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Knock on Wood

A movie star wonders: Is there room in this town for more than one Woody?

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Mr. Harrelson regrets he's unable to chat today. Tomorrow, the next day, and the day after are also looking pretty dicey for discussing his return to Broadway as dreamer and draft-dodger Bill Starbuck in the Roundabout Theatre's revival of N. Richard Nash's modest 1954 success The Rainmaker. Bulletins are issued at regular intervals by his publicist and personal assistant -- talk about a dodge. "When I'm working, I get obsessed," Woody Harrelson concedes with nicely underplayed penitence when we finally make contact . . . after he's finished three games of full-court hoops. "My ankles have been sprained about 50 times," he says of this second obsession. "I don't like to jump much anymore."

But he does like to stretch. Since the last brew was downed on Cheers in 1993, Harrelson, morphing from good ol' boy to Peck's bad boy, went one-on-one with Wesley Snipes in White Men Can't Jump and played an overextended yuppie who makes a deal with the devil in Indecent Proposal, a white-trash serial murderer in Natural Born Killers, and an unregenerate pornographer in The People vs. Larry Flynt -- a performance that fetched him an Oscar nomination. He spent some of last summer in Minneapolis directing his second play, Furthest From the Sun, a semi-autobiographical account of a group of guys in Houston that was pretty much booed out of town. Now he's back on Broadway for the first time since his stint as an understudy in Biloxi Blues in 1985. New York critics can't be taken for granted; for every wet kiss to a Calista Flockhart there's a sucker punch to a Quentin Tarantino. "They are going to be gunning, and I think Woody's scared," acknowledges Rainmaker director Scott Ellis. "God knows he didn't have to do this, but I think he always wanted to get back to the theater."

"I liked the play," Harrelson says simply. "The movies I was doing, at least half I've been completely dissatisfied with." He also felt an affinity for Starbuck -- part Professor Harold Hill, part Elmer Gantry -- who over the course of a day arguably changes the weather of a tiny western town and unarguably changes its climate. "I like the idea of this guy coming in and being mistrusted and he has to win these people over."

"We drove over to the theater the other day," says Ellis, "and Woody looked at the marquee with his name on it, and he said, 'I've got butterflies.' "


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