Tommy Lee Jones has spent years running away from nosy reporters, fawning fans, and the typical movie star lifestyle. With his recent success, he can’t run anymore.
These days, there are several ways to look at Tommy Lee Jones, but only one is essential. Certainly on this day, with a scene to be shot in the muraled and gilded dining room of Memphis’ historic Peabody hotel, it is enough for the assembled fans and film crew to see him in character, costumed down to his buffed fingernails as a self-important prosecutor in the film version of John Grisham’s best-seller The Client. The onlookers might also note that Jones is an actor who has accrued his share of fame, thanks to unforgettable roles in The Executioner’s Song, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lonesome Dove, and JFK. With Jones’s most recent, electrifying performance in The Fugitive—a film whose domestic grosses projected to reach a very impressive $200 million—it is also possible to see him as a man experiencing a particular rite of passage.
All the signs are there. Flashy upcoming roles: a vengeful prison warden in Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers and a heartbroken GI in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth. Blessings from the media: the New York Times (TOMMY LEE JONES SNARLS HIS WAY TO THE PINNACLE), the Los Angeles Times (HOT ON THE TRAIL WITH MR. JONES), and Time (HOT DAMN, HE’S GOOD). The usual plaudits from formidable movie directors: Stone calls his work in Heaven and Earth “a shattering performance”; Andrew Davis, who directed Jones in The Fugitive, christened him the Southwestern Bogart. People and the tabloids are sniffing around his private life (“His dad was a drunk who made his childhood hell,” declares the National Enquirer). No less a personage than Rosanne Arnold has the hots for Jones; she recently told a reporter that she likes “a guy who looks like he’s been messed up and pushed around.” And so it goes, as the popular culture makes its effort to claim him, as his fabled ragged edges are smoothed, as everyone grows accustomed to viewing him in the most coveted of American roles—that of major motion picture star.
But to see Jones in this way is to miss the point, to miss a truth that is about as well hidden as the pocked and rutted sun-stained skin that easily defeats his pancake makeup today. The truth is that in spite of a long and arduous journey from poverty to privilege to this level of success, in spite of playing such characters as homicidal killers, haunted lawmen, and heartsick husbands—all in a way that gives them their due—Tommy Lee Jones, at 47, is fundamentally unchanged. You hear it in his voice, which is both rich and rough, clipped and drawly in the manner of a good country preacher. You hear it in his choice of words, which are measured and can sometimes verge on the old-fashioned (“unseemly” is a favorite). You see it in his face, where vicious cheekbones defend eyes that express equal parts danger and compassion. You see it in his body, with that chest presented like a gift to the world, like someone who is well accustomed to the attentions of women and the challenged of men. And most of all, you see it in his manner, which can go from a courtly gentleness to the promise of a fistfight: This is a man who belongs to the hard, arid West Texas of his youth and will forever live there, no matter where he goes.
That he happens to be on a Memphis movie set becomes purely incidental after just a few moments. Jones settles into an interview like a ranch hand at a dance: formal, wary, intent on doing his best. Family history becomes a treatise on the JY ranch. Artistic goals are presented elementally (“I like very much for my family and neighbors to see themselves in me—that’s what I’m for”). Pushed to reveal the erudition he is known for among his friends, the Harvard-educated Jones fidgets. And impressive discourse on the ways in which his beloved T. S. Eliot influenced American art is abruptly punctuated with “He’s had an influence on me—and I’m working.” Jones is not a man you are likely to catch jawing with Jay Leno or confessing his sins to Barbara Walters; these talents he lacks. The game will be played, but only on his terms. “At home,” he allows, as he lets the first light escape from his bottomless dark eyes, “we do value our individuality.”
“All I’m gonna do is show up and do what I’m told,” Tommy Lee Jones instructs Client screenwriter Akiva Goldsman as they confer over a few lines in Jones’s trailer. Some of the people on the set are worrying whether the scene to be shot today moves quickly enough, but Jones is not one of them. The troublesome party in this case is an oyster, which prosecutor Roy Foltrigg, played by Jones, wants FBI agent Jason McThune, played by J. T. Walsh, to hurry up and eat. The longer McThune plays with his food, the longer their quarry—a boy who is the key to solving the assassination of a U.S. senator—remains on the run. The problem, presented by Goldsman with the soothing but intent manner of a doctor on rounds, is that the oyster may be slowing down the movie as well. Jones’s lines are: “Just eat the damn thing. I want that kid in court tomorrow. Get it in you and grab that child.” Should they be cut or changed to speed things up? Jones grins at Goldsman and prints “just do it” at the bottom of the page. Goldsman grins back.
