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From Broadway to Biloxi

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

While still in his early teens, Matthew Broderick auditioned for a public-TV movie, Jean Shepherd’s slyly sardonic “Phantom of the Open Hearth.” The role was for the son of a beer-swilling blue-collar worker.

The latter role already had been cast with a well-respected actor--Matthew’s real father, James Broderick. Alas, said young Broderick, speaking of the son’s role, “I didn’t get the part.” It went to another newcomer, Matt Dillon.

But young Broderick has done OK since in such films as “WarGames” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Now, in an era when Vietnam movies seem to arrive at the rate of one a day, he is in something completely different.

He stars in a film set in the waning days of what some call the “good” war--World War II. The film: “Biloxi Blues,” the second of three memory pieces by playwright Neil Simon, opened Friday. (The third, “Broadway Bound,” is currently on Broadway.)

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In “Biloxi Blues,” Broderick again plays a young Brooklyn kid, an aspiring writer learning of life, love and such, this time as an Army draftee in basic training with his fellow Yankees in the mysterious, steamy Deep South.

He first played the kid, Eugene Morris Jerome, on Broadway in “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and won a Tony award. He returned to Broadway in the stage version of “Blues” in 1985.

He did the movie version--it opened four days after his 26th birthday--last year. It was primarily shot at Fort Chaffee, Ark., a post that many former draftees may recall with a shudder or two.

“I found it easier to do as a film,” said Broderick, whose hair now is back to civilian length after being trimmed for the movie and Hollywood’s version of a draftee’s cue-ball haircut.

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“In the play I did a lot of talking to the audience,” he said. “I felt in a way that the narration distanced me from the audience. But in the film, most of that was worked into the dialogue. I felt more part of the story in the film.”

A polite, quiet man who picks his words carefully, Broderick generally has had a serene, happy life. But last August, while in Ireland visiting a home his family owns near Donegal, that serenity was suddenly shattered.

He was motoring with his girlfriend, actress Jennifer Grey of “Dirty Dancing” fame, when the car he was driving collided head-on with another near Enniskillen.

The crash killed two women in the other car, Anna Gallagher, 28, and her mother, Margaret Doherty, 60. Grey escaped with superficial injuries. Broderick spent a month in a Belfast hospital with a badly fractured leg.

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Originally charged with causing death by reckless driving, he pleaded guilty through his attorney last month to a reduced charge of careless driving. Northern Ireland authorities fined him $175.

Gallagher’s husband, John, assailed that as a “travesty of justice.” The next day, Broderick said in a statement: “I’m glad the court decided there was no basis for charging me with reckless driving.”

His statement also said that “details of the accident will never be fully known. However it happened, it was a tragedy.”

When interviewed here recently, he was asked if he had been in touch with the Gallagher family. It pained him to discuss the accident.

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“I wrote them a letter,” he said. He politely, but firmly, declined to discuss what he wrote or what he recalled of the crash. “It’s a personal matter, and I’d really rather not talk about it.”

In much of his movie work, Broderick has seemed a member of the current squad of young Hollywood leading men whose chief attributes tend to be Bambi eyes and an infinite capacity for looking startled.

Unlike a number of young Hollywood leading men, however, he has logged considerable time on the New York stage, where a considerably wider range of emoting is required.

He made his theater debut at age 17, on Off Off Broadway in a 12-day run of Horton Foote’s “Valentine’s Day.” He co-starred with his father, who before his death of cancer in 1982 gained national renown in ABC’s “Family” series.

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Two years later young Broderick was in the Off Broadway production of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” in which he played the adopted homosexual son of a drag queen. He got fine reviews.

Enter Neil Simon, and two Simon projects--"Brighton Beach Memoirs” for stage, and “Max Dugan Returns” for film. Summoned to audition for the first, he subsequently was offered roles in both, and took them.

“Dugan” was his first movie. Others include “Project X.,” “Ladyhawke” and a screen adaptation of Foote’s play “1918" (two years ago Broderick starred Off Broadway in another Foote play, “The Widow Claire”).

That he got his start in theater, not film, wasn’t by plan, he said. Nor was it because his father insisted that he first get a thorough grounding in theater before seeking motion picture work:

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“I basically auditioned for everything, and whatever I got I would do. I wasn’t in a position to say, ‘I don’t want to do a film, I want to start with stage.’ As it turned out, I did stage first. But it could have gone the other way.”

He is thinking stage for this summer. He hopes to talk, he said, with producer Joseph Papp about appearing in one of the summer productions that Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival stages annually in Central Park.

Why not another film? Broderick, who got hooked on acting when given the role of Snout in a high school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” shrugged and grinned.

“I think you’re supposed to do that if you’re an actor,” he said.

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Broderick lives in Greenwich Village. He is a native New Yorker, the confirmed kind. He has no desire to move to Los Angeles. This is not because he fears his acting edge will disappear in a Hollywood hot tub, though.

He lived Out There, as folks here call it, for a year while making “Max Dugan” and “WarGames” and appearing in the tryout run of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” He sort of liked it. Even lived for a while in a beach hotel called Shangri-La, he said.

But “all my friends are here,” he explained. “I don’t have many friends out there. And my family’s here.” The family is his mother, two grown sisters, he said, “and now a nephew and a niece.”

Not all is roses in New York, of course. He conceded this point when he and a visitor talked about a section of Brooklyn, an old-fashioned Italian neighborhood not yet overrun by yuppies.

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“They spoil it every time,” he said of such invasions. He spoke wistfully of Columbus Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which he had known and loved as a kid.

“It was a really nice neighborhood,” he said. He paused, then cited as an example of yuppie devastation, a Los Angeles main drag that has become so chic it makes postmodern seem past tense.

“Now,” he said, “Columbus Avenue is just like Melrose.”


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