Tom Berenger:  “I’ve Starved Before…I Can Again!”

Day TV Gossip
November 1975
By Janet Walker
One Life To Live

     The weather was just about perfect – very sunny but not too hot – the day I visited the ABC midtown television studios where the network’s New York-based serials are taped.  That much was apparent by the line-up of fans waiting to catch a
glimpse of their favorite soapsters in transit. When I gave the name of my prospective interview to the guard at the front desk, two teenage girls standing nearby exclaimed ecstatically: “Tom Berenger!  Is he going to be here today?” “Tom –let’s wait and say hello.”

     As it turned out, Tom was detained at an audition for a TV commercial and the teenagers couldn’t wait. (Maybe they were due at the CBS studios where As the World Turns was letting out.) However, they left a message with me: “Tell Tom
the two girls were here.”

     I passed the message along when Tom rushed in breathlessly not more than five minutes later, but he didn’t seem to know which two girls they were. Obviously, there are too many girls waiting around these days to keep track of, all of them hoping to
say hello (and then some) to the handsome young actor who plays the role of Tim Siegel on One Life to Live.

      As I looked at Tom, dressed from head to toe in faded blue denim (and I mean head to toe – cap included), I thought he must surely be the ideal all-American type TV commercials are panting for. Six feet tall, slim and yet muscular at about 160
lbs., with curly dark blond hair and blue eyes, he seemed just perfect for every product from natural cereals to unnatural deodorant sprays.  But Tom revealed he lands very few commercials.

     “My acting is too method for commercials,” he said quite simply.

     Method acting!  I hadn’t heard actors speak about that for a long time.  It brought back visions of Marlon Brando in his early days – visions that are still very real for twenty-six-year-old Tom Berenger, who could be labeled on the 1970s “angry young men” were he not basically so pleasant and polite.

     Like Brando, Tom is more interested in the art of acting itself than in the publicity and glamor surrounding it.  That poses a bit of a problem since, despite all his seriousness about his craft, Tom is a very glamorous young man. He’s perhaps more reminiscent of the Paul Newman of the ‘50s than the Brando of the ‘40s.  As a matter of fact, I remembered reading an inquiry in a Philadelphia paper from a Berenger fan who was sure he was Newman’s son.

     When I told Tom of the letter, he admitted he’d been asked that question more than once.

     “I met Joanne Woodward’s mother and she commented that I looked like her son-in-law’s son,” said Tom.  “I don’t mind people thinking that – I like Paul Newman and I think he’s grown tremendously as an actor over the years – but I don’t really want to be identified too closely with anyone else.  I don’t think it’s helpful to an actor’s career – especially when he’s just
starting out.”

     I pointed out that in the beginning Newman was often compared to Brando, that Burt Reynolds was (and still is) considered a ringer for Brando, and that the identification never held either one of them back.

     “Well, it depends on what you want,” replied Tom.  “I’ve never thought of success in terms of superstardom.  What I really want is to be a good actor – respected in my field.  As far as the trappings of success are concerned, they aren’t important to me.  I’m not worried about security. I’ve starved before – I can again.”

     The lean years are not really a distant memory for Tom Berenger.  Less than two years ago, he was working for Eastern Airlines – in a not too prestigious or lucrative job.

     “I was copping out.  But I knew I’d get back into acting.”

     He hadn’t always been so sure, however.

     “When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, I never even thought of becoming an actor.  I wanted to be a journalist then,” he admitted.  “My father (now deceased) used to sell printing equipment to newspapers.  Maybe that’s what gave me the idea –
I’m not sure.

     “As I got older, I debated going into the military.  Until I was a junior in high school, I like the idea of trying for West Point.  Then I switched back to my first love – writing.

     “I enrolled in the University of Missouri because, at the time, it was supposed to be the best school for journalism in the country – now I think it’s Columbia or Syracuse or Northwestern. Anyway, my first year I took liberal arts courses with the intention of majoring in journalism.  But somewhere along the way I got deterred.

