EVEN AT 16, JEFF GOLDBLUM WANTED TO knock 'em dead. In 11th grade, when his life at Pittsburgh's West Mifflin North High School was, he says, "as dreary as you can imagine," he began scanning the Yellow Pages for cocktail lounges that might need a piano player. "I couldn't even drive yet," he says. But he had already shot up to 6'4" and boasted both a repertoire that included "Misty" and "Satin Doll" and plenty of moxie to match. "I'd say, 'Hi, I hear you're looking for a pianist.' Occasionally someone would say, 'Come out and see what you can do.' " Unfortunately, he almost never landed a gig.

But his audacity eventually paid off. Goldblum, 39, rocketed to prominence, thanks to a gallery of memorable loopy portraits, including the horny PEOPLE reporter in The Big Chill, the scientist turned insect who buzzed through David Cronenberg's gory 1986 remake of The Fly, and the desperately down-at-the-heels actor in the romantic comedy The Tall Guy. Amid his flourishing career, two marriages—to actresses Patricia Gaul and Geena Davis—failed.

Currently Goldblum is enjoying his single-guy status (although he is seeing Davis again) as well as appearing in two new movies. He poses as a Jesus look-alike for photographer Bob Hoskins in the offbeat comedy The Favor, the Watch and the Very Big Fish, which opens on May 8 in limited release, and stars as a menacingly affable dope-dealing attorney in the action movie Deep Cover. "It's not like he does a scene and then he's not the character," says Cover director Bill Duke. "He walks around in that intense state until he goes home and takes off those clothes."

On a recent afternoon, swathed in black jeans, his long frame folded onto a patchwork couch in the profusely colorful living room of his bubblegum-pink Hollywood Hills house, the actor admits he got a kick out of the tough-guy action. "It was fun," he says of a scene in which he shoves another dealer from a speeding limousine. "I don't live a life like that. I don't fight with people. So it's a nice release."

Early on, acting offered a much-needed release from the anxieties of childhood. The third of four children of a Pittsburgh internist, Dr. Harold Goldblum, a stern disciplinarian, and his wife, Shirley, Jeff was raised on a diet of fear. "There were beatings with belts, and there was always the threat of a beating," he recalls. "It was terrible and abusive. I hate the whole system of being quiet and keeping in line. By the time you're I don't know how old, life has chained you up in some way."

Like many a child before him, he sought escape—in Goldblum's case, through theatrical dreams inspired by local kiddie productions such as Hansel and Gretel, which he saw as a child. "I would stand in the lobby, fake tap dancing and wait for the show to start," he says. "I was very turned on by it."

In 1970, with the blessings of his family, who encouraged the kids to learn about the arts, the 17-year-old Goldblum headed for New York City to study acting. "I was thrilled to be living alone," he recalls. But his brother Rick's death at 23 the following year from a virus he picked up on a North African trip offered a sobering lesson. "I realized the importance of getting a grip," says Goldblum, "because life is fragile." After a Broadway stint as a guard in Joseph Papp's musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona, the actor eventually won his first important screen role, in Robert Alt-man's 1974 movie about compulsive gamblers, California Split. In L.A., Goldblum, with his odd speech pattern, lanky build and exaggerated features, soon got a reputation as a hip, comically quirky actor. "It was pretty fast," he says of his rise. "Maybe it wasn't as meaningful as it might have been to somebody who'd struggled more, but it was a charge."

Joy in the moment is a hallmark of Goldblum's personality and relationships. Says his L.A.-based sister, Pam, a painter who sees her brother often: "He's like a guru—always getting me on new paths, like new diets and going to the gym. He's so enthusiastic. It does everybody good to be with him." Notes director Duke: "People say he's strange, but I find him to be a genuine person who has not let this town corrupt him. He's sincerely one of the nicest people I've ever met."

The Goldblum charm obviously worked on his first wife. He and Gaul, who met in 1975, moved in together three weeks later. They married in 1980. "We had a lot of fun," Goldblum says cautiously. But not enough. They divorced in 1986. "I felt I'd made a step toward learning what I wanted from relationships," he says. "But there was the feeling that I had a lot more to learn."

Geena Davis was the one he decided to learn it with. The pair began dating seriously when playing opposite each other in The Fly. They wed in 1987 in Las Vegas, with pal Ed Begley Jr. and his then wife, Ingrid, as attendants. Although the rangy couple (she's a six-footer) seemed so right for each other, the marriage quickly bottomed out. "We're both independent types, unconventional and free-spirited," muses Goldblum about their 1990 divorce. "I think we were lucky to get together, and we both had a great time."

These days, the two are replaying the good times, seeing each other once a week or so. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Geena, Jeff, sister Pam and her boyfriend, artist Jeffrey Keisershot, lolled around Goldblum's pool and later dyed Easter eggs. "I love Geena," Pam says. "I'm really glad they are buddies." Says Goldblum: "We're close and soothingly caring toward each other." Any remarriage in sight? "I don't know," he says. "I don't predict anything."

In the meantime Goldblum relishes his independence. An avid painter whose colorful abstract work fills his house, he sometimes asks first-time dates to paint a canvas with him. Or read movie scripts à deux. Otherwise he likes being alone. "I've been married my whole adult life," he points out. "I like taking care of myself. I like the rhythm of it, going to bed when I want, eating when I want. I don't feel the need right now to possess anybody. And I don't want to be possessed. I like being, uh, free, you know, in all kinds of ways."

MARJORIE ROSEN
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Kristina Johnson.