John Malkovich

updated 12/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Robert Redford he's not. Pigeontoed, patchy-bald and pale as a haddock, John Malkovich sports a wall-to-wall mouth that could just possibly garage a Toyota, wears thrift-shop threads that would embarrass a flood victim and wambles when he walks as if he had rubber bones. Never mind. At 31, he's the most exciting new actor of the year—and what a year he's had.

In March, playing Biff to Dustin Hoffman's Willie, he opened on Broadway in Death of a Salesman and gave "a spellbinding performance" (New York Times). In June, moonlighting between showings of Salesman, he drew on Hoffman's ample wallet to help mount an off-Broadway version of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead—a production that wired ergs of hectic energy into a static drama and made Malkovich the year's hot new stage director. A few months after that success he launched a screen career with Oscar-quality performances in two of the year's best movies—as the blind boarder in Robert Benton's Places in the Heart and as the scruffy, inscrutable combat photographer in Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields.

Seldom since Brandolatry went out of fashion has a young actor incited such superlatives. Critics found "mystery" and "danger" in his "simmering stillness." Director Benton noted his "amazing leaps of imagination" and director Joffe said he was "like a supremely skillful mountaineer who makes the impossible look easy." Hoffman called him "wonderfully giving—when you work with John the synergy is terrific."

And to work with John, all agree, is to love the man. "He's gentle, kind and unpretentious," says Sally Field, who stars in Places in the Heart. "But he's wickedly irreverent, too, and terribly funny." Droll is the word. In a fancy French restaurant Malkovich murmured gravely to his waiter, "I'll take a six-pack of Bud, please." And when he visited his mother-in-law, he gave her a big hug and said sweetly, "Hello, Mommie dearest."

Malkovich is hardly blown away by the adoration. "I've been wildly over-praised," he says, "and it's made me realize I don't really care what people think—at all. The only person I ever really gave a damn what he thought about me was my father. He's my idea of what it is to be an American—you choose what you want to do and do it with a vengeance. If I can live like that, I don't need to be rich and famous."

Malkovich's father, who died in 1980, was a passionate lover of nature who became Illinois' director of conservation. John grew up in Benton, III. (pop. 7,778)—where his mother works for the local daily, which is published by John's grandmother, still on the job at 84—and even as a small child he displayed a flair for the dramatic. At 2, he toddled out onto the roof and climbed the TV antenna. At 3, he thumbed a ride to a park four miles from home. His tantrums were so theatrical that his older brother and three younger sisters locked him out of the house and chanted, "Mad dog! Mad dog!" In high school he was fat (230 pounds) and slow but longed for the glory and girls that surround a quarterback. So he ate nothing but Jell-O for three months and lost 60 pounds.

Malkovich got into acting because he had nothing better to do. After graduating from Illinois State University at Normal, urged on by friends, John joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, a shoestring troupe in Chicago, and spent 10 years building sets, sewing costumes, producing, directing, acting. To make ends meet, he worked his way up to "head cabbage cutter" at a local Chinese restaurant.

Fame arrived like a misaddressed bouquet—totally unexpected. In 1982, making his off-Broadway debut in a Steppenwolf production of Sam Shepard's True West, an update of the Cain and Abel legend, Malkovich played Cain as a sort of polka-dot python, simultaneously sinister and hilarious. "That man," said Benton between the acts, "is either a psychopath or one of the great actors of our time."

Malkovich sees himself as neither. "I'm still really a small-town person," he says. "I've never used drugs. I don't even drink. My idea of fun is to stay home and stain a piece of furniture." He lives in a small East Side sublet with his wife, Glenne Headly, 29, a member of the Steppenwolf pack who had a key role in Balm in Gilead. "She's real funny and a terrific actress," he says. "And she's also a lot smarter than I am. Like for instance, I'm an idiot about money. I can hardly write a check. She reads the contracts and pays the bill in restaurants. I'm not exactly in a power position in my marriage"—this with a sly smile—"but we get along real well, usually. Except when I mimic her voice, which is high and squeaky."

Now in Europe filming Eleni with Kate Nelligan and Linda Hunt, Malkovich is scheduled to direct an off-Broadway play (Bruce and Marie) in the spring and to play Biff in a TV version of Salesman for CBS. "I love doing the work," says the actor from Chicago, but sometimes the kid from Benton, III. feels out of place in this glittering new world. "What I'd really like to be," he says dreamily, "is a wide receiver on a pro football team. That is, if I could run the 100 three seconds faster—and if everybody would promise not to hit me very hard."

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