     “During my summer vacations from both high school and college, I worked at a number of jobs – in steel mills, in a chemical plant – hefting boxes, loading trucks.  I did mostly physical labor, and after that life in college seemed awfully sedentary.  I got very restless, bored. When I heard that there were auditions for a local teleplay, I decided to try out for it.  I got a part in the play and that changed my major in college.  It also changed my life.

     “I took up drama and film – both the artistic and technical ends of it,” he continued.  “After I earned my B.A., I got a job editing 16 mm films. That didn’t last too long – I was fired.  The reason they gave me was that I’d made an editing mistake, but I feel there was more to it than that.

     “I don’t want to get into it, though.  As an actor, I try to use all the emotions I’ve experienced as aids in my job.  I have certain hostilities from that episode that work for me – they motivate some of my most emotional scenes. It may sound strange, but I don’t want to talk about those hostilities because once the anger is dissipated, I can’t call on it for assistance anymore.”

     It didn’t sound the least bit strange.  After all, Tom did say he was a method actor, and method actors thrive on motivation.

     “I spent a year doing stock at the New Resident Theater in Kansas City, Missouri,” he went on.  “Then I heard there were lots of commercial films being shot in Dallas, so I packed up and went there.  When I saw nothing was doing at the studios except lots of smoking and coffee drinking, I returned to Kansas City.  I got a job as a bellhop at the Alameda Hotel.

     “I took whatever work was available and even did nothing for awhile in Chicago before I went with Eastern Airlines.  I worked out of San Juan for several months – and that was fun in the beginning, But I got bored and faced the inevitable – I wanted to go back into acting.”

     This “all work and no play” may make Jack a dull boy, but not Tom Berenger.  It wasn’t all work for him.  He found time to woo and wed his lovely wife, the former Barbara Wilson.

     “I met her six years ago in the middle of the Indiana State Dunes.  That’s a beach on Lake Michigan between Chicago where I lived, and Gary, Indiana, where she lived.  I was between my freshman and sophomore year in college and she was
just about to start college.  We dated all that summer and the romance was pretty serious. But when school started again, distance became a problem.

     “We eventually drifted apart.  We didn’t see each other for three years.  Then, in New York, I ran into a friend of hers.  She told Barbara she’d seen me and Barbara wrote me a letter.  When I went back to Chicago to visit, we dated.  Four months later we dated again – and two months after that, we got married.”

     On February 25, 1974, Tom and Barbara were wed in a non-denominational ceremony in the Chapel of the United Nations Building. (On the show, Tom plays a Jewish-Irish boy.  In real life, he’s Irish-Catholic but isn’t much of a church-goer. His wife is Protestant.)

     “I was working with the airline at the time, so we honeymooned on St. John in the Virgin Islands,” he elaborated.

     “Barbara was a teacher – she taught grade school and junior high. But now she’s working for an advertising agency in New York.  She likes it and wants to progress in the field.”

     Once Tom decided to progress in his own field – acting – he had no trouble finding work.  One Life to Live is his first serial and his first network TV show.  But he’s fallen into the routine – if not with ease, then with flair.

     “I’ve been averaging about four shows a week and it’s not easy for me to learn all those different scripts,” he confessed.  “I don’t like to use the teleprompter, but sometime I have to. Finding ways of reading without looking like I’m reading requires all my ingenuity.  One day I used the teleprompter like a fourth wall.  I pretended it was mirror I was looking into.

     “ I find myself worrying that my career is moving too fast.  That I’m not ready for what I’m doing yet.  That I should learn my craft on stage first.  One thing, though – after all this rush-rush on TV, doing a stage audition is a snap.  I don’t feel any pressure at all.”

     Tom may not seek the trappings of success but they’re sure to follow.  Though he’s “starved before and can again,” we doubt that he’ll ever have to.  He’ found his niche in show business – but then again, method actors (“those angry young
men”) just hate niches.  They’re free souls.  And there’s no price tag on a free soul!

thanks to Leigh and Jean

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