Meet Billy Bob Thornton

Among casual moviegoers, the most likely response to the nomination of Billy Bob Thornton for the Best Actor Oscar was "Isn't he the drive-in movie critic?"Sorry, folks. You're thinking of Joe Bob Briggs.You're excused if you didn't recognize Thornton's name. Chances are you took little notice of his supporting work in Indecent Proposal and TV's Hearts Afire. And you almost certainly missed One False Move, which Thornton starred in and co-wrote. Though praised to the hilt by critics -- Gene Siskel called it the best film of 1992 -- it grossed a mere $1.6 million at the box office.But as evidenced by the joyful noises that greeted Mira Sorvino's announcement, those in the know were pleasantly surprised rather than nonplused by Thornton's elevation into acting's elite. Of course, they've had a chance to see his performance in Sling Blade, which is only now being released in the hinterlands.The Oscar nomination, along with one for Best Adapted Screenplay, is just the latest honor to come Thornton's way in the past few months. He received a Special Achievement award from the National Board of Review, which also named Sling Blade one of the 10 best pictures of 1996. He's also garnered nominations from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. And though his directing hasn't been recognized as such, the Sling Blade cast is up for a collective SAG award.The 41-year-old Arkansas native never expected this slow moving Southern Gothic tale to receive so much acclaim. "I thought maybe 50 people would see it," he says, "and maybe they'd get their money back."The film's central character, Karl Childers, is a middle aged man returning to the outside world after spending 25 years in a state mental institution ("the nervous hospital") because he killed his mother and her lover.Fittingly, Thornton came up with Karl more than a decade ago during an ordeal that might bring on insanity: shooting a five-line role for a made-for-cable movie in the desert while wearing a wool conductor's uniform."I was making fun of myself in the mirror," he recalls, "and I started making that face and using that voice, and I did the monologue at the beginning of the movie right there in the mirror. I wasn't really sure how come."Thornton took the character back to his theater group in Los Angeles and incorporated it into a one-man show. Like most writers, he drew heavily on personal experience, including his gigs at a nursing home and a facility for mentally and physically handicapped kids.Though he was encouraged by his colleagues to do something more with Karl, Thornton hesitated pitching the project to the studios because he realized it was out of step with the times. In an era of glorified music videos and computer games on the big screen, he wanted to make a "novel on film."Not surprisingly, he cites as major influences not Steven Spielberg and George Lucas but Flannery O'Connor and Erskine Caldwell.But Thornton has Hollywood heroes as well, chief among them Robert Duvall, whom he considers a mentor. He studied acting with the Oscar winner, worked with him in "The Stars Fell on Henrietta," and, perhaps most important, co-wrote the screenplay for last year's well-received "A Family Thing.""He came to me and said, 'I want to play a black guy, Thornton recalls. "I said, 'Hold on. How can we do that?"' Well, Thornton found a way. Returning the favor, Duvall accepted a cameo in Sling Blade as Karl's father.Populating the cast with cronies helped the filmmaker to stay within his paltry $1 million budget yet produce a work of which he says with obvious pride, "I look at this and it's exactly what I wanted."Besides Duvall, the Friends of Billy Bob include "Hearts Afire" star John Ritter in an image-shattering turn as a gay store manager and director Jim Jarmusch -- Thornton had a role in his "Dead Man" -- as the clerk at an ice cream stand.Having the 43-year-old Jarmusch play a character identified in the script as "a pimply-faced teenaged boy" might seem ill-advised, but it transforms what would have been a routine scene into a memorable one. As Thornton remarks, "A couple of things turned out even better because of mistakes."Before he became an actor and writer, Thornton played drums and sang in bands, a fact reflected in his other major role models -- Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart -- and in his casting for Sling Blade. Besides such musicians-turned-actors as Dwight Yoakam and Mickey Jones, he also hired such mainstays of the Southern music scene as Vic Chesnutt, Col. Bruce Hampton and Ian Moore, all of whom he knew through his manager, Capricorn Records President Phil Walden.Thornton finds musicians easier to work with than actors "because they don't care. They're just there messing around. They just feel happy to be around where there's some food and stuff."They're also more willing than actors to do their own stunts, a major consideration on a low-budget picture. For example, the wheelchair-bound Chesnutt readily agreed to be thrown into a door. In fact, he bragged about it afterward.Quips the director: "Maybe we should have a disclaimer at the end: 'No paraplegics were harmed in the making of this film.' "

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