06/04/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Tim Sampson auditioned in 1999 for the role of Chief Bromden in the Broadway revival of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, he remembered something his father said almost 20 years before. "He told me I would be in this play," says Sampson, 44, whose dad, Will, played the broom-pushing Native American in the Oscar-winning 1975 film version. "I thought, 'You're crazy.' I didn't even want to be an actor then."
Clearly, Father knew best. Not only has the 6'3" Sampson received critical kudos for his work, he's been able to pay tribute to his father, who died in 1987 from complications of a heart-lung transplant at the age of 53. Says Tim's cousin Monty Bass, 44: "It's a great way for him to reconcile his feelings about his loss and grief."
And to honor his Native American roots. Sampson was raised in Okmulgee, Okla., by Will, a member of the Creek tribe, and by his paternal grandmother, Mabel, who died in 1998. (Tim's parents divorced when he was a baby and he never knew his mother.) After graduating from an Indian boarding school in 1975, he flew to L.A. for a screening of Cuckoo's Nest and stayed, working mainly as a stuntman before landing a part on Northern Exposure.
When Nest closes in July, He'll return to L.A.—where he lives with his son T.J., 21, in a guest house. (He divorced T.J.'s mom in 1998 and has a daughter, Tafv, 11, from another relationship.) "I love to explore New York," says Sampson, "but I miss [L.A.'s] In N Out Burger."