10/1/00 Chicago Sun-Times
Cracking the Morse Code
Actor lives, works by his own rules
At first you don't even notice him. He looks like the room service waiter. He's silent with his eyes downcast on the fruit platter. His voice is a wee little whisper.
David Morse is the anti-movie star. He doesn't want fame or fortune. Heck, he lives in rural Pennsylvania, where he cuts his grass in peace and prays that his neighbors think he's just one of those schlubs who work at the local computer company.
But here's the rub. The guy stars in three big fall movies. Big ones. These include Bait; Dancer in the Dark opening Friday, and the upcoming Proof of Life.
All this work is the reason why he's been hauled to the Regency Hotel in the Big Apple by a very nervous publicist who knows her client would rather be getting a root canal than submit to a reporter's questions.
The 6-foot-4 actor doesn't mean to be difficult. He's just very nervous about this career resurgence.
"I don't care about celebrity," he says. "I don't care about getting a good table. I don't know that I care about anything else but getting access to roles that make me believe in something."
It's hard to believe that the veteran actor is delighted when people can't pinpoint how they know him.
"I'm constantly being congratulated for my great work on ER, "Morse says, smiling. "I have to remind people that I'm not Anthony Edwards. I would like to make his $27 zillion for two years."
Who is David Morse? A quick refresher: Morse was the guy who locked up the big man in The Green Mile (1999). He was guy who got raped on TV's St. Elsewhere. He is the guy not dating Meg Ryan on the upcoming film Proof of Life.
In Dancer in the Dark, Morse is the neighbor of Selma (singer Bjork), Czech immigrant and single mother working in a factory in the middle of rural America. Her only salvation is her love for classic Hollywood musicals.
Her passion for these movies gets her through the terror of going blind. Her son Gene will suffer the same fate if she can't save enough money to allow him to have an operation. Meanwhile, Morse plays Bill, a man who is trying to keep secret the fact that his money is running out. He asks Selma for a loan. And what follows spirals into tragedy mixed with musical numbers.
"To be honest, I didn't get the script when I first read it. I said, 'I really don't want to do it.' I didn't like the character. I didn't have any empathy for him," Morse admits. "Thank God my manager said, 'Talk to (director) Lars (von Trier).' So I called him and we talked. But I still wasn't sure.
"Then I turned on the television that night and this film came on. I sat there thinking, 'Man, this is so cool.' It was (von Trier's) Breaking the Waves (1996). That's when it hit me that Dancer would be like something I had never done in my life.
"Lars turned out to be a revolutionary director and a real bad boy. He reminds me of my friend Sean Penn in a way," Morse says. "For instance, he won't travel. And he wrote this piece to take place in the Seattle area in the '60s. And he said, 'We're filming it in Sweden.' "
The set was different, to say the least.
"It was also so strange because these digital cameras were everywhere," Morse says. "And it was tricky when we did the numbers that involved music. Lars used 100 cameras on each musical number. But during the other scenes, you're really just working with Lars. He sends everyone else away. He's even the camera operator. And essentially, he's a member of that scene. He's improvising and you're improvising right back."
Morse just wrapped the December release Proof of Life with Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. He plays Ryan's businessman husband, who is kidnapped while working in South America. She hires a renegade hostage negotiator played by Crowe, who, in a case of art imitates life, ends up falling in love with her.
"I never saw anything happen," Morse says of the alleged on-set romance. "I read about it like everyone else."
Morse wishes something different would have happened on his new film Bait.
"I played a very straightforward and nasty federal agent. I thought if we could get him into the fun of the movie, it might be interesting. The powers that be said, 'Great.' We did a few lighthearted scenes, but they cut them out of the movie," Morse says. "I guess that's part of the deal on any movie. You need to meet the demands of the action."
Morse, a native of Hamilton, Mass., always wanted to act. After acting in local productions, he made his Broadway debut as Father Barry in On the Waterfront.
He made his motion picture debut in Richard Donner's Inside Moves (1980). "I couldn't get a job after that film," he says. "Part of the problem was that I was competing with John Travolta, who was a big star. Treat Williams was a big star. They got all the roles. Plus no one saw Inside Moves."
Morse was forced to take a job on TV. He wound up starring as Dr. Jack "Boomer" Morrison in the ensemble hospital drama St. Elsewhere which ran from 1982-1988. "I couldn't believe the type of money I was always offered on TV. But I always said no. Finally I was broke and living on borrowed money. I finally had to say OK to TV. So St. Elsewhere came along and it was one of those things that was at least well done."
It was tough going when the series was axed. "People had an image of me coming off of St. Elsewhere, " Morse says. "There's a kind of a condescending vibe from the movie business that you're just a TV actor. You really have to work your way back. It's a game of small steps."
Eventually he made it back to the big screen, starring in two Sean Penn-directed dramas, The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995). He has also had roles in Twelve Monkeys (1995), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Contact (1997) and The Negotiator (1998).
He played one of the guards on Death Row in last year's The Green Mile.
When he's not on a set, Morse heads home to Pennsylvania, where he lives with wife Susan Wheeler, twin sons and a daughter. In his spare time, he even works in a prison. "I met a priest on the set of St. Elsewhere. Part of his ministry was using films within prisons to help people. He invited me to check out what he was doing," Morse says. "I gotta tell you, I've gotten in front of prison populations, which is pretty scary.
"But I've gone on Saturdays to help these guys learn how to read," Morse says. "It's a way of actually doing something good. I've become transformed by it. It's as much about me as it is about them."
The only bad part of the deal? "There are all those prisoners who say, 'Say hi to Julianne Margulies at the ER, " he says. "I just shrug and say, 'OK.' "