As a Doctor Convicted of Murder, Newcomer Gary Cole Brings TV's Fatal Vision to Eerie Life

updated 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald wanted Robert Redford to play him in the TV movie version of his life—a story that journalist Joe McGinniss turned into the 1983 best-seller Fatal Vision. It's not hard to see MacDonald's reasons. Currently serving three consecutive life sentences in a Texas federal prison for the 1970 murder of his pregnant wife, Colette, and their two young children, MacDonald surely suspected a sympathetic performance from a star like Redford could help his chances for a retrial. The former Green Beret Army physician still protests his innocence.

MacDonald's hubristic fantasy of being portrayed by a name-brand blond hero was only that: Although such notables as Christopher Reeve were considered for the part, the actor who plays the perfect son run amok in the NBC docudrama (which airs November 18 and 19) is an unknown whose work has seldom been seen outside his native Chicago. And while Gary Cole, 28, offers none of Redford's drawing power or rough-hewn good looks, he delivers a performance that had preview audiences cheering and critics predicting an Emmy. "He gave me goose bumps," reports McGinniss, who attended last month's press screening. "I don't think anybody expected him to do such a stunning job." Adds Freddy Kassab, the Long Island salesman who was MacDonald's father-in-law (and eventually his chief accuser): "His walk, his talk, his mannerisms—there's such perfection, it's eerie."

Two weeks before the Fatal Vision broadcast, Cole—a straightforward, boyish sort in jeans and a plaid cotton shirt—is sitting in an unpretentious Italian restaurant next door to the L.A. Stage Company, where he and Randy Quaid are finishing a run in True West. Nursing a beer, chewing gum and chain-smoking, Cole exhibits none of the barely concealed egotism of the young-buck actor on the rise. Never mind that the salary he netted for Fatal Vision was "more than I've ever earned in my life." When the day's second show is done, Cole goes home to a $560-a-month studio apartment on the scruffy fringes of Hollywood. Splurges come in the form of plane tickets to Chicago, where he lives in a town house with his casting director girlfriend, Shelley Andreas, 33. Averse to the notion of "sitting around waiting for work," he cannot face a permanent move to L.A. Chicago offers steady stage work, and Cole goes West only in pursuit of choice projects.

Before Fatal Vision, Cole's network TV experience had been confined to last December's Heart of Steel, with Peter Strauss, and although he co-starred in a New York production of True West and rejected a five-year contract for Miami Vice as "too limiting," he was working in the relative obscurity of Chicago theater when Shelley's business partner persuaded NBC to fly him to L.A. for the Fatal Vision audition. "I'd never heard of MacDonald until then," he reports. "I picked up McGinniss' book at the airport, and I found it really chilling."

The part of the murderous healer would prove astonishingly complex. Although MacDonald lived as a free man for almost a decade after his family was slain, the physician presented Army investigators with a paper-thin alibi for the night of Feb. 17, 1970. In his telling, a band of hippies had stormed the couple's quarters at Fort Bragg, N.C. and staged a bloodbath that somehow left him with only superficial wounds. The physical evidence told another story, and it was father-in-law Kassab, once MacDonald's staunchest defender, who pressed for the 1979 trial in which the Princeton-educated doctor was convicted of the triple murder.

For background on his character, Cole had McGinniss' meticulously researched book, but his only sources for MacDonald's voice and bearing were audiotapes of the doctor as he confronted investigators, a videotape of his 1970 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show and a clip from 60 Minutes. Cole felt that contacting MacDonald himself might be an imposition. "I'm interested in MacDonald as a person," he says, "but I didn't want to seek him out for something as banal as researching a character."

Curiously Cole chose to play the suave widower as an innocent—although McGinniss by the end of the book comes to the opposite conclusion. "MacDonald doesn't think he's guilty, and I never made a judgment," Gary says. "The most interesting thing to me is the turmoil he's in. He could be seen as a case study in human behavior. Anyone in a situation like that becomes a tortured person. Your whole life is put in front of people for them to see. In most of the scenes he's being hounded—his life is on the line."

Cole approached the role with some trepidation. Awed by his seasoned co-stars (Karl Maiden plays Kassab, Eva Marie Saint his wife, Mildred) and more accustomed to theater audiences than to TV cameras, Cole welcomed the dollops of friendly advice from Maiden et al. ("Karl said, 'The closer the cameras, the more you have to tell the truth.' ") Gary was also haunted by the dolorousness of the subject. Many of the scenes were played on a set that was a precise replica of the apartment where MacDonald's wife and his 5-and 2-year-old daughters were found dead in their beds. "I felt strange there," Gary says. "I remember picking up one of the girls to put her into bed and thinking about the real victims."

Cole also admits to feeling peculiar about "gaining success from someone else's tragedy. But a part of me says I've been living like a dog fox the last five years, and I deserve it. And this is based on a book researched by someone [McGinniss] that MacDonald was cooperating with. He's the one who started the publicity." (The good doctor apparently has changed his mind: When Fatal Vision airs, it will be against the wishes of his lawyers, who petitioned NBC to delay the broadcast until a North Carolina court rules on his most recent request for a retrial.)

Cole's pre-Vision existence did have its lean spots. A child of the Chicago suburbs (father Bob was an accountant while mother Peg worked as a secretary), Gary dropped out of the acting program at Illinois State as a junior. Inspired by Chicago's respected Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which classmate John (Places in the Heart) Malkovich helped found, Gary plunged into the Second City acting scene—tending bar and working as a wood stripper when he wasn't pitching himself at auditions. Later he banded together with eight others to create the Remains Theatre Company, a 55-seat house the actors built themselves. Profits were minimal, but Gary was exhilarated by the tenuousness of his existence: "I liked the fact that while everybody else had money and security, I was sleeping in the theater aisles and eating at the Hamburger King."

His doting mother remembers that time too, though not so fondly. "I've stood in the middle of the room and clutched my coat when I saw where he was living," says Peg Cole. "But Gary's an actor who has to work, and he'd sleep in a garbage can if that's what it took."

Those hardscrabble days may be over. "If this movie does nothing else," predicts McGinniss, "it will be the launching of a major career for Gary Cole." But Gary, for one, isn't waiting for fame to overtake him. Claiming to be wary of praise, he says he has no idea whether stardom will strike after Fatal Vision: "I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out what will happen in an acting career." Still Gary deems himself lucky: "I could be cleaning cages at the zoo." Rising from a table littered with the remains of a half-eaten pizza, he makes his way past the crazies at the bar and leans into the role that may soon be wrenched away—that of an anonymous craftsman who is nobody's heroic fantasy.

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