MOVIES : Actor Anonymous : Scott Wilson hopes 'Dead Man Walking' will lead to the visibility that has long eluded him in films.

Glenn Lovell, film critic for the San Jose Mercury News and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, is currently a National Arts Journalism Fellow at USC

Scott Wilson made the cover of Life Magazine in 1967. To prove it, as much to himself as visitors, he has a framed copy of the May 12 issue hanging in his study. It depicts Wilson, then 24, Robert Blake and Truman Capote--stars and author of "In Cold Blood"--posing on a lonely stretch of Kansas highway.

Under the words "Nightmare Revisited" is a caption that would portend much to come in Wilson's 30 frustrating years as one of Hollywood's most respected but least utilized character actors: "Truman Capote stands between actors playing killers in movie of his book."

Who are these anonymous actors? You have to look inside. No cover ID. Director-screenwriter Richard Brooks wanted it that way. He wanted to further his film's documentary-like realism by making the public think Wilson and Blake were Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the young drifters executed in 1965 for murdering a Kansas farm family.

He succeeded only too well in Wilson's case.

"Every actor in the English-speaking world wanted those two roles, including Newman and McQueen," recalls Wilson, who plays the prison chaplain in the current "Dead Man Walking," another Oscar-nominated film about capital punishment. "Brooks hired two 'unknowns' and he wanted to keep it that way. We were treated like two killers he had somehow run across."

Verisimilitude was pushed to absurd lengths in promoting the crime thriller. It wasn't enough to have the young stars' eyes glowering down from a Sunset Boulevard billboard: "Brooks had the poster with our eyes taken down and replaced with one of the real killers' eyes."

Wilson, cautiously mounting a comeback at 53, says he never saw himself as "star material." He was always introverted, temperamental, distrustful of authority.

"It was the late '60s," he explains, drawing on a cigarette. "I was anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam."

Never trust anyone over 30, right?

"Yeah, I took the sound bite and went with it."

Wilson applied his generation's motto to the Hollywood bureaucracy, which insisted upon typecasting him as Dick Hickock's evil twin.

"I didn't handle things well," he acknowledges during an interview at the West Hollywood apartment he shares with his artist wife, Heavenly. "There were some dark holes in my--I don't know if you want to call it 'a career'--in my time out here."

After "In Cold Blood" and two offbeat but unsuccessful follow-ups (Sydney Pollack's "Castle Keep," John Frankenheimer's "The Gypsy Moths"), Wilson couldn't find work--at least not on his terms. It was a calamitous turn of events for someone now recalled by a director friend as "the Sean Penn of his day." Penn and co-star Susan Sarandon are nominated for Oscars for "Dead Man Walking"; he plays a silver-tongued death-row inmate, a role that might have been modeled on Wilson's Hickock.

Wilson is flattered and made uneasy by the comparison. "I do see some of myself in Sean. He doesn't play the game," observes the Georgia-born actor, who will next be seen in "The Grass Harp" (another Capote adaptation) and "Shiloh" (from the award-winning children's book).

When the conversation turns to his best qualities, Wilson looks away, kneads the back of his neck.

"I think you always get a credibility out of me," he finally offers. "I think you always get a believability out of me."

Wilson's directors--including Walter Hill, Steve Kloves and Richard Fleischer (who cast Wilson as the disillusioned rookie in 1972's "The New Centurions")--agree with this self-assessment. They also think Wilson is scandalously under-employed.

Says Kloves, who used Wilson as a penny-ante thief in "Flesh and Bone": "Scott is one of those guys who's powerful, perversely, because he doesn't call attention to himself. . . . I'd love to find something just for him, to write a movie where he's the guy."

Action director Hill relied on Wilson for key moments in "Johnny Handsome" and "Geronimo." "Scott brings a quality of both anxiety and pain to his parts," Hill observes. "I don't know where he gets it from, but there's a kind of melancholy he brings to things."

