John Boorman Bet His Career on His Son, Charley—and Won

updated 08/19/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sipping Irish whiskey while he relaxes at his 40-acre estate south of Dublin, film director John Boorman talks like an artist—and a father—vindicated. He recalls without histrionics the two years of crises that accompanied the making of his latest movie, The Emerald Forest, which stars his teenage son, Charley. Now, Boorman notes. Forest has emerged as a summer box-office triumph in both the U.S. and Europe, grossing $18 million in its seventh week in the U.S. and Canada. "I was convinced the film had tremendous quality," he says with measured satisfaction. "I loved being in the Brazilian rain forest. I didn't mind being bitten and stung."

The biters and stingers he speaks of are creatures that fly, swing, slink and pad through the Amazonian jungle that is the film's setting. But he could have been referring to the money men in the motion picture industry, for whom the 52-year-old English filmmaker represented a considerable risk. Boorman is a director of distinctive vision with an uneven record. In 1972 he earned an Oscar nomination for his film Deliverance, based on the James Dickey novel. But two years later he took a fearful critical drubbing for a futuristic excursion titled Zardoz. To raise the $15.5 million budgeted for Forest, Boorman worked out a deal with Britain's Goldcrest Films and Television Ltd. But after they set up shop in Brazil, Goldcrest passed the ball to Embassy Pictures to carry on. Thus, almost from the start, the director felt he was under extraordinary pressures from the front office.

The major crisis erupted over Boorman's choice of Charley, then 17, for the role of Tommè, a golden-haired boy who has been kidnapped by an Amazon Indian tribe and reared in the wild. According to the elder Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg, his longtime associate and screenplay co-author, adamantly opposed the casting. The family connection didn't bother Pallenberg; he simply wanted a more seasoned player. And so he advised Embassy to withdraw from the film. "I felt betrayed," says Boorman, who has not spoken to Pallenberg since. "It was terribly damaging because Embassy executives lost even more confidence in the project, and I was under constant harassment right up to the time of the previews."

Boorman insists he did not start out planning to cast Charley in the principal part. The director interviewed more than 100 candidates for the role and screen-tested 40 of them. None came through with the blend of innocence, adolescence and directness that Boorman wanted.

Charley, with little acting experience beyond a cameo role in his father's earlier film Excalibur, was keen to try out. Athletic and quick-witted, he tested marvelously. Even a lifelong handicap seemed to work in his favor: Charley is dyslexic. "Because of his reading difficulties he was in some ways more immature than many kids his age," explains his father. "Yet in a curious way that made him more like the boy in the film. Charley can relate much more to a nonliterate society."

Still, Boorman was mindful of potential accusations of nepotism. "I didn't want to put myself or him under that kind of pressure," he says. "The film was going to be difficult enough to make without the burden of its success hinging on my own son." In the end Boorman took four screen tests, including Charley's, to Embassy officials without identifying the actors by name. His backers confirmed Boorman's choice.

That settled, it was now Charley's turn to get cold feet. "Suddenly I couldn't face it," he admits. "I was scared. Dad had to talk me into it. In the beginning there was a lot of resentment. Everyone thought I was this spoiled-brat son, and they didn't think for one moment I had got the part on my own merit. Eventually they accepted me, and a tremendous spirit developed among everyone on the film."

The Emerald Forest evolved from a true story of a Peruvian construction engineer (changed to a Texan for the film) whose 7-year-old son was abducted during a jungle outing. For a decade the father searched for his son. When he finally found him, the boy was so assimilated into tribal society that his father decided it was better to let him stay in the wild. Boorman found the tale haunting and poignant: "As a father I understand how you bring up kids and protect them. Then suddenly they are grown and you have to find it in your heart to let them go."

Boorman, his German-born wife, Christel, and their three daughters have always been especially protective of Charley because of his dyslexia. During primary school in Bray, near Dublin, Charley's twin, Daisy, even tried to hold herself back with the slow learners to keep her brother company. But despite his reading problems, Charley was never dense. He even confesses now that he often used his disability as an excuse for avoiding schoolwork.

His father notes that theirs is a family dominated by women. (Charley's older sister Telsche, 25, is married to a French journalist; Katrine, 24, is an actress.) As a result, he says, father and son "have this mutual and periodic need to escape." At the family's Georgian home in Ireland, they keep a number of horses, and Boorman and son frequently like to ride together. "Because of his problems in school," says John, "I took Charley on trips, once to Africa on safari."

Before making Forest, the elder Boorman, accompanied by an interpreter, went to live for two weeks among the Xingu River tribes in Brazil's remote Mato Grosso to learn indigenous ways. He chose not to film the tribesmen because it would be damaging to their life-style, and they seemed unable to grasp the concept of acting. Instead Boorman hired 60 extras—Brazilians of Indian descent—and sent them with Charley to a specially built training village where they could polish their bow-and-arrow shooting, canoe paddling and tribal dancing. "We went about almost naked to feel natural and to toughen our feet because the jungle floor is very rough," says Charley. "We got so we could stamp out cigarettes barefoot."

During the jungle filming, there were numerous scares. The worst came in a scene where Charley, playing Tommè, and his screen father, actor Powers Boothe, plunged 40 feet through rapids to escape the bad guys. "Powers took in a lot of water and almost drowned," says Charley. "He was hanging onto me, and I was screaming for help, but everyone thought we were acting." Finally, a frogman on standby for just such emergencies got the message and swam to their rescue.

After five months in the forest, John Boorman was proud to bring in his film $1 million under budget. He is prouder still of Charley's performance. To maintain professionalism on the set, Charley addressed his father as John, never as Dad. The young star concedes he had arguments with his demanding director. Nevertheless, says John, "to go through that sort of adventure with your son was fantastic. With all the hardships and pressures, we drew very close."

As a film newcomer, Charley was paid British Actors' Equity minimums and will be lucky to clear $25,000 for his work. Still, he says, "I know for certain that I will make acting my career." He is currently weighing several offers, but as an 18-year-old he is not entirely free to do what he wants. After finishing Forest, Charley was invited to spend some time in a real Amazon village, but his parents said no. They remembered that the boy in the film chose to stay in the jungle rather than return to civilization. "Those tribes exert such a powerful influence, I was worried that we might never see him again," his mother says with a laugh. Adds his father drolly: "We weren't prepared to risk life imitating art."

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