It's opening night at Seattle's Intiman Theatre in October of 2004 and Tom Skerritt, a veteran of (by one count) some 138 movies and television series, has stage fright.
It’s opening night at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in October of 2004 and Tom Skerritt, a veteran of (by one count) some 138 movies and television series, has stage fright. He’s about to walk out in front of his friends and neighbors to play the narrator in “Our Town,” and going back on the boards after a hiatus of more than 30 years has left him sleepless.
No second takes. No film editor to clip out the errors. No breaks while crews set another camera angle. Skerritt is an Emmy-winning actor with nothing to prove, and yet he’s sweating the burden of carrying a stage production in his adopted hometown, Seattle.
“It was terrifying and exhilarating,” he recalls. “Better than therapy. And a great way to lose weight.”
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Opening-night reviews were cautiously complimentary. Skerritt, the master of film understatement, was not used to projecting his voice and had to be miked.
“Opening night, he was still fumbling and ill-at-ease with some of his dialogue,” said The Seattle Times’ Misha Berson. But “Skerritt sure is a genial charmer,” and his “good company helps to dispel the sense we’re being lectured to, patronized by an all-knowing guide.”
Good company is right. What saved Skerritt was that core of character that makes him quietly magnetic on screen. Like all stars, he is in some way likable, and in his case the integrity isn’t faked. Director Bartlett Sher bet Skerritt was the perfect choice for stage manager because the role was vintage Tom. What you see is what he is: the father in “A River Runs Through It,” the police chief on “Picket Fences,” the Tom Cruise mentor in “Top Gun,” the reluctant hero of “Alien,” crawling into an air duct to confront the monster.
Being the real deal seems odd praise for an actor. “There was a lot of pressure on Tom,” Sher recalls. “He wasn’t used to that kind of work — and yet expectations were very high. It’s such a quintessential American role. It was sort of like hiring (composer) Aaron Copland. It’s like working with Abe Lincoln, there’s such a soulful, deeply connected quality to his American voice.”
Skerritt, back on stage at age 71, says he ended each night on a performance-induced high, rejuvenated by a live audience, humbled by the opportunity, and unable to sleep for hours afterward. He agonized if he belonged. He ached to be better. Other cast members were on best behavior. Audiences were curious.
And by the end of the run, Sher says, “he was incredible.”
THOMAS ROY Skerritt, native of Detroit, inhabitant of Hollywood, chose Seattle as his new home 19 years ago, not the other way around. Yet if Seattle were to pick a movie star for membership here, it would be an actor like Skerritt: down-to-earth, soft-spoken, earnest about politics and art. Someone who has quite consciously joined our community instead of hidden from it. He is a believer in possibility and self-improvement. He even practiced hard with a neighbor’s kid to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game. (It was still a sinker.)
Skerritt is mildly workaholic and, despite his fondness for the 1960s, carries that sense of duty — that you should think, and read, and participate — typical of the Depression-World War II generation. When he’s not acting or working on his Seattle film school (www.thefilmschool.com), he writes, paints, plays tennis and more than keeps pace with his charming third wife, Julie Tokashiki, who is 30 years his junior.
Their self-designed home in Madison Park has a sweeping Lake Washington view but is the opposite of the Hollywood stereotype. Its size is comfortable but not overblown, its rooms cozy instead of ornate, its character Northwest instead of Californian. Skerritt has a wood-burning stove in his office, and his Emmy, for best actor on “Picket Fences,” is almost lost among the shelf-clutter of highbrow books, scripts and writing projects.
Skerritt is so familiar from films like “M*A*S*H,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Turning Point,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Contact” that he looks like an old friend when he answers the door. He’s mildly shy and looks a decade or two younger than he is. The rugged handsomeness is still there — he was once the centerpiece of a Guess Jeans ad campaign — and he boasts a thatch of iron-gray hair thick enough to defeat a weed-whacker.
He’s proud of his career, but refuses to take himself too seriously. A New York Times movie guide calls him “the best-known actor whose name is never remembered.” Skerritt himself recalls a writer’s comment that “he’s a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body,” a quip he liked.
Intiman’s Sher notes that actors often fall into two camps. There are the chameleons, the Meryl Streep or Philip Seymour Hoffman who morph and disappear into their roles. The others are more iconic, the Jimmy Stewart or Tom Cruise who play themselves in ways audiences ruthlessly demand.
Skerritt loves to play villains and is good at it, but his most familiar role is as a solid American authority figure, a soldier, cop or father. The political liberal has been an officer countless times, including Gen. William Westmoreland, and a police chief, sheriff, judge, detective, doctor, minister, Sam Houston, Joe Kennedy . . . and, yes, Strawberry in Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.” Most recently he has been patriarch William Walker in the television series “Brothers and Sisters.”
