The Powers that

Powers Boothe has spent his career hopscotching from heroes and villains, and back. Now the Emmy winner is enjoying perhaps his finest hour, on HBO's gritty western Deadwood and the Fox smash 24.

By Tim Coleman,
photos by John Russo

You know Powers Boothe even if you don't know you know him. This isn't doublespeak. It's just the way it goes for a character actor who has knocked around Hollywood for more than 25 years. From his Shakespearean roots to his current role as suavely sadistic casino and brothel owner Cy Tolliver on HBO's Deadwood, his voice and face have probably captured your attention even if his name escapes you.

The performance is just the latest in a career that spans the stage, screen, and television. Deadwood, however, reached a crossroads this year when HBO elected not to order a new full season of the series. The cable channel is opting instead to bring the show to a close in a pair of two-hour movies to be aired next year.

"That's what HBO is saying now," Boothe says in his husky, Texas-tinged baritone. "But we'll have to see how it plays out. The Sopranos was supposed to end earlier, too, but it didn't."

Regardless of how much time his program has, his character can't have long. Over three seasons, Cy has steadily declined. When he first rode into the frontier town, he aimed to take it over-only to run afoul of Al Swearengen, proprietor of rival establishment The Gem and de facto ruler of "the camp." When Cy failed to make a successful bid, he bided his time, waiting to see which horse he should back, be it Al or one of the many visitors trotting into Deadwood.

Beset by health problems and especially growing dementia, his unrequited love of Joanie Stubbs, a former prostitute who worked for him, Cy has been struggling just to hold on. Gone is the smooth clotheshorse; he has been replaced by a snarling fiend who stabs his right-hand man and abuses his own whores.

To imbue Cy with authentic desperation, Boothe drew on his early days as a struggling actor. "When I used to live in New York, I remember seeing these homeless men in the subway, and I could see they had this look in their eyes," he says. "The only way I could describe it was, they had a willingness to die. And Cy is sort of there."

Prior to arriving in New York, the square-jawed actor earned an MFA from Southern Methodist University and went on to become a resident actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Company. Shortly thereafter, he made his New York stage debut in the Lincoln Center production of Richard III and later arrived on Broadway as the lead in James McClure's critically acclaimed one-act comedy, Lone Star.

Then Hollywood came calling.

He landed a meaty role right away. In the searing 1980 television movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, he portrayed the titular cult leader who orchestrated the mass suicide of his followers and the murder of numerous others.

Boothe appeared in almost every scene. With equal conviction, the performance brought to life Jones's early years as a passionate civil-rights activist and his final days as a womanizing, self-proclaimed messiah, as well as the gradual decline in between. It earned the relative unknown an Emmy.

And some criticism. While torn, Boothe chose to attend the Emmy ceremony despite a boycott of the awards telecast that year, which stemmed from an ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike. Since he was among the few who showed up, some considered his decision a betrayal. Although the Internet Movie Database termed his appearance an "act of defiance," Boothe insists his loyalties were with the Screen Actors Guild.

Over 20 years later, the topic is about the only one he bristles at.

"It's kind of going over old ground, but I'll talk about it," he says. "It was not an official union deal, but a boycott. Well, I killed myself to do that part, and I couldn't believe it when I was nominated-and I never thought I'd win. Anyway, I always thought the Emmys were a celebration of actors, not political, so I didn't intend to offend anyone when I decided to accept."

The recognition outlived whatever backlash there may have been, leading to numerous roles, including HBO's first foray into series television, Phillip Marlowe, Private Eye, as Raymond Chandler's legendary gumshoe.

In addition to more TV work, he took parts in movies like Walter Hill's Southern Comfort, about National Guardsmen who encounter angry Cajuns in the Bayou, and leads in such films as John Boorman's The Emerald Forest, in which a dam engineer believes his son has been kidnapped by a tribe in Brazil.

"I've been fortunate in my career to have the opportunity to pick and choose the parts I play," he says. "I've also been lucky to always be involved with quality actors, quality directors, quality writers." From Oliver Stone's Nixon to Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, Boothe has always tried to keep things interesting. "Hell, I've played as many guys who get the girl as I have heavies. I've done love scenes with Jessica Lange [in Blue Sky] and Jennifer Lopez [Stone's U-Turn], and I won't kid you," he laughs, "they're fun."

Sexy costars notwithstanding, bad guys have become a specialty. Long before he stabbed two teen grifters to death in Deadwood, Boothe faced off against Nick Nolte in Extreme Prejudice, Jean-Claude Van Damme in Sudden Death, and even the Man of Steel when he provided the voice of Lex Luthor for the animated Superman: Brainiac Attacks. "It's fun playing villains," he says. "But every character has to think he's right."

One of the menacing features of Cy on Deadwood is his often-present cigar. He may well be the only recurring character on television to enjoy stogies, period.

"The cigar just gives me room to express [Cy's] feelings," Boothe explains. "From contemplation to contempt. On set the first day, they divided up the cast and crew between smokers and nonsmokers, and I had a thought: Well, hell, this character has to do something. Let him smoke cigars."

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SMOKE - Winter, 2006/2007

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