An unlikely star, James Woods hopes 'Diggstown' is a hit


Washington--Most movie stars travel with an entourage. There's the advance man, the publicity coordinator, someone to keep the imported mineral water cold, two or three guys who just stand around and look dangerous in $800 suits, the studio rep and his assistant and the local advertising rep. The message is control, control, control.

James Woods showed up in a Washington hotel bar with his mother and his stepfather. There's no control, control, control.

But that's Woods: he does it his way, and somehow he makes it pay. It doesn't bother him that in mid-interview, Mom leans into the alcove, and begins to go through an envelope that has just been given him, and uncovers his face on the cover of the Washington Post's TV magazine for an upcoming HBO movie on Roy Cohn.

"Oh," she says, "that's wonderful. The cover!"

He just smiles, and after she leaves says "That's my mom. Isn't she terrific?"

One somehow never thinks of him having a mother, however: he's too far out on the edge to have such normal things as parents. One of the most unlikely of movie stars, being neither particularly handsome nor spectacularly comedic, he has never had a runaway hit, a big movie. He just keeps working, in big pictures or small, almost always getting good reviews and handing out interviews as laced with profanity as they are with truth.

"When we first got the script," he says of his new film "Diggstown," "the first thing we did was go through it with a machete and cut the crap out! It was full of crap, all this sexist stuff. They couldn't describe a woman without saying, 'As she moves, her fanny swivels,' that kind of crap. And the dialogue. It was horrible! We cut it out too."

Yet, when the surgery was done, he was pleased.

"We had a powerhouse story. It was a great idea for some film people to get together and have some fun and I think our sense of infectiousness carries over into the movie. I've known Lou [Gossett Jr.] for ages and we had a good time, and, even though we didn't know it then, Heather [Graham, the female lead] and I were falling in love. All that's on the screen."

Woods says this fast. Very fast. His words splurge out like quarters flooding from a slot machine after a winning crank at Atlantic City. He's the original fast talker and what has vouchsafed his career is exactly that feral edge, that city boy's slickness and hustler's cool, the mouth hammering away at a 100 miles per while his shifty dark eyes flicker with crafty intelligence. He seems like a born con man.

And that's why "Diggstown" may be just what the career doctor ordered for him; he gets to fast-talk his way into a $2-million bet against creepy Bruce Dern as part of a scam to separate Dern from his dough.

"I hope it's a hit," he says. "I don't exactly have a gift for picking them."

In fact, he has a gift for not picking them.

When Jack Nicholson was diddling over whether or not to take the role of The Joker in "Batman," the part was offered to Woods. He turned it down.

"I'm kind of leery. How do you live something like that down. You're always somebody in 'Batman.' That poor Michael Keaton. He had an offbeat career going, really interesting, now he's Batman forever. So he's got some money, so what? Nicholson did it right. Be weird, take the money and don't do the sequel."

By those standards, hitless or not, Woods has had a fabulous career.

"You have to be honest with yourself, even if you're cursed with good taste. I was looking at the posters in my office and I thought I really did good. 'Salvador,' 'Once Upon a Time in America,' 'The Onion Field,' 'True Believer,' 'The Promise.' I never had a major hit but all the guys who did are on the street. I'm still working."

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