The Morning Call Newspaper Company
by Geoff Gehman, The Morning Call
Friday, August 9, 1985
This is what Dan Roebuck did for his first movie: Played a slightly befuddled 18-year-old anthropology fan. Zipped back in time 25,000 years. Taught cave residents the pleasures of shaving cream, champagne and the personal stereo. Stood up to bears and mountain lions. Won the heart of an attractive cave girl, a fellow outcast. Just when things were ducky, was zipped back to the present and jeering classmates.
And starred as Dan Roebuck.
There is more than a little of the former Bethlehemite in Rex, the hero of ''Cave Girl,'' an adventure/comedy for the 17-to-30 set. Director David Oliver allowed him to ad lib, gradually pinpointing ''incoherent babblings'' as one of the Hollywood resident's trademarks.
''I have a geekiness, an awkwardness about me, and I was able to put that into Rex,'' explained Roebuck on a recent visit to his home turf. ''I like pizza and burgers, but I don't like anchovies on pizza, fish, or vegetables. That made it into the film. So did scads of my puns. People who know me will say: 'That's not acting, that's Dan Roebuck.' ''
There was very little pressure on Roebuck, whose first film role arrived six months after his move early last year to California. ''Cave Girl'' is not exactly a ground-breaking, earth-shaking picture. It cost less than $1 million, it is being distributed independently, and it has yet to open, and probably won't open, in major markets like New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco. A veteran credits designer (Remember those happy feet at the start of ''Footloose''?), Oliver made his debut as a director. Perhaps his status as fellow rookie or his overloaded schedule (he also served as producer, writer and cinematographer) allowed him to let Roebuck experiment, normally a reward for established actors.
''Cave Girl'' was manned by a number of non-union performers, one of the reasons why Roebuck was selected. Now, thanks to the feature role, the 22- year-old actor has a Screen Actors Guild card, an agent, a ''Love Boat'' episode already wrapped and loads of memories.
Asked to free associate on the subject of ''Cave Girl,'' Roebuck replied, this time from Hollywood: ''Cold. Fun. Family. Good people to work with . . . School - because I learned so much.''
For more than two months he dug for artifacts, meandered through caves, dueled with surly tribesmen and nasty lions, modeled a safari outfit, and shivered in the mountains of Caliente, about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Ironically, Caliente, which means hot in Spanish, often had frost in the morning and evening temperatures in the teens.
Without modern amenities like television, he and the cast and crew made do with prehistoric pleasures: Singalongs, instrumental interludes,storytel ling, ''dumb'' jokes, burnt popcorn. Roebuck dreamed of his dormant magic act, his wife Leslie, amateur theater in the Lehigh Valley and ideas for classically inept shows. One of his favorites: ''Make Me Stop Laughing,'' where performers attempt to anger and bore. ''We're gonna take it to Broadway,'' he insisted. ''Big musical.''
On the set, Roebuck tried to make people believe that a gregarious 21- year-old could masquerade as a shy 18-year-old. Before arriving on the West Coast, he could pass as a teen-ager; a subsequent weight gain, however, made him look his age. Roebuck bypassed the dilemma by simply turning Rex into Dan Roebuck playing a high schooler, writing new dialogue here, ad libbing there. When you're trying to converse with someone who only understands gobbledygook, he reasons, it's time for a new schtick.
Roebuck claims that up until the age of 15, he was shy around young women. Rex also fumbles when he tries to date a young woman. When she begins to ignore him, he starts rambling. He mentions they could go for hamburgers but not fish, pizza but without the anchovies - in short, a sample of Roebuck's culinary likes and dislikes.
Another line is courtesy of his father. Having watched his son nearly choke to death two or three times, John Roebuck Sr. serenades Dan with the warning: ''Chew your food.'' At one point in ''Cave Girl,'' Rex tosses the same cautious reminder to a bear.
The film turned out to be a showcase for Roebuck puns. The same bear, for example, is the hapless recipient of - you can stop reading now - ''Grin and bear it.''
''I actually toned Rex down,'' explained the innocent actor. ''He's a little duller than I am - but he comes into his own during the course of the movie.''
