Billy Bob's big year - Bandit, barber, executioner

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Billy Bob Thornton points out that his notoriety exceeds his clout in Hollywood, a place he finds bemusing, benumbing and generally at odds with the sort of work he wants to do.

"There's a real common misconception that I'm like a big deal. I'm really not," Thornton said. "I'm a big deal only because of people like Roger Ebert, Jeffrey Lyons, Joel Siegel, critics like that. That's the only reason anybody ever hears about me."

Probably true until a couple of years ago, when Thornton was best known for his good old Southern boy name and a handful of acclaimed smaller hits such as "Sling Blade" and "A Simple Plan." Both films earned Thornton Oscar acting nominations, and he won a screenplay Academy Award for "Sling Blade."

For the past year or two, it's been more than film-loving critics talking about Thornton. He drew attention for his losing battle with Miramax, which Thornton blames for ruining his most recent directing effort, "All the Pretty Horses."

After a nearly three-year on-screen lapse since "Pushing Tin," Thornton, 46, has been all over theaters and in competition for fresh awards with "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Monster's Ball" and "Bandits." He earned dual Golden Globe nominations, in the drama category as a blackmailing barber in the Coen brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There" and the musical or comedy category as a neurotic bank robber in "Bandits."

Last fall, Thornton made his recording debut with the dark-edged country album "Private Radio."

Fringe characters

Thornton's image has been further shaped by the fringe characters he plays -- the taciturn haircutter of "The Man Who Wasn't There," the amiably dim brother of "A Simple Plan," the lonely former executioner of "Monster's Ball," the retarded guardian angel of "Sling Blade."

Thornton's other films include "Primary Colors," "U-Turn," and the road comedy "Waking Up in Reno," briefly in theaters last fall and due out in wider release this year.

He's preparing to star in "Levity," in which he plays an ex-con seeking forgiveness for killing a teen during a robbery attempt. The sobering film complements the dark tone of "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Monster's Ball."

"Kind of the third one in the boxed set," Thornton said. "A friend of mine told me I'm in my blue period."

"I like outcasts of society," Thornton said. "I've felt like one myself. Still do. I'm a fairly normal person, really, contrary to what they write in the papers. Fairly normal. But I kind of don't fit in."

He came to Hollywood in the 1980s, took acting classes and eventually began landing bit parts in TV and film. Thornton first caught critical attention as a killer in "One False Move" in 1991, a film he co-wrote.

Except for the NASA honcho he played in "Armageddon," Thornton has shunned Hollywood action films. He did "Armageddon" on the advice of agents and handlers who told him he needed to appear in a big-budget flick.

"I don't think there was anything wrong with 'Armageddon,'" Thornton said. "It's the arena and the concept and what it does to the public. That's what I find wrong with movies like that.

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