- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

Keith Gordon at 39 doesn't look all that different from 20 years earlier, when he emerged as the most appealing teen-age actor in sight while playing the clever high school boy obliged to solve his mother's murder in Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill."

He still looks youthful (but with a thinner head of hair), and his infectious enthusiasm for the movies seems undiminished. However, acting has become subordinate to his career as a screenwriter and director.

Mr. Gordon is in town to chat with the press about his fourth feature, "Waking the Dead," which opens nationally today under the auspices of USA Films.

The project, derived from a Scott Spencer novel about a haunted love affair, began years earlier at Warner Bros. and stalled. Then Jodie Foster persuaded one of the USA predecessors, Polygram, to finance it for her production company, Egg Pictures.

Mr. Gordon had tried to interest Miss Foster in his previous feature, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night." She had declined, but regretted her decision after attending a preview screening.

"The hardest thing in movies is getting somebody to say yes," Mr. Gordon reflects. "Whenever I go to a film class, I say that the reality of this lifestyle is that you're a professional fund-raiser who directs as a hobby."

He jokes that he and Miss Foster had "slightly parallel careers as actors growing up." To clarify: "You might say I had the off-Broadway version of Jodie's career. Anyway, I'd always been a huge admirer. She got the script right away and dug it, intellectually and emotionally.

Although Mr. Gordon says "technically" he wrote the script for Warner, "they had let the option on Scott's novel lapse, so it was a curious situation. They ended up being very nice about it."

Movie companies can be reluctant to let go of properties even if they no longer have plans for them. Embarrassment lurks down the road if a rival thrives on a discarded project.

"Jodie's an amazing businessman," Mr. Gordon says. "She made no false claims. It would be a labor of love, shot for under $10 million. There was no danger of the studio letting a big one get away. We were unlikely to gross $200 million or win a batch of Oscars. At Polygram, she said, 'You guys should do this. It's artistically worthy, and there's a sales angle: ghosts.' They felt so comfortable about trusting her that they wrote a check for $8 million, and we made the movie."

The film co-stars Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly as seemingly mismatched sweethearts of the early 1970s: a Coast Guard officer named Fielding Pierce, who aspires to political office, and a radical activist named Sarah Williams, employed by a Catholic charity in Minneapolis-St. Paul that shelters South American refugees.

The compatibility question becomes moot when she is reported killed in a car bombing. Almost a decade later, as Fielding runs for Congress, he begins to see a phantom Sarah everywhere he goes.

The Spencer novel was published in 1985 and optioned by Warner. It came to Mr. Gordon's attention in 1991. Producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson were interested in resurrecting "Dead" as a movie project and sent a copy of the novel to Mr. Gordon, a New York friend. At that time, he had only one directing credit, "The Chocolate War," although he was soon to start his second feature, "A Midnight Clear."

Mr. Gordon became an instant convert. "I started reading the book on a plane flight," he recalls, "and knew I wanted to make it by the time we landed. I wasn't finished reading, but it spoke to me very deeply about the messiness and complexity and absolute necessity of love. At that time, I was falling in love with the woman I'm now married to. Before that I wouldn't have fully understood how shattered you might be to lose someone you cared for passionately."

The novel had acquired quite a bit of Hollywood baggage before Mr. Gordon knew of it. Various producers had commissioned various screenplays. Mr. Gordon started from scratch with an adaptation of his own. The original author, who thought the earlier scripts had "been drifting further and further afield," championed Mr. Gordon's version and called his attention to Warner's lapsed option.

Mr. Gordon eliminated himself as the credited screenwriter of "Waking the Dead."

"Under Writers Guild rules … whoever uses elements of the original story first gets credit," Mr. Gordon says. "I never read anyone else's script, but I couldn't be credited. Robert Dillon was the first adapter, back in 1986 or whatever, and he has ended up as the only credited screenwriter.

"I never met him, never read a word of what he did with the book. Well, not until the arbitration hearing was scheduled. I thought it was prudent to [become acquainted] then. He declined to come to a screening, even though he insisted on the credit."

Mr. Gordon is the only child of actors who migrated from Chicago to New York after performing in the improvisational group the Compass Players, which also spawned Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He was born in the South Bronx but grew up for the most part on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Unlike Miss Foster, Mr. Gordon did not begin acting as a tyke. He got his first serious exposure at age 15, when he appeared in a summer theater in Waterford, Conn. His first movie was "Jaws 2."

Released the next summer, the movie led to 1979 roles as the younger version of Roy Scheider in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" and the college-age hero of a De Palma beau geste, "Home Movies," organized as a seminar project for a film class at Sarah Lawrence College, Mr. De Palma's alma mater.

"It's not like I woke up one morning and decided, 'I never want to act again,' " Mr. Gordon says. "Now it's a question of time more than anything else. Raising money for your own movies is very time-consuming. Before I started acting, I was interested in making films. I used to shoot lots of stuff in Super 8mm when I was a kid.

"One of the wonderful things about working with Brian was the chance to learn about filmmaking. Especially during 'Home Movies.' It was essentially a film class. I was playing a leading role, opposite Nancy Allen and Kirk Douglas, but Brian also let me be one of the film students.

"In my heart of hearts, I hoped to direct films one day, but I didn't know if it would ever happen."

Mr. Gordon recalls nothing but helpful advice from most of the directors who cast him in films and plays, especially Mr. De Palma, Mr. Fosse and John Carpenter (at the time of "Christine," a virtuoso horror vehicle for Mr. Gordon at age 22) on the movie side and Joan Micklin Silver and the late Michael Bennett on the theater side.

Mr. Gordon's theatrical credits during this apprenticeship included a fleeting role as the Prince of Wales in Al Pacino's "legendarily ill-fated" revival of Shakespeare's "Richard III" in 1979.

Mr. Gordon, too minor a participant to be caught in lines of fire, remembers the production fondly. "There was never a central concept," he says. "Al sometimes seemed to be in a different play because he'd be working with coaches more than the cast. Directors kept getting hired and fired. My part was so small I couldn't get fired.

"I had my little five minutes and watched the rest of the show. I will say this: Al never stopped working. He's a very brave actor, and he was tireless. Even after the reviews came out, he continued to rehearse and experiment and refine. He never quit on it. That might have been part of the problem, though: his compulsion to invent too much."

Although Mr. Gordon's movie acting credits are relatively sparse, they include several movies that people tend to remember. "My film acting career has achieved a lovely nostalgic level," he says.

"I didn't become famous or indispensable, but people come up frequently and say they loved 'Dressed to Kill' or 'Christine' or 'Back to School.' It's a very nice, very cool sort of recognition. A lot of young people claim to be fond of 'Back to School,' which they must know from video. They had to be preschoolers when it came out. In fact, the first question I usually get at colleges is, 'What's Rodney Dangerfield really like?' So I guess it's safe to conclude that 'Back to School' is a campus perennial."

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