This is the guy, Woody Allen says, everyone's been looking for.
A guy who can do light comedy. A guy who's past puberty and doesn't wear tank tops and hasn't been seen breakdancing in coming-of-age movies.
His name is Jeff Daniels. He is 30. From Michigan, no less.
Allen has compared him to Cary Grant, William Powell and Robert Montgomery. "This kid," the normally zipper-lipped director was recently quoted as saying, "is our version of that in the best sense."
On this day the heartbreak kid is slouched in his publicist's office, long legs crossed at his Converse high tops, upper lip drooping like that of some petulant Park Avenue scion forced to sit through a reading of the will.
But the Obie award-winning veteran of the theater -- last seen as Debra Winger's feckless husband, Flap Horton, in "Terms of Endearment" and currently starring in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" -- says he really does care. He is just loath to admit it.
"Reluctant?" he says after a long silence. "It's relaxed."
Mr. Blase' Builds His Dream House. He's about as excited as a guy who's been told he won the luggage set for watching a slide show on property in West Virginia. The interview is punctuated by empty stretches of nonverbal communication and impatient "Good Lords."
"A director friend once told me I had something that obviously works. I go into the audition or the interview and I want the job, but I act as if 'believe me, boys, it's not gonna kill me if I don't get it.' "
He smiles self-consciously. The long, thin bow mouth turns up at the corners. The eyes are mischievous, slightly dangerous. He looks spoiled. And bored. As if he's perpetually stifling a yawn.
"It's a kind of shyness," says Juliet Taylor, Allen's casting director, who has known Daniels for years. After Michael Keaton left the project two weeks into shooting, Daniels ("nobody knew who I was") was asked to read for the part every young actor in New York lusted after, winning it over bigger names such as Kevin Kline and Eric Roberts. "I do think Woody was very surprised. [Daniels] seemed fairly diffident during the interview," says Taylor, but after the director saw him opposite Mia Farrow, "he was absolutely bowled over."
And after nine years of struggling, Jeff Daniels is making it.
"It's mostly my lip," he says with a sly smile.
Like the Arrow shirt man, his good looks are a passport to life's privileged places -- he's the kind of guy who could have slipped into a women-and-children-only lifeboat on the Titanic and not been kicked off. Getting him to talk about himself is like asking Coca-Cola for its formula. But mention "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and he positively bubbles.
"If you've ever gone to a movie to get away for two hours, if you like the smell of popcorn, if you like the darkness and the big screen, you'll like this movie."
Daniels plays the dual role of Tom Baxter, the safari-suited fantasy man who steps off the screen one afternoon and into mousy Cecilia's (Mia Farrow) arms, as well as Gil Shepherd, the actor who must persuade his alter ego to return to his celluloid existence.
The film has been called "pure enchantment" by Vincent Canby of The New York Times. "I can't believe the year will bring forth anything to equal" it.
Newsweek's Jack Kroll called it "a gem" and praised Daniels as "faultlessly funny."
Indeed, Daniels is being touted as the future savior of screwball comedy, and all he can do is shrug his athletic shoulders.
"[Allen] took a hell of a chance, I think. He'll say that he knew I could do it and all that, but I still think it was a hell of a chance." He pauses. "And it worked out."
His agent, Paul Martino of International Creative Management, says Daniels snagged the part by chance. "I would say it was a fluke."
" 'Terms' had been out for two weeks, the country was very excited," Daniels recalls. "My agent calls me and says, 'You're going to meet Woody Allen tomorrow.' He was thrilled. Well, I had just worked with [Jack] Nicholson and [Shirley] MacLaine. I thought, 'Okay, that's no problem.' He said, 'It's only going to be two minutes. So don't take it personally. That's all he ever does. He just wants to get a look at you.' "
And the lip.
"*!%* the lip," he laughs.
So . . . ?
"So I went over there and said, 'I'm here to see Woody Allen,' and here he comes around the corner, and I just froze. He asked me a little bit about myself. Standard fare. He said, 'What have you done?' I said, 'Some Broadway. Some off-Broadway. Not much.'
"In a funny way, I tried to talk him out of it. I couldn't believe I was doing it. I was hearing myself. 'I'm blowing it. I know I'm blowing it. It's too big a job anyway.' He says, 'Okay, we'll get back to you.'
"That afternoon he called me onto the set, where they were shooting a round of characters. I memorized a few scenes in the car on the way out there. Got there, there's Mia, there's Woody, there's [cinematographer] Gordy Willis. We set up two chairs and did the porch scene and the Ferris wheel scene. They had me in costume and stood me next to Mia and turned the camera on. Woody said, 'Go ahead, talk to each other.'
"Here's Mia Farrow! What do you say to Mia Farrow?"
"I asked her if she could get me Knicks tickets."
Born in Georgia, Daniels was raised in Chelsea, Mich. (pop. 3,500), the son of a lumberyard owner. In his junior year at Central Michigan University, spent, as he says, majoring in beer, he dropped out to join the Circle Repertory Theater in New York as an apprentice.
For eight years he struggled for the big break, doing off-Broadway for $150 a week and living in an Upper West Side studio with his wife Kathleen. (They are now the parents of a 4-month-old boy.)
