An Unknown Actor Re-Creates the Horror of Jonestown and Makes His Name: Powers Boothe

updated 04/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

When the Rev. Jim Jones and 913 of his Peoples Temple followers died in Guyana in 1978, unknown Texas actor Powers Boothe "felt like everyone else: I couldn't bear to watch it on the news." Eighteen months later Boothe is still a relative nobody—until this week anyway, when he gets eerily caught up again in Jonestown. In his first big starring role, Boothe, 31, is playing Jones himself in the CBS docudrama Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. Remarkably, Boothe dominates a formidable cast, including Ned Beatty, Brad Dourif, Diane Ladd, Brenda Vaccaro, James Earl Jones, LeVar Burton and Colleen Dewhurst.

The biggest risk was really CBS' in banking on an untried actor to carry the two-night epic that was purposely scheduled in the last "official" week of the TV season. The lurid Guyana story was the network's main hope to edge out ABC in the close 1979-80 ratings race. "I'm thrilled at their faith," says Boothe, "but I'm nervous."

Director Billy Graham (no relation) first approached a more established Texas actor, but Tommy Lee Jones was busy with Coal Miner's Daughter. "We were stumped," Graham admits. Then someone suggested Boothe, whose most recent credits included some guest shots on Skag as the boyfriend of Karl Maiden's daughter. "He was Jim Jones," says Graham, "that sexy-evil combination—it's not that I think Powers is evil; he's a terrific guy."

Curiously, laughs Boothe, "It was the easiest job I ever got." Only after reading the script and watching a one-year-after TV update on Jonestown did the horror "suddenly hit me," he recalls. "I shuddered, realizing the importance of the role for the sake of the relatives of the people who died in Jonestown. We owe those people—and the world—the reality of how it happened and not some pile of bull."

Boothe interviewed former Peoples Temple members and screened all film he could find. His impersonation of the charismatic Jones was so convincing that, during its Puerto Rican location, cast members began to come to the somewhat discomfited Boothe with their personal problems. "Everyone has this vision of Jones as a maniacal ogre," Boothe explains. "Wrong. He was charming, sweet and a fabulous speaker. If someone chooses to take that power, he can lead a lot of lambs to slaughter."

Boothe himself grew up hearing fiery Church of Christ sermons in the West Texas town of Snyder, where his father was a cotton farmer and fiddler. Powers played football in high school but decided, "I'm not going to make my living out of beating my head against somebody else." To avoid the draft, he became the first member of his family to attend college and got a degree in education from LBJ's alma mater, Southwest Texas State University. He also married "pretty much" the only girl he's ever gone out with, high school sweetheart Pam Cole. He rejected teaching for a master's in acting from Southern Methodist University, which led to a job at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There he learned "You don't do classics with a Texas accent."

In 1973 the couple moved to New York, where Boothe took a gofer job with the maître d' at Sardi's. At first his parents refused to take his acting seriously, especially since one older brother had become a highway patrol officer and the other a career Army man. "They kept saying, 'When are you going to get a job?' " Finally Powers landed a two-line part on As the World Turns. "It legitimized my whole life," he chuckles. He did mainly regional theater until lucking into Lone Star/Private Wars, written by SMU pal Jim McLure, on Broadway last year.

Then the Boothes moved to Los Angeles—a gamble that cost Pam her career as a financial executive of the Carter-Wallace drug company. "He's more important," she says stoutly. "Being together is why we're married." That may be harder now that Boothe says he is "getting so many offers I don't know what to do." Next he's starring as the alcoholic husband in a CBS adaptation of Jill Schary Robinson's Bed /Time /Story (now retitled High Times). "Our lives have changed so rapidly, just maintaining our sanity has been difficult enough," he admits. To keep the past in mind, they listen to country music (he plays guitar). Pam also contemplates hosting a big Texas Independence Day bash—on Rodeo Drive yet. Powers' vision is simpler: "Land of my own in Texas. There's a place down there," he notes, "where you can get all the catfish you can eat for $5."

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