Defining Actor Jeff Daniels

Celebrities, People
on February 13, 2005

It takes an offer as enticing as working with the likes of Meryl Streep or Clint Eastwood to lure actor Jeff Daniels away from his home in Chelsea, Mich. But even then, it won’t be long before the fair-haired Midwesterner returns to his roots and the comfortable nest he has created in his beloved hometown.

“If Meryl calls, I ask, ‘What time’s the plane?’” says the actor, sitting in his office at the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea (pop. 4,398), looking anything but Hollywood with tousled hair, a brown flannel shirt and a guitar at his feet. After a career that spans 27 successful years of feature films, including Blood Work, The Hours and Pleasantville, Daniels has the quiet confidence of a working actor. But it wasn’t always so.

“I never thought the career would last,” admits Daniels, who turns 50 on Feb. 19. “I thought after six or eight movies, like most people’s careers, it would go away. I never thought, ‘I’m going to be a star and I’m going to be famous.’ That was never a goal. So, I just said, ‘When it ends, and it will end, I will be home.’”

Home he is, but his career is still going strong. His versatility in moving from comedy to drama and good guy to bad has beaten the “who’s hot” mentality of Los Angeles, where out of sight is out of mind. This week brings the release of Daniels’ latest feature film, Because of Winn-Dixie, based on the best-selling novel by Kate Dicamillo. The movie, also starring Eva Marie Saint, Cicely Tyson and Dave Matthews, features Daniels as a preacher who moves to a small Florida town with his daughter to start a new church. His lonely daughter adopts a dog, named Winn-Dixie after the grocery store where she finds him, and their unique bond ultimately brings together the entire town.

Even though the movie set was some 1,200 miles south down Highway 55, Daniels decided to drive. “They couldn’t believe it,” he recalls of the film crew’s response to his tooling down to Louisiana in his recreational vehicle. “Usually actors ask for a private jet or 27 first-class trips,” he says. “I am asking, ‘What time do you want me to pull in?’”

The sometime-guitar player loves his RV so much that he has written a song about it, which is included on the witty, slice-of-life Jeff Daniels Live and Unplugged CD (available only at www.jeffdaniels.com). He also has written songs about several other life-defining moments, including Kathy, which he wrote about his first date with Kathleen Treado, whom he married in 1979. “We sat on her porch swing for five hours at the same house right here on South Street where her mother and stepfather still live,” he recalls. “It was obvious to me, and to her, that there was something going on.”

Aspiring actor

Less than a year later, they married and she accompanied him back to New York, where he continued his pursuit of an acting career. Things didn’t go well at first, so one night Daniels called his mother and said, “I want to come home.” But his mother wouldn’t hear of it. She told him, “Find a way to stay.”

After all, it had been a hard decision for Daniels’ parents to tell him to go to New York. His father had wanted his oldest son to follow him into the family lumber business, but when the aspiring actor was invited to join the Circle Repertory Theater in Manhattan, Dad said the magic words that changed his son’s life: “I think you should go.”

So when Daniels called, his mother knew that he wouldn’t be happy if he came home to work in the family business. And if he were honest, Daniels knew it himself. He already had worked at the lumber business for four summers as a truck driver, hauling cement blocks, and found it less than fulfilling. “Personally, I just didn’t care about wood,” he admits, glad that his younger brother was able to fulfill their father’s dream of a son taking over the business.

Then, in 1981, Daniels got his first big break with Ragtime, the first of several films that established his career. That was followed by Terms of Endearment (1983), Marie (1985), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986).

Purple Rose Theater

In 1986, the 6-foot-3-inch actor and his wife knew there would never be a better time to return home to raise their then 2-year-old son, Benjamin. So they packed a U-Haul truck and returned to Chelsea. And while it was the perfect place for their family—which now includes another son, Lucas, and daughter, Nellie—the Dumb and Dumber star realized that he missed the high level of creativity found working on a play or on certain movie sets. His answer to filling the void was the Purple Rose Theater, which he purchased in 1989, renovated and named after the Allen film.

The Purple Rose Theater Company launched in 1991 as a nonprofit organization, providing education, script development and world premiere performances at an affordable cost. Its apprenticeship program, the only one of its kind in the state, provides hands-on training in all aspects of the theater.

The community theater also has a script-development team, a guest artist program and an educational outreach program that brings performances to area schools. The theater stages 42 weeks of performances annually. It has a minimum of six performances a week with at least an eight-week run of each show, with more successful shows lasting as long as 14 weeks. In 1999, the Purple Rose was the national winner of the American Theatre Critics Award for Best New Play for Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days.

When the theater opened in 1991 after a yearlong renovation, times were tough in Chelsea. Daniels recalls that along Main Street, if there were 25 businesses, at least 10 of them were empty. But opening the theater helped revitalize the community.

It pulled in about 40,000 people a year who hadn’t previously come to town, and as the local business community discovered, they had wallets. As a result, Craig Common, a friend of Daniels’, opened the Common Grill, a four-star restaurant. Not too long after, a couple of art galleries, a coffee shop, another jewelry store and a bookstore joined it, and Chelsea became a destination spot.

“There clearly were some lean times, but he stayed with it to make it work,” says Steve Daut, president of the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce. “I have heard more than once, ‘Look at this guy. He can do anything he wants to do, and here he is back in his town and trying to make this theater work.’ That clearly has not gone unnoticed, and he has some strong supporters in the town who are grateful for what he has done.

“But there is something else that happened behind the scenes and I don’t know that Jeff talks about it that much,” Daut says. “One thing he did was become a catalyst for the other visual arts. He purchased an old school building and donated it to a group, which formed the Chelsea Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that promotes the visual arts, music, dance, painting and so forth.

“It is something that has also increased the visibility of the town. We now have three (art) galleries in town, and we had none before. Retail has picked up. In fact, the smart retailers have varied their hours, and they are now open in the evening so they get a boost from the theater traffic. Now it has gotten to the place where retail space is at a premium and the upper floors of all of those buildings are starting to fill up with rental space. It really has made a big difference in town.”

The hard-won success of the theater has allowed Daniels to hire a full-time staff to handle the day-to-day business so he can be gone for long periods of time. And while he has written several award-winning plays for the theater, such as Shoe Man, Across the Way and Escanaba in the Moonlight, he never performs in them. That would tie him down and prevent him from taking roles in films such as Because of Winn-Dixie and Imaginary Heroes, which also opened this month, as well as the The Squid and the Whale, co-starring Laura Linney, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The theme of Because of Winn-Dixie—sometimes goodness comes from the most unlikely places—is one that resonates with Daniels. After all, his theater, which he hopes will continue long after he is gone, has done a tremendous amount to help his hometown. And even as Daniels is making every effort to see that the Purple Rose survives for generations to come, for his part, he just wants to be one of the lucky actors who is able to keep working.

“Time marches on and we all get older,” he says. “I am looking forward to the next 20 or 25 years. I want to be one of those guys where the phone rings for movies their whole lives. That would be great.”

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