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Jon Voight: from aspiring gigolo to pope

Miniseries will be screened for Pope Benedict XVI
/ Source: Reuters

For Jon Voight, the actor who shot to fame 36 years ago as an aspiring gigolo in “Midnight Cowboy,” playing Pope John Paul II was like a personal coming home.

“I’ve gone through a lot of stuff in my life,” Voight said in a recent telephone interview, adding that as he has grown older he has developed a greater sense of “God’s importance in our lives.”

The 66-year-old Oscar-winner plays the late pope in a two-part CBS mini-series to be aired in early December in the United States. Voight will show it to John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, at a special world premiere screening Thursday night at the Vatican.

Voight, who won an Oscar for best actor playing a handicapped Vietnam War veteran in the 1978 film “Coming Home,” said his Catholic upbringing helped him prepare for his role as John Paul.

“I had a wonderful time doing the pope, maybe because I understood more than most what he was since I had a Catholic background,” he said. “I was not intimidated to take this role because I did not have to go to school from scratch to be comfortable with the surroundings of the Church. I’d been there before.”

While most of the roles he has played in his long career have been fictional, this time the subject was firmly anchored in reality.

“We had so much video on him. .... I ingested it and marinated myself in it,” he said. “As an actor, you simply provide the life energy underneath the portrait, but you don’t write the script ... John Paul wrote the script.”

Voight likened his preparation for playing John Paul, who died last April after reigning for nearly 27 years, to that of an “amateur anthropologist,” digging for clues on behavior, sense of humor, gestures, body language and facial expression.

Suffering soulsVoight said he could not have done the film without having lived a long and sometimes troubled life himself.

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“I think I had to live a life. For some reason I have had success playing the suffering souls so that the last stages (of the pope’s life) were comfortable for me,” Voight said.

He said that looking back on his own life he realized that one of the most important lessons was learning how to use freedom wisely -- one of the late pope’s leitmotivs.

“Free love -- what a poison that was,” he said, recalling the 1960s. “Free love, the destruction of family life and loyalties and the responsibilities of parents, and I’ve gone through that, so I know,”  he said.

Voight has very strained relations with his daughter, actress Angelina Jolie, whom he had by his first marriage. He left his wife when Jolie was less than a year old.

The four-hour mini-series on CBS is one of several television films that have been made since the pope died. Competing network ABC will air its own TV movie about the pope on Dec. 1.