Shed No Tears for James Woods; After Onion Field, He's Juggling Offers as Hot as His Opinions

updated 11/26/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

"I always fantasized and prided myself that someday when I won an Oscar I could say, 'Thank you to nobody.' " Of course, if decorum is still a factor among the Academy electorate, the iconoclastic James Woods can stop rehearsing that acceptance speech. After his stunning performance as the psychotic cop killer of Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field, Woods, 32, is being talked up by Establishment figures like Jack Lemmon as almost a shoo-in for the 1980 Oscar. Mindful that his lauded portrayal of the doomed Jewish artist in NBC's Holocaust fetched none of the miniseries' 16 Emmy nominations, Woods doesn't believe it. "I know my luck," he jokes. "Not only will I not win but they'll spell my name wrong."

Oscar or no, Woods, who took a mere $50,000 for the film (vs. his usual some $200,000), is reverent about Wambaugh and Onion Field. "Every penny that was spent ($2.7 million) is on the screen—not up some associate producer's nose," he snorts. "I'd rather work four months in Antarctica on a great film than four months in Tahiti on a piece of garbage. I don't care if the leading lady has boobs from here to Wyoming. I care about the opportunity to do a great role on a great film." In gratitude, he recently played a cameo in Wambaugh's upcoming The Black Marble without fee. "Because of the Onion Field reviews I got," Woods now figures, "the world is really mine."

That's not entirely true. James may have stolen the notices from Onion Field co-star and longtime pal John (The Deer Hunter) Savage, but Savage got the girl—Woods' companion of seven years, actress Denise (California Suite) Galik. Her defection still smarts, but Woods doesn't hold himself blameless. After all, he had dated actresses Debra Winger and Genevieve Bujold ("She's just so sexy she's unbelievable") during the "ten thousand breakups" that marked his life with Galik. Under the circumstances, marriage is another institution he is dubious about. "Can you name me one happily married couple in America?" he asks. But that's perhaps just for effect, because he adds, "Presumably I'll find someone soon that I'll fall in love with."

A contender is writer Priscilla Newton, 24, whom he spotted while speaking at a film school last month. "There was something real thoroughbred about her. She just moved in a way that had a kind of poetry to it," he recalls. "I stopped her and said, 'I've got to meet you.' We sat up the whole night—just talking," he hastens to note. "Usually I'm such a degenerate I would have just jumped on her, but there's something about her that made me feel different."

In truth, he seems to respect women, especially his mother, more than most institutions. Woods remembers growing up "very poor" in Rhode Island after his Army officer father died when he was 12. To support him and brother Michael, his mother, Martha Ann, started a nursery school, which now has grown to employ seven teachers in four buildings. A brilliant student (high 700s on all of his college boards), Woods won a regional drama award in high school but entered MIT on a full scholarship. "I always thought actors had to look like Robert Redford," he explains of his plans for a political science career. Still, Woods did dozens of Boston theater performances until, one day in 1968, "it just dawned on me. 'Wouldn't it be great to do something you love for the rest of your life?' " Though a dean's list student and in his last semester, Woods dropped out of MIT, hitched to New York and sublet an apartment in Hell's Kitchen, where "muggers would be standing in line bidding for your wallet."

His struggle was Dickensian. Burglars once literally sledgehammered down a wall to steal his $15 electric fan. Later he organized tenants against a landlord who illegally cut off the heat. He also kept getting parts despite what he calls his "offbeat" looks and lack of official dramatic training. "I don't believe in all this preparation bullshit," he says. "I was out there doing it while they're all pretending they're avocados." His first Broadway role was in 1970's Tony-winning Borstal Boy. Then the slum-boy lead in a Brooklyn production of Edward Bond's bleak Saved the same year won him the Variety Critics Award in competition with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, no less. Suddenly "everything started to take off," like catching the role of Barbra Streisand's boyfriend in 1973's The Way We Were.

"Streisand, contrary to popular belief, was great, very giving," he says. "Redford was just a regular guy. All the great stars I've worked with, with one exception, have been just delightful." Woods' exception is Faye Dunaway, who co-starred with him and Bette Davis in NBC's The Disappearance of Aimee. "She threw something at me because I ad-libbed a line," he claims. "And what bothered me more than anything, she was just so rude. If Bette Davis can be nice to people, Faye Dun-away ought to be buying them limousines as presents."

While commuting to L.A., Woods took three years of therapy for depression. One time, he recalls, "I just sat in a chair for 18 days." Then he moved to the coast permanently in 1975 for roles in TV (My Name Is Jonah, Raid on Entebbe) and movies like Nightmoves, Alex and the Gypsy and The Choirboys. But his adjustment to Hollywood is still less than complete. "The conversation here is movies, drugs and sex," he complains. "It's boring to listen to some rock star yak on coke. Once in a while you like to talk about Hemingway." Woods recently sublet his Laurel Canyon home, hot tub and all, and moved to a West-wood Village condo because "people were always dropping by at 4 in the morning." He likes to read, cook what he calls "the best spaghetti in the world" and hang out with actor buddies like Kevin (The Elephant Man) Conway and Stephen (The Promise) Collins.

Up for the lead in Richard Donner's Inside Moves, among other challenging parts, Woods hasn't yet made up his mind. "After 11 years I've finally arrived," he exults, but the edginess of the struggle is still with him. "You know you've got it made only when they put you to rest and somebody comes to your funeral and says, 'He was pretty good in that film.' "

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