He didn't know Jack—the Nicholson variety anyway. But that didn't stop actor Matthew Modine—at a party seven years ago—from blithely inviting Hollywood's elder statesman to join a fledgling theater company. "Jack goes, 'All you %!#&in' New York actors, always talkin' about the theater!' " recalls Modine, doing a dead-on Nicholson imitation. "He turned his back to me, but I had the biggest smile on my face because he called me a New York actor. To me that was the gold standard."
In fact, under the tutelage of such directorial talents as John Sayles, Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick, Modine, now 40, has been proving his mettle for nearly 20 years, from his breakout role as an emotionally scarred Vietnam vet in 1984's Birdy to his stint as a team doctor in Oliver Stone's recent football epic Any Given Sunday. This week he does a star turn as a mentally challenged bakery store worker in a TV remake of the classic weeper Flowers for Algernon (CBS, Feb. 20). "He's so good, you never actually see him acting," says Algernon costar Kelli Williams (The Practice). "He can disappear into different roles, and you never know what to expect. He's a rarity." More than that, says Eric Stoltz, a pal since meeting Modine on the set of 1990's Memphis Belle, "Matthew's a virtuous man—kind, honest, steadfast and true. He's Gary Cooper-esque."
Such virtues, the modest Modine would likely insist, derive from his upbringing in a large, tight-knit Mormon family headed by his father, Mark, who operated drive-in movie theaters (he died in 1995), and his mother, Dolores, 68, a former bookkeeper. "We moved about every two years," says Modine, born in Loma Linda, Calif., the youngest of five boys and two girls. "The pilgrim mentality, the family aspects and sense of community the Mormon church has were a big part of our family," says Modine. No matter where their father's occupation later took them—San Diego; Salt Lake City; Orem, Utah—the siblings "all worked at the drive-ins," says Modine. "We got free movies and all the popcorn and soda we wanted. What more could a child ask for?"
In his case, tap shoes. After seeing a documentary about the making of the 1968 film Oliver!, Modine, the perpetually new face in school, "just really related to the kids in that movie," he says. "There was all this singing and dancing, so I figured performing was what I wanted to do." After his father acquiesced, says Modine, "I tapped as long as those shoes fit."
High school—in Imperial Beach, Calif.—was an even tighter fit for Modine, who immediately upon graduation packed up for New York City to become an actor. Discouraged after several months, the young man headed west to Brigham Young University but after a few weeks dropped out for a series of jobs, including stints as an electrician in Oklahoma and as a gofer for rock bands passing through Salt Lake City. In 1979, feeling like "a loser who had to get on with my life," Modine gave New York another go.
It was working as a chef at Au Naturel, a macrobiotic restaurant in Manhattan, that led him to meet the two women who would change his life. First, at the suggestion of a fellow actor working in the restaurant, Modine began acting classes with renowned coach Stella Adler, a mentor to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Then one day a counter clerk came into the kitchen and told Modine to hustle out front and check out a customer. "She was stunning," Modine says.
"She" was black-leather-clad Cari (Caridad) Rivera, then making her sultry way directly from an all-nighter at Studio 54 to her job at a nearby TV production company. A year later, Cari—she will say only that she is older than he is—married Modine at a 1980 Halloween-night costume ceremony at New York City's Plaza Hotel. "Everybody came in all these crazy costumes," recalls Cari (who played it straight). "My mother was like, 'Oh, the wedding photos!' "
Relax, Mom. Though you couldn't have known it at the time, the pair (along with son Boman, 14, and daughter Ruby, 9) would develop into the very picture of domestic tranquility. "Cari was the first one to believe in me," says Modine, who not long after his wedding made his feature-film debut alongside Rosanna Arquette in John Sayles's Baby, It's You in 1983, followed by Robert Altman's Streamers. With rave reviews for his work in Birdy and Stanley Kubrick's 1987 antiwar scorcher Full Metal Jacket, Modine ventured onto the stage (1990's Breaking Up) and TV (in the hugely successful 1997 CBS movie What the Deaf Man Heard). "It's been a circuitous route," he admits, one that has included the 1995 debacle Cutthroat Island and turning down the Tom Cruise
part in Top Gun because he disagreed with the film's cold-warrior politics. (During a 1984 visit to East Berlin, he explains, "I discovered for myself that Russian soldiers were just people.") Besides, he says, "I never set out to be rich and famous. I wanted to follow my own path."
With Cari, that path has led to a TV-free four-story townhouse in Greenwich Village, a short subway ride from Madison Square Garden and Modine's beloved Knicks basketball team. It's also ground zero for the couple's active social life of benefit galas and fashion shows (favorites include Valentino and Armani). "Everything is so convenient in New York," says Modine. "And it's multicultural. We don't have idiots like John Rocker."
A much slower pace prevails at Arbolay (after Spanish for "tree"), his 100-acre farm in Upstate Mill-brook, N.Y., just across the ridge from neighbors Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson. "There's something old-worldly about Matthew," muses Neeson, who's teaching him to fly-fish. "He's gracious and warm, and it's very comforting." Even more extraordinary than the grounds, which Modine, an impassioned horticulturist, plans to plant with hundreds of oak and pine trees, is the ambience inside the rambling four-bedroom house that Modine is restoring, in part by himself. "It's hard for me to separate Matthew from Cari," Stoltz marvels. "They've somehow formed a team based on love and respect, and they still care for each other. It's truly bizarre for this industry."
With home and heart well tended, Modine now intends to focus on that industry. "My career up to this point has been an apprenticeship," he says, as he contemplates "more scripts than I can read" and his starring roles in the upcoming drama Anasazi Moon (with Gary Oldman and Mary Steenburgen) and Very Mean Men (costarring Charles Durning and Martin Landau). "I've created a foundation. Now watch the house I'm going to build on it."
Sue Miller in Millbrook