Hollywood's Maine Man

By Christine Kole Maclean


Slouched in his chair, leg slung over the arm rest, Judd Nelson is wolfing down his plate of linguini with chicken in white wine sauce. From where we are sitting in the elegant dining room of Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis Hotel, you can see the lobby door, and whenever it opens, Judd automatically looks up. The door opens. Judd looks up. He doesn’t recognize the woman and turns again to his plate.

We have been talking about Portland, Maine—Judd’s home town. "I seem to have gotten very far away," Judd is saying. Moving to Los Angeles has meant some drastic changes, and Judd can’t help but compare his past and present lifestyles. "Life in Maine is completely different. Out here, it’s just like you’re eating your meal, the door opens and people stop eating to see who it is." He gasps melodramatically, pretending to be a gawking Hollywood celebrity-hunter. Then he glances again towards the door, unaware of the irony. "In Portland, when you’re eating dinner in a restaurant and the door opens and someone comes in, the last thing on your mind is who just walked in. You’re there because you want to eat."

You can tell Judd Nelson has second thoughts about trading the Maine woods for Hollywood before he even opens his mouth. He’s wearing a black sweater that’s torn on the shoulder, faded blue jeans, and white high-top sneakers—unlaced, of course. It’s a look that’s designed to give the impression that he picked it all up off his bedroom floor and nonchalantly threw it on. But hardly anything out here is done without calculation. Judd Nelson’s "look" is intentionally un-L.A. Ask him whether he ever thinks about going back to Portland, and his one-word response underlines that look. "Always," he says.

So here’s the question: If Judd Nelson dresses the way he does and remembers Portland as fondly as he obviously does, then what’s he doing out here in the rich, fast-paced, unreal world Hollywood? Even as he gripes about the L.A. lifestyle Judd pragmatically accepts living there as a necessary sacrifice for his chosen career. "It just so happens the I am far away [from home] because of the nature of the job I do," he says. How does he stand the frustrations of living a life that can, at times, feel so unnatural? Judd shrugs. "If you can’t stand the heat," he says, "get out of the kitchen."

The more successful an actor is, the more heat he has to take, and with as much success as Judd has had (he’s been in Making the Grade, Fandango, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Blue City), it’s been awfully sweaty in Los Angeles lately. Judd’s résumé reads like a page out of the Yuppie Handbook. Birthplace: Portland, Maine. Mother: state politician. Father: attorney. Schooling: St. Paul’s Preparatory in Concord, New Hampshire; two years at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania; then Stella Adler Conservatory, a hot-shot acting school in New York.

In the fall of 1982, he moved—temporarily, he thought—to Los Angeles. "I came out to California with a friend, not really to work," he says. "I thought I was going to stay in New York and be a serious actor." Translated, that means he thought he would continue to act on the stage. "Doing films," he admits, "was an afterthought." Because he got work doing movies, he ended up staying there—and learning just how far away Hollywood is from Portland. "Out here," he says, "is the only place in the world where, out of carelessness, you can ram someone’s car, exchange licenses, and then have them look at you and say, ‘I’m doing this 50 million dollar movie and I think you’ll be perfect for it.’ "

Judd shakes his head in disbelief. "There is a tremendous amount of expectation that at any second, something wonderful is going to happen to you."

Wonderful things have happened to Judd, judging by Hollywood’s standards. But with all of those movies came publicity—and not all of it has been good. The press has at times presented him as one-dimensional and self-centered, and every so often, an interviewer runs up against the walls he’s built as a form of self-defense. He eyeballs the recorder and incessantly runs his fingers through his hair. It is only when Judd escapes (at least mentally) from the West Coast that the defenses go down, and you get a glimpse of the Judd Nelson who knows himself apart from the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle. You have to take him out of the kitchen and away from the heat to get to know him.

Retreating to the coolness of Maine, he speaks fondly of his past and his family. "My parents were an inspiration; they were people who worked hard, had priorities and goals, and were trying to achieve those goals," he says. They were understandably concerned when Judd decided to leave college to pursue acting. He says that their attitude was " ‘What are you doing? Acting is a nine-zillion-people-out-there kind of job. Get a college degree that you can fall back on.’ They weren’t cheerleaders, thank God. They just wanted me to be able to pay the rent. They were just saying, ‘Hey, listen, don’t be a bum.’ "

Because he has a great deal of respect for the members of his family ("My dad is probably the one person that I respect the most"), he is inclined to protect them from publicity. "I don’t want them talked about because . . . how can they be talked about if they are referred to as ‘My Something’? Already they are not being referred to as who they are." The Maine Judd is coming through now. He has visibly relaxed; he runs his fingers through his hair only occasionally as he recalls a less complicated time.

For the most part, Judd enjoyed school—academically, athletically, and socially. He grins in a big, schoolboy way when the subject of girls comes up. "I had girlfriends—it wasn’t like dating. I was like ‘going with’ girls for the whole year." Not all of Judd’s dates were successful. He tells about the time that he went out on a blind date as a favor to his father. The girl, he discovered when he picked her up, was "devastatingly beautiful!"—so much so that he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. As a result, he ran a red light and hit another car. Fortunately no one was hurt. "It was the worst," Judd says in disgust. "I could never call her up again. What would I say? ‘Hey, you wanna go for another ice cream?’ "

He is just as animated when he talks about another of his life’s great loves: reading books. He talks earnestly about the times he and his father read and discussed great works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even now, despite a hectic schedule, he reads what he calls a "tremendous" amount. "You read a book and it’s like ‘That’s the world,’ " he says. "You go into it."