“Just eat the damn thing and have it run down your throat,” Jones sneers on his way to the set, as he begins transforming himself into Foltrigg. Dressed in a splendid double-breasted suit and a glorious foulard tie, Jones moves forward with a prosecutor’s cock-of-the-walk stride. He stops to accept greetings from fans and to exchange small talk with the crew, already broader and more loquacious than his normal self, convincing as someone whose future depends on the vicissitudes of judicial politics rather than those of Hollywood. Foltrigg does not seem out of place in the shadier regions of the Tommy Lee Jones repertoire; he is a bully and an opportunist, one of The Client’s less-than-likable personalities. But author Grisham excels at plot, not character. It will be up to Jones to bring Foltrigg to life, and the way his character orders a man to eat an oyster is just as important as the way he tries a case.
Jones takes his seat at a table in the center of the lavish restaurant set, which positions him right in the center of director Joel Schumacher’s video monitor and, at this moment, the movie. The Client has Big Box Office Potential written all over it: Audiences should be kindly disposed toward the film, as it has major stars (Jones shares top billing with Susan Sarandon), a major director (Schumacher’s credits include Flatliners and Falling Down), and a script based on a wildly successful book (Grisham’s The Firm was also a huge movie hit). The Client might serve as lighter fare for Jones’s artistic side, but it could prove more substantial for his commercial prospects. The better roles go not necessarily to the best actors but to those who can bring in the most money; though Jones has enjoyed critical success throughout his career, it wasn’t until the financial success of Under Siege (which starred Steven Segal but was stolen by Jones) and The Fugitive that he proved he, too, could draw audiences in large numbers. For now, at least, everyone wants him. “I’m so thrilled he said yes,” coos Schumacher, who looks like a cross between a rabbi and a Cherokee. “He makes everything work. He can make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”
Or oysters. Schumacher says of the mundane scene to come, “The ones where they murder your children are easy. These are the hardest to do.” In subsequent rehearsals, Jones improvises, building on the language and the delivery of his few lines. He is accustomed to working this way. In The Fugitive he and director Andrew Davis converted deputy U.S. marshal Samuel Gerard from a loner to someone who thrives on the energy and loyalty of his own investigative team. “The supporting players could have been played by rubber gloves,” says Jones, describing the original script. “The audience had more to identify with if these characters became human.” So too with Foltrigg. You may despise him by the time Jones is done with him, but you will know him.
Take one (impatiently) “Stab at it with your fork and stick it down your throat. I want that kid in court and on the stand mañana.”
Take two: (angrier) “You know what I’m telling you? Stab it with your fork. Just eat the damn thing, McThune. Get it in your mouth! Don’t you have something to do somewhere?”
Take three: (just as angry, but colder; oyster remains impaled) “You hear what I’m tellin’ you? Don’t you have something to do? Go wake somebody up.” (Slams a salt shaker down for emphasis.)
What is interesting about the scene is how alone Jones appears in it, or rather how alone he is with the character. In just a few takes, Foltrigg has come alive in several variations. Schumacher rarely intervenes, and Jones seems to be the only actor on the set who needs little to nothing from him. Other actors eye the director expectantly with the completion of each take; Jones simply moves on to the next. When Schumacher finally decides that there is, indeed, too much talk of oysters and not enough action, Jones does not mourn his lost line; in the grips of his imagination, he simply diverts his energy elsewhere. As the scene continues, a woman at the next table in the restaurant approaches Foltrigg for an autograph, and the surly prosecutor becomes momentarily flirtatious. In character, Jones signs the autograph agreeably as he has done in previous rehearsals, but then he broadly studies the actress’ backside as she returns to her chair. “Sure is nice to see you,” he improvises winningly, and the crew bursts into applause. The oyster is gone, but Jones has lost nothing.
“A misled mind and a misinformed mind is more harmful to life than AIDS,” Tommy Lee Jones reads in a gravely Southern patois. He is standing outside a ramshackle building in a poor black Memphis neighborhood of listing Victorian gingerbread and crumbling storefronts. Jones’s text is one of many hand-lettered signs nailed to an old brick store that is now the studio of Joe Light, a folk artist of some renown. Jones, who collects what is often described as primitive art, had spied the place on the ride to another set for this afternoon’s shoot. With time to kill, connections were made via car phone (“We’re visiting from San Antonio and we’re familiar with and interested in your art”), and now Jones awaits Light’s arrival.
