By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones got his start in show business as so many actors have—by appearing in a school play. It was in tiny Rotan, Texas, some 60 miles from Abilene.
“When I was in the second grade, my school performed ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ and the part of Sneezy fell to me,” the noted thespian recalls, adding, “I was great, really good.”
Jones even stumped for the grammar school production on a local radio station, delivering one of his lines from the show for a deejay. It was a sneeze.
“That was the start of my career in media,” the veteran actor says in his typical deadpan way.
Jones, of course, went on to become a world-famous movie and stage actor, earning awards and praise for his work, including three Academy Award nominations and a win for his performance as a dogged U.S. Marshal in 1993’s “The Fugitive.”
Some six decades later, Jones, 65, is still out promoting his work, though he does it a little less enthusiastically than he did at age eight. On a May afternoon, he turns up to promote “Men in Black 3,” the long-awaited second sequel to the 1997 hit comedy in which he and Will Smith play government agents, whose job is to maintain Earth as a neutral zone for space aliens. In “MIB3,” Smith’s Agent J has to travel back in time to 1969 to save his colleague, Agent K (Jones). The younger K is portrayed by Josh Brolin, who delivers a dead-on impression of Jones’ brusque Texas drawl.
Talking to the press has never been one of Jones’ favorite activities, and he doesn’t disguise his disdain for questions he considers frivolous or just plain stupid. He clams up completely when someone’s cell phone rings. Yet the stony-faced actor is surprisingly forthcoming and even occasionally funny when the mood strikes him. His aloof demeanor is in stark contrast to his outgoing co-star Will Smith, who considers Jones “hilarious.”
“He’s right there in all of the jokes, playing around and everything,” says Smith. “He just looks different than when you crack most people up. You know you’ve really scored big with a joke when Tommy goes ‘Hmm.’ That’s a belly laugh for him.”
Jones, who reprised his Agent K character in 2002’s “Men in Black 2,” says wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the role yet again, but he read the script and there was a “negotiation,” as he puts it.
“It wasn’t a question of liking it or not liking it, it was a question of hoping that it works,” he says.
Having seen a rough cut of the Barry Sonnefeld-directed film, he says he feels it succeeds.
“The movie’s funny and entertaining,” he says, simply.
Of his co-star Smith, he says, “He’s a likeable man and funny, very smart. I think we get along pretty good.”
Reminded that it’s been 15 years since they first worked together, Jones seems surprised.
“It feels like 15 minutes,” he says.
Asked whether he has a special bond with Smith, he softens a bit.
“There’s a brotherly affection,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know if you’d call it love. I mean, what the hell, I love Will and his family, of course.”
Jones notes that in the years since he first met the rapper turned actor, Smith has gotten physically bigger, thanks to his body altering training he did to play boxer Muhammad Ali, though he notes his friend is “starting to get some gray hairs, when you look closely.”
As for Brolin’s depiction of him as the younger Agent K, Jones returns to his usual gruff self.
“I didn’t have a reaction (when I first saw him),” he says. “I suppose I was hoping it would work.”
Brolin later reveals he watched several of Jones’ old films to get Jones’ cadence just right.
“I’m playing a young Agent K and K is very different than Tommy,” he observes. “If you look at Tommy in ‘JFK,’ it’s very different (from his performance in ‘MIB’). He’s an amazing actor so I realized after going through all those movies and all that desperate research, the only thing I really had to do was watch ‘Men in Black’ over and over and over and over again, which was fine with me.”
Brolin says he is simply relieved that Jones has nothing bad to say about his performance.
While Jones is not inclined to talk about his work, he is proud of some of his personal accomplishments, namely his children.
“I take a lot of joy in my daughter (Victoria) who is a second-year acting student at the State University of New York at Purchase,” the proud father says. “She’ll be opening a play there in a few days. My son (Austin) has made two CDs that he wrote and performed.”
Jones, who has depicted a number of real life people including condemned murderer Gary Gilmore and eccentric entrepreneur Howard Hughes, has just wrapped production on Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” in which he portrays Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most powerful Congressmen during the 16th president’s administration. He depicts Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the upcoming “Emperor.”
Asked about playing the famous outspoken general, Jones quips, “I bear no resemblance whatsoever to Douglas MacArthur, but a campaign hat with a lot of fruit salad on it and some aviator glasses and a corncob pipe will do a lot.”
As for his take on his accomplishments in film, Jones is modest.
“All I’ve ever done is do the best I could to play the role as it appeared on the page and respond to the director and the other actors,” he says. “I haven’t got a favorite role. I just really like being an actor. I enjoy the cinematic process. That’s what I enjoy and I enjoy it every time.”