Jon Voight —
How Joe Buck Still Rides High After All These Years
For those younger viewers who only know Jon Voight as Liev Schreiber’s dad on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” series, there’s a rich world of discovery awaiting you.
Before Voight became a superb character actor in film and on TV, he was a bona fide movie star — indeed one of the biggest names in Hollywood during the 1970s. Over this period, he was nominated for two Best Actor Oscars, winning one, and his five Golden Globe nominations resulted in two wins.
I often speak about how great movies merit repeat viewings because they actually get better every time you see them. This holds true for three early Voight classics: “Coming Home” (1978), “Deliverance” (1972), and the film that made him an overnight star, 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy.”
In that first film, Voight plays Joe Buck, a young Texan who relocates to Manhattan with no resources or contacts and ends up becoming a male hustler. His only friend is a homeless, handicapped petty thief named Ratso Rizzo, brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman. A shocking, groundbreaking film in its time, it signaled a seismic shift to a whole different kind of moviemaking in Hollywood.
Though John Wayne snagged Best Actor at the Oscars that year for a traditional western called “True Grit,” besting both Hoffman and Voight, it felt more like a lifetime achievement award for the aging star, who’d never won before. The prize for Best Picture still went to “Cowboy,” the only X-rated film ever to win.
A creative renaissance was underway in the movie business, and at the age of 30, Jon Voight was perfectly positioned to be a part of it.
Born and raised in Westchester County, he was always comfortable in New York, unlike Joe Buck. Jon was the middle child in a Catholic family of three brothers. By the time he graduated from college, he knew he wanted to act, and moved to the city to pursue his dream.
Voight’s first breakthrough came in 1962, when he was cast as Rolf late in the original run of “The Sound of Music” on Broadway. He and Lauri Peters, who played Liesl, soon became romantically involved. They would marry that same year, and divorce in 1967.
The next few years would be lean ones, with Jon alternating between theater and the occasional TV role. He finally hit the big screen in 1967, playing an outlaw in “The Hour of the Gun”, a solid John Sturges western starring James Garner and Jason Robards.
More TV work followed, and then Jon got the chance to audition for Joe Buck. Having read the script, he reportedly told his agent he’d do it for nothing. He won the part, but was taken at his word. He was paid scale — a pittance — unlike the more established Hoffman. It was infuriating at the time, but ultimately, well worth it.
When the film was released to enormous acclaim, Hoffman’s fearless transformation into the filthy, crippled Ratso received most of the attention. Still, with repeat viewings comes the realization that it’s Joe Buck who breaks your heart, with Voight perfectly capturing his character's naivete, confusion, and despair.
Three years later came a very different kind of role in John Boorman’s “Deliverance,” based on James Dickey’s best-selling novel. Here Voight portrays the mild-mannered Ed Gentry, a clean-cut Atlanta native who joins three other friends (Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox) on an extended canoe trip that takes them into uncharted, perilous waters. Jon underplays beautifully in an inspired ensemble cast. The film earned three Oscar nods, including Best Picture.
Finally, in Hal Ashby’s superb “Coming Home” (1978), Voight outdoes himself playing Luke Martin, a paraplegic Vietnam vet who thinks his life is over till he meets volunteer Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) at the local veterans’ hospital. With Sally’s husband Bob (Bruce Dern) still serving in Vietnam, she feels lonely and vulnerable. Soon she and Luke fall in love, and there’s hell to pay when Bob finally returns home.
The film garnered eight Oscar nominations, and won three, including Best Actor for Jon. Though less recognized today than “The Deer Hunter,” the other Vietnam-themed movie that came out just nine months later, the subtler, more sensitive “Home” is every bit as good. (While “Hunter” depicts the hell of actually being in Vietnam, “Home” focuses on the aftermath of those trying to heal stateside).
Voight’s career waned a bit in the 1980’s, though he did make the excellent “Runaway Train” (1985). He and Eric Roberts are two hardened convicts who escape from a remote prison in the dead of winter and end up on a train hurtling forward with no driver and malfunctioning brakes. Based on an original screenplay by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, this breathless film deserves wider recognition. (Jon won a Golden Globe for his gritty performance).
After a successful two decade run as a top billed star, Voight now settled into a successful run of character parts in high-profile features like “Heat” (1995), “Mission: Impossible” (1996), “Pearl Harbor” (2001) and “Transformers” (2007). He has stayed equally busy doing television work, and has made some smaller films as well, including John Boorman’s “The General” (1998), co-starring Brendan Gleeson.
Jon took an ill-fated second stab at marriage in 1971, wedding Marcheline Bertrand, an actress who would later pursue humanitarian work. Together they had two children, James [Haven] and Angelina [Jolie]. Their 1976 break-up, due to his adultery, was an ugly one. As Jon’s children grew up, they’d see their father only infrequently. The actor has since expressed regret over his mistakes and the pain he caused his family over these years.
Then Voight’s already complicated relationship with his very famous daughter took an abrupt turn for the worse when he publicly accused her of having emotional issues in 2002. They were estranged for years but finally reunited in 2009, two years after Angelina’s mom Marcheline died of ovarian cancer. (Angelina’s work as a U.N. ambassador continues to honor her mother’s legacy).
Now a grandfather pushing eighty, Voight is busier than most men half his age. His philosophy towards acting- and living- is admirably succinct: “I’m interested in knowing about the truth and acting on it. That’s it.”
It seems that in all of Jon Voight’s work, the truth has indeed set him free.