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People Top 5
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- May 28, 1990
- Vol. 33
- No. 21
Forgoing His Father's Millions, Stephen Lang Bootstraps to Acting Fame with the Help of a Few Good Men
After paying his dues in a succession of theater, television and film roles, Lang has recently been rewarded twice over. In Last Exit to Brooklyn, his first leading role in a major movie, Lang, 37, plays Harry Black, an emotionally stilted '50s union worker, in the film adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s controversial 1964 beat novel. Meanwhile, on Broadway, Lang's brutish portrayal of Marine Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep in Aaron Sorkin's court-martial drama A Few Good Men has audiences and critics alike snapping to attention. Describing Lang's performance as physical and powerful, the New York Times's, Frank Rich wrote, "[He's] in a class by himself."
And that's just how his father would have it. "In my life I have had enormous satisfaction in having achieved my vision," says Eugene, 71, who lives in New York City and who accumulated his wealth through the success of the licensing company, REFAC Technology Development Corp., he founded in 1952. "That feeling should not be denied to any individual, let alone a child." In fact, Eugene believes so strongly that his kids should fend for themselves that he's not leaving an inheritance to Stephen or his two older siblings, Jane, an attorney, and David, a vice president at REFAC. "Look," says Eugene, "I gave them good educations and every encouragement to make it on their own. They should be able to stand tall."
Remarkably, his actor son agrees. "My father has a very healthy respect for what money can do but ultimately thinks it's quite a corrupting thing," says Stephen. "The major thing Dad's given me has been his support and inspiration. In that sense I'm as rich as anyone."
Stephen's early life was decidedly average. He was brought up by Eugene and his wife, Theresa, 72, in New York City, in a middle-class section of Queens. "I don't know just when my father got his wealth, because our life-style didn't change," he says. "Why should life change just because you have money?" asks Eugene.
Despite the high probability of low earnings and frequent unemployment, Eugene didn't discourage his son's early dream to become an actor. "It was always my goal," Stephen recalls. Adds Eugene: "When I came home from the office, I'd sit Stephen on my lap and read Shakespeare to him. He wanted to play Ariel (in The Tempest)." Even though his father is Jewish and his mother Irish Catholic, they sent Stephen to a Quaker boarding school, the George School, and college, Swarthmore, to instill in him a sense of simplicity.
After graduating, Lang played the repertory theater circuit for 10 years, breaking through the anonymity barrier in 1983, when he was chosen to play Happy, one of Willie Loman's sons in Dustin Hoffman's award-winning Broadway version of Death of a Salesman. It was Hoffman himself who gave Lang the nod. During the audition, after Lang had read, he reports, Hoffman sidled up and told him, "You don't have a thing to worry about, kid."
From 1986 to 1988, Lang won further visibility and a bigger paycheck as David Abrams, the street-smart liberal lawyer in NBC's prime-time series Crime Story. In addition to offering him a shot at fame, Lang's profession presented him with a wife. In 1980 he married Tina Watson, a costume designer he met in New York City while filming a PBS special in which he played poet Percy Shelley. "This is our first and only marriage, and you can quote me on that," declares Stephen. "I don't have a better fan or friend than Tina. As an actor, I'll tend to see myself reflected in everything. Tina ain't all that impressed. She yanks a knot in my tail."
"Steve needs a lot of attention, and I don't," agrees Tina, 39, currently a student at Sarah Lawrence, where she's pursuing a master's degree in education. "It used to be a problem. He'd come home from playing Stanley Kowalski and think he was really big stuff. I had to tell him, 'Hey, I'm not Stella.' This is life."
Today that life unfolds in a rambling two-story, four-bedroom farmhouse in upstate New York, purchased 2½ years ago with Crime Story money and renovated with the only loan Stephen has taken from his dad. They need the space for their brood: Lucy, 9; Daniel, 5; Noah, 2; and Gracie, born March 24. And thanks to grandpa Eugene, all have money set aside for college educations.
Stephen's recent acting efforts have gotten mixed reviews from his dad. "I think Stephen did a terrific job in Last Exit to Brooklyn, but the movie is terribly depressing," he says. "One bang over the head after another."
He has higher praise for A Few Good Men: "I saw it at least six times. I was with Donald Trump at a board meeting the other day. I'm not trying to drop names, because I don't like him. But he had just seen it and thought Stephen was terrific. I'm surprised he didn't try to buy him and call him Trump-Lang."
Had he gotten such an offer, Stephen would have been polite, but stubborn: He's not for sale.
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