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Profile : Jon Voight’s Chernobyl ‘Warning’

Times Staff Writer

“It has been a difficult journey for us,” Jon Voight was saying. “We have learned so much along the way. We don’t know what we have on film, but everyone is trying to do their very best. We are raising a lot of questions.”

Voight, who won the best actor Oscar for 1978’s “Coming Home,” was hot and exhausted. He had spent that sweltering morning jogging up and down a street in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles for a scene in his latest movie “Chernobyl: The Final Warning,” a docudrama premiering Monday on TNT.

“Chernobyl,” based on the book “Final Warning: The Legacy of Chernobyl,” by bone marrow specialist Dr. Robert Gale and Thomas Hauser, chronicles Dr. Gale’s efforts to help Soviet medical teams save the lives of the victims of the largest nuclear catastrophe since World War II. Voight portrays Gale, who is based at the UCLA School of Medicine.

After shooting in the Soviet Union for seven weeks, production was winding up that week at Dr. Gale’s house in Brentwood.

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“Jon and I spent a lot of time together before the filming started,” Gale said, watching Voight running down the street. “He is a very serious actor and he wanted to get a sense of me and our family. When we were in Moscow, we would speak after every scene.”

Relaxing poolside at Gale’s home during a break in the filming, Voight talked passionately and dramatically about his recent experiences in Moscow.

“You can tell everyone about being there, but it is difficult to describe what happens when you go there,” Voight said. “Things are happening, there are big changes happening, but when you get there the people are very unhappy because the economic situation is quite dreadful.

“All the horror stories are true about people having to stand in four or five lines a day and having no food or milk when they get to the end of the line.”

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But he was impressed with the nobility of the Soviet people. “It is quite extraordinary and legendary and it fulfills itself when you are invited to a person’s home,” Voight said. “You get a five-course meal. You know it’s costing them a lot for that meal. But they are so graceful. . . . It was quite a remarkable experience.”

The Soviets allowed the production to film at hospitals and even at a nuclear power plant. Voight was shocked at the outdated technology in the hospitals. “The X-ray machines are many years old and the tiles on the floor are broken and it is dusty. And yet the doctors are so lovely and caring. All the time you are seeing something that shocks you and simultaneously, you are getting an experience of tremendous human warmth and caring.”

Voight found the condition of the nuclear power plant even more harrowing. “You see holes in the walls in an area which is supposed to be kept free of contaminations. There was a hole in the roof and pigeons were flying through.”

The most frightening observation Voight said he made while filming in the plant was that the people who work there are in the dark about the potential danger of nuclear power.

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“They are human beings,” he said. “And they sit next to this energy. If it’s not cared for properly it can interrupt into explosions that can mean destruction and great suffering for many people.”

Voight’s voice softened and a look of despair slowly crept over his face. “We don’t really want to raise the specter of that holocaust which awaits us if one demented finger presses the button.

“There are almost no words to describe the fears that are in everyone’s hearts, and yet all of our children have that fear. We are responsible. We can not throw that responsibility to the next generation.”

“Final Warning,” Voight said, raises questions about the tenuous survival of the human race.

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“ ‘The Final Warning’ is an appropriate title because there is some great mark on this event (Chernobyl) that is meant to infect us with caution and spur us to a stronger look at what our responsibilities are. The movie has real moral roots and spiritual roots.”

Voight recalled that as a child he was always trying to derive ways to solve the world’s problems. “My father used to say, ‘Son, you can’t change human beings.’ It was a convenient way of saying there is nothing you can do.”

His father’s words clouded Voight’s life for years. It was only after he reached adulthood and “had gone through many crises in my life--and I wanted to change myself--that I realized what he said had hurt me. It was a moment of deep foreboding and despair if he was right and there was no hope for us.”

Voight said he believes there is hope. He believes people can change. “We have to search ourselves now for those seeds which will be the hope to the future generations.”

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He said he hopes “Final Warning” will inspire viewers to do something to save their world. “We are just little folks trying to our best and I am rooting for us to bring forth a decent, responsible peace,” Voight said. “It won’t be the be all and end all, but it may wake us up a bit.”

“Chernobyl: The Final Warning” premieres Monday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT. It repeats Tuesday at 1 p.m.; Wednesday at 9 a.m. and 7:15 p.m. and Thursday at 1 p.m.


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