Directly, the artist drives up in a battered blue Mercury, smoke billowing from its tail pipe. He is a tall middle-aged man the color of coffee grounds; a portion of his hair has been straightened and another part crests in an ebullient wave. Jones extends a hand in greeting: “Mr. Light, I’m Tommy Lee Jones.” Light takes in Jones’s Lincoln Town Car and driver and registers if not recognition then a very warm welcome.
The studio is dusky and chaotic, thick with the smell of turpentine, the ceiling stained from an ancient leak. Paintings, mostly on wooden boards, are strewn about the room, their prices indicated by tiny strips of pencil-marked masking tape. The work has a childlike loveliness—deceptively simple renditions of birds, trees, and fish shot with color and animation, usually accompanied by Light’s philosophical captions. “I’ll let y’all have anything half-price,” he says. “Y’all are my first customers.”
Jones prowls the studio, picking up this painting and that one, until his eye is drawn to a work in the back that is painted on a hollow-core door. It depicts an exuberant Southern mansion painted yellow, surrounded by dancing orange-colored trees; the ground the house sits upon is a radiant green dotted with wild red patches, and the sky is awash in frantic blue brushstrokes. Jones studies it, walks away, and then is drawn back. “Does it represent any particular house?” he asks Light. “Any particular one?”
Light shakes his head, and Jones returns to his hunt. He picks up a smaller work, a boisterous fish, studying it from end to end. “Do you know you are famous, Mr. Light?” Jones asks without looking up.
Grinning, Light acknowledges that he does indeed know that he is famous.
“This kind of color is what you’re famous for,” Jones instructs, still admiring the painting.
Light laughs softly. “Nobody ever told me that,” he says, shaking his head. “I never knew the reason why. That’ll make me add more color to my pictures.”
While Tommy Lee Jones would be the last guy to add color to his pictures, he should not be confused with someone who is indifferent to fame. The media have painted him as an anti-star star; they deride him for being a hostile interview subject while they laud him for abandoning Hollywood for the home in northeast San Antonio he shares with his wife of twelve years, Kimberlea, and their two children, ten-year-old Austin and two-year-old Victoria. But Jones is no critic of the film industry; a mildly contemptuous comment about Hollywood produces a torrent of praise not just for Oliver Stone and Andrew Davis but for Terry Semel and Bob Daly, the current heads of Warner Bros. He has devoted his life to the pursuit of creativity within a commercial context—to him it is important not just to be famous but to know why. The better to decide what to do with it.
Born in 1946 in San Saba, Jones spent his early life tied to the oil fields. His people had worked ranches in the area for generations, but his father bet on the future and became a roughneck. “When I went to work with my dad, I got to see a very big machine and the brave men working on it,” Jones recalls. It was a go-to-sleep-in-one-town-wake-up-in-another kind of life, hard and cold as a blue norther in the desert. “We were poor as snakes,” says one of Jones’s cousins, country singer Boxcar Willie. The domestic drama of divorce and remarriage that was his parents’ life Jones once described as “a psychically horrifying story.” An only child, he had nothing but his dreams as comfort. It was something of a family joke that whenever guests came to visit, he packed a suitcase and attempted to leave with them. By the time the family moved to Midland, Jones was a difficult and angry boy who lived on the wrong side of town, a kid whose job one summer was working on a garbage truck. But he was also handsome and charming when he wanted to be, a natural with the girls and a natural on the athletic field, the keys to fame in that part of the world.
“Football was a reason for living,” Jones says. “It was everything. I’d lie awake at night dreaming of the day I could play.” When he signed on in the seventh grade, he weighed only 98 pounds. “Most people I played with were bigger than me. That made me faster, meaner,” he says. Football gave his life a center and some much-needed discipline; when his parents threatened to take that away—when Jones’s father took an oil-field job in Libya—the boy balked. He wanted to play, and he was interested in a girl who, like many children of wealthy Midlanders, was headed for Hockaday in Dallas. Tommy Lee Jones got himself a scholarship to nearby St. Mark’s and, in the tenth grade, left home, finished with the past.
Entertainment writers like to make much of the tall Texan’s heading for Harvard, but the real change in Jones’s life occurred at St. Mark’s. “They should have thrown me away, but they didn’t,” he once told a close friend. St. Mark’s in the early sixties was a cultural oasis in a city and, for that matter, a state that was still harshly conservative, with little to no appreciation for an intellectual much less an artistic life. Perhaps more than any of his fellow students who came from more-comfortable situations, Jones understood absolutely the size and scale of the opportunity that had been made available to him, and he took to the place with a passion that could only have been forged in earlier deprivation. “He came to St. Mark’s with a street kid’s knowledge of life,” recalls one former teacher. “St. Mark’s was more or less a shelter for kids from the battering that life gives them, but Tom arrived a battered kid. He knew what life was like out there. He had been aged by his background.”
