DIRECTORS are an eclectic lot.


James Cameron is a despotic man who would be king; Steven Soderbergh has his own peculiar geeky charm; Bruce McDonald is an acid flashback. Then there is George Miller, who is cuter than a baby koala, walking around in shorts in the middle of December.

Miller even carries around a thermometer to prove to the cast and crew of the film Cybermutt that it is indeed warm enough inside the studio to do so.

He can get away with it - he's loveable on legs.

But he's not the Mad Max director George Miller, even though they are both Australians. He's The Man From Snowy River George Miller.

"I'm moving to your table," he kibitzes over lunch break, "there are the beginnings of an intelligent conversation starting at mine."

Cybermutt is a Canada/German/UK co-production between Chesler/Permutter/ApolloMedia/Grosvenor Park in association with Le Sabre and Screensaver International. They rang Miller up in Oz.

"I'm on hiatus from a Hallmark project Lord Jim, which was to be shot in Malaysia, which is 68 per cent Muslim. These are very sensitive times in Malaysia.

"Cut to me twiddling my thumbs in Australia. I read the script and thought, `this is good.' It was a bit serious, then I saw some elements in it that would play better as a comedy."

Cybermutt is the story about a young boy (Ryan Cooley) whose dog Rex, has been killed while saving the life of a scientist, Alex (Judd Nelson).

Alex has the technology to rebuild the dog, installing a theta chip, which makes him into a bionic canine, lusted after by two techno criminals.

There is Stuffy, a stuffed dog used as stand-in and a bigger version dubbed "RK," for road kill. The live-action dog is played two golden retrievers who beat out a pair of German shepherds for the gig.

Cybermutt is not paper trained, but he is very well read, Miller asserts. "But between you and me, I've seen his lips move. And his taste in literature is iffy."

Pup fiction, we suggest.

"Yes, he's been reading Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen."

Nelson is done with hair and makeup. He lights up an American Spirit Light in the hospital room, Spartan by even Mike Harris standards. His hair is a work of art: spiky as a startled porcupine.

"It's mad professor hair," Nelson allows. "I call it a cross between Albert Einstein and Chris Lloyd in Back To The Future."

But Alex is not a mad professor by Jerry Lewis' nutty standards.

"He's not goofy but not serious," Nelson qualifies. "He is a guy with limited social skills. He spent all of college and grad school in the lab building this stuff. But he's not a Dr. Frankenstein, he has the good heart, taking the technology worth millions to put in the dog."

Does Nelson's bull terrier Tallulah Bighead know about his fraternization with his two canine co-stars?

"She knows about them but she's happy the dogs are males. If they were female, she would have driven right up from L.A."

This is Nelson's third project in Toronto. He completed the film Deceived with Lou Gossett Jr. over the fall and starred in the TV-movie The Alan Freed Story here.

"I did this film for my mom," he explains. "When my mom heard about this role in which I play a good guy she said, `You always play psychos and malcontents.' I did From The Hip (1986) for my dad, who's a lawyer."

Ironically, Leonard Maltin describes Nelson's Hip lawyer character as one "only a mother could love."

His mother is a former state assemblywoman turned mediator in domestic cases.

"I have a 3 1/2-year-old niece and a 4-year-old niece who can see this. There is no profanity, no sexuality, no overt nastiness."

Nelson played Brooke Shields' boss and sparring partner on Suddenly Susan for three seasons, leaving in '99 after the suicide of co-star David Strickland.

"He was a wonderful, sweet guy," Nelson reminisces, "he was the mortar that held the bricks together. Being in a sitcom is like actor's camp. I was trained as a theatre actor and a sitcom is like doing a one-act play every Friday night."

Nelson was born in Portland, Maine, Nov. 28, 1959. He is a prep school grad, a philosophy major at Haverford College and a student of the iconic Stella Adler.

In 1985, he was immortalized as the oldest and cockiest of the legendary Brat Pack, playing troubled youths in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire. It was arguably his career peak.

"That was '85," Nelson calculates, "it was a wonderful script. When you have a very fast racehorse, you don't use the crop, you let the horse run."

Nelson has reined in his own wild horses. He was tabloid fodder, the poster boy for bad behaviour, sometimes with bad girl Shannen Doherty as accomplice.

He has said he no longer wakes up and wonders "why was I singing sea chanteys on top of that car?"

He is certainly affable and charming enough in person. He's even taken up golf.

"In the past I put myself in stupid situations," he reasons, "I was perceived as a bad guy. If you become well known you are a commodity of the public - like Faust making the deal with Mephistopheles. I work to keep below the radar level. I can go to the 7-Eleven, a sports bar and watch ballgames."

He was photographed at a recent Raptors game with a comely blonde. Turns out she was a friend, girlfriend of a friend and was uncomfortable with the media attention.

"I told her `Now you're my new girlfriend,' " Nelson laughs.

Wait till we tell Tallulah Bighead.


December 2001