In the upcoming "Shiloh," directed by Dale Rosenbloom and featuring Michael Moriarty and Rod Steiger, Wilson handles villain chores. He plays Judd, the West Virginia hunter who mistreats the hound dog of the title.

Rosenbloom didn't want a stereotypical bad guy. Wilson delivered a villain with a past. "It's the eyes," he says. "There are stories in those eyes."

Charlie Matthau cast Wilson as a grieving father in "The Grass Harp." "You instantly see the grief in Scott's face," he says. "He conveyed everything in a look."

The "look" to which many allude could come from years of rejection and disappointment. Or it may just be, as Robert Blake would have it, "your basic dark side, man."

"Scott has had particularly rough treatment by Hollywood," says Kloves, best known for "The Fabulous Baker Boys." "That's casually said at times. But in Scott's case, it's true. It's disgraceful for a guy of his talent to have worked so seldom. I don't know how that doesn't work on you as a human being."

Blake, who affectionately recalls his co-star as "the country boy in tennis shoes with no laces," dismisses this as a cop-out. "Don't blame this town, man," he says. "This town didn't do anything to Scott it didn't do to anybody else. Sometimes it's in the soul. Maybe he had too much [success] too soon."

Wilson agrees he "probably didn't know how to handle [stardom]" the first time around. "I made a lot of silly mistakes. I couldn't bring myself to do a lot of the stuff that was available."

Wilson is still picky. He's seldom motivated by billing or mainstream appeal. It's the property, first and foremost. In "The Grass Harp," scheduled for a spring release, "I kind of set the table, and they [the stars] come in and eat," he says with only mild resentment. "I have a few scenes, then I die off. It was a fun little role."

Alas, little roles beget little roles and, before long, word spreads you're a bit player.

Which is why Wilson, who loathes self-promotion, is now pitching himself to producers and casting agents who have never heard of, much less seen, "In Cold Blood." He has even compiled a nine-minute video with scenes from "The Great Gatsby" (he's the filling-station owner who shoots Gatsby), "The Ninth Configuration" (the delusional Capt. Gutshaw) and "A Year of the Quiet Sun" (a 1984 import that provided his last lead, as a GI who falls in love in postwar Poland).

"The bottom line is I'm an actor and an actor should act," he says. "There were 11 years of downtime. That's not an insignificant amount of time. There was a four-year stretch where I wasn't acting at all. I worked as an industrial painter, painting drug stores."

William Peter Blatty, a longtime friend who directed Wilson to a Golden Globe nomination in "The Ninth Configuration," is certain Wilson was "typed." "['In Cold Blood'] was so realistically directed and acted, people in the audience thought Robert Blake and Scott Wilson were the real killers."

Kloves is more succinct: Wilson's performance as Hickock "was tattooed on people's minds."

Wilson was so afraid of being typed he had trouble pulling a service revolver in "The New Centurions." "It was the moment that leads to his character's breakdown," veteran director Fleischer recalls. "But Scott didn't want to do it because he said he was 'doing the same old thing again.' He finally saw the point and did the scene beautifully."

Wilson concedes: "There were times when I was choosy, when I was selective. Maybe I selected myself out a lot. . . ."

In 1982, after four years of being "between projects," Wilson decided, "I'll take small roles to let them know I'm alive."

He did a walk-on as a test pilot in Warner Bros.' epic "The Right Stuff." He shared cantina scenes with Method legend Kim Stanley, who lectured: "You're too damn good. They don't know what to do with you."

Though hardly a star vehicle, "Dead Man Walking" has gotten people talking about Wilson again. Old friends who drifted away, such as Blake, have resurfaced. "It's created a lot of interest. The phone has been ringing," says Wilson, now in line for an NBC pilot, Demi Moore's "G.I. Jane" and an original script by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"I want to work with filmmakers who do films because it's burning their guts to do them," he stresses. "But I don't know what the future holds. I hope that I'll be able to survive as an actor."

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