In a career stretching across 30 years, actor Powers Boothe has portrayed dozens of steely, strong, and sometimes downright mean characters.
There was the fanatically fatal cult leader Jim Jones in the 1980 TV movie “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones,” which won Boothe an Emmy Award. He chilled viewers as outlaw Curly Bill Brocius in the 1993 movie “Tombstone,” drew more than a few hisses as duplicitous Vice President Noah Daniels on TV’s “24,” and most recently fired up the hills as the feud-spurring Judge Valentine “Wall” Hatfield on the popular History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys.”
Boothe says his reputation as an on-screen baddie has been balanced, however, by plenty of nice-guy roles. “But the heavies are more fun,” says the actor, 64, with a laugh. “And I think they’re more interesting.”
A ‘Nashville’ tycoon
With the debut of the new ABC-TV series “Nashville” on Oct. 10, the tall Texan with the piercing eyes and deep, gravely voice adds another multidimensional bad guy, business tycoon Lamar Wyatt, to his long list of credits.
“He’s the wealthiest man in town,” says Boothe, who based his performance partly on mega-magnate and fellow Southerner Ted Turner. “[Lamar] is also smart and has a lot of compassion. But he can be ruthless.”
Virtually every character on the show will become tangled in Wyatt’s wide-reaching web, from iconic country superstar Rayna James (his on-screen daughter, played by Connie Britton), to Rayna’s rival, the young up-and-comer Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), and Rayna’s husband Teddy (Eric Close), whom Wyatt convinces to run for mayor—against his wife’s wishes.
“He carries his own personal pain but doesn’t share it very often,” says Boothe of his “Nashville” character. “And he doesn’t suffer any fools.”
According to Academy Award-winning “Thelma and Louise” screenwriter and “Nashville” creator/executive producer Callie Khouri, Boothe is the polar opposite of Wyatt and other prickly roles he sometimes plays so convincingly. “He’s a complete sweetheart,” Khouri says. “Such a gentleman.”
Boothe, the youngest of three brothers, grew up in Snyder, Texas (pop. 11,202). His father, Merrill, a sharecropping farmer, and mother, Emily, taught their sons the value of hard work.
“Dad used to say, ‘If you own some dirt, you can always eat,’” remembers Boothe, who recalls a childhood of baling hay and picking cotton.
As much as he now appreciates his hardscrabble upbringing, Boothe knew early on that he didn’t want to be a farmer or an oil field worker, basically the only occupational choices he saw around him in the early 1960s in northwest Texas.
So after high school, he enrolled in Texas State University, becoming the first person on either side of his family to attend college. “I didn’t know what to pick as a major, so I put ‘theater,’ thinking I could always teach,” he says.
While performing in summer stock theater his junior year, he was encouraged by friends to audition for a Southern Methodist University graduate program. Boothe received a fellowship and became convinced to try acting professionally.
“Before that, I never thought about it,” he says. “To me, going to L.A. or New York was like going to the moon!”
He began his career with the Oregon Shakespeare Company before moving to New York City, where in 1980 his parents came to see him perform on Broadway—in a comedy called, ironically enough, “Lone Star.”
“They’d never been to New York,” Boothe says. “We were walking down the street and my dad said, ‘Where do all these people live?”
In the early 1980s, Boothe moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Pam, whom he had met in college and married in 1969.
“We were friends before all this acting stuff happened,” Boothe says, reflecting on their enduring 43-year marriage. “To me, the relationship is a success not because of what happens in good times, but how you get through the bad times. When you pull through things and show your trust and mettle and dependency on each other, you’re so much stronger. I can’t imagine life without her.”
Loving country music
Powers and Pam live in Los Angeles, which is also home to their daughter Parisse, 29 (an actress who co-starred with her dad in the series “Deadwood”), and son Preston, 23 (a recent University of California, Santa Cruz, graduate). But they are currently staying in Nashville, Tenn., for the duration of the new TV series’ production for its first season, which is being filmed on location in the city for which it’s named.
“Many things about Nashville remind me of Texas,” Boothe says. “The people are generous and genuine. I like it a lot.”
Not least of Nashville’s charms is the music for which the town is famous.
“To me, this place is a mix of all styles of music, where all the influences of the entire nation are in this cauldron,” he says.
Boothe learned to play guitar as a boy listening to his father and grandfather play fiddle. He’s a longtime fan of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and he recently discovered Taylor Swift. A few weeks ago, he visited the famed Bluebird Café, an intimate Nashville club renowned for its songwriter showcases.
“We heard the songwriter Gary Burr play ‘That’s My Job,’ a song he wrote for Conway Twitty,” Boothe says. “It was like listening to a poet read his own poetry. I found myself weeping!”
Just as music is the heart of Nashville, music also provides substance for the new TV series under the direction of the show’s music producer, 12-time Grammy Award winner T. Bone Burnett.
“We set out to tell authentic stories,” says “Nashville” executive producer R. J. Cutler. “But mostly we wanted to explore the heart and soul of the people who make music there.”
At the risk of sullying his image as an on-screen villain, Boothe wants the world to know that working in a town known around the world as Music City is a gig as sweet as it sounds.
“As somebody who grew up chopping cotton,” he says, “I’m telling you, this is a whole lot better.”