FILMS

Chaykin all over

Brian D. Johnson November 7 1994
FILMS

Chaykin all over

Brian D. Johnson November 7 1994

Chaykin all over

FILMS

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Maury Chaykin still laughs about how he got left on the cutting-room floor of the dog movie. The producers of Beethoven’s Second, last year’s sequel to a kids’ comedy about a St. Bernard, had hired Chaykin to play a dognapper who tries to steal some puppies. Contemplating his motivation, the actor suggested the character was planning to cook the puppies and eat them. That was too much for the director. Chaykin then suggested that his character wanted the puppies for sexual reasons. The director somehow decided that would be acceptable, and they shot the scene. “It was very subtle stuff,” says Chaykin. “It was just the way I held the puppies, the way I looked at them.” But the sequence was cut from the final movie. In fact, Chaykin’s whole character was cut, except for a scene of him in a hamburger-eating contest. “I got this big credit at the front of the film,” laughs Chaykin, “and all I’m doing is stuffing hamburgers in my face.”

Chaykin has learned by now that the size of a role is not always commensurate with its impact. In Dances with Wolves (1990), he was on-screen for just a few minutes, but his appearance, as an unhinged army officer who commits suicide, lingers on as the movie’s most incandescent moment. Chaykin is a master of the show-stopping cameo. In a career that spans some 50 movies, he has created a dizzying variety of memorable eccentrics, from Dustin Hoffman’s nosy superintendent in Hero (1992) to the slow-witted southern yokel grilled by Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny (1992).

Now, Chaykin is moving on to larger roles. As a reclusive musician in Whale Music,

adapted from Paul Quarrington’s award-winning 1989 novel, the actor finally gets a chance to dominate a film as a leading man. In Camilla, which opens later this month, Chaykin co-stars with Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda as a soft-core pom producer. He recently finished shooting Unstrung Heroes, directed by Diane Keaton, in which he co-stars with Michael Richards {Seinfeld’s Kramer). And the actor is currently in Malta,

Maury Chaykin has moved from memorable minor roles to prominent parts

in several new movies

starring opposite Geena Davis and Matthew Modine in Cutthroat Island, a $100-million pirate adventure.

Bom in Brooklyn, N.Y., to an American father and a Canadian mother, Chaykin works both sides of the border. But the 45-year-old actor has lived in Toronto since 1974, when he was drawn by the city’s experimental theatre scene. More recently, he has carved out an impressive niche as a Hollywood character actor, but it is in Canada that he has done his most ambitious and original work. As the ukulele-picking union thug in the title role of Canada’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks, Donald Brittain’s 1985 TV movie, Chaykin conjured up a chilling malevolence with the quietest of gestures. In Vic Sarin’s Cold Comfort (1989), he was eerily credible as a psychotic tow-tmck driver who abducts

a snowbound businessman. And in Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991), he explored the outer limits of eccentricity as an ex-football player who rents houses to stage perverse fantasies.

Chaykin brings an unnerving edge to whatever character he plays, a disturbing sense of dissociation. But while all his roles are weird, each is weird in its own way. Modifying his signature from one role to the next,

Chaykin gives the impression of creating the character as the camera rolls. “The key to Maury Chaykin,” says Egoyan, “is that everyone has an image of what he brings to a role, but he always manages to subvert that. He will always find some gesture that will take your breath away.”

Egoyan remembers the day he shot Chaykin’s biggest scene in The Adjuster, a long, nakedly confessional monologue. The actor had been up until 4 a.m. filming a part in the CBC movie Conspiracy of Silence, and was exhausted. “I really got angry at him,” says the director, “but his fatigue helped the scene. There’s one moment in the monologue where he’s on the verge of losing it. He was lost in some weird space, and there is this incredible pause where you just don’t know what you’re watching.”

Adds Egoyan: “He won’t do anything that doesn’t feel honest to him.”

Last month, just before leaving for Malta, Chaykin sat eating ice cream in an Italian café near his home and talked about his career. Divorced from Toronto-based film executive

liana Frank, Chaykin lives alone and has no children. He spends much of his time out of town, on movie sets. He is a big man, weighing some 300 lb., but he carries it well, like an opera singer. There is something gently intimidating about him, but behind the imposing personality is a bluffing sense of humor. While shooting Unstrung Heroes in Los Angeles, Chaykin convinced Diane Keaton that he knew O. J. Simpson. “I said I’d gone to school with O. J. and played football with him. She goes, ‘Really?’ I said [in a confidential whisper], ‘Diane, I don’t want to talk about it.’ ”

A gift for playfulness is perhaps the secret to Chaykin’s success—that and a determination to follow his own instincts. “Very early in my career,” he says, “I decided to do things that I really like. Even when I wasn’t in a position to turn things down, I baffled my agents by being really selective, and that has paid off.”

As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Chaykin remembers that he wanted to be a banker, “which came largely from my desire to hoard pennies.” The younger of two sons, he came from an affluent household. His father, Irving, was a prominent professor in accounting theory, and his Montreal-born mother, Clarice, was a nurse. Chaykin got his first taste of acting in high school when his girl-

friend wrote a play and “coerced” him to play the lead. He was hooked.

In the late 1960s, Chaykin studied theatre arts at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Known as Berkeley East, it was a hotbed of radicalism at the time. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso were his faculty sponsors, and he shared a house with Corso. On campus, Chaykin helped form a touring avant-garde theatre troupe called Swamp Fox, “guys my size with shaved heads who pranced around in their underwear,” he says. In 1970, Swamp Fox crashed the Festival of Underground Theatre in Toronto and made a strong impression on its director, Ken Gass. After graduating, Chaykin received a rigorous classical training in Buffalo’s American Contemporary Theatre, then went on to be a miserable, struggling actor in New York City. In 1974, Gass invited him to Toronto to help create Hurray for Johnny Canuck, a stage adaptation of a wartime comic book. “I got hooked into the underground theatre scene and just stayed,” says Chaykin.

After drifting into film and TV with various small roles, the actor scored his big break with the character of Hal Banks, which he played with an air of cruelty that was eerily convincing. “On a very visceral level,” says Chaykin, “I got it from my father. I think we’re all, to some degree, intimidated by our fathers. My father is very intimidating. He has a temper, too, and a biting sense of humor.”

The actor’s own dark-humored edge now earns him a very good living. After Kevin Costner saw it in Cold Comfort, he cast him in Dances with Wolves. Now, with Whale Music, in a role that seems tailor-made for him, Chaykin gets to play both ornery eccentricity and its vulnerable flip side. Whatever the role, Chaykin can be counted on to give it a dangerous, off-kilter quality. “When I come onto a set,” he says, “the reason they’ve hired me is to bring that sensibility to the screen.” But then he adds, with a mischievous laugh worthy of his most perverse characters: “What I get most pleasure out of is when I bring that to a role and I know they hate it.” That intimate scene with the puppies, after all, never did see the light of day. □