Tim Hutton understands: That’s why he lives alone in a big house in Malibu and doesn’t go out much
by Roger Director
The clutch of women outside the Ginger Man Restaurant in Beverly Hills falls silent. Not that the sight of a stretch limo pulling up is any big deal there. But when the passenger pops out and it’s Timothy Hutton, a state of reverence befalls the onlookers. To them, seeing Tim Hutton wriggle out of his limo is as hypnotic as watching him wriggle out of his clothes.
Zipping past his open-mouthed admirers, Tim — along with a friend named Rod Lindblum and “Mum,” as Hutton calls his mother, Maryline Poole Adams — rushes into the popular nightspot and finds a booth near the jam-packed bar.
Lindblum, hopping on crutches because of a sprained ankle, goes to buy some drinks. Meanwhile, Tim and Mum stay seated, checking out the action. As usual, it is whirling the twenty-one-year-old Hutton’s way. One after another, young women glide by and express, with heartfelt sincerity, how much they loved Tim’s performance in Ordinary People, his first theatrical film, for which he won an Oscar this past April.
His role of Conrad Jarrett, the suicidal son, so deeply touched a nerve in America’s youth that Tim has, in turn, become something of a symbol of Vulnerability and Tenderness for wounded teenage psyches.
Any girl who has been called “pimples” by a passing car full of jocks, every young lady who feels her life is running down the wrong side of the halls, believes that Tim Hutton will understand. And so, wherever he is, they stop him, talk to him, practically begging him to fumble with the bra straps of their minds.
Tim isn’t comfortable with these adulatory assaults. So after a while, pained by the chronic back patting, he dons his public armor. “Them knowing you and you not knowing them,” is the way he describes the dilemma. And for him, it’s acutely uncomfortable.
Hutton’s great delight is observing people, standing just outside their range and soaking up — with an actor’s sensitive eye — all their tics and mannerisms. That way, he knows them, and not the other way around. Though he appears outgoing and attention-getting, Hutton remains guarded with strangers. He maintains distance, only watching, even when companions believe they’re nose-to-nose and heart-to-heart. And when he does emerge from behind his blind, it is often done awkwardly, so that he seems haughty, maybe even a little cold.
In Hutton’s mind, it comes down to self-protection. He is intent on preserving “the good feeling you first had about acting, when you said, ‘Wow, this is fun!'” And he is intent on preserving his identity.
Short as the course has so far been, it’s been strewn with more rose petals than most actors ever see: a slew of TV vehicles, the Emmy-winning Friendly Fire and an Oscar, at age twenty, under the direction of Robert Redford.
And now there’s Taps, Hutton’s first film since the Oscar, which opened strongly around the country despite negative reviews. The reason for that box-office muscle is undoubtedly Tim. The Taps ads feature Hutton, not his costar, George C Scott, and understandably so. It is really Tim’s film, one that is addressed to a young audience.
Thus far, Hutton has personified something special and redeeming about American youth: he’s typically an upright, earnest kid beset by the sins of the system or the Older Generation, who has been given good cause to rebel. But what has made Hutton’s character so appealing — and perhaps so right for the times — is that, ultimately, through diligence and self-examination, he sees the proper thing to do. Whatever the role — whether he’s dealing with an impossible parent, showing mature sexual restraint in cooling the passions of young love before Going Too Far or sussing out the folly of military indoctrination — Timothy Hutton will set things straight without being snotty. He is a young man both adults and kids can love.
Hutton doesn’t see any way to characterize this budding niche in American films. He just sees the part and performs it. There’s no plan or politics involved. His choices are based simply on “the learning experience, the subject matter, the complexity of the character.”
Timothy, as has been frequently noted, bears a haunting resemblance to his father, Jim. And the wrenching circumstances of Jim Hutton’s death from liver cancer at age forty-five became so entwined with Tim’s Ordinary People performance soon afterward that many in Hollywood saw the son as just a youthful version of his late dad. But that is thoroughly misleading; Maryline reared the children. From the ages of three to fifteen, Tim saw his father only about once a year. Maryline was — and still is — the most important woman in Tim Hutton’s life.
“Timothy Hutton is a very charming person,” [sister] Heidi says, “and when he was little or an adolescent, he knew very well that he was charming, so he could flash those baby blues at anybody and be all right. It’s very annoying being his sister, because he’s good at every damn thing he tries.”
The two have been working hard — and they say successfully — to reestablish closeness. Heidi, now twenty-two and living in England, flew here in December with her husband, Nick Sheppard, guitarist with the rock group The Cortinas, to spend Christmas with Mum and Tim.
But some of the scars from their quarrels linger. On one wall of the Berkeley house, behind a cloth hanging, there is still a hole in the plaster left from the time Heidi threw a piano stool at her brother. Tim, quick enough to be one of only two white guys to make the Berkeley Junior High basketball team, dodged out of the way, of course.
