After the Fun of the Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum Plays the Serious Side of Comic Ernie Kovacs
05/14/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Here is a good question for trivia pursuers everywhere, and most specifically for The Big Chill buffs: What single fact connects a hard-rock band with two drummers, a blind 14-year-old baton twirler from Dallas and Chill actor Jeff Goldblum?
Answer: Their stories, like anyone's—according to the screenplay—can be summed up in 32 paragraphs or, presumably, less.
This, at least, is the claim of Goldblum's character in The Big Chill, an artistically frustrated writer at PEOPLE named Michael who yearns for more substantial story assignments.
Michael moans that Dostoyevsky got to write longer stories, but unfairly fails to mention that, as a result, there was nothing to read on supermarket checkout lines in 19th-century Russia.
It's not as if Michael's life at PEOPLE was so painful: After all, did the author of The Brothers Karamazov get to spend, as Michael did, half his exotic life diving into stars' limousines?
A second question: Which real-life person might the film's screenwriters, Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, have had in mind when they created Michael, that wryly cynical, adorably sardonic, unrelenting, unsuccessful womanizer, the guy who gets all the movie's best lines and none of its girls?
Published speculation has the part based on this PEOPLE writer, probably because he has known Benedek for years and she would have extensive knowledge of his career at PEOPLE.
Okay, Goldblum did visit this writer at his office last fall. But by then The Big Chill was long in the can.
This writer sees virtually no resemblance between himself and Michael, having never done a story about a 14-year-old blind baton twirler from Dallas. The screenwriters must have been thinking of the one he did about a hermaphrodite chicken from China who chirps, I'll Tumble for Ya.
The truth is that Michael is more Goldblum than anyone else. Jeff's wife sees the similarity. "The part was made for Jeff's sense of humor," she says.
Kasdan agrees. "Jeff was the perfect guy for that mechanism in our movie. I'm a big fan of his. I think he really possesses comic genius. We read lots of people for his part, but we heard him a lot in our heads as we wrote."
Since then it seems so many screenwriters are hearing Jeff in their heads while writing scripts that the Writers Guild may have to name a psychosis after him.
He was in The Right Stuff (as a NASA recruiter); he did Popular Neurotics for PBS, and he will be seen as the big bad wolf in Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater for Showtime.
Next week Goldblum stars in ABC's Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter, a mostly dramatic story about TV comic Ernie Kovacs and his early 1950s search for his two daughters after his divorced wife, Bette Lee Shotwell, disappeared with them.
The film marks a departure—and new depth—for tall, lanky, brooding Goldblum, 31. "The issue of missing kids is rich now," he says. "Kovacs was a great TV comic in the '50s, and he agonized over his search. It's easy to see why people adored him."
Kovacs had won custody, which was a rare legal decision for that time, in 1952. Shortly afterward the children were seized by Bette Lee; it took two years for Kovacs to recover them.
Goldblum is currently filming John Landis' Into the Night around L.A. Of his starring role he says guardedly, "He's a regular guy who goes into the night for adventures."
Comedy fans can go for the Goldblum this summer in Buckaroo Banzai, in which he plays "a brain surgeon-turned-cowboy named New Jersey." It sounds like something Michael would peg as a perfect PEOPLE story.
Goldblum credits Chill with heating up his career. "It did create some new opportunities," he says. "I'm getting a chance to do all the genres before yearning to do them."
Having worked almost nonstop for two years (he has made 14 movies since 1974), he adds, "I have a big appetite for work. As long as I do good films I don't get tired."
Indeed, Kasdan sees Goldblum's comedic gifts rooted in a seemingly inexhaustible "wellspring of eye movements, odd gestures, body language and an absolutely unique sense of timing—all great stuff that really lays on the life of the character."
Kasdan was especially struck by Jeff's stamina. "He's amazing in that he'll give you something different in every take, and he'll be slightly different with every actor he plays with. You want that from a good actor."
The son of a physician, Goldblum grew up in Pittsburgh "extroverted and funny, but not too antic." He would often disappear behind a closed bedroom door and sift through the Yellow Pages for theater numbers. Then he'd call at random asking for parts.
"I didn't want anyone to know and I didn't tell my parents," he recalls. "I made sure the door was closed and nobody heard me. I didn't want to get caught. It was such an exciting thing to pursue. Acting held a magical possibility for me to do all sorts of things that weren't appropriate any place else."
After high school he studied with Sandy Meisner at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. Honing his offbeat style off-Broadway in El Grande de Coca Cola, he met director Robert Alt-man, who gave him his first movie job in California Split.
Soon after, he made an impact in a role that contained not one ounce of comedy. The movie was Death Wish, and Goldblum played one of three supermarket delivery boys who rape Charles Bronson's daughter and murder his wife.
He later appeared in Nashville, Annie Hall, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Between the Lines—and on TV in Tenspeed and Brown Shoe.
One acting gig along the way turned into a lengthy engagement. In 1975 he played the male lead opposite Patricia Gaul in a La Mama West production of Our Late Night after her stage husband backed out. She and Jeff began living together three weeks later.
"Swift and decisive, that's me," he grins; Jeff and Patricia married in 1980. (She appears for a flash as his girlfriend in a montage sequence in Chill as Michael prepares to leave for the funeral of his college buddy.)
The Goldblums live in a spacious, starkly uncluttered home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. The living room is empty except for Jeff's electric piano and a few modular couches. Work leaves time for little else.
Free evenings are sometimes spent with friends like Ed (St. Elsewhere) Begley Jr. and his wife, Ingrid, playing an animated game of Trivial Pursuit.
"It never gets too intense," Jeff reports. "We always go for the entertainment questions." Watching Jeff deliver the answers is a game in itself. Perhaps that's the secret of his success. Says wife Patricia: "Jeff makes a joke out of everything."