If Jeff Daniels could give his younger self advice, here’s what he’d say: “Hang on — it may not happen until you’re in your 50s!” he exclusively told Closer Weekly at the recent Montclair Film Festival in NJ. While Jeff has been on a roll of late with award-worthy turns in projects like Hulu’s new Sept. 11–themed miniseries, The Looming Tower, the truth is he’s done consistently fine work since his breakout role in Terms of Endearment 35 years ago.
This is an even more impressive achievement considering Jeff, 63, put the bright lights of Hollywood behind him in 1986 and moved home to his native Chelsea, MI with his wife and high school sweetheart, Kathleen. There, they raised three now-grown kids: Ben, Lucas, and Nellie. “It slows you down,” Jeff told Closer of life on the Lower Peninsula. “It always reminds you when you go back into a movie or a play that it’s an extra dose of special.”
Jeff and his wife, Kathleen.
Jeff left home after studying for three years at Central Michigan University to pursue his dream of acting, with the full support of his family. “He ran a lumber company, she was a housewife,” Jeff recalled of his parents. “They saw something in this kid who could stand on a stage and know exactly what to do.” After several years of struggling, he landed his first lead role as an old-time movie star who literally steps off the big screen in Woody Allen’s 1985 fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo.
“If I was good enough for Woody, I was good enough for anybody,” said Jeff. “That meant I was in it for the long haul.” The film provided a name for the Michigan stage troupe Jeff started in 1991. “They just did their 100th production,” he said proudly of Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre Company, which sometimes performs plays Jeff writes. “The town is now a destination.” Jeff’s agents and managers tried to talk him out of co-starring with Jim Carrey in 1994’s gross-out comedy Dumb and Dumber, but Jeff wouldn’t listen.
Jeff and Jim in Dumb and Dumber.
“They said, ‘We’re going to stop this — you’re a serious actor and this will ruin your career. With all due respect, Jim is going to wipe you off the screen,'” Jeff remembered. “I said, ‘If I f–k up and it’s wrong, then it’s my choice, but I’m getting on the plane.'”
The film was a smash and spawned a sequel, as Jeff displayed the versatility that has become his hallmark. “The theme is, don’t repeat yourself,” he explained of his résumé, which includes everything from family films (Fly Away Home), to indie dramas (The Squid and the Whale), to a dark Western (Godless). “Do something you’ve never done before because you think you can’t. Challenge yourself.”
He plans to do just that by taking on Gregory Peck’s iconic film role as attorney Atticus Finch in a new Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. “I hadn’t read it or seen the movie, but now I’ve read the book and seen the movie twice,” Jeff said. “I think it’s an important play, especially now.”
Jeff and his family in 1996.
In the meantime, he can focus on a very personal side project, the Jeff and Ben Daniels Band. “It’s something I get to do with my sons — my other son, Lucas, tour manages us,” said Jeff, who’s written over 400 country-tinged songs and played over 300 live gigs in the last dozen years. “We look at it as a big adventure that’s a lot of fun.”
But Jeff is happiest at home with his family on their dock. “It’s like a poor man’s Kennedy compound, but it’s a great place to be,” he said. “We’re just comfortable there.” Ain’t nothing dumb or dumber about that.
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