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Jon Voight, "Conrack"

so business and goes into its general neighborhood release on Friday. Voight knew the movie's first run was ending, but he wanted to talk about it anyway.

The movie is based on real events in the life of Pat Conroy, who wrote a book about his teaching experience. "The book was very good," Voight said. "It was more complex and thorough than the film, which is sometimes what happens. I liked it a lot, and I wanted to do a movie about working with these kids. In a way, it's sort of a release to see a decent white character in a movie about blacks; we can't all be racists.

"What's best about the movie, to me, is the sense you get that it's a love story between these students and their teacher. Here was a guy who described himself as a 'professional dogooder.' While he was waiting to get into the Peace Corps, he had this opportunity to teach on an island where the local accent was so pronounced that, even though the kids weren't dumb, they couldn't communicate with the outside.

"He tried to communicate with them through the exuberance of his personality, and that's also what I tried to show with my performance. "Conrack" was such a release for me, in terms of performing style. After films like 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'The Revolutionary,' in which I played very introverted types, here was a chance for spontaneity."

On the other hand, Voight said, there's a kind of cleverness in the character he plays that he's not sure he likes: "The guy comes over as sort of selfcongratulatory. The real Pat Conroy has a certain cynical notion of himself; he didn't really think he was so terrific."

"Conrack" was directed by Martin Ritt, whose many other credits include "Sounder," "The Molly Maguires" and "Hud." Ritt and Voight worked together with local black kids who played the students, and got good results, Voight said, "because they hadn't been trained yet not to be honest. We set up a situation where the onscreen and the off-screen life on the set was about the same, and they responded with incredible warmth and willingness."

Voight said he likes to do films like "Conrack," films that experiment with style and subject matter, in addition to his more commercial ventures like "The Odessa File" or the immensely successful "Deliverance."

"I'd like to see more films being made, and the leading actors taking less money," he said. "A lot of projects become impossible when you have to start out by paying somebody a million bucks. I think people have to be ready to experiment, and not be so protective of their careers and image.

"I could make myself a superstar tomorrow by doing every Schenley ad and going on every talk show. But what does publicity prove? On 'Gatsby,' they took EVERY opportunity to get publicity. They were greedy, and it backfired. And when they're going for the home run every time, what chances can they take? With more films being made, you'd see more freedom to innovate."

And more freedom, presumably, to make films like "Conrack," which, balancing its success against its weak points, is an honorable attempt to tell the story of real people living now who are not cops, superheroes or other personifications of Hollywood's commercial fantasies.

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