Stepinac grad plays pope
By GARY STERN
THE JOURNAL NEWS
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(Original publication: November 27, 2005)
It must be the dream of any Catholic boys school to produce a future bishop of a major diocese, a cardinal with great responsibilities, a pope.
Or at least someone who plays the pope on TV.
On Dec. 4 and 7, Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains will see one of its own, Oscar-winner Jon Voight, class of '56, portray Pope John Paul II in a CBS mini-series.
"I was raised Catholic in Yonkers with my two brothers," Voight said last week from the Los Angeles area, where he lives. "My mother was a very good Catholic, always devout, very private. We went to Stepinac, had a good time there. I did the scenery for some plays ? I was an artist ? and then tried out for some roles. It was kind of a launching pad for my eventual decision to become an actor."
That decision set in motion a long, mercurial career that did not exactly start with a holy role. Voight's breakthrough came when he played Joe Buck, a country boy who tries to become a New York prostitute, in 1969's X-rated "Midnight Cowboy." He went on to play memorable parts in "Deliverance," "Coming Home" (for which he won Best Actor), and "The Champ," and to star in dozens of other films.
It's a long way from playing Joe Buck in Times Square to John Paul in St. Peter's Square.
"When I was first asked to do it, I thought, 'Oh, well, that's interesting,' but then I looked in the mirror and said, 'I can play him,' " the 66-year-old actor said. "I paid much attention to him during his pontificate. The mother of my children, Marcheline (Bertrand), loved him and was devoted to him. I had watched the way he focused on life, on meaning. I was kind of prepared when they asked me."
Ten days ago, Voight attended a screening at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI watched from a white chair on a platform, surrounded by several thousand Romans.
"After the screening, he gave two thumbs up," Voight said. "When he saw me, he lit up. He had such a sweet smile, like an old friend."
Voight's younger brother, Chip Taylor, a longtime pop musician who wrote the rock anthem "Wild Thing," said that Voight was well-suited to play John Paul II.
"Jon has always been a very straightforward, honest, charming guy," said Taylor, Stepinac class of '58, who lives in Hartsdale. "When he called and told me he was offered this role, I told him I couldn't think of anyone better. I said, 'All you have to do is walk around in those robes and be yourself, because you love people and have that aura around you.' At Stepinac, he was very serious about life, like he is now."
Their older brother, Barry Voight, Stepinac class of '55, is one of the country's most prominent volcano experts.
The Voight boys grew up in Yonkers, off Lockwood Avenue, and Jon attended P.S. 5. Their father, Elmer Voight, a former golf pro at Sunningdale Country Club in Greenburgh, died in 1973. Their mother, Barbara Voight, a part-time teacher in Yonkers, died in 1995.
At Stepinac, the school's longtime drama teacher, the Rev. Bernard McMahon, now retired, convinced a baby-faced Voight to move from stage design to playing the comedy lead in "Song of Norway." Then, during his senior year, Voight played Johann Lutz in "The Student Prince." The yearbook raved: "Complete with German accent and whiskers, Jon surpassed his amazing triumph of last year with a masterful handling of the play's main comic role."
Barbara Locke was a student at all-girls Good Counsel High School in White Plains during the mid-1950s, and traveled across town to play Voight's first leading lady in the Stepinac productions.
"Oh, he was talented and charismatic," said Locke, who lives in Brookfield, Conn., and gets a surprise call from Voight every few years. "He was charming and always a nice-looking young man. The girls were crazy about him."
Voight went on to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., on a partial scholarship for stage design. He was elected president of the student body. He also received a deeper grounding in Catholicism, which would influence him in waves throughout his life. He may get most of his ink these days for being the estranged father of uber-celebrity Angelina Jolie, but Voight is well known in Hollywood circles for supporting numerous causes and charities.
"I guess so," Voight said when asked if he is a religious man today. "It's hard to explain. I have become a spiritual fellow, although I'm not the Catholic my mother would have liked me to be. Like John Paul, I believe that everyone should open themselves to each other."
Voight's class celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, and Stepinac annually invites the 50-year class to commencement. So an invitation will be on the way ? and possibly an induction into Stepinac's Hall of Fame.
"The alumni have always hoped to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame, with his two brothers," said Paul Thomas, Stepinac's advancement director. "We would like to see them go in together."
If he returns ? which Voight said he would love to do ? he'll have plenty of stories about playing John Paul. He plays him from his election as pope in 1978 until his final days. John Paul died this past April 2.
"When I was in Krakow, Poland, and when I was in Rome, working with the extras, people from the local communities, the relationship between the people and myself was very moving, very emotional," Voight said. "I was wearing the vestments and it must have been a vivid reminder of the pope. People were weeping. We laughed together. There was an outpouring of love for this man, through me."
Another Stepinac graduate, Alan Alda, class of '52, is now playing the Republican presidential candidate on "The West Wing." If he wins, Stepinac men will hold down the Vatican and the White House, at least on the small screen.