Tom Berenger's prepossessing looks, pronounced musculature, and sympathetic, regular-guy screen presence have given him a steadily ascending reputation as one of Hollywood's most-wanted leading men. Although some of his best performances have been in romantic roles, Berenger says that he prefers "men's movies"--films in which he's armed, dangerous, and wearing a uniform in Platoon, his biggest success, and the newly released Major League.
He echoes this macho swagger in the no-nonsense, sometimes cranky, almost callous way in which he talks about his craft and the film business. Yet his sensitive side emerges when he plays the lover--especially as the married New York cop who, promoted to detective, falls for the beautiful socialite (Mimi Rogers) he is assigned to protect in Someone to Watch Over Me.
The 38-year-old actor is quick to point out that, in addition to his conventional leading-man roles, he has been cast in an impressive array of character parts. In his first film, Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977), he did a chilling turn as a psychotic killer. He played the young Butch Cassidy in Butch and Sundance: The Early Days; a horny Hungarian in In Praise of Older Women; a hermetic mountain man in Shoot to Kill; and a member of a neo-Nazi cult in Betrayed. Berenger is proud of his range and goes so far as to compare himself with stars who are more famous than he. "When I became an actor, "he says, "I wanted to play everything. And now, I'm doing it. Who else is doing this kind of stuff? There's only a couple of us. De Niro plays heavies and Nicholson jumps back and forth. "
Major League is a baseball comedy about a wealthy woman (Margaret Whitton) who inherits the Cleveland Indians--the actual major league team that hasn't won a pennant in 35 years. She packs the team with a bunch of misfits in the hope of defeat so that she can break the stadium contract and move the club to Florida. The players--including Berenger as the dissipated catcher, Charlie Sheen (one of his Platoon costars) on the pitcher's mound, and Corbin Bernsen (of L.A. Law) on third base-hope, of course, for victory. David S. Ward, Major League's writer/director, says it is about "people trying to make the most of a second chance. " For Berenger, the film gave him his first chance to play baseball since high school and marked his debut as a catcher; although he found this hard on his lower back and legs, he enjoyed-characteristically-the locker-room camaraderie of the all-male milieu.
One gets the sense from Berenger, ever the pragmatist, that Major League was just another job for him. It was the fifth in a string of films-made back-to-back during a period of 18 months-which gave him very few days off. "You get to the point where you hate show business. I'm fine when the curtain's up or the camera's rolling, but I get so impatient with all that waiting around. "
The only film experience that he actually speaks of in a passionate tone is Platoon, Oliver Stone's rapturously received grunts-in-Vietnam saga, in which Berenger played the corrupt and brutal Sergeant Barnes, with a horrific scar traversing his face. Before shooting began, Stone had a Vietnam-veteran officer put the cast through a grueling (and highly publicized) two-week boot camp in the Philippines. "The fact that Oliver had it all set up, " says Berenger, "made it definitely different from the other films I've made. The training camp, the isolation, the total lack of distraction--we were in the jungles with no phones, no communication with the outside world. It allowed you to work entirely without interruption. We were forced to live together, and I like that. "
"Tom has the expectations for Platoon that went beyond the imagination of everyone else except Oliver Stone, " says Mark Moses, who played the lily-livered lieutenant and is a friend of Berenger. "It was my first film, and Tom would consistently remind me that opportunities like it were few and far beetween. Most of us thought it would be a cult film, but Tom kept saying it was going to be a huge success. When it happened as he predicted, we were all extremely surprised. He does absolutely thorough research. He read more books about Vietnam than anyone else in the cast. Some of us didn't learn much about it until we got there--he really knew his stuff beforehand. "
If Berenger is dispassionate about most of his work, it perhaps reflects the circumstantial nature of his beginnings as an actor. He was born in Chicago in 1950, and attended the University of Missouri, where he pursued a career in journalism. "I had no desire to be an actor. I wasn't playing sports any more and I was bored and looking for something to do besides study. " During his early twenties, he landed parts in off-off Broadway plays, and won a recurring role on the TV soap opera One Life to Live.
Berenger worked steadily for 10 years, but it wasn't until The Big Chill--renowned for its superb ensemble cast-that audiences really began to take note of him. He was wittily directed by Lawrence Kasdan as the insouciant (if not too bright) Tom Selleck-like TV actor who gets to consummate his love for a former college crush (JoBeth Williams). During the shooting, he met his second wife, Lisa. (His first marriage, from which he has 2 children, Allison, 12, and Patrick, 10) had been painfully dissolved.)
Berenger regrets not spending more time with Lisa and their infant daughters, Chelsea and Chloe, during his recent five-movie workaholic binge. Clearly his growing celebrity is no compensation for missing his family while on location, and he also doesn't disguise his distaste for the trappings of stardom. Major League was shot in Milwaukee during that city's hottest summer on record. Owning to a combination of weight loss and heat exhaustion, Berenger became queasy one night and headed for the trailers. There he met a young man who requested his autograph. "I threw up twice and I had the dry heaves twice, " he recalls. "But he still kept asking for my autograph. He wouldn't quit. It was the most disgusting and insensitive thing I ever saw. Finally, I just told him to get the fuck out of there. You're not paid to sign autographs--you're paid to act. For 10 years nobody asked-occasionally someone would toss a cocktail napkin-but I still worked, I still did my job. Ten years of that and suddenly you're not supposed to do your job? You've got a big scene and you're supposed to just cut it off?"
He was equally unimpressed by the Oscar ceremony that he attended in 1987 as a best supporting actor nominee for Platoon, "There's too much hoopla. I hated that drive from the hotel downtown to the pavilion with all that traffic and those people yelling and screaming and acting crazy. Over half the people [at the ceremony] are not in the film industry. They're the cousins and the nephews of the people who happened to be the art director of the Coca-Cola company. I was told I couldn't have two seats for my kids, and I said, 'Well, then you know what? I ain't going. ' About two hours later they called and said, 'You got 'em.' They kicked out two TV-commercial people."
Last fall, Berenger returned to the stage for the first time in six years, in National Anthems at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. While many Hollywood actors rhapsodize about the intense rewards of connecting with a live audience after a long absence, Berenger is, unsurprisingly, irreverent on that subject, too. "In film or theater you're working on your concentration, " he says, but whether one achieves this concentration in front of a live audience or "a crew tromping around the set, " it's all the same to him; although "if you get a laugh with the audience, you have to wait to say the next line. " The only great thing about stage work, he adds, is the fact that your days are free. "You can go to the bank or the gym or get your car fixed. "
Cast as a Marine recruiting sergeant, Berenger has subsequently been reunited with Platoon's Moses and Willem Dafoe on Born on the Fourth of July, Stone's film about Vietnam casualty and anti-war protester Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise). And he has since played a private eye in Love at Large, a romantic comedy-mystery written and directed by Alan Rudolph. There are also plans to bring National Anthems to Broadway. "I'd like to do it, " says Berenger, "if the terms are right. " Whether he reaches Broadway or continues on his current film track, the chances are that Tom Berenger will have to keep juggling professional and personal commitments, stardom and privacy-because he has already proved his staying power. If you see him, though, don't ask for an autograph.