At the school, Jones discovered a deep love of literature (to this day, when confronted with a word he does not recognize, he stops to look it up), a chance to hone his athletic skills, and most important, the world of the stage. One day, while walking to his dorm, he overheard a rehearsal in progress, directed by a magical Englishman named Tony Vintcent. Jones walked into the theater and never walked out. In those days, the drama teacher was in charge of a department that attracted much of the city with its productions; there was nothing schoolboyish about them. It wasn’t long before Jones was a featured actor. Just as he had understood the value of football as a path to liberation in Midland, so too did he find, within the world of St. Mark’s, the path that lead to the most acclaim. He was smart, determined, preternaturally competitive; he had mastered the art of appearing afraid of no one. The caption under one yearbook picture baldly asked, “Who needs God?”
On scholarship at Harvard in the late sixties—where, most people now know, he roomed with Vice President Al Gore—Jones continued to play football. An offensive lineman, he made all-Ivy and all-East and was all-American honorable mention, but his size precluded a career in professional sports. His future was decided: In what he later described to the Los Angeles Times as his happiest period in the theater, Jones performed everything from Shakespeare to Brecht in summer repertory with Stockard Channing (then at Radcliffe), John Lithgow (Harvard) and James Woods (MIT). Even then he had an eroticism onstage that attracted both sexes; a director friend used to joke that he would always be able to sell tickets if he could get Jones to remove his shirt while performing.
Initially, Jones’s road to success was not circuitous. After graduation he moved to New York, performing on the soap opera One Life to Live during the day and on and off Broadway at night. When he saw better roles going to actors who were “more famous,” he moved to Los Angeles in 1976, rented the home where Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, and went about getting himself onscreen. He had little trouble finding work—within months, he was featured in the pilot episode of Charlie’s Angels—and soon landed his first starring role, in a Roger Corman picture called Jackson County Jail. In what would become something of a Jones specialty—thanks partly to his more-than-slightly-menacing good looks—he played Coley Blake, a sociopath with a heart of gold.
HEIFERS ARE JUST FOR FUN, BUT TOMMY LEE JONES IS PAID TO KNOCK THE LADIES OFF THEIR FEET was the headline on a breathless People profile that appeared in 1978. By then Jones’ seven-year marriage to Kate Lardner (the granddaughter of author Ring Lardner) had broken up, but he was well positioned on the Hollywood Hunk track. He had starred in The Amazing Howard Hughes on TV and had played a homicidal homicide detective alongside Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars. For People, he showed off his calf-roping skills and his new girlfriend, model Lisa Taylor. “It’s love,” he told the magazine with typical gruffness. “There’s no reason to keep it a secret—nor is there any reason to go into detail.”
The roles kept coming, but it was a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of career for a person bent on becoming a star. He appeared in some stinkers (The Betsy), a few mediocres (Back Roads), and some films in which he could really show his range (The Executioner’s Song, for which he won an Emmy, and Coal Miner’s Daughter). Considering the bland handsomeness that much of Hollywood banks on, Jones’s progress was something of an inspiration: He stayed in the game, even though for a star, his face was wrong, his accent was wrong, his manner was wrong. He exploited his best roles and didn’t sleepwalk through the worst; he educated himself about screenwriting and camera lenses with a ferocity that would occur only to the most ambitious performers. And then he left.
“Probably the most difficult times Tommy Lee had were the years he lived in Hollywood,” says his friend Sissy Spacek, his co-star in Coal Miner’s Daughter and JFK. Along with a sinister black Porsche and California real estate investments, there were the predictable excesses of parties and alcohol. There was a slugfest on one set and an even more belligerent public stance. “Sometimes I’ve been drunk at the wrong time,” he told People in a rare concession. “But who hasn’t?” In 1980, after meeting San Antonio photographer Kimberlea Cloughley on the set of Back Roads, Jones had his worldly goods shipped back home; the couple married in 1981 and have remained in Texas ever since. “That’s probably the closest he has come to living the Hollywood life, and it just didn’t suit him at all,” Kimberlea says of Jones’ sojourn in Southern California. “He tried that on, and it just didn’t fit.”
