Can Three Actors and Video Flash Make Tron Leader of the Pack, Man?

updated 08/30/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1982 01:00AM

Metallically garbed humans, looking like a cross between the Wizard of Oz's Tin Woodsman and Star Trek space cadets, fling lethal Day-Glo Frisbees at each other across megawatt-charged landscapes. Welcome to the world of TRON, the Disney studios' $20 million man-vs.-silicon-chip thriller starring Jeff Bridges as a high-tech whiz kid zapped by a laser beam and reassembled inside the bowels of a mean-tempered computer. Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan are his electronic allies in this first life-or-death video game. Walt Disney's standard-bearers are counting on TRON's ground-breaking computer animation to do for their struggling studio what such dismally out-of-touch "family entertainments" as The Love Bug, Candleshoe and The Watcher in the Woods have failed to do in the 16 years since Walt's death: restore Disney's commercial and critical success.

So far, despite a near $7 million ad campaign, the studio has been fighting an uphill battle. Disney stock plummeted $2.50 a share overnight after Theodore James, a San Francisco financial analyst, emerged from a screening and announced that TRON was "seriously flawed and disjointed." Many critics agreed (see review, page 18). Though the film managed to ring up a healthy $13 million in its first two weeks, its take dropped to $2 million for week No. 3, and Disney is counting on massive merchandising tie-ins—including video games, wristwatches, sunglasses, even a comic strip—to recoup its investment. Meanwhile, PEOPLE reporters David Gritten and Doris Bacon talked to TRON's stars—Bridges, Boxleitner and Morgan—to get the human side of the story.

Bruce Boxleitner: a computer warrior at rest

Only last year Bruce Boxleitner was just another ruggedly handsome Hollywood actor hoping to parlay his macho appeal into Tom Selleck-sized stardom. "I was at the point where my career didn't have any direction," he recalls. But today all that's changed. Boxleitner, 32, has the title role in TRON, playing Jeff Bridges' computerized warrior sidekick. What's more, he's landed the lead in CBS' upcoming fall series Bring 'Em Back Alive, portraying a famed animal catcher in Singapore and the jungles of southern Asia just before World War II.

"We're grooming Bruce to be the next Clark Gable or Alan Ladd," says manager Jay Bernstein (formerly Farrah Fawcett's Svengali), who's steered Boxleitner's career since they crossed paths at a Malibu beach party last fall. Bruce frankly admits that his TRON performance is unlikely to stir up any memories of Rhett Butler or Shane. "I know that Tron is a wooden character," he says, "but I liked the billing and I wanted to work with Jeff Bridges, whom I've admired for years."

Playing second fiddle to a microchip also doesn't faze him. Since his days as a broke New York actor who skipped out on a month's rent in 1972 to search for success in Hollywood, Bruce has been waiting for the big breakthrough. TRON is the closest thing to it yet. Born in Elgin, Ill., Bruce began acting in high school plays before coming to New York. "I thought I had it made," he recalls, "but I had a hard time surviving." Things improved in Hollywood, where he appeared on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the ABC miniseries East of Eden (repeated this week) and won a role in the ABC series How the West Was Won, in which actress Kathryn Holcomb, now 30, played his sister. They were married in 1977.

The Boxleitners live in a rambling, $750,000 San Fernando Valley ranch home with son Sam, 1. They collect Western art and own two quarter horses which they ride on weekends. Fearing that TRON merchandising could turn Bruce into a cartoon character, manager Bernstein has no plans for a sequel in the future. Says Boxleitner playfully: "He's going to make me the Farrah of the 1980s. With a name like Boxleitner, you have to do something to be remembered."

Cindy Morgan: life after TRON

When Cindy Morgan arrived in L.A. from her native Chicago four years ago, she had $2,000 in savings and a strong determination "to have my own billboard on Sunset Boulevard within a year." It took her an extra year, but Cindy quickly won commercials, TV shows, movie bits and now TRON.

She has no illusions about her role. "I was the girl," she shrugs. The hard part, she says, was imagining what the effects would look like later. Morgan's talent was also tested by lines like "Oh, Tron, I knew there wasn't a circuit that could hold you." Her first acting job, Caddyshack, with Chevy Chase, presented problems too: a nude scene which shocked her "strict Catholic" parents but for her "wasn't demeaning. I aim to be in this business for a while."

With TRON and a new TV role opposite Boxleitner in Bring 'Em Back Alive, Cindy lives in a ritzy West Hollywood apartment. "Recently released" from a long-term relationship, Morgan is "a little timid" about men at the moment. But not about what's missing from TRON. "People want to see nuances, cracks in the armor," she says. "Computers can't make choices."

Jeff Bridges: father first

Running around computer grids in dance tights was a drastic turnaround from the parts Jeff Bridges has played in films like The Last Picture Show and Cutter's Way. "TRON wasn't much of a character study," admits Bridges, "but I like doing things that are 180 degrees apart from each other."

Recently Bridges, 32, has also been reversing his offscreen image. For much of the 1970s, his widely publicized experiments with est, marijuana and LSD—not to mention with Candy Clark, Valerie Perrine and Cybill Shepherd—earned him a reputation as Hollywood's playboy hippie. With his 1977 marriage to photographer Susan Geston, however, he began to settle down. Last August Susan, 29, gave birth to daughter Isabelle. "Being a father changes you," says Jeff. "You come home in a bad mood, see your kid, she's gurgling—and it just goes."

Jeff has good memories of his own father, Lloyd, who introduced Jeff and older brother Beau, now 40, to acting on Lloyd's Sea Hunt TV series. "We've always been close," says Jeff, who is searching for a film to do with his father and brother and looking ahead, unlike Boxleitner, to a TRON sequel. Perhaps Bridges sees patterns between learning video technology and his own life. "You have to get good at it," he says, "before you can really appreciate it."

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