It’s a shame that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has discontinued its Newcomer of the Year award, because Bart the Bear would be the Pia Zadora of 1997: Bart stole 20th Century Fox’s “The Edge” from under the talented noses of Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.
Though he’s an heir to the Bear Stearns fortune, Bart, who first caught audiences’ attention in “The Bear” and later appeared in “Legends of the Fall,” lives unpretentiously, dividing his time between a home hidden in the Hollywood Hills and his ranch in Montana (“I need to get back to my roots,” he explains simply).
Chain-smoking, Bart the Bear barely touched his lunch at his favorite watering hole, the Source. He eats light, he explains, because he needs to keep his weight at 1,400 pounds, aware that the camera can add 200 pounds.
Following is a transcript of a rare interview the star recently gave Daily Variety.
DAILY VARIETY: Which is scarier: the woods or Hollywood?
BART: In the woods, I’ve encountered everything from mountain lions to poisonous plants. In L.A. in the past 24 hours, I’ve run into Barbara Walters, Celine Dion and Carrot Top. You tell me which is scarier.
DV: “The Bear” was a breakthrough for you.
BART: A role like that doesn’t come along every day. But you know, every ursine actor in Hollywood is indebted to Gentle Ben — he broke the barriers for all of us, showing that bears can have a range of emotions. Before he came along, the only roles for us involved all that scaring-the-settlers or stealing-the-honey crap. For us, Gentle Ben was a combination Sidney Poitier and Anna May Wong.
DV: Has “The Edge” opened a lot of doors?
BART: There are so few good roles for bears once you get past a certain age. That’s why I started a production company. I’m developing a Smokey biopic and we’re trying to nail the rights to do a bigscreen version of an old TV hit. I can’t say the name, all I can tell you is that the setting is Jellystone National Park.
DV: So you like diversity.
BART: I follow the British philosophy of acting: I like to alternate features, TV and theater work. Between my big-budget films, I have a recurring role in the “When Animals Attack” specials, which are fun. Also, cable is a new frontier for me. There was talk of a pay-per-view special with me fighting Mike Tyson, but after all that biting of his, I got turned off to the idea.
DV: And theater?
BART: I auditioned for “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway, but they felt I wasn’t quite right for the role.
DV: Which role?
(Bart gives the interviewer a withering look)
BART: Anyway, they remembered the audition and there’s talk about my doing the road tour of “Lion King.”
DV: So you sing?
BART: I started out years ago at Disneyland’s Bear Country Jamboree, singing with Barney.
DV: Barney? Barney’s a dinosaur, isn’t he?
(Bart looks uncomfortable)
BART: Look, I’m not into outing anybody.
DV: Are you saying Barney is a bear?
BART: All I’m saying is, actors do whatever is necessary to get work. Barney was a lot of laughs during Jamboree, trying to play the guitar with those little flipper arms of his. But the Jamboree gig broke up after some of our co-workers got into a fight with Disney over same-species medical benefits. A year later, I ran into Barney at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where he was hawking fur-covered bongs and working as a dancing bear. After that, we lost touch. Next thing I know, I’m watching PBS and he’s singing to a bunch of fat kids and making millions. It’s amazing what you can do with cosmetic surgery and a little waxing.
DV: You were amazing in “The Edge.”
BART: A lot of the credit goes to my trainers, Doug and Lynn Seus. They gave me a sense of freedom to improvise. David Mamet is OK, but he doesn’t really know how to write for bears.
DV: But in fact, that wasn’t really you in some of the film’s scenes.
BART: Right, “but in fact,” that wasn’t all Mark Wahlberg in the last shot of “Boogie Nights” either. It’s all make-believe and illusion.
DV: They built a mechanical bear?
BART: It was flattering. Dave Nelson, Norman Tempia and Mecki Heussen at Animated Engineering had 25 people working 16 weeks to create “Brian,” a mechanical version of me, and Brian Steele got inside the costume. I loved it. The only downside is that since “Edge” wrapped, Brian the Bear got a job in “The Deedles” for Disney and I ended up in the unemployment line.
DV: Why did they need a mechanical double?
BART: I didn’t want to appear in the same shots as the actors.
DV: Why not?
BART: I shouldn’t tell these stories. That’s why my publicist tries to muzzle me. I’d worked with Tony Hopkins in “Legends of the Fall” and I think Tony is capable of true greatness. But during the filming of “Legends,” one of the grips commented that I might have chewed the shrubbery but Tony chewed the scenery. Of course it was a joke. I never touched the shrubbery. I’ve got enough problems without getting into a wrestling match with the Teamsters.
DV: Many critics commented that the mechanical bear was brilliantly executed and no one could tell the two of you apart.
BART: And Sam Rubin could do your job, Tim. How does that feel?
DV: The Hollywood rumor mill says that the double was built not because you didn’t want to work with the actors, but that they didn’t want to work with you.
BART: I’m a perfectionist. I get impatient with people who aren’t.
DV: The rumor is that they were intimidated by your reputation for eating co-workers.
(another withering look)
BART: Those rumors are so old.
DV: Have you ever eaten a lawyer?
BART: No, but I’ve watched them chew up my profit participation clauses.
BART: You can’t keep them down.
DV: Playboy bunnies?
BART: Too many additives.
DV: So there’s no truth to the rumors about your attacking Anna Nicole Smith?
BART: Hey, I’m a bear, not a hog.
BART: I’ll occasionally eat a child actor, as a kind of public service.
DV: How can you eat human beings? Have you ever eaten a reporter?
BART: Those are two separate issues. I don’t like reporters — nobody likes reporters — but in your case, I’d make an exception.