It’s been a gradual evolution for an actor who spent 20 years in show business establishing his identity. Skerritt got his first film role in 1962’s “War Hunt” while studying film at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’d been spotted in a production of “The Rainmaker,” and his was a supporting role as a sergeant in a scrappy, $250,000 independent Korean War film that would be forgotten except that it featured the film debuts of Skerritt, Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack and (in an uncredited role as an ambulance driver) Francis Ford Coppola.
Skerritt affected a drawl to advise new soldier Redford — a Dennis Hopper twang he has brought to other roles. Redford and Skerritt, who both had once hoped to play professional baseball, struck up a friendship.
Acting is a migratory profession where people are thrown into intense relationships for a few weeks or months and then never see each other again. Redford and Skerritt, however, stayed in touch, even as Redford became a marquee name and Skerritt a sturdily reliable supporting actor. Eventually, Redford cast Skerritt as the domineering, hapless father in “A River Runs Through It,” which the Seattle man regards as his most beautiful movie.
The fly-fishing casts were the product of stand-ins. Skerritt tells a story on himself about going to Montana afterward to fish with friends and dumbfounding guides with his angler ineptness, including a near-fall out of the boat.
On the set of “War Hunt,” both young actors, their technique still raw, recognized the weirdness of movie life, their turn to acting as an antidote for shyness, and their intellectual curiosity. They became friends, not competitors, and Redford remains a Skerritt fan.
“There was such a deep connection we made with each other that it matured into a level-headed friendship,” Redford says. “His values were close to mine, and he kept his integrity. He has a very deep, dry sense of humor. He treats the absurdities of the business as they are.”
Skerritt was a few years older and had a low-key cool that was perfect for the ’60s and a role in 1970’s M*A*S*H. If Redford was the all-American boy, Skerritt was laid back and hip. “He can be tough but keeps that deep within him,” the star says.
And if Redford effortlessly led the show in “War Hunt,” Skerritt complemented it. “It’s not about the closeup, it’s not about me,” Skerritt says. “It’s how I fit into the picture.”
Inevitably, Redford lost friends to envy as he shot to the top, but “Tom was always totally supportive.” Redford in turn recognized the struggles Skerritt was having balancing career with an unhappy first marriage.
Skerritt’s decision to get out of the L.A. madness in 1988 and move to Seattle, Redford says, “was rather a brave move.” Some of film work is simply staying in Hollywood’s eye. But Seattle, with its beauty, literate film audience and sense of place was a way for a grounded actor to go to ground.
SKERRITT GREW UP in a middle-class Detroit family, his father a small businessman and his mother a housewife. He had two brothers; a sister died as a child. If Tom couldn’t be a ballplayer he wanted to be Frank Sinatra, but he didn’t have the dash or voice.
He spent four years in the Air Force, and by the time he was 21, he was married to a young artist and had a baby. At Detroit’s Wayne State University he tried acting, then went off to California and film school at UCLA. He appeared in the television series “Combat!” shortly after “War Hunt,” and struggled through the ’60s with TV roles interspersed with odd jobs like brick-laying and construction. His first big break came when he was cast as Capt. Duke Forrest in Robert Altman’s ground-breaking film “M*A*S*H.”
“To this day that’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a film,” he says. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould “couldn’t wait to get out of that movie.” They feared Altman’s seeming anarchy would result in disaster. But Altman, who hired improvisational actors from San Francisco to do the background work as extras, had a vision of the final product he shared with Skerritt. “He told me that ‘M*A*S*H’ would be a two-ticket film. You’ll have to see it twice to catch all the jokes and dialogue.”
While the hit made stars of the film’s lead roles, Skerritt’s part wasn’t big enough to be a breakout. He played a highway cop as an uncredited “M. Bormann” (an inside joke about Nazi Martin Bormann being undercover in obscure film roles) in “Harold and Maude.” Altman had him back for “Thieves Like Us.” Television work in series like “The FBI” and “The Virginian” perked along. But by 1976, Skerritt was reduced to going to Italy to appear in productions like “Alle origini della mafia.”
It was a hard time. His first wife had developed mental illness, and Skerritt was struggling to sustain a career and take care of the three children they now had. He was only partly successful: He remains somewhat estranged from his oldest son, who blames Dad for not being home at critical, frightening times.
Some of the underlying steel that viewers sense in his later movie roles was forged in that period. Skerritt’s daughter, Erin, 43, the second-oldest, is a published poet with family of her own in Colorado, who says she now understands what her father was going through.
