Like The Stunt Man, Actor Steve Railsback Needed Years to Get Off the Ground
In The Stunt Man, actor Steve Rails-back walks the wing of an airplane, leaps from buildings and catapults cars off bridges, but certainly the diciest feat of all was getting the damn film into U.S. movie houses. Completed in 1978, the audacious action-puzzler has been a nine-year obsession for director Richard Rush, a four-year project for Railsback and a critically acclaimed box office sleeper that woke up with a start only this fall. "When a movie doesn't fit a formula, the industry plays it safe," gripes Railsback, cast as a tough on the lam who finds precarious refuge with a movie crew on location. "It bothered the hell out of me that nothing was happening with it."
Suddenly everything's happening. Peter O'Toole, who plays the director of the movie within the movie, likens Railsback's breakthrough in Stunt Man to his own in Lawrence of Arabia. Director Rush calls the 33-year-old Rails-back "easily the most exciting young star in the U.S. today." That will seem plausible to those who remember his riveting performance as mass murderer Charles Manson in CBS' four-hour Helter Skelter in 1976. Otherwise, Steve has had trouble getting interesting properties—which only deepened his natural intensity and melancholia. "I'm only happy when I'm acting," he admits. "When there's no work, I just sit home and stare at the ceiling. I get depressed, but I have a lot of willpower."
If he seems newly stabilized, credit not only The Stunt Man but also his second wife, Jackie Giroux, 30, an actress turned photographer whom he married seven months ago (while swigging Maalox for his stomach). "She understands my moods. She makes me laugh more than anyone I've known," says Steve. "I thank God I found her." That happened on the set of his upcoming mystery Deadly Games, in which Railsback plays a Vietnam vet with emphysema. "He had made himself ghoulish and mysterious-looking for the part," relates Jackie. "I'd just gotten off the road from photographing about 160 tennis players on a pro tour, none of whom attracted me, and I saw Steve and thought, 'Wow.' I was expecting Charlie Man-son, and I got Steve Railsback. He has a lot of magnetism."
She wasn't the first who felt the attraction. Even on the set of The Stunt Man, Railsback was followed by an eerie squad of groupies who wanted to get the kid who had played Manson. He ignored them, unlike his earlier reaction to actress Sondra Kerr, who had a small role in Helter Skelter and happened to be the wife of Robert (Baretta) Blake. She spent six months with Rails-back in 1977, to Blake's much-publicized consternation, before reconciling with her husband. "I love all women, and I don't mean that in any sexual way, necessarily. I just get on well with them," says Steve. "But I'm a happily married man now, and it isn't right to talk about my past."
It all began in Texas, where Steve was the second of six sons of an independent oil operator and a housewife. Shy, academically average, and no jock, Railsback made his debut in Wichita Falls at 7 as "the cousin of the prince in Cinderella." He figured someday he would study acting in New York, and at 20, after marking time for a year at local Midwestern University, did just that. With a plane ticket from his parents and $600 from odd jobs, he arrived in 1967 and enrolled in an acting school he found in the Yellow Pages. Fortuitously, Lee Strasberg's famous Method classes were held two floors above. Railsback soon became his student, and met author-director Elia Kazan, who became his mentor and cast him in the lead of his 1972 film The Visitors. During that period Steve also developed his skills in a score of plays and had a brief 18-month marriage. His credits now include two movies, the embarrassing Born to Kill and 1977's unreleased Angela, in which he had an incestuous relationship with Sophia Loren. His most recent TV appearance was as the bugler Prewitt in the NBC miniseries From Here to Eternity.
"I know Steve's a success," quips wife Jackie. "He finally bought a new pair of Frye boots after wearing the others for three years." Otherwise, Railsback remains as socially casual as he is professionally hyper. He drives a battered VW jeep, dresses in jeans and lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. He also maintains a "padlocked" Manhattan flat, and is looking for a house "about 40 miles from L.A.'s smog" for the family he and Jackie want to start. "We go to the beach. We go to movie screenings—it's a freebie—and we entertain in small groups," says Railsback. "Jackie's a wonderful cook." As for work, Jackie reports that her husband "recently turned his back on $50,000 for nine days' work because he didn't like the script. He simply will not sell out," she continues, "but I can live with that."