Jon Voight Thanks God for Putting Him Back on the Oscar Track with a Rousing Return in Runaway Train

updated 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Jon Voight won a Golden Globe for his change-of-pace performance as a mentally derailed escaped convict in Runaway Train, he reached into the bottom of his soul and told the audience: "I wish to give you more than my human thanks. I wish to thank you deeper than this." And that he did, with great intensity. Voight read an effusive, self-penned speech that sounded as if it were heavily influenced by Kahlil Gibran and Rod McKuen. His concluding remarks—"I am so humbly thankful that I can portray suffering souls, that you may see in some form or other a small light of God"—caused Runaway Train co-star Eric Roberts to leap to his feet applauding. Voight's widowed mother, Barbara, who accompanied her son to the ceremony, wiped away tears. The rest of the star-studded crowd sat dumbfounded, not sure how to react. For a while Voight, 47, heretofore unknown for his spirituality, had left them for the land of Shirley MacLaine.

In old Hollywood, aging stars like Voight would have found solace in booze and autobiographies. These days, there's a search for answers to life's deep questions. Voight, who is now up for an Oscar for Runaway Train, says his runaway spirituality is no new revelation: "My whole life has been a series of steps toward this focus, which I'm at here in the present." This spirituality, he adds, is a love of all mankind and all religions. Voight has no set definition of God. He feels his Golden Globe win was preordained. "I was shocked," he says. "But I knew then that God wanted me to give that speech. It was a statement of where I am spiritually. It is clear in my mind that my talent is God-given. So, I must thank God the most."

God may have rejuvenated Voight's sagging career (he hasn't had a hit in eight years) with a box office hit—the $8 million film has grossed $19.4 million—but He hasn't sent Jon someone to love lately. Voight lives alone in an unpretentious, disheveled house in the deluxe Trousdale section of Beverly Hills. His first marriage, to actress Lauri Peters, ended in 1967 after five years. His second marriage, to actress Marcheline Bertrand, lasted from 1971 to 1979, and produced his children, Jamie, 12, and Angie, 10. Despite Voight's divorce from Bertrand, they remain good friends. From the sound of it, they're also on the same spiritual wavelength. "We came together to be the channels for Jamie and Angie to come into this life," she says. "We will be friends forever." Voight sees his kids regularly. "If they need to go to the orthodontist or Marche needs a break or they need some help on homework, I like to help out. We do operate as a family," Voight says. Two years ago he broke up with his live-in girlfriend, actress Stacey Peckrin. Seems he's had his quota of aspiring actresses. "What is important to me is my relationship to God," he says. "I'm not looking for involvement, but I'm never closed to true love."

Voight, with his blond, all-American looks, got his first break in 1962 singing on Broadway in The Sound of Music. Since finding fame in 1969 with Midnight Cowboy, he's chosen intense character studies, such as his Oscar-winning portrayal of a paraplegic Vietnam vet in 1978's Coming Home. Right now, fixing breakfast in his kitchen, Voight could be auditioning for the Nick Nolte hobo role in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. His tousled hair is in need of a trim. His plaid shirt looks as if he had slept in it, and his jeans have food stains on them. His face is thin and pasty. Standing over a simmering bowl of oatmeal, he stirs in almond rice nectar, a natural sweetener. He then sprinkles Spirulina, a green, dietary supplement, on top. "This oatmeal makes my son Jamie throw up," he says, adding, "would you like some?"

Clearly Voight has no interest in traditional Hollywood glamour. "We should glamorize Mother Teresa," he says over herb tea in the dining room. "She is still in flesh. She's still in body. But she's the most pure. I saw her on a PBS talk show. When the host asked her about Jesus, she blushed as if he'd mentioned someone she loved romantically." With this revelation, Voight's eyes fill up with tears. Like Mother Teresa, he, too, is drawn to life's unfortunates. Looking back over his movies, Voight says, "I'd never discovered the adhesive element that tied my roles in Midnight Cowboy to Deliverance to Coming Home to Runaway Train. Now I realize, after great thought, that I am drawn to the question of why we suffer. I find some dignity in suffering. My roles all deal with this theme."

Having searched for "truth" through an intensive psychoanalysis in the '70s, Voight believes his quest for fulfillment is finally over. As he browses through a book, Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations, Prayers, he says, "I have reached a point in my life where I feel very powerful and very loving." Runaway Train co-star Rebecca De Mornay says Voight, when asked, enjoyed analyzing his character's spirituality during filming. "I would say, 'Jon, this is all very well, but my character is the one who connects with God—not yours,' " she recalls. Before Runaway Train, Voight made a movie to be released this spring called Desert Bloom, in which, he plays a troubled World War II vet. "His spirituality wasn't evident when we were filming," says producer Richard Fischoff. "It was after the film that he went on macrobiotics and lost a lot of weight and seemed to have found God, spiritualism and mysticism. I got the feeling [during shooting] that he had been through rough times."

Voight's next film is called Avatar. "Christ or Buddha is an avatar," says Voight, who adds, "I will play a modern one." In the meantime, he has the Academy Awards to look forward to next Monday. Should he win over Jack Nicholson, William Hurt, James Garner and Harrison Ford, there'll be another acceptance speech—one that could make his Golden Globe remarks seem shallow in comparison. "If I win the Oscar, there are a lot of things that I feel I must express, things I feel strongly about," Voight says. "I can't tell you exactly what I will say, but I will simply take the attention I will be given in that moment and direct it in the proper manner." Academy members take note: A vote for Voight may get you more than you bargained for.

From Our Partners