The face that launched a thousand trips

Long ago and far away, Keir Dullea commanded the spaceship in Kubrick's mind-bending movie that rocketed the sci-fi genre into blockbuster orbit.


Amy Reiter
May 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

If you were to ask the throngs of film fans flocking to see "The Phantom Menace" who Keir Dullea is, most of them would probably give you a blank stare and a shrug. A few of them might be able to name the movie for which he is most famous. Still fewer would be able to tell you what he's done in the 31 years since that film's release.

Dullea played Commander Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick's seminal 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey," which rocketed the sci-fi cinematic genre from grade B to big-budget blockbuster status (a small step for genius Kubrick, a giant leap for mankind) and paved the way for fan-favorite directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to do their snazzy special-effects things.

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Without Kubrick's mind-bendingly poetic "2001," there may never have been a more prosaic high-tech crowd-pleaser like "Star Wars." And although without Dullea, there would likely still have been a "2001" -- it was not what you'd call an actor's movie -- it surely would not have been quite the same film. His all-American, blandly handsome visage brought the dazzlingly beautiful, enormously enigmatic film a hint of humanity.

Glimpsed through the glaring glass of his space helmet, Dullea's was the face that launched a thousand trips. His was the eyeball of many colors. His was the irregular breath to which countless audience members paced their own, journeying through cinematic space on their personal magic carpet rides. An entire generation toked up or turned on and spaced out to the score and psychedelic imagery of the film that traced man's technologically propelled trajectory from ape to space and brought the world HAL, the calm-voiced killer computer.

"2001" was so closely associated with drugs, some critics who panned the film for being too obscure or just plain boring on first look went back stoned, reconsidered and gave it raves. Notable among them was Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, whose opinion flipped from dismissive to favorable after viewing it, he wrote, "under the influence of a smoked substance ... somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano."

In some theaters, audience members lay down on the floor in front of the front row of seats to let the colors and images wash over them (too blissed out, no doubt, to let a little popcorn and stickiness bum their highs). And it wasn't just the youthful counterculture getting hip to Kubrick's scene. "'Space Odyssey' is poetry. It asks for groovin', not understanding," wrote William Kloman in the New York Times. And Louise Sweeney of the Christian Scientist Monitor weighed in, "'2001' is the ultimate trip" -- a quote that was featured prominently in ads for the film.

Although "2001" is still widely hailed as one of the best films of all time, the halcyon days of mainstream drug-taking at the movies has long since passed. (What, no one told you?) And so, you might imagine, has Dullea's moment in the ultra-bright starlight. After all, his chiseled features haven't graced the big screen in nearly a decade. And most of those "Star Wars" kids have never heard of him.

But, despite his waning name recognition, Keir Dullea, now 63, is still around, still practicing his craft and doing just fine, thank you. A New York-trained stage actor with "probably 30 plays" under his belt before he took his first film role in 1961 (playing a juvenile delinquent in "The Hoodlum Priest"), he has, he says, returned to "where my roots were originally."

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Before working with Kubrick, Dullea had also appeared in the original version of "The Thin Red Line" (1964), received critical acclaim and a Golden Globe Award for his sensitive portrayal of a disturbed teenager in the indie film "David and Lisa" (1963) and starred alongside Laurence Olivier in Otto Preminger's "Bunny Lake Is Missing" (1965). Kubrick offered him the role of Bowman based solely on his work in those three films; the two first met on the set of "2001" in London.

"I was overwhelmed to have been cast in a Stanley Kubrick film," Dullea recalls now from his home in New York. "A Stanley Kubrick film, even that long ago, was really something." But he says he had no idea of the "mindblowing" success the film would enjoy, nor of its incredible staying power. "It's sort of like if the model for the Mona Lisa could have known that she'd be hanging in the Louvre for hundreds of years," he says.

But what do you know of Mona Lisa's modeling career after Leonardo Da Vinci painted her half-smiling portrait? As for Dullea's career, he says appearing in the Kubrick film "didn't have a negative effect. It didn't really have a huge effect."

