The Pursuer Is Pursued

updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

TO GET TO THE HEART OF WHAT TOMMY LEE JONES IS ABOUT, consider for a moment Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, the prickly, brilliant, compulsive pursuer of poor, haunted Dr. Richard Kimble in the current megahit movie The Fugitive. They are not, of course, one and the same: Jones is the actor; Gerard is the inspired figment of his imagination. But there are similarities. They are both brusque and intense, gruffly affectionate with their friends and colleagues while suffering fools not at all. And both are, utterly and sublimely, enigmas, men of deep and unfathomable waters. "I have no idea what makes Tommy Lee tick," says his friend and fellow actor Tim Scott, "but whatever it is, Tommy Lee ticks his own way, and I enjoy it."

In that regard he's hardly alone. With his performance in The Fugitive, which has grossed some $90 million in its first three weeks in release, Jones steals the show from superstar Harrison Ford (who plays Kimble), earning reviews that liken him to Bogart and moving New Yorker critic Anthony Lane to call him simply "the best supporting actor in America." And yet these latest intimations of possible superstardom leave Jones, 46, a veteran of more than three dozen film and TV projects (including JFK, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Executioner's Song and Lonesome Dove) assiduously unimpressed. "Tommy Lee always thought he was a household name," jokes his friend Willie Nelson. At the same time, adds Joel Schumacher, now directing Jones in the film version of John Grisham's The Client, Tommy Lee almost wishes he weren't. Explains Schumacher: "He's embarrassed by the vanities and fripperies of stardom."

The fact is, if Jones had his druthers, he would keep to the company of the heifers on his 3,000-acre ranch in San Saba, Tex., 150 miles north of San Antonio, where he and his family live, and leave the politics of doing press—second in offensiveness only to hobnobbing in Hollywood—to folks who actually worry about image, about fame, about What People Think. "He's got cattle to worry about and horses, and a friend down the road who needs a fence," explains Scott. But Jones's wife, Kimberlea, 35, says her husband is not, at bottom, a standoffish fellow. After shooing Tommy Lee out of earshot in their lakeside rental home near Memphis, where they and their two children, Austin, 10, and Victoria, 2, are staying while he shoots The Client, Kimberlea discusses his softer aspect. "He has a very rough-looking face," she says, "and maybe a rough demeanor—but he's a sweetheart inside."

Sweetheart? That's right, agrees makeup artist Carla Palmer, who befriended Jones on the set of the 1989 CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove: "He's cordial. He's polite. He opens doors." Still, she says, "he's not a huggy type of actor, like so many others. He keeps to himself. It's not like he's a 'bud' or anything."

Decidedly not a Hollywood type, Jones chooses for his friends kindred spirits like fellow horsemen Nelson, Gary Busey (his costar in last year's Under Siege) and Robert Duvall (a good friend since Lonesome Dove). Fun for Jones and his gang is a few days working cattle in Texas. When he does do Hollywood, he does it Tommy Lee-style. Like the time a few months back when he, Busey and Nelson hung out in Nelson's L.A. hotel room. "We displayed our belt buckles to see whose was the biggest," says Busey. "It was Texas bonding of the highest degree."

Behind the macho posture, friends say, is unflinching loyalty. When a campaigning Al Gore swung into San Antonio last summer, for example, he knew he could rely on his old Harvard roomie. "I was asked to warm up the crowd," chuckles Jones. Says Lonesome Dove writer-producer Bill Wittliff: "Tommy Lee is somebody you could trust with anything. There is a saying in Texas: 'He'll do lo ride the river with.' That's Tommy Lee. Smooth water, rough water, you can depend on him."

Perhaps that's because Jones, the only child of Clyde Jones, a cowboy turned oil-field worker, and his wife, Marie, learned to depend on himself while navigating the rough currents of his West Texas childhood. According to Kimberlea, Tommy Lee has described his early years as "psychologically brutalizing." Typically he does not elaborate, though a friend, screenwriter Gary DeVore, says the elder Jones, who died seven years ago, "was what we would call abusive today. Back then they just called it 'raising them up.' " When Tommy Lee was in his teens, Clyde announced he was going off to work in the oil fields of North Africa. Tommy Lee wanted to play football and didn't want to go overseas. "Well," said his dad, "if you can find a school here ..."

Jones did just that with a scholarship to St. Mark's, an elite prep school in Dallas. The school afforded Jones more than a chance to play ball. "Books and literature, at those times, weren't pushed in small towns," says fellow Texan Wittliff. "But St. Mark's pushed those things. And Tommy Lee responded." After graduating, he headed for Harvard, where he was an all-Ivy offensive guard, performed Shakespeare, Brecht and Euripides and graduated cum laude in English literature in 1969. Jones hardly flaunts that Ivy pedigree. Says Nelson with a guffaw: "He never even told me he went to Harvard. Maybe he thinks it's too intellectual to be manly."

Immediately after graduation, Jones landed his first role off-Broadway and soon began day lighting as Dr. Mark Toland on the soap One Life to Live. In 1975, Jones moved to Hollywood with his first wife, actress-writer Kate Lardner, and her two children from a previous marriage. Their seven-year union was breaking up around the time Jones met model turned actress Lisa Taylor on the set of the 1978 thriller Eves of Laura Mars. He and Taylor split a few years later. "We parted friends," says Taylor. "I adore him."

But Jones look the breakup hard. Bad-tempered and drinking heavily, he got into a boozy scuffle with DeVore, the scriptwriter on 1981's Back Roads, in which Jones played a down-and-out fighter, but the two became close friends afterward. A few weeks later, the film crew arrived at South Padre Island, near Corpus Christi, Tex., and Jones set his bleary eyes on the young woman who would change his life: an extra named Kimberlea Cloughley, then 22, fresh out of the University of Texas, where she had majored in photojournalism. "I was afraid of him," she says, but Jones won her over. "I'm crazy over horses," says Kim, "and when he found out, he had five polo ponies sent down for us to ride on the beach." When the movie wrapped, she figured their courtship would fade out, too. "I guess you're going back to California now," she said.

"Well, actually, no," he replied. "Can I stay here with you?" Within a year they were married—and what Kim refers to as "his wild days" came to an end.

Today, happiness means being home on the range. Tommy Lee likes to take Austin—known as Bubba—to the movies; he tends to the flowers in his gardens; he cooks. And sometimes, reluctantly, he's got to do what a man's got to do—like the time Kimberlea woke up on Christmas morning and told the future Marshal Gerard he'd have to go and track down a turkey. Tommy Lee was not pleased. "Oh, it's so cold out," he complained. No need to warm the car, though. He just opened the screen on the bedroom window, took out his .22 Magnum rifle and aimed it at a flock of wild turkeys strutting across the backyard. Bang. Christmas dinner fell to the ground. Then Tommy Lee Jones put down his rifle, and Hollywood's most reluctant hero went back to bed.

BOB STEWART in San Antonio and VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles

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