Even when one can’t always successfully pretend, there is Malibu. Tim lives in a rented house there by the sea, often alone. It is idyllic, and it is safe. “I’m not saying I have everything under control,” he says, “but I feel comfortable most of the time.”
Malibu is admittedly a good place to feel that way. Hutton does a lot of horseback riding along the beach and up in the canyons. He sees some friends, including Patti Reagan, or, occasionally, Malibu neighbors Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal. He bangs away on a set of drums in his garage alongside a red Porsche. He read, swims, rides his bike, shoots baskets at a hoop above his neighbor’s garage door and plays Pac-Man as often as he can. At the end of the day, there is a fireplace to be lighted.
His retreat is a two-story, yellow wood frame house with views of the ocean for the living-room window and the master bedroom, upstairs. Between the house and the shore is a neat, well-tended yard, with yellow beach furniture, flowers and carefully-trimmed grass.
Hutton has decorated the interior beautifully — and expensively — with artwork by Stella, Calder and Warhol. A tribal elephant mask bought at auction hangs above the mantel. There is a book of Saki stories on an end table in the living room, and next to the fireplace atop some bookshelves — not too ostentatiously and in need of a dusting — stands Mr Oscar, along with a couple of other statuettes. But Hutton’s favorite home furnishing seems to be his fully remote and computerized Bang & Olufsen stereo. As soon as he enters the house, Hutton flips on Nat “King” Cole’s rendition of “Just You, Just Me” and sings.
There are also plenty of reminders of Jim Hutton strewn about. Tim has his father’s Ellery Queen hat. And he uses his father’s old monogrammed, worn-leather briefcase, and still seems to be carrying around many other mementos of his dad.
Father and son had gotten reacquainted in the summer of 1975, when, at Jim’s suggestion, Timothy spent the summer in his dad’s Laurel Canyon home while Jim was shooting a TV series. “Then he asked me, ‘Do you want to come down to Los Angeles and stay with me?'” Tim says, “The idea of actually living together hadn’t crossed my mind, but when he suggested it and we talked about it, the pieces all fit. The timing was perfect. When I suggested it to my mother, she thought it was a wonderful idea as well.”
“Friends” is always the word Tim uses to describe his relationship with his father, and it is a word he insists not be taken lightly.
“My dad placed higher importance on us being friends than anything else,” Tim says. “I don’t think he ever said to me, ‘When I was your age…’ There was none of that. We were friends on an equal level. There was a tremendous amount of respect for each other. With other kids it would be, ‘Oh your dad’s out of town, let’s have a party.’ With me, my dad would be at the party.”
The day after one of their tennis workouts, Tim says his father felt something burst in his body. He visited the doctor. “He called me one day — I was living on my own in Westwood by then,” Hutton says. “And he said, ‘Hut’ — he always called me Hut — ‘are you sitting down?’ And he said. ‘I’ve got six months to a year to live.'”
As Timothy speaks — slowly, in a low, sandy voice — his blue eyes fill with tears. He is seated on the floor of his living room and is poking at some flames that are beginning to leap in the fireplace.
Heidi Hutton believes that Tim, so often forced to relive her father’s death in a slew of interviews this way, still has not gotten over it. “I don’t think he has, “she says, “because if you bring it up, you can see he gets physically tensed up. If you talk to him about it, he either doesn’t talk about it or changes the subject or just says how wonderful Daddy was and how tragic it was.”
Says Tim: “Nobody was prepared for it. It was a very emotional thing, a very tough thing to go through. The biggest shock was that he was dying so quickly. From that day on, he was in the hospital. And it was hard to get used to the fact that my new friend, my father, would not be around anymore.”
“We were all hoping that the chemotherapy would work. What happens is that time goes so quickly, and all you’re trying to think about is trying to make it not happen, so you won’t try to accept it.
“He was an incredible man, and incredible father and an incredible friend,” says Tim. “I don’t go with the image of him lying in that hospital bed…” Hutton bounds up and disappears into another room for a second.
He returns carrying a picture frame. “This is what I go with, ” he says. It’s a posed photo of his dad that has been cut out of some publication. He has a rolled-up newspaper in his hand and is looking off to the side. The camera has captured his face in a full, corking smile, and his eyes flash a ferocious enjoyment of life, a richness that, right now, isn’t readily visible on his son.
Timothy stands the frame up on his coffee table and resumes stoking the fire, and then begins gingerly picking his way across this rocky stream bed towards other banks of conversation. Nat “King” Cole bubbles up in the background, backed by the show brushstrokes of the waves outside on the beach. Through the open window, the sun trails down, slowly inking in beautiful hues on the deserted swatch of sea and horizon.
Someday, there’ll be more to this story.