Fortunately, the work followed him home. He desperately coveted the part of Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove and beat out the likes of Richard Harris and Burt Reynolds for the role. Jones’s performance as Call inspired Oliver stone to cast him as Clay Shaw in JFK, for which he received an Academy award nomination for best supporting actor. Nowadays Jones has grafted a more than a little bit of Hollywood glamour onto the world he inhabits, but fame has meant more to him than the usual opportunity to play better roles and make more money: It has given him the chance to make his peace with the place he came from. He pours his money into a sprawling cattle ranch in San Saba (also the base for his extensive polo addiction). A play that he directed five years ago in San Antonio, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, still seems as important to him as many of his movie roles. When Al Gore was running on the Democratic ticket, Jones loyally rode the campaign bus from San Antonio to Austin. Should a Texas organization invite him to speak, Jones is there with a flawless text, playing both the appreciative star and, in some oddly over-prepared way, the restless, unsure boy who still has to prove himself. That vigilance endures, fame or no. “There’s plenty of ranches I can go to and get a job,” he says. “I can ride most anything, I know cattle, I can do most things you’d expect a cowboy to do, and I’m not afraid to work. Even if you’re my age and have a wife and two children, there are some places that will give you a place to live.” Maybe he was acting when he delivered these lines, and maybe he wasn’t.
Back in Joe Light’s studio, Jones’s mood is considerably brighter. He moves again toward the large painting of the yellow house. He asks whether he can take it outside, and Light obliges. When the painting is laid against an exterior wall, Jones steps away from it, onto the pavement baking in the summer sun. The yellow mansion with the tall columns shimmers. Surveying it, Jones shifts his weight to one side and puts his hands on his hips, satisfied, knowing the work is already his. When he smiles, weathered crow’s-feet explode like firecrackers down the side of his face. “It reminds me of my ranch house,” he says, able to see home from the middle of a Memphis street.
“What makes a good actor?” Tommy Lee Jones asks, repeating the questions. Riding to the set in the back seat of the Lincoln, Jones shifts his focus as the lush Tennessee countryside whizzes by. “Desire is the first ingredient. Hard work follows desire, and the motivation to do something about it all day, every day.” He pauses thoughtfully, settling into the subject as he puts his feet up, legs splayed, over the front seat. Something about his posture suggests that there should be a beer can between his legs, and boots, instead of Foltrigg’s dress shoes, on his feet. “Actors need to be pretty well fearless,” he continues, “able to achieve a fearless state. The moment will come when you’re called on to be courageous.” He continues working through the list methodically—“generosity,” “education,” “some practical understanding of faith”—and even though he has described himself, he would insist otherwise. “I don’t believe my work is about me,” he says. “I hope not.”
Literally, Jones is right. When the people closest to him brag on him, he doesn’t sound like he has a thing in common with murderer Gary Gilmore, whom he portrayed in The Executioner’s Song. Also, the fact that Jones has long been associated with heavies has more to do with Hollywood than with him. The dispersal of movie roles is capricious, depending on an actor’s popularity as well as his availability, and it’s awesomely conservative; it is much safer to match up Jones’s rough-and-tumble features with tough guys than with romantic heroes. Still, it is possible to see his life in his art and to see why, as he declared earlier, “the creative act is redemptive.”
Jones is, after all, a man who cites as one of his favorite essays T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In it the English poet talks of the artist’s self-sacrificial role as requiring “a continual extinction of personality.” It is a demand oddly compatible with the harrowing homelife of a poor West Texas boy—not the public life of the football star, but the private history of a child who had to make his own way. When Loretta Lynn’s husband, Mooney, sadly twiddles a beer bottle in Coal Miner’s Daughter, when Sam Gerard brusquely but affectionately tells his team to “listen up” in The Fugitive, each and every time Woodrow Call pushes love away in Lonesome Dove—if you know the world of West Texas, you will find those people as imagined by Tommy Lee Jones.
Streetwise and intuitive, Jones taught himself to know people better than they know themselves. Absorbing the lesson that he was nothing, he learned to make something of that by dissolving himself into the role of others. St. Mark’s, Harvard, Hollywood—the years of study and discipline rest on that foundation. “He approaches a character on a gut level and on an intellectual level,” says Sissy Spacek. “He just crawls inside ’em. Tommy Lee is very strong physically, mentally, emotionally, and intellectually. All these things add to his strength as an actor. He has enormous intensity and great compassion. He has all that deep well to draw from.”
