03/06/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
JOHN SAVAGE STEPS UP TO THE box office of a theater near Los Angeles and tells a teenage staffer that he's performing in the day's benefit show. She smiles and writes out his pass: "Jon Voight." Oops! A security guard observes the error, rushes over and apologizes profusely. "That's okay," says Savage, 45, who was once among the hot young stars in Hollywood, and who may be best remembered as the paraplegic steelworker in 1978's The Deer Hunter. "Jon Voight is a good man to be mistaken for."
Savage isn't about to let a minor slight slow him down. He is on a quest to fulfill at least some of his early promise. This time around, he's starting out in prime time, playing a wheelchair-bound intelligence officer in Op Center, NBC's 4-hour miniseries, a new Tom Clancy work, which airs Feb. 26 and 27. Part of a team saving the world from nuclear disaster, Savage's character "is a guy with a grudge," says Op Center director Lewis Teague, who notes that "John's intensity went well with the character."
Savage has been a blip on Hollywood's radar screen since 1988, when he went to South Africa for what he thought would be a brief trip to arrange financing for a film. But after getting caught up in the excitement of the anti-apartheid movement, Savage, who had been a civil rights activist back in the U.S., wound up staying five years. He went to dangerous townships like Soweto and Alexandria, shot TV news footage, helped director Spike Lee on 1992's Malcolm X—and fell in love. Savage and Sandi Schultz, 31, a South African actress he met while he was producing a film she was in, were married in 1993.
Savage's absence did not exactly leave Hollywood feeling deprived. Despite some 30 feature films to his credit, including 1979's Hair, the best work he could get by the late '80s was a string of forgettable TV movies. After Savage left for South Africa, rumors of a drinking problem circulated through Hollywood, but both Savage and his manager Michael Wallach deny them. "I didn't have a problem with drinking—other people had a problem with my drinking," says Savage.
Savage has been finding his way out of tough situations for a long time. Born John Youngs, he grew up in suburban Old Bethpage, N.Y., one of four children of Floyd, an insurance salesman, and his wife, Muriel, a homemaker. Savage contracted polio at age 4 and missed so much school that he wound up in special-ed classes. A teacher encouraged him to try singing, and soon, says Savage, 'it all came together for me. There's music in words, poetry, theater. Music got me going—though I couldn't answer questions about 10 plus 20."
Savage was awarded a full scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. At 18, he married fellow student Susan Baptist, a year his senior. By the time they split up two years later, they had two children: Jennifer Youngs, now 26 and an actress who plays the Swedish immigrant on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and Lachlan Youngs, 25, an urban anthropology student in Boston.
Savage's career got off to a better start than his home life. He made his professional stage debut at 14 off Broadway in The Drunkard, changed his name to Savage ("It sounded cool," he says) and went on to Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof. By 1973, he was off to Hollywood to star with Jane Fonda in Steelyard Blues.
Career heat is not the only thing Savage wants to rekindle. It's important for him, he says, to become an active father again, especially now that Lachlan, who has an 18-month-old son, Zolan, has made him a grandfather. "I haven't been supportive enough," Savage says. Daughter Jennifer disagrees, saying that "he went out of his way to take us with him" on location. And, Jennifer explains, he's stayed so close to his first wife, Susan, now a nurse in Massachusetts, that he practically asked her permission to remarry.
Savage decided to move back to the U.S. with Schultz in 1993 after he was attacked and hospitalized overnight while organizing car pools during a strike that kept blacks from their jobs. The assault made Savage reexamine his priorities. "My children live here," he says. "I am an American."
He is also an increasingly busy actor. Apart from Op Center, Savage has a part, opposite Jack Nicholson, in The Crossing Guard, a upcoming movie directed by Sean Penn. "He came in and read," says Penn, "and hit it out of the ballpark." Now Savage seems happy to consider most roles—except that of self-pitying former star. "I don't feel badly about my career," says Savage, "because I've just been doing what I wanted."
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles