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Tom Skerritt has never sought A-list recognition, preferring projects that challenge and engage his craft. From early credits that would become counter-culture classics (M*A*S*H; Harold and Maude), works that encompass his maturation as a character actor (The Turning Point; Ice Castles; Steel Magnolias; Top Gun) to the accomplishments that continue to emerge after five decades on screen and stage, the Detroit native has an built an avid fan base and industry reputation the envy of many. Closing in on his 81st birthday, the actor spoke to SCREEN-SPACE on July 4, a few hours before taking the stage at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre for a sold-out Q&A screening of his most iconic performance, as Captain Dallas, in Ridley Scott’s Alien…

“I was so lucky to be with a wonderful group of actors,” says Skerritt (pictured, below; Skerritt, far right, on-set with Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto), who exhibits no tiredness despite jetting in from Los Angeles only hours before. He has spent a good part of 35 years recounting the production and phenomenon that is Alien, yet offers recollections with an engaging exuberance. “The film is based on the same principles as Hitchcock used, meaning that we all know that terror is out there but we are not quite sure where or what it is. You know something bad may happen if you turn the corner but you don’t quite know what it is,” he says. “Your mind really is the scariest thing you can confront.”

This visit represents a long overdue return to Australia for the actor, who followed Scott’s outer-space monster movie with A Dangerous Summer, a bushfire saga shot in New South Wales in late 1979. It is a largely forgotten work, not least by its leading man. “I recall the experience, sure, but I forgot the name of it. What’s it called?” Skerritt laughs. “I came here because I’d never been to Australia, it was a subject that I was interested in and, frankly, they were paying good money. But we were assured they were going to do rewrites, which I don’t believe ever happened, and some of it was just very ‘soap opera’.” Despite being produced by the great Hal McElroy and with a strong cast in place (“Wendy Hughes was such a wonderful person, as was James Mason,” Skerritt recalls), it proved to ultimately be less than the sum of its parts. “The producers had a lot of footage from a summer of terrible bushfires around Sydney so they thought, ‘Let’s make a movie out of that’,” says Skerritt with a laugh. “Which was fine, because you can start anywhere and make a good story out of it, but you’ve got to do the work.”

Twenty-five years prior, Skerritt arrived back home after military service and quickly became enamoured with the arts; a major in English studies led to a passion for writing, painting and photography. “Somewhere along the way I became very curious about the theatre from the point of view of a shy and self-conscious young man, just wondering how it might help me get out of this shell that I was in,” recalls the actor. “I wound up out in Los Angeles with a vision of being a film director. I did a lot of television back then but I really wanted to start directing and writing my own shows.” (pictured, left; Skerritt in NBC's The Virginian, 1964)

He hit Los Angeles just as the ‘Golden Age of Television’ was blossoming, and worked consistently. The behind-the-scenes talent and pace of production proved invaluable for the young actor. Skerritt recalls, “I worked with some extraordinary directors (which) helped me hugely as an actor and as a writer. Each skill works in unity with and affords a degree of sympathy for the other and learning and applying that means you can work on anything without letting your ego get in the way. Knowing what writers do, what directors do, what editors do, all that knowledge brings a richness to the work an actor does.”

One of those directors was Robert Altman, who warmed to the young actor’s eager, raw talent and attitude, guiding Skerritt through both career and life decisions. The friendship led to the break-out role of Capt ‘Duke’ Forrest, in a film that changed the Hollywood landscape, Altman’s Oscar-winning military satire, M*A*S*H. “He was my mentor and that is how I got the job,” Skerritt says. “I responded to his talent, of course, but also his philosophy about work and his approach to the business.” The set was a legendarily anarchic one, the suits of 20th Century Fox clashing constantly with the anti-establishment production. Skerritt is still surprised by the hit that it became. “Oh, we had no way of knowing that it was going to be as extraordinary as it turned out to be,” he laughs.

M*A*S*H was also the first of Skerritt’s standout performances in ensemble pieces; he is at his very best in roles that draw the best from others – Fuzz (1972; opposite Burt Reynolds, Raquel Welch and Jack Weston); The Devil’s Rain (1975; with Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert and Ida Lupino); The Turning Point (1977;co-starring Anne Bancroft, Shirley Maclaine and Mikhail Baryshnikov); Alien, of course (1979); Top Gun (1986; pictured, right, with Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Michael Ironside); Steel Magnolias (1989; with Sally Field, Julia Roberts and Maclaine again); and, his greatest TV success, Picket Fences, for which he won a Lead Actor Emmy.

“I respond best to actors who, like me, don’t take it all too seriously and don’t try to show-off,” he offers, when asked to define his philosophy on acting. “I learnt very early on from the likes of Bob Altman and Hal Ashby that the great directors make the filming experience a creative effort. Plant a seed inside the actor, ask them to grow and develop their character, show them a level of trust with the script. Actors who really have a talent will embrace the challenge to grow.”

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