Jones is not an enormous man—he stands six foot one. But just as his restless energy makes him appear caged in the back seat of the Town Car, he is an actor who can make the movie screen seem small. “I’ve only got one body to work with, one instrument,” he says, describing the limits on the kinds of characters he can play, but within those limitations, the former athlete builds his men from the inside out, with amazing risk but also amazing precision. Jones as Gary Gilmore minces menacingly to and from the service station where he commits his first murder; Jones as Coley Blake, the ex-con of Jackson County Jail, moves carelessly through the last days of his life, already certain his jig is up. Few major actors would risk playing a homosexual, as Jones did as Clay Shaw in JFK; even fewer would come up with the idea for his character to appear virtually nude and covered with paint. (When Jones learned that Shaw had entertained in this fashion, he went straight to the director. “Oliver,” he told Stone, “I’ve gotta paint myself gold!”)
But it isn’t just the bodies of Jones’s characters that make them live—it’s their souls. At his best, Jones has shown that rough and difficult men, men not unlike those who lived and died to create his particular history, are deserving of grace. Woodrow Call, reminded of a lost lover’s death, shows his grief by stepping to the doorway and slowly donning his hat; Gary Gilmore trembles with devotion when he meets his lover, Nicole, and tells her he has found his guardian angel. When Mooney Lynn is drowning in a well of loneliness and anxiety, he still answers the phone late one night and soothes one of his wife’s even lonelier fans. The power of that scene was not in the script. “Tommy Lee took what was nothing on paper and made it hugely complex and human,” says Bill Wittliff, who produced and wrote the screenplay for Lonesome Dove. “You never hear one word from that fan, but you can read her whole character through the genius of Tommy Lee’s scene.”
Reminded of that work, Jones softens. “You feel lonely for Mooney, and you admire him because he finds and takes a chance to be kind,” he says, lingering over the last word as if it were as scarce as rain in the desert. “You’ve got to love people for doing that.”
“I watched him go from a large motor home to a superlarge,” William Sanderson says of his friend Tommy Lee Jones, who rocks beside him in a matching La-Z-Boy in Jones’ star-sized trailer. The sad-eyed Sanderson, who also has a role in The Client, is best known for his portrayal of Larry, the only talkative member of a trio of brothers on Newhart. At this moment, he is chewing tobacco while Jones puffs on a large cigar. Out of costume in cotton shirts and jeans, they look like two good ol’ boys waiting for the game to start. In fact, they are waiting for Joe Light’s painting to arrive so that Jones can show it off.
All in all, it’s been a good day. The afternoon’s shoot—a brief scene in which Foltrigg watches himself on television while riding in a limousine—progressed smoothly, as have other demands of a star’s life. In a conference with the wardrobe people, Jones has found Foltrigg a brighter necktie, and at the urging of the movie’s publicist, he has autographed a decorative heart for the local mental health association’s auction. He has even agreed to do more interviews. One reporter wants to know where he eats in San Antonio; another wants a more extended audience. “He’d like to do a personality story on you,” the publicist says. “Well,” deadpans Jones, “I’ll have to get one.”
When the painting arrives, it is displayed outside Jones’s trailer, where it adds a dash of glamour to what was, until the arrival of the movie crew, and abandoned tractor factory. Again Jones stands transfixed before it. His affable driver, Jim Burns, who had gone back for the painting, tells the group that Light had become more inquisitive about his benefactor after Jones’s departure. “He’d like your autograph,” Burns says to Jones. “Just tell him not to cash the check,” Sanderson cracks.
After the viewing, Jones spends a few moments going over transcribed pages of the screenplay he has been writing in the evenings—an adaptation of Elmer Kelton’s West Texas novel The Good Old Boys, which Jones intends to direct. Feeling much at home, he gets up from the tiny table in his trailer and begins to set a scene that takes place near the closing of the frontier, when the main character, Hewey Calloway, must decide whether to settle down on a ranch or continue his life as a drifter.
“I say it’s wrong to make a man plow out a field to hold his claim,” Jones says as Calloway, altering his accent only slightly. “He ought not to rip up land that God has already planted to grass and handed to him as a gift.” The boy accompanying Calloway, his nephew Cotton, argues that God’s will might be the cultivation of the land, and that Hewey might know God’s desired better if he ever visited with Him in church. Jones’s Hewey remains intransigent, holding fast to the life he has known. “I don’t have to go to church to hunt for Him,” he says. “I see Him around me every day, everywhere I look.”
Jones finishes the scene and offers the page of dialogue from the script he has written. He has made no revisions; he has ad-libbed not at all. This one he knows by heart.