The Morning Call Newspaper Company
by Goeff Gehman, The Morning Call
Sunday, July 12, 1987
The director and casting director for the movie ''River's Edge'' had already found their man. They were confident a well-known actor would accept an offer to play Samson ''John'' Tollette, a nihilistic teen-ager who strangles his girlfriend, announces the murder to his buddies, and then leads them to the naked corpse. On that day in late 1985 they ''were reading people for insurance,'' recalls director Tim Hunter.
Enter Daniel Roebuck to audition. Since arriving in California in 1984, the Bethlehem native had had little professional experience, starring as a time-traveling anthropology student in the low-budget ''Cave Girl,'' cameoing in a ''Love Boat'' episode, appearing in a few plays. As an added disadvantage, he had never played a serious role in a major production. Unlike Tollette, he was a gregarious, conscientious fellow - an amateur magician and a fan of ''The Honeymooners'' and ''The Odd Couple.'' ''I was a hard sell,'' he admits.
Roebuck used flash to try to win the role, dike the flow of ''ridiculous sitcom 'fat guy' parts,'' and scrub away the taint of ''Cave Girl.'' He entered the audition room with a Tollette-like getup - fatigue jacket, slicked hair, beer can in hand. He downed a brew in his character's style: full gulp, nerveless, apathetic. And he convinced Hunter and casting director Carrie Frazier-Reinhold.
''It was a fullblown performance,'' says Hunter. ''He came in and knocked us out right away . . . We were hoping that the other actor would turn us down.''
One actor's rejection became Roebuck's ticket to his first nationally notorious production. Despite its top-to-bottom grimness, ''River's Edge'' has been a sleeper. Since being released in early May, it has grossed more than $3.6 million, well over its miniscule cost of $1.9 million. (The movie is playing in Philadelphia. It has not opened in the Lehigh Valley.)
The film's disturbing content and unsanitized treatment have stirred much media debate. Some writers have highlighted its off-screen plot: A UCLA student's script gets kicked around for more than two years, then is produced by teams which have separately released hard-to-market fare like ''Desperately Seeking Susan,'' ''Kiss of the Spider Woman'' and ''Platoon'' (another much- rejected project). Others have focused on reopened wounds in Milpitas, the northern California town in which 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard murdered his girlfriend and bragged about the crime in 1981. Most reviewers have been fascinated by Crispin Glover's hyperkinetic Layne, who maniacally tries to cover up Tollette's killing, and Dennis Hopper, who continues his career rejuvenation as Feck, a skittish ex-biker, sex-doll worshipper and girlfriend killer who is shocked by Tollette.
Roebuck has been blessed, too. Four days after ''River's Edge'' opened in Los Angeles and New York, his episode on the Andy Griffith television series ''Matlock'' aired. Four weeks ago he popped up on ''The CBS Morning News'' to discuss ''River's Edge.'' After he dismissed Tollette in February 1986, he played Matthew Broderick's wiseguy Air Force roommate in the spring release ''Project X'' and Jon Cryer's sidekick in ''Dudes,'' an upcoming punk-rock western. Not a bad climb for someone who performed, directed and adapted material at Pennsylvania Playhouse, Civic Little Theatre and community theaters in the Valley.
The actor initially struggled to freeze Tollette's emotional deadness. ''I have had nothing in my life to compare to Samson's,'' he said recently from his home in Glendale, Calif. ''I had a quaint little parochial upbringing.'' Nor does the optimistic, wisecracking Roebuck share his character's doomsday philosophy: ''You do things, they're done, you die.'' He has supportive parents; Tollette lives with an aunt who wants to hear ''Green Eggs and Ham.''
Roebuck eventually decided that Tollette disclosed the murder because he had nothing better to do, because ''his life was worth as much as that girl he killed . . . Samson is a loner: He's one of the gang but looking in. He doesn't have the charisma of Layne or the good looks of Matt or the sense of humor of Tony.''