After "2001," the actor returned to the stage to play a sensitive blind man who falls for his eccentric neighbor in "Butterflies Are Free." He moved to London in 1971 to reprise his role in the Tony Award-winning drama and stayed on for three years, in which he divorced his second wife and met his third. "I was in a 'What's It All About Alfie?' time in my life," he has said. "I was in no hurry to get back to New York."

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When he did return to the States, it was to play beautiful, hard-drinking Brick in a revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which moved to Broadway. His click in the role of clickless Brick led to other stage work. But Dullea found he still had a hankering for celluloid.

He spent six years in Hollywood, making several movies that weren't particularly notable, and after realizing just how much he'd "cooled off," he returned to New York in 1981 to concentrate on the stage in earnest. He has worked on and off Broadway and in regional theaters in Connecticut, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And like most successful New York actors, he has made a guest appearance or two on TV, including a turn on the soap "The Guiding Light."

Dullea says he prefers the stage to film because "it's much more of an actor's medium." He likes the thrill of performing in front of a live audience and the chance to explore the nooks and crannies of a part over time. "You don't have an opportunity to do that in film," he says. "Once they print it and take it and you're on to filming other parts of a film, that's it."

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He did step away from the footlights and back under the klieg lights in 1984 to appear in Peter Hyams' ambitious sequel to "2001," "2010: The Year We Make Contact," which he calls a "strange experience." The film featured a faithful reproduction of the original set and, aside from Dullea, a whole new cast. It was, he muses, "like growing up in a small town that you hadn't been back to since you were a kid, and then you come back and the town is essentially the same. It's still got the town square, the town green in the center, the clapboard church and the town hall at one end, the barbershop and the statue in the middle. It looks exactly the same, but not a soul that you knew is alive or around."

The prerecorded voice of HAL was the one "comforting, familiar element," Dullea says of "2010," noting, however, that this feature, too, differed in that Kubrick hadn't yet cast the actor who would voice the computer when "2001" was being shot. "I worked with the assistant director, who did the voice off camera," he recalls of the original film. "And he was a cockney... It was like having Michael Caine play HAL."

The years have apparently treated Dullea well. He still looks strapping in the head shot that runs alongside his bio in programs, and his voice over the phone sounds sexy as ever -- well-trained but with hints of the New Yorker around the edges. Not surprisingly, he's been lucky in love, "unexpectedly blessed twice in his life," as he puts it. His wife of many years, British director Susie Fuller, died about a year and a half ago, but he's just returned from honeymooning in Sicily with his new wife, actress Mia Dillon, whom Fuller once directed.

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And new husband isn't the only role on the horizon for Dullea. When I spoke with him earlier this month, he was preparing to jet off to Los Angeles to "share a dais" with Steven Spielberg at the Directors Guild of America's tribute to Kubrick. Then it was on to Montreal, where he would continue shooting an ABC-produced TV movie about Audrey Hepburn, in which he plays father to Jennifer Love Hewitt's Hepburn. "I thought, 'Gee, it'd be fun to do a film,'" he says. Then, it's back to the stage for a "summer circuit tour" of "Deathtrap" with his new bride.

So, does all the "Star Wars" hoopla give the actor flashbacks of the film that rocketed him into the limelight and even helped define our culture as it nears the next century? (Interesting aside: Kubrick struggled over whether to call his film "two thousand and one" or "twenty oh one" and wondered if it would shape the way we think of the number at the millennium.) No, says the actor, confessing to being not much of a sci-fi fan himself (and, incidentally, "in the dark ages when it comes to anything having to do with computers," a fact he refuses to attribute to HAL, but rather to being "born in the wrong time"). He says, "I think there was a lot of curiosity in the media about Stanley Kubrick, but nothing like the curiosity about 'Star Wars' this time around. '2001' just emerged."

When the film did pervade the far-out, spaced-out culture like a big cloud of hash smoke, it made Dullea a real part of history. "The first moon landing happened that summer," he recalls. "So I remember taking sort of a proprietary interest." CBS even summoned him to the studio to comment. And while he was chatting with Harry Reasoner, he says, "suddenly voices said, 'Hey, they're coming out.' So I ran into the control room, and there was Arthur C. Clarke [the sci-fi legend who penned '2001'] sitting there. We both watched that moment together. He had tears in his eyes."


Amy Reiter

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