“Acting is all-absorbing. You have to give it everything or you’re not doing your job. There’s not always a lot of space for other things when you’re trying to be successful.”
Skerritt had to turn down the father role in “Ordinary People” because of family demands.
Her father, Erin says, “is a loving man who was caught in a quagmire.” He would bring his kids to the set to try to care for them because of their mother’s health, but inevitably they had to entertain themselves. There was frequent travel, 16-hour days on the set and tension. “I don’t know if I resented it,” she says, “but I didn’t always understand it. He worked hard to keep us sane in an insane environment.”
The children struggled with the oddity of having a famous father with a 40-foot face. Erin was dismayed when he portrayed villains, knew she got dates at times because of her last name, and made do with what was essentially a single-parent household until Skerritt married his second wife, Susan, in Rome in 1977.
It was the same year Skerritt’s career reached its own turning point with the role of Shirley MacLaine’s husband in “The Turning Point.” The film won six Oscars and got Skerritt the National Board of Review award for best supporting actor. “Alien” came two years later, and he’s been a fixture on screens ever since. Many will remember his Evan Drake on “Cheers” or his Sheriff Jimmy Brock on “Picket Fences.” He’s made his share of forgettable movies, but after two decades of trying, he was at long last established and comfortable.
Meanwhile, he and Susan had a child, Colin, and they began visiting Seattle because Skerritt’s brother lived in Kirkland. In 1980 Tom and Susan acquired a place on Lopez Island and started running a bed and breakfast there. In 1988 the family made the move north.
“We left L.A. because we wanted our own identity,” says Erin. But Tom’s marriage to Susan was not to last. They divorced in 1992.
Skerritt’s romance with Seattle, however, would endure.
SKERRITT LOOKS at his adopted city and sees a potential Athens or Florence. “When I came up here I felt there was this huge creative community,” he says, “and that the city was blasé about its creative energy.”
So he helped start a film school to encourage independent film-making. Each spring, the school runs an intensive course. He took a role in the Seattle-set “Singles” in 1992. Agreed to serve on the Seattle Arts Commission. Serves now on the national board of American Rivers, a conservation group.
Now 73, he’s writing a couple of scripts, is scheduled for one award at the Rainier Club and another from his old school Wayne State, and is happier than he’s ever been.
His present wife, Julie Toka, was a studio executive leery on the first date but who found Skerritt a soul mate and a romantic. They were married in 1998, and both remain clearly smitten with each other. His son, Andy, 45, is a computer expert. Matt, 40, has directed music videos and written. Collin, 29, is in Seattle.
What’s Skerritt really like? “He’s always been an intellectual person, a deep thinker, very thoughtful,” his daughter says. “He’s a creative person. Retirement would make him blow a gasket. And he’s a very traditional person — extremely traditional.” The ’60s hipster — who admits to smoking pot back then and more than one dalliance — was underneath it all a Celtic Midwesterner, a product of Our Town.
He’s not the jerk of “Contact,” Erin assures. “Top Gun”? Yes: “He can be a pretty stern guy. And the minister in ‘A River Runs Through It’ reminded me of my Dad.”
The film roles and his character fused in a way he could never have predicted at the beginning.
Ruth True, owner of the Western Bridge Gallery in South Seattle, remembers when she asked Skerritt to be a speaker at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. “He walked into the cathedral and was so emotional and so dramatic,” she says. “The space seemed to inspire him. But he’s also so accessible and down-to-earth. He’s so normal.”
Laura Clough met him at a coffee shop, and their families became friends. Her son Jackson helped him practice that Mariners pitch, and son Tyler was in the boat in Montana when Skerritt almost fell out trying to fish. “He’s my kids’ favorite person,” she says. “He’s such a good listener.”
Skerritt can also cook — cheesecake is a specialty.
What strikes you when watching Skerritt acting is how he conveys so much with so little. Screen work allows him to turn a story on a small gesture, or signal an emotion with a glance. There is a rhythm to the work that is different between stage, screen and TV, and actors, he says, “have a sound.”
“Memorizing your lines is just the beginning. The rest of it has to come from within. It’s like an iceberg. How deep can you go with those ideas?”
What he hopes to contribute to his adopted city is to add to its own creative integrity, its depth. Seattle, he says, has the most sophisticated film audience in the nation. It reads more than anyplace else. It has a dynamic combination of Nordic conservatism and entrepreneurial chutzpah. “What’s going on in this city is as creatively intense as anywhere,” he says. It needs to recognize how good it is.
So his return to live stage was not just a tribute to Thorton Wilder’s fictional village. It was testament that in our town, Tom Skerritt has become one of us.
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Harley Soltes is a Seattle-area freelance photographer.