Roebuck believes Hunter's lack of direction helped alienate him, which made Tollette more isolated and empty. ''When (Hunter and I) talked, it would be very brief,'' he noted. ''There was no buddy-buddy camaraderie.'' Hunter says he didn't intentionally distance Roebuck. According to the director, the short shooting schedule - 31 days - and his largely hands-off policy regarding actors may have made it seem that way. ''Dan was very conscientious,'' said Hunter, director of ''Tex'' and ''Sylvester'' and co-writer of ''Over the Edge.'' ''He was very anxious to pinpoint the source of the character's madness - from doomed to damned.''
Even the weather shaped Roebuck's interpretation. ''If it wasn't rainy, it was gray,'' he said of the atmospheric conditions in Sacramento, site of the film's swollen river, and Tujunga. ''The 30 days were very gloomy for me.'' Poor weather aided the movie's predominantly gray, muddy, washed-out look.
Roebuck's performance is suitably unkempt. He plays the killer as a hulking, dead-eyed, open-mouthed, moral sleepwalker. Tollette doesn't brag when he first reveals the crime; it's more like a bloodless mention. He wakes up only when he describes the exhilarating control he feltwith his hands around Jamie's neck. Roebuck's heftiness, almost baby face, even voice and natural ''geekiness'' make him seem the least likely murderer. Like Neal Jimenez's script and Hunter's treatment, his acting is unfiltered, grainy, a blend of soft-pedaled horror and dark comedy.
Roebuck was careful to abandon Tollette once the cameras stopped. On the set, he juggled, performed magic tricks, and hobknobbed with the crew. Off the set, he unwound with ''Honeymooners'' and ''Odd Couple'' tapes.
Perhaps he relaxed too well. He felt numb during three pre-premiere showings of ''River's Edge.'' After all, it had been more than a year since he performed in it, and movie-making is fragmented, repetitious, tiring, often boring. On May 8, however, his father and a crowd of friends helped him regain the intensity at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. After the public debut, Roebuck and company sat in a local bar and watched Siskel and Ebert award the film two thumbs-up.
Like most of the people associated with ''River's Edge,'' Roebuck has been relatively surprised by its success. Aimless characters and an uncompromising conclusion usually don't cause box-office fever. ''Back in October, we thought we had a movie where they were going to stay away in droves,'' said Roebuck.
''I'm not saying that it's a perfect film but it's better than just about anything about kids that's out there,'' he continued. ''It depicts kids with real problems in a real way. They're not out to get laid and they're not running away from vampires.''
In Milpitas, disturbed citizens have dubbed the film ''Sore's Edge'' and ''Sewer's Edge.'' The mayor led a successful campaign to ban the film from the town's movie house. (Residents have traveled 15 miles to see it in San Jose.) Roebuck defends Jimenez's script, indicating that the author also wrote about shiftless high schoolers he knew in Sacramento.
''The worst news is that it took place in two days in Milpitas; in our film, it takes place in 24 hours,'' he said. ''In Milpitas people were covering the girl with leaves, stoning her. That doesn't happen here. Often, truth is stranger than fiction.''
One Milpitas resident who remained unaffected was Roebuck's aunt. Until contacted by a relative, Roseanne Bauer was not aware of the murder or the movie.
Since completing ''River's Edge,'' Roebuck has returned to his element, comedy. In ''Dudes,'' he plays a punker tracking his attackers. Since his character fantasizes about Indians, the actor models a Mohawk, blond on top and brown on the side. ''I hated it at first, then I decided it was cool,'' he reported.
Recently, he directed ''Sleeping Beauty'' in Glendale and starred as an agent in ''Who Killed Orson Welles?'' at a 30-seat theater in Hollywood. The spoof features the late director hawking a vampire film. ''It's about the death of art in Hollywood, which I've certainly helped, thanks to 'Cave Girl,' '' Roebuck admitted.
The actor also has co-written a comic slasher film. ''It's without breast shots,'' he promised. ''It's 'Friday the 13th' meets 'The Breakfast Club.' For the first time ever, you get to meet the people before you kill them.''
''River's Edge,'' rated R, is now playing at the Ritz Five, 214 Walnut St. (between 2nd and 3rd streets), Philadelphia. For more information, call 925-7900.
PHOTO by UNKNOWN