Like many book aficionados, Judd sometimes likes a book so much that he doesn’t want it to end. "I’ll be flying through a book and I’ll notice that I’m coming to the end. I start reading a little slower, putting the book down, walking around the house, tricking myself into getting more out of it." Sometimes he’ll start the book over as soon as he finishes it. "That’s a habit I’ve had since college. I’d read a book twice anyway so I would know what I was talking about if I had to write about it." Judd’s favorite authors include Twain, Dickens, Melville, Poe, and Jim Harrison (Warlock and Legends of the Fall). He comments that he liked Less Than Zero, a novel written by his contemporary, Bret Easton Ellis.

But when asked if he would like the lead in the proposed film version of that book, Judd immediately forgets about Maine; he is once more a successful actor back on Sunset Boulevard. Never has a man traveled 3,000 miles so quickly. His voice goes up an octave. "What part?" he asks defensively. "There is no part. There is no script." Judd busies himself with his linguini, indicating that the subject is closed. In fact, one of Judd’s public relations people had implied that there was a part and that Judd did want it.

This is the kind of stuff that Judd hates—when he senses that the privacy he once enjoyed is now no longer his. Though he’s certainly gratified by his success, he doesn’t care at all for some of the trappings that go with it. "It makes me really nervous when I go out and someone recognizes me," he says, finishing off his Heineken. He has started running his fingers through his hair again. "I don’t know what I’m supposed to do."

Judd tolerates the publicity because he sees it as part of his job. "Movies are for the public. How can you do movies and not do the publicity?" Nonetheless, the knowledge that his words will appear in print obviously frustrates him. "People tape what I say, which makes me immediately self-conscious. They ask me questions that I can’t really answer because it would take me nine hours to really answer them."

There are other signals that Judd is not of Hollywood, even though he is in it. For one, he doesn’t want any part of the natural competition for roles that is such a big part of the movie industry. "I’m not out there hungering for roles," he says. "I don’t like people screwing people over, stepping on each other. I don’t enjoy that aspect at all." Rather, Judd has his own philosophy—one that is more reminiscent of Maine than of L.A. "I think that there’s room for everyone. I don’t think that if one person succeeds then another must fail. That’s lunacy. I’m not sure what the reasons are for my philosophy. Maybe it’s the fact that if there are ten people doing the same job, we all know how we feel and what our high points and low points are."

In addition to disliking the competitive nature of the industry, Judd was alienated by the actual filming process—at least at first. With arms flailing, and fingers pointing first in this direction and then in that, Judd reels off a breathless explanation: "It was like I was supposed to play the scene with you but they wanted me to look over here, and there’s an ‘x’ in that box and the camera like this, and the arm is going like this in your face, and you look into the light and then they say, "GO!’ " Judd punctuates the word by slapping his hands together. "I was like waiting for 30 seconds just figuring out where I was."

Maybe, too, he is getting more used to Hollywood’s virtues and vices—including the fact that all the attention may have given him a dangerous (though temporary) boost to his ego. He is aware of that and tries to compensate for it. "You have to try and think about other things more than you think about yourself," he says. "Sometimes I can do that. Other times, no. But I’m really no more secure than the next guy. We are all like swimming around saying, ‘Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi!’ "

Although Judd doesn’t like to talk about his parents, it is clear that the permanent sense of self-worth that Judd does have comes not from the films that have made him recognizable, but rather from a family that encourages, supports, and loves him. This support has helped him to handle inevitable disappointments, such as not getting certain roles or getting bad reviews. He doesn’t take these personally. "It’s a free society," he says, helplessly throwing up his hands. "I believe in freedom of speech. If you think someone is a jerk, you can say he’s a jerk. I’m not going to be slashing my wrist because one person or even a million people don’t like what I do. My family will still love me, even if I’m pathetic in everything that I do."

His rise to stardom is proof that Judd can take the heat of Hollywood. But as he glances again towards the door—for perhaps the hundredth time tonight—you can’t help but wonder whether this is one actor that would be happier if he got out of the kitchen and went back home. There, in Portland, he probably wouldn’t park his jeep in a "loading zone only" spot (as he has, knowing it wouldn’t be towed, in front of the Sunset Marquis); there, he might listen more and pontificate less; there, he might get more satisfaction out of acting in his favorite plays in local theaters than he could ever get from acting movies-style in a Blue City. Maybe he’s a little blinded by the brightness of his own fame.

It’s easy to picture Judd Nelson contentedly shooting baskets with the buddies from school, then grabbing a burger at the diner around the corner—not because it’s "the coolest thing to do" in Portland, but because he enjoys it. He admits as much as he pushes his Queen Anne style chair away from the table and scuffs across the thick, rose-colored carpeting to the lobby door. "There are people in my life," he says, "who went to the same junior high I went to, that I wish I were better friends with. If I saw them now, I would probably be nicer."

Maybe Judd Nelson can’t go home again. But—maybe he hasn’t tried.


From Teenage Magazine

April 1986