BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Jon Voight is suddenly lost in thought. The actor -- who burst into prominence in 1969 as naive hustler Jack Buck in John Schlesinger's groundbreaking cultural touchstone Midnight Cowboy -- has been asked if he's noticed a connection between today's cable television dramas and the cutting-edge, independent-minded films of the 1970s, when uncompromising fare like Deliverance, Catch-22 and Hal Ashby's Coming Home, for which Voight won the 1978 Academy Award for best actor, changed the way moviegoers perceived cinema at the time.
Voight has a passion for acting. He takes it seriously. At age 74, he approaches every new role as if it's the first time he's stepped in front of a camera. It's about respecting the material, he says. He feels the need to prove himself, every time. They say of directors that they're only as good as their last film. Voight would say an actor is only as good as his last performance.
And the performances he has seen lately -- in Mad Men, in Breaking Bad, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire and too many others to name -- have left him almost speechless with wonder.
Almost speechless because, when he finally answers, he talks for nearly 15 minutes without stopping.
"It's become very much the '60s and '70s all over again -- the real drama, the real acting. When you see Breaking Bad, and you see this guy dying, you just go, wow, something special is happening here. There's a renaissance on cable. It's extraordinary."
Voight plays recently released felon Mickey Donovan in the Showtime drama Ray Donovan, which debuted in June. Ray Donovan is about a fixer, played by Liev Schreiber, who does the bidding of a high-end Hollywood law firm that specializes in celebrity clients. It's a dark, seedy, ends-justify-the-means world, and Voight's character is darker and seedier than many others. Ray Donovan set a ratings record in June for the most-watched premiere in Showtime history. Its debut dovetailed with Dexter's final season, and set the table for the return of the Emmy-winning Homeland.
Today's best television dramas echo the independent spirit of '70s filmmakers like Schlesinger, Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg is on Voight's mind because the actor famously turned down the role of Matt Hooper, the oceanographer eventually played by Richard Dreyfuss, in a little-known 1975 movie called Jaws.
"They were young, and they just wanted to get their hands on film. They had so much to say. They felt the film industry at that time had gotten very stale, because the studios were trying to repeat the successes of the past," said Voight. "We wanted to make movies about what was happening. That's the way I felt, and I'm sure it's the way they felt. It's the way Dusty (Hoffman) felt, and Dusty was my friend from early on. So many actors of my generation wanted to break the mould."
Ray Donovan was created by Ann Biderman, who created the critically acclaimed L.A. police drama Southland. The writer is everything; the writing explains everything, Voight says.
The groundbreaking films of the '70s were informed by rebellious writers who wanted to break the Hollywood mould. The studio system had its own golden age under the original moguls, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer and Sam Goldwyn.
"When people talk about the golden age of film, I think of the '30s and '40s. All the great stars of the time were icons for me, and when I say icon, I mean the greatest: Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. Such wonderful people. Humphrey Bogart. Spencer Tracy. The original moguls who came from Europe had this really strong ethic. They built the industry, and they controlled it. It was a magnificent time."
By the late 1960s, though, the studios were churning out bloated blockbusters, scared for their financial future because of competition from an upstart called television. The moguls were a fading memory by this point. The Hollywood studios were now run by business executives who measured success in terms of box office. Schlesinger and Ashby, and films like Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, reflected what was going on in the world at the time. The Hollywood studios made Doctor Dolittle; Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern made Easy Rider.
"It was a chance to do some serious work," Voight says.
Today's summer movie blockbusters are once again franchise hits: they're all big-budget movies based on past successes. Television is once again rewriting the rules, Voight believes, thanks to an influx of young writer-producers with a love for filmmaking, who want to do more than churn out forensic procedurals and prime-time soap operas set in hospitals.
"Television started focusing on serious drama. Now you have serious directors coming in. Scorsese did Boardwalk Empire; Boardwalk Empire is from some of the same people who did The Sopranos. So many actors are being discovered. It's an exciting time."
Ray Donovan's first season is being repeated Mondays on Movie Central (check listings for times).
Voight believes he's come full circle, from Midnight Cowboy in 1969 to Ray Donovan today.
"I don't consider myself an icon. I'm an actor. It's my vocation; it's my life. To be an actor. Working on Ray Donovan is a very happy circumstance at this time in my life, as you can imagine. You get something, and all of a sudden people are excited about my work in this piece. So I'm very grateful for it."
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013