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Jim Metzler: Boston Red Sox, Acting, North & South, Tex and More…

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen

Jim Metzler is an actor best known for Mason in “Tex”and James Huntoon in “North and South”. But did you know he used to be a baseball player before he turned to acting? He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has been on the International Film Nominating Committee fort he last 20 years.

KB: I read that you were drafted by the Boston Red Sox after graduating from college? Tell me the story.

Actually I was not drafted. I signed as a free agent with the Red Sox and received a signing bonus of zero dollars. This was in 1973, so adjusted for inflation, that bonus today would be worth zero dollars. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but I was also paid a salary of $500 a month! Considering I was able to rent an apartment for $100 a month in Elmira, New York, where I played that summer in the New York Penn League, I was able to make that $500 go a long way (I continued to drive my ’64 VW bug). Baseball has been a life-long love affair, playing since I was six years old and scouted at Dartmouth and two summers in the Cape Cod League. So despite the fact that I was disappointed in not being drafted, I jumped at the chance to sign as a free agent. I loved it that I could go to the ball park and play baseball every day, and I intended to keep playing until they told me to stop. Unfortunately, the Red Sox told me to stop the next season when I was playing at Winter Haven in the Florida State League. Damn!

KB: What made you turn to acting and what do you like about it?

I majored in English Literature at Dartmouth. I have always loved to read, albeit slowly. Being an English major is a great first step to an adult life of sporadic, low-paying employment, and I jumped right into that life with my short baseball career. I followed that up with a job as assistant sports editor of The Evening News in my home town of Newburgh, New York, and I stayed there for a little over a year, mostly wondering what I else I might try. Besides being a slow reader, I was also a very slow writer, and no matter however I projected my future as a sportswriter, I knew that I would always be wishing that I was one of the athletes, not the person writing about them. So I thought about acting. I don’t know why, because I was basically a very quiet person, uncomfortable talking In front of other people, or in some cases, one person. And I had never acted before. As unnatural for me as it seemed, however, I thought that I might like it. And I thought I could actually be good at it. I envisioned it as a marriage of my love of literature to a desire to be a performer, which was missing when my athletic career ended. I also missed being on a team. Every theatrical production is a team collaboration. And even though I had never acted before, I was a dreamer. I often imagined theme music in the background of my everyday life.

KB: You are known for your role as James Huntoon in North & South. How did you get this part and what attracted you to it?

This is a tougher question than you might have imagined, because there is a very tragic element to the answer. David Huffman, a very fine actor, had been originally cast in the role of James Huntoon. In 1985, about one week before North & South was to begin filming, Huffman witnessed a robbery in progress in Balboa Park in San Diego. He selflessly pursued the thief and was murdered in the process. I had just finished work on a wonderful television movie, Do You Remember Love, with Joanne Woodward, and was available when the North & South producers called me in to meet and explain the horrible situation. I was offered the part. Yes, I thought playing the character would be a great stretch for me. Huntoon was such a bloviator! Yes, I loved the epic sweep of the story. And yes, I had a wonderful time with a wonderful cast in Charleston, South Carolina and Natchez, Mississippi. I just wish the opportunity had not arisen.

KB: You played Mason in the movie Tex and got a Golden Globe nomination. How did you get this part and were you surprised about the nomination?

I think there were two main reasons why I got the part, the first being that I immediately had a strong identification with the character, or at least a strong idea of how I thought the character should be played. I have never felt more comfortable in an audition. The second reason is that I lied about my age. Mason’s age in the original script was 17. I was 29. I knew I would be asked at the audition, and I figured that if I answered 29 I would be eliminated because it was so far removed from 17, and if I answered 17 they would know I was lying and be eliminated. So I settled on 24 as a compromise, and it worked. Good thing IMDB wasn’t around then. In the film, when Ben Johnson asked Mason how old he was, he replied 18. I thought it might make it a little more credible. The Golden Globe nomination was a total surprise. I had no idea that an announcement was even coming up. I didn’t win, did I?

KB: Is there a movie or TV show you would have loved to play the lead in and why?

I think I should have played the lead in every movie ever made! Though I will tell you one that really hurt that I didn’t get way back when (1983) was The Dead Zone. I had read the book and had a great meeting with David Cronenberg. My representatives also heard from casting how well it had gone and thought that an offer was imminent. I was just coming off Tex and thought I had a realistic shot. I thought I was perfect for the role. Right up until I saw Christopher Walken play it in the movie. He was great!

KB: If you look at current actors and actresses: Is there anyone you would like to do a movie with and why?

I see somewhere near 200 films a year. And almost as much television. There are so many extraordinarily talented actors and actresses out there that it would be fruitless for me to even try to make a meaningful list. And then I wistfully think of those whom I worked with that I can’t work with again, because they are no longer alive. Too morbid. I’d be name-dropping dead people. And then there are those that I have worked with who are still alive. That’s a real good list, but I will say one name: Alec Baldwin. He owes me a phone call. I haven’t seen him since 1996 when he visited the set of LA Confidential, where I was shooting a scene with Kim Basinger. He was visiting her and it was a surprise to him that I was there in the small but fun role of a city councilman. Alec and I had done a short-lived series (Cutter to Houston) together in 1983 and a miniseries (The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory) in 1986 and was extremely helpful to me when I was going through a divorce in 1988. We were good friends for quite a few years before slowly losing touch. The acting life sometimes giveth and sometimes taketh away. It was a pleasure working with him, and he was a kind, thoughtful and giving friend, intelligent and hilarious. I have enjoyed his successes and felt for his tribulations.

KB: Are you still active in the business? What are you up to now?

I audition some and work less than that. I really don’t mind much. To borrow from General MacArthur,“Old actors never die. They just fade to black”. I am a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and love seeing as many movies as I can before casting my Oscar votes. I also participate in voting for the Student Academy Awards and for 20 years have been on the International Film Nominating Committee, which has become my favorite category. Last year I saw all of the films from the 92 countries that entered. What a great way to travel the world without losing your luggage! I enjoy home life with my wife Susan and three entertaining felines, and planning the next visit to see our son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. I still love reading by holding a novel in my hands. I still love baseball. And I walk about five miles a day, sometimes accompanied by theme music.