After feature roles in two of this summer's biggest hits--"Beverly Hills Cop II" and "RoboCop"--Ronny Cox finally sports one of Hollywood's most recognizable faces, if not its most recognizable name. He believes he's putting that new, improved recognition factor to good use in his next project, an after-school special about AIDS.
"If you're in a series or a popular film, people start thinking of you as someone they know," Cox says. "Television lets you be right there in the living room with them." Ergo, Cox's young fans might pay attention to his subtle attempt to educate them through "Just a Regular Kid: An AIDS Story," which airs Sept. 9 on ABC.
"I felt this show was important to do because there's so much hysteria about AIDS," Cox notes. "Research has shown that even though teen-agers are getting bombarded by all sorts of information about AIDS, they're not changing their sexual mores at all. They only makes changes once they know someone personally involved with AIDS."
In "Just a Regular Kid," he plays the father of a teen-age boy who contracts AIDS through a blood transfusion. "This is a story about how the boy's friends treat him once he has the disease," Cox explains. He hopes it will confront "the tremendous ignorance about the ways you get AIDS and the ways you don't."
After 16 years of films and television, Cox at 49 finally may be becoming a household face if not yet a household name. Only recently--probably as a result of his "Beverly Hills Cop" forays and "RoboCop"--has the public begun to recognize him as an actor. "People from Dayton think I'm from Dayton," he chuckles. "Airline stewardesses think I'm a pilot. Tennis players think they played tennis with me last week. There must be a lot of guys in this world that look exactly like me."
Even in Hollywood, Cox has been an enigma. "One of the frustrations of my career has been that even people in the business didn't recognize me from one show to the next," he says. "They didn't think the guy in 'Deliverance' was the same guy in 'Bound for Glory' or 'Taps.' In a town where so many people play personas, I'm going to take that as a compliment."
Cox will confound the public even more when "St. Elsewhere" begins its new season. He has signed on to play Dr. John Gideon, an oncologist and head of the hospital. "Now that my movie career has finally taken off," he says, "I jumped at the chance to join 'St. Elsewhere.'
"It was a surprise to everybody but me. When you're comparing television with movies, there's usually a drop-off in quality. But not here. If anything, it's a little uphill to go to 'St. Elsewhere.' It's one of the best-written shows. There are three or four good films every year, but most of us don't get to do them."
Cox has worked too long as an actor to start sitting around waiting for the part of a lifetime. Looking back over a career that began professionally in 1963 at the Arena Stage in Washington, he says, "I've always been fairly selective. The career I'd most like to emulate is that of Robert Duvall."
Reminded that Duvall works infrequently these days, Cox observes that "a lot of times in this business, the more successful you get, the less you work. I'm not a real good hobbyist. For me, the fun is in the work."
From this point of view, joining a successful TV series makes sense. "I only signed a one-year contract," he emphasizes. So while "Beverly Hills Cop III" gets written--"I'm definitely back for the third one, and I heard a rumor it might be set in London," he whispers--Cox will be busy every week in hospital intrigue.
"The 'St. Elsewhere' writers are trying to make my character very complex, intelligent and multifaceted," he reports. "Initially, audiences won't be sure whether they should like me or not."
Cox smiles. It's an inscrutable smile. His villainous businessman in "RoboCop" has a smile like this, and so does his tough but decent "Beverly Hills Cop" character, Capt. Bogomil. "I don't view my 'St. Elsewhere' character as a villain," he says. "He's not J.R. in a hospital gown."
After a career of nice-guy roles, Cox relishes the chance to confuse audiences. "It took real courage for (director) Paul Verhoeven to hire me for 'RoboCop,' " he says. "I'm not the typical way to go. But in my view, when a person you think is nice is evil, it makes him even more evil."
Cox, who is 6-foot-2 with blue eyes, blondish-red eyebrows and graying hair, has no distinguishing villainous characteristics. It's all in the eye of the beholder. "After I was cast," he confides, "one of the writers said to me, 'You look like an astronaut that's gone bad!' "
Until "RoboCop," the closest Cox came to having a tough reputation was in high school in Portales, N.M. "I was known as a hoodlum," he remembers. "This was during the beginning of rock 'n' roll, and I had a rock 'n' roll band. In a Bible Belt community, that gave me instant notoriety."
He eventually chose acting over music, he says, because "I'm not really good enough to be in that top echelon. As an actor, I'm a good guitarist. And as an actor, I think I can be one of the top guys."
Cox credits "RoboCop" with changing his image in Hollywood. "For some reason, if you ever play a character that's sensitive, you get labeled as a soft actor. And anyone soft can't be macho . That's been a bugaboo for me. Dick Jones (his 'RoboCop' character) has absolutely no sensitivity. He's an evil S.O.B."