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Tom Skerritt Grapples With His Own Death In 'East Of The Mountains'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tom Skerritt's had an admired career in supporting roles - the drawling, wisecracking surgeon alongside Hawkeye and Trapper in "M.A.S.H," Brad Pitt's minister father in "A River Runs Through It," Shirley MacLaine's ex-ballet dancer husband in "The Turning Point," and, of course, Ripley's captain in "Alien." He's won awards and plaudits, but now he stars as Ben Givens, a retired heart surgeon with terminal cancer who doesn't want to wait for what he knows is coming and heads for the wilds with his dog and his gun. The film is "East Of The Mountains," and Tom Skerritt joins us from Washington state.

Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM SKERRITT: Oh, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: Dr. Givens is a deliberate man. Does he have a plan in mind?

SKERRITT: Not really. Well, let's put it this way. I describe this man as a heart surgeon. Now, he no longer does that. He's at that age. And now he and his wife are going to go off somewhere - to Alaska, perhaps - and she dies. And his daughter is having her own problems. And now this doctor is being told that he has cancer. And what do you do at 80 when you're facing something like that? He knows what the process is, and he knows how the going out would feel. He's considering a lot of options, one of which is suicide. What do you do with that? You go back to your childhood. And where is - his childhood was on east of the mountains, where he used to hunt with his dad, hunt grouse and birds out there. They were edible and just - it was fun running through the shrubs and flatland and the gorgeous land east of the mountains here in Washington state. That's where he's going to take himself to, so he can cleanse or recover the childhood, to relive those feelings, to make his determination of what he's going to do with himself.

SIMON: There's a scene early on where we are reminded of your skill as an actor. Elderly man that you play having his lonely breakfast, and he rinses out a sponge in the kitchen as if it's the only thing he has to do for the rest of his life. And it's such an arresting moment. And I wonder, did that just come to you?

SKERRITT: Yes, it did, particularly with a sponge because later in the film, which it didn't occur to me then as it does now that you bring it up, the sponge was - he squeezes it like squeezing a heart that - later on, we find out how he became a doctor was in war, where a friend that I brought back wounded who was - the heart was gone. And the other surgeon goes in and pumps it like squeezing a sponge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS")

SKERRITT: (As Ben Givens) You kind of squeeze it like a new sponge. Squeeze it. Squeeze it - not too hard.

That was just one little thing you do not to be noticed, necessarily, but you have the eye to be able to see what that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS")

SKERRITT: (As Ben Givens) And suddenly there's a pulse.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Wow.

SKERRITT: (As Ben Givens) And my buddy went home, got married and had four kids. And I went to medical school, got married, and I have a beautiful daughter.

SIMON: May I ask you about your early years as an actor? Because it's - I got to tell you, it's my one chance to interview somebody who was in "Gunsmoke," "My Three Sons" and "My Favorite Martian."

SKERRITT: (Laughter).

SIMON: So that was series television sitcoms - or "Gunsmoke" was certainly no sitcom. It was at one point the longest running drama on television. What did you learn as a working actor in those early years that, when it came time to appear in major films, you were able to call on?

SKERRITT: During that time, I was mentoring with the TV director who would hire me occasionally to do different things. But the one - "Gunsmoke," I did several of them. And they worked hard. And I really enjoyed the whole aesthetic of it, the whole spirit of it, that they always wanted to do better because I always feel the same way. I still do. I can always be better. And that's that keep on moving kind of thing that you have to have as a creator. You can never settle in any one thing that works for you. It was that kind of relationship that I had with particular guys on "Gunsmoke." But the other working outside of that were, being able to mentor with a TV director, who was Robert Altman, for a number of years...

SIMON: Well, he was my next question because you were in several Altman films.

SKERRITT: Yeah. Everything from me with guys like him and Hal Ashby and Ridley Scott has been learning from them about how all of this works - about the crew, the necessity of bringing the crew and as they're every bit as important as the rest of us. The harder we work, the better we get, the better the material is going to be. And that's the responsibility we have to our viewers.

SIMON: So does your character in "East Of The Mountains," Dr. Givens - I don't know. I don't know an unvarnished way to say this. Is it hard to play a character at the end of his life when you've been in film so long?

SKERRITT: I've been close to it myself. Each time - I might have had typhoid fever, malaria, that kind of thing, wandering with malaria in the jungles in Philippine, saying, so that's why I'm doing this not very good movie, just for me to be here. And I'm looking up to the stars and say, ah, it was for me to see the southern hemisphere for the first time and for me to smell the flower, the growth that's in the jungle. All of these senses that come to you that you never had before becomes more of a value than whether you're going to die or not. That's a lot of what I brought to this character.

All of those things that I've had where I've come close to the end and just said, I can pull myself out of this; I'm going to pull myself through it. So that is really what was being uncovered with this doctor as he's headed over there and hunting birds and carrying a shotgun that he might use on himself - all of these considerations. I've got a daughter. I love her. We got to reconcile. And I have to come to grips with myself, as everyone does when you get to a certain age in your life.

SIMON: Tom Skerritt - his new film, a kind of lifetime tribute to a long career, "East Of The Mountains." Thanks so much for being with us.

SKERRITT: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.