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Jeff Daniels wants you believe he is the director of NASA. He also wants you to believe he has an IQ of eight. That we’ve bought both assertions must be gratifying. He’d always planned to build a career on his range; it just didn’t happen quite according to script.
He grew up in Chelsea, Michigan, and make a note of that, because it’ll be important in a couple paragraphs. He participated in theater programs at both Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University before moving to New York, where he performed with Circle Repertory Theatre and Second Stage Theatre.
And though an agent almost laughed himself off his chair when Daniels explained his previous stage experience was playing Tevye in an amateur production of Fiddler on the Roof, he got signed.
Daniels barely had time for a few curtain calls before landing three acclaimed movies. He made his screen debut in Miloš Forman’s Ragtime in 1981, and his very next film was his breakthrough as Debra Winger’s feckless husband in the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment. He tripled out with the lead in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. The second nomination came just a year later for his role in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild.
Daniels seemed on his way to the A-list as a likeable, safely good-looking leading man. As if for proof, GQ put him on its October 1987 cover, suggesting he might just be the next Cary Grant.
That’s when he hightailed it back to Michigan. A longtime theater mentor had once told him, “You’re not an actor, you’re an artist.” Daniels wasn’t sure what that meant, but. “I knew it didn’t mean going to L.A. and trying to be famous. It meant doing things that only good actors would try to do.” Off the bat, it meant founding The Purple Rose Theater Company, which provides training for actors, playwrights and other theater artists in Michigan and the Midwest region, and develops new plays based on life in the Great Lakes Basin. It meant writing his own plays. It meant picking up a guitar, and unexpectedly, a second career. Daniels has released six full-length albums of funny, homespun and lyrical songs, many distinctly flavored by his Midwestern DNA. Film-wise, he focused on lesser seen but generally praised indies like Sweet Hearts Dance, Checking Out and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael.
Being out of the 323 area code put him out of the running (or maybe just out of mind) for a lot of big Hollywood movies, which meant sometimes having to emerge from Michigan to make some dough. When the Farrelly’s Dumb and Dumber came up, his agents advised him not to do it; insisting he wasn’t that kind of an actor, and that “Carrey will wipe you off the screen.” For his part, Jim Carrey wasn’t looking for a doppelganger, but someone who’d force him to listen and react.” That, friends, is what a good actor does. The Hollywood Reporter agreed. “Daniels was a good choice of co-star, since his laconic underplaying is a perfect counterpoint to Carrey…Daniels is quite appealing and displays a knack of his own for physical comedy.” In this case, to the tune of a $247 million box office take.
A few notable (Gods and Generals, The Hours) and not so notable (I Witness, Cheaters) films later, we were reminded what he can do with a lead and the right material in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. As Bernard Berkman, a professor of failed ambitions and a failed marriage, he took on an atypically off-putting character and saved him from complete asshole-dom with the hurt he can’t completely mask with pomposity. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Daniels, while clearly delineating Bernard’s self-deluding vanity, makes him neither a monster nor a clown. He is, almost in spite of himself, a man of feeling, not above appealing to the pity of those he loves when he can no longer impress or intimidate them.”
‘Squid’ earned him a third Golden Globe nod, but Daniels returned to the theater, and some of his best work ever, in 2009’s God of Carnage and most notably in 2007’s Blackbird. Theater critic Ben Brantley said, “Maybe it’s because he inhabits his characters so completely, so I remember them as people I know rather than as figures in a play or movie, but I keep forgetting just how good Mr. Daniels is.”
But it was 2012 that truly ushered in what we’ll call The Renaissance of Jeff. He became a compelling and nuanced Sorkin interpreter (and Emmy winner) as the star of HBO’s The Newsroom and again with a nuanced performance in 2015’s Steve Jobs. Both seem to have made Hollywood start shelling out for airfare from DTW to LAX. Coming up, he’ll appear in the big screen drama The Catcher Was a Spy with Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti, Hulu’s 9/11 drama series The Looming Tower, and the western Godless, a Netflix seven-part original series from Steven Soderbergh and Scott Frank, in which Daniels stars as notorious criminal Frank Griffin. He’s also working on another play, Flint, to remind people that things in his home state still aren’t fixed.
Daniels’ career seems to be accelerating just when most would be winding down. But at 62, he remains mistrustful of the proverbial 15 minutes. “Stars are something someone else does. The only thing I can control is becoming a better actor by the end of each movie.” Early on, he set a career goal: If he stuck around, he wanted to be known as a great American actor. Most would say he reached it a long time ago. We’re just glad he continues to prove it.