue Sky (filmed in '91), a district attorney in The Client, and baseball legend Ty Cobb in Cobb.
 
The following year he made his directorial debut with the made for cable western, The Good Old Boys which he also co-wrote and starred in. "By right," Jonathan Taylor wrote in Variety, "it should be an indulgent and self-conscious effort; instead, it's a work of uncommon charm and poignance."
 
Reflecting on the early days of his career, Jones said, "I was told two or three times a year that, yes, I was the right actor for a role, but I wasn't famous enough. If I wanted my creative life to grow, the marketplace was telling me I needed to be more famous."
 
After his Oscar victory, Jones signed on for several projects that increased his visibility more than they expanded his talent. He took top billing in Volcano, a lame-brained disaster epic, and hammed it up as Two Face alongside Jim Carrey's Riddler in 1995's Batman Forever. He also reprised his Oscar winning role of Gerard in 1998's U.S. Marshals, a rambling potboiler that, as Emanuel Levy observed in Variety, "outdoes The Fugitive only in running time, beating the 1993 pic by six minutes, and overextending its welcome by at least 15."
 
Superior in every respect was 1997's Men in Black, a loony action-comedy in which Jones and Will Smith play shades-wearing agents dedicated to stamping out invaders from other planets. Jones, who once said "I do not have a sense of humor of any recognizable sort," held his own with Smith. In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, "This is Jones at his best: terse, coiled, fiercely funny. Instead of competing, Jones complements Smith's endearing sass with his own distinctively witty growl."
 
In 2002, he would rejoin Smith for Men in Black II. In 2005, he would return to directing with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for which he would co-write the screenplay and win the Cannes Film Festival award as best actor. Somewhat reminiscent of the films of Sam Peckinpah, Jones cast himself as a Texas rancher who takes the corpse of his friend across Texas to see that he gets a decent burial. Since the friend is a Mexican immigrant killed by a deputy, some critics felt Jones was making a political statement about America's immigration policies. In his characteristically terse style, Jones simply said, "I prefer to let the movie speak for itself." 
 
Like his Oscar winning Crash, Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah divided the critics. To Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, the film was "haunting, heart piercing" and "essential" while Richard Schickel in Time found it a "sad, subtle, and very good movie..." To Stephanie Zacharek at Salon.com, however, the film "goes down like medicine...It feels like a movie in search of prestige, not truth."
 
But there was no disagreement about Jones' portrayal of a man investigating his son's disappearance in Iraq. "Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah is built on Tommy Lee Jones' performance," Roger Ebert wrote, "and that's why it works so well...I have been trying to think who else could have carried this picture except Tommy Lee Jones, and I just can't do it." In The New Yorker, David Denby hailed Jones for a "great, selfless, and heartbreaking performance that completely dominates this elusive but powerful movie."
 
His peers were also impressed and he was Oscar nominated as Best Actor for his performance in the same year that another film in which he starred won Best Picture. No Country for Old Men left some viewers cold, but Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel would be their biggest box-office hit to date. Although Javier Bardem's colorful villain won the lion's share of praise, Jones' weary sheriff gives the film its soul. Co-director Joel Coen cast Jones because he understood the region where the film was set. Initially, Jones balked at playing another lawman, but was won over by the chance to utter McCarthy's dialogue.
 
"Cormac's language is perfect," he says. "He is in my view the greatest living American prose stylist."
 
In retrospect, it's not surprising that Tommy Lee Jones achieved genuine stardom only in middle age. Like Bogart, who had seen his fortieth birthday before his name appeared above the title, Jones has a blunt, get-to-the-point manner that can seem too arrogant in a younger man. With age, however, we feel a man has earned the right to be grumpy, gruff, and irascible. In his review of In the Valley of Elah, Roger Ebert wondered what made Jones such a great actor: "Look at the lines around his eyes. He looks concerned, under pressure from himself, a man who has felt pain. Look at his face. It seems to conceal hurtful emotion. He doesn't smile a lot, but when he does, it's like clouds are lifting. Listen to his voice, filled with authority and hard experience. Notice when he speaks that he passes out words as if they were money he can't afford." Somehow, on screen, we sense that Tommy Lee Jones has earned the right to be bluntly honest, even if his manner suggests rudeness. We sense that he'll tell us the truth. We usually like him, but even when we don't, we know he's a man we can trust.

--by Brian W. Fairbanks



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