He won rave reviews on Broadway as Richard Thomas' homosexual lover in "Fifth of July." Next there was a small part as a policeman in "Ragtime," released in 1981. Two years later, he won an Obie for his one-man performance at the Circle Rep in Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun."
He lost out to John Lithgow for the part of Roberta Muldoon in "The World According to Garp" and to Peter Weller for the part of Diane Keaton's lover in "Shoot the Moon." His unenthusiastic demeanor didn't help.
"I was very high on him for a certain part," says Taylor. "After the screen test, there was an interview. He sort of threw in the towel. He acted like he didn't care. I think it hurt him in that case."
But Daniels says that underneath the cool exterior is an actor seething with ambition.
"If I'm in a waiting room and other actors are sitting there, I just can't talk to them."
He is extremely competitive, he says. "It depends. If I like them as an actor, then it's fine. If the guy's a jerk, then I'll hope he gets pasted in the reviews."
There were numerous television offers, all turned down. Then came "Terms." He had been chosen for the part by director James Brooks two years earlier and says it was worth the wait.
Anxious to embellish his re'sume', he told Juliet Taylor, who was casting the film, that he had once studied with Sandy Meisner.
"Sandy Meisner is a wonderful teacher," said Taylor.
"Yes, she certainly is," Daniels replied.
He found out later that "she" is a "he" -- Sanford Meisner, founder of the Neighborhood Playhouse.
The tension on the set of "Terms," Daniels says, was almost unbearable.
"I had 2,000 bucks in the bank when they started shooting, and then Shirley and Debra started fighting and the rent was due and I thought, 'I don't know where I'm gonna get it.' "
Daniels says he doesn't waste any emotion preparing for a scene.
"You don't have to be angry all morning because you've got to shoot the first take at 11 o'clock. I don't work that way. I'll do it," he says, snapping his fingers, "when they say, 'Action.' "
Woody Allen was quoted as saying that Daniels -- unlike other actors -- never talked to him on the "Purple Rose" set.
"I didn't have anything to say," he laughs. "I stayed by myself. I got to know Mia fairly well. She couldn't have been more helpful. She cared what I did the night before. There was a friendship there that showed on the screen.
"With Woody, I felt at ease with him. You could ask him anything you wanted. I tried to make them good questions."
Daniels says he felt comfortable improvising. "Then Woody would say, 'Okay, let's try and take out these three lines and oooh! ooooh!' and he'd go away and write a speech. He wrote the '24 hours ago I was in an Egyptian tomb' speech on the side and handed it to me and said, 'Could you possibly memorize this?'
"I've still got that piece of paper," he says. "When Woody Allen's working off the top of his head, that's what you take with you when you're 70 years old."
Besides working with Allen, Daniels says he got a kick out of veteran actor Van Johnson. He imitates Johnson's theatrical baritone:
"For two weeks, he kept saying, 'You know Gable said to me. I screen tested for Tracy. I was pretty damn good in it. Hepburn was there.'
"We'd say, 'Van, please write your book,' and he'd say, 'Nobody here wants to hear what I have to say.'
"It finally got so bad Ed Herrmann would say, 'Van, you only dropped three names in that last sentence,' and he'd say, 'Did I drop a name? Did I drop a name? All right, I'm not going to drop one more name for the rest of the picture, but I'll tell you, Gable told me once . . .' "
Johnson did not treat the reclusive director with the same deference as the other cast members. During the setup for one scene, he broke into "Strangers in the Night" and kept shouting, according to Daniels, "WOOD, WOOD, what am I doing here? Am I happy or sad? Are my eyebrows up or down?"
"Ed Herrmann and I were laughing so hard, we were bouncing."
Daniels, who has guided his career with a firm hand, has never been in a turkey. As actress Stockard Channing once told him, "You haven't had to do 'The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.' Yet."
Last year Daniels starred on Broadway with Channing and Irene Worth in "The Golden Age" and won favorable notices.
His next movie, "Marie," based on the book by Peter Maas and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, is due out in October. Daniels plays the legal counsel to former Tennessee governor Ray Blanton opposite Sissy Spacek as Marie Ragghianti, the Pardon and Parole Board chairman who blew the whistle on a statewide clemency-for-cash scandal.
"In an odd way," says Maas, "it's probably the most difficult part in the film. He's got to make you like him. And he does it. It's amazing."
Maas recalls watching Daniels audition for the part. "He was suave, glib and easy. Nobody else had a chance."
This "lovable snake," as Maas calls him, is closer to the portrait of Flap than to Tom Baxter or Gil Shepherd. But Daniels has a knack for playing despicable characters that audiences can't resist. In fact, Debra Winger -- concerned with the sympathy factor -- worried that Daniels would make Flap too charming.
"I don't look at them as good guys or bad guys," he says. "They're just people. There wasn't as much wrong with Flap as a lot of people thought. He was just a guy with small goals. I've had a lot of people say to me, 'I would have cheated earlier and I would have left her a lot sooner than Flap did.' "
Maybe it's just his cornfed, Midwestern innocence.
"He's the most centered person I know," says Martino. "He's married and has a child and lives in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side. He doesn't do drugs or drink." He pauses. "I think he does drink beer."
Says Daniels, leaning back and clasping his hands behind his neck, "I won't let the business make me crazy. I won't let it age me prematurely. If that means being laid-back, that's what it's going to have to be. The trick for me," he smiles, "is not to take it that seriously."