In his new, ancient environment, Rex's smarts, usually overlooked by his 1980s peers, arepraised. He wins the respect of tribe members who had feared and disliked him by saving them from cannibals. His entertaining ways help him attract the cave girl of his fancy. He progresses from insecure bumbler to hero.
''Playing him as a nerd - that was too easy,'' said Roebuck. ''He has a whole different drummer inside his head - like me. I mean, I have 'Flight of the Bumblebee' inside my head; I move at a frenetic pace. He's intelligent, which puts him a little out of step with his peers.'' That's quite easy, because his contemporaries include the familiar football player, wise guy, pretty girl and punk rocker.
Terry Press, publicity coordinator for Crown International Pictures, distributor of ''Cave Girl,'' says that Roebuck reminds her of a young Eddie Bracken, the nervous hayseed who found success in the 1940s, especially under the direction of Preston Sturges. ''He's very brash and very funny - he's the one that things are always being done to,'' noted Press from Beverly Hills. ''I like him because he doesn't kid himself. He doesn't go for the leading- man parts. He thinks of himself as a character actor . . . ''
Roebuck knows his roundish features don't translate into screen idol. Rex, he points out, represents his first character-actor workshop. He adds that he wouldn't mind traveling the path of comic-character specialists John Candy (''Splash,'' ''Brewster's Millions'') and Tom Hanks (''Splash,'' ''The Man with One Red Shoe,'' ''Bachelor Party''); ultimately, however, he aims for Dustin Hoffman.
''Candy and Hanks - that's where the work is now,'' said Roebuck. ''Young character actors are not in demand; young eccentric actors are. You have to make people think differently of your character at the end of a film.
''I'm not leading material. I'm not John Travolta. I think I'd like to be like Hoffman, who cantake a character-actor role and make it a leading role.''
Although he earned a major film role very quickly, Roebuck hasn't been able to revel too much. ''Cave Girl'' opened in April to ''unanimously bad'' reviews, he notes. (Terry Press said that critics were generally kind to Roebuck. The actor said a number of reviewers called him ''big, bulky, corpulent, large.'') The film has been lumped with more expensive, ''the woes of growing up and being an outsider'' summer films, even though it was released in the spring. It's been screened in a number of minor markets (Jacksonville, Fla.; Tucson, Ariz.; Pueblo, Colo.) that are not centers of talent seekers. And it's been paired at drive-ins with such inspiring fare as ''Nine Deaths of the Ninja.''
Because no actors receive opening credits, only Roebuck's friends and relatives will immediately know the name of the actor playing Rex. ''A name above the title - that was too good to be true,'' he said with a light sigh.
Roebuck is now doing what all yet-to-be-noticed actors do: Pursuing leads. He realizes that ''Love Boat''-type roles are not offered everyday. So, to attract attention, he has auditioned for Actors Equity waiver productions (plays in theaters with less than 99 seats, where professional status is not necessary) in the Los Angeles area. So far he has appeared in a play about a greeting-card company in Toledo, Ohio. In September he will perform in a version of ''No Time for Sergeants.'' A script of the play purchased in an Allentown used-book store convinced him to try out.
Recently, he was cast in a film directed by a senior at the University of Southern California. This week he was invited to a callback for another USC project, which, like the first movie, will be submitted to a school competition. If accepted, he would play a retarded adult who believesin Santa Claus. Once again, a project reflects Roebuck's life: Not only did he volunteer at the Kurtz Training Center in Bethlehem, he directed his own adaptation of ''Miracle on 34th Street'' for Civic Little Theatre.
Neither role pays, but Roebuck isn't worrying. The pursuits of the USC film school are followed closely by casting chiefs and directors. A few scenes from student films would be suitable additions to the Bethlehem native's ''reel,'' an actor's five-minute video portfolio.
For Roebuck, anything but cave talk would be welcome. ''I would like a dialogue scene with someone who's good, instead of a bear or a cave man,'' said the actor. ''I had a lot of rhetorical questions in 'Cave Girl.' You don't know what it's like to ask a question and get 'Ugga-booga-booga' in return.''
PHOTO by TRISH EVANS
The Morning Call
head shot of Dan Roebuck.
PHOTO by UNKNOWN.