At 88, Tom Skerritt stars in East of the Mountains, S.J. Chiro’s film based on the novel of the same name by author David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars), about a dying widower who plans suicide but finds truths about life instead. It earned the best reviews of his life — a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the same as Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, and better than Skerritt’s previous movies Alien, M*A*S*H, The Dead Zone and Top Gun. He told AARP about the film, his old pal Robert Redford, his lost Alien death scene and why Harold and Maude did not star Elton John.
Why did you wait until 88 to take your first major film lead?
It’s just part of my focus on building a viable film industry in Washington state. I started The Film School in Seattle, with Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause. I met David Guterson long ago, and he said, “If we ever make a movie, I'd love to have you be in it.” It came to pass.
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You're the Robert Redford of Seattle’s hot indie film scene — you even played Seattle’s mayor in Cameron Crowe’s grunge opus Singles. And you came up with Robert Redford, right?
Yeah, we were very dear friends in the '60s and '70s. He wanted to be an artist. His teacher tells him, “Your figures are very stiff. Why don’t you go across the street to this acting studio to learn to get a feel of it?” Lo and behold, he went across the street and became Robert Redford.
And you played Reverend Maclean, the father in Redford’s movie A River Runs Through It.
It’s so Americana. I was playing my father — emotionally contained, you never tell your kids that you love them. Nothing has ever moved me as much as that film. Every time I see it, I’m moved on a deeper level. That’s Redford.
Your East of the Mountains character reminds me of A River Runs Through It.
He’s a continuation of the reverend in a sense, many years later. But he’s a heart surgeon — more than any other doctor, he really has to contain his emotions. Now he no longer has that wonderful job. His wife is dead. His daughter [played by Oscar winner Mira Sorvino, 54] has her own problems. And he has cancer. Tell me, in that situation, what would you do? Do you have any idea?
He takes his dad’s shotgun and his dog and goes on a kind of desert vision quest.
You just go back in time, to the pure part of your life, when you were a kid shooting grouse in eastern Washington with your dad. Your car breaks down, some kids pick you up. It opens that emotional wound you’ve been in for 40 years. As a doctor, you know you won’t have an easy death.
But crises erupt — his beloved dog is attacked. He’s forced to deal with life.
It becomes a reawakening — you take responsibility. You’re alive right now, man. Make the best of what you possibly can.
Sounds like the moral of Harold and Maude — a suicide who reawakens to life. Could be a double bill!
Beautiful! Thanks for that, I appreciate that. Harold and Maude was special to me. [Director] Hal Ashby was a very dear friend of mine.
And you helped get Bud Cort cast instead of Elton John in Harold and Maude.
You know about that? Yeah. I was in the office when Hal was talking with Elton. Wonderful guy. As they left they were laughing all the way out. When Hal comes back he tells me, “He’s too English.” I’d known Bud from M*A*S*H.
Your great death scene in Alien was cut out. And then Ridley put it back in, in his director's cut. But you think it shouldn’t be there.
It's a rhythm thing. The audience wants [Sigourney Weaver] to get her cat and get the hell out of there. We hear the countdown. It couldn't have her stop and see me on the wall saying, “Kill me!”
Recommending against your big scene — with an attitude like that, no wonder you waited until 88 to have your first lead.
Yeah, right! [Laughs]
What did you learn from your great director friends and mentors: Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Sydney Pollack — who made his film debut with you and Redford in 1962’s War Hunt — Alien’s Ridley Scott, and Tony Scott on Top Gun?
What I got from these guys was who I am now.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.