In carving out an acclaimed career, James Woods has never given a wooden performance.
Lively, livid, alive – his characters create a cascade of verbal hurricanes, with the star gleaning huzzahs for his efforts.
How ironic, then, that Woods' most physical and perceptive performance is one in which only his eyes speak powerfully, poignantly for him.
And in that performance – airing Thursday night, Feb. 2, on NBC's "ER" – he has his eye on the prize, a future Emmy Award within an eyelash reach of accomplishment.
As Dr. Nate Lennox, an ALS patient impatiently parrying the incurable disease that has caused him to dissolve into a puddle that pales to the storm of a man he once was, Woods communicates all through a computer whose ethereal electronic voice serves as a proxy for the powerless cripple before it.
But the eyes have it – Lennox's laments and loves are lashed out with a blink of his eye activating the keyed-in keyboard to speak what he can only feel.
It takes an MIT grad – which Woods, who majored in political science there, is – to turn technology on its head while turning a viewer's heart inside out.
As a former med-school professor who professes his concern for students – and former students such as Abby (Maura Tierney) – with a sweet and sincere sensibility, Lennox is the clean air that filters through the college daze for his students.
And Woods, as the Jewish genius whose sparks of inspiration set lives aflame and crackling with hope, is just wonderful.
The actor whose portrayal of a Holocaust victim some 30 years ago on NBC's landmark mini-series on the "Holocaust," survives – flourishes – in this outing with his reputation burnished and broadened.
"Ironically, sadly," the speed-talking star of such flicks as "Salvador" and "The Onion Field" is familiar with the field of pain that follows his character. At the time he was offered this sensational script, "one of my best friends' moms was dying of ALS," also known as Lou Gehrig's disease after the baseball legend.
There is no cure for the heartless disease, but Woods' performance is nevertheless a panacea – pin-pricking the desolate pain of an ALS patient going it alone against an unsentimental monster.
A Team Effort
"It is such a team battle," Woods recalls of learning on-set and from research he did for the part, which involved being part of a team of ALS victims, with whom he talked and discussed his undertaking.
"It was one of the more remarkable days of my life," he remarks on meeting those whose suffering suffused his own understanding of the disease.
Like the literal bull in a china shop, Lennox as professor – seen in flashbacks – is a flash of fire, kindling Woods' own actorly appetite for overpowering the natural forces that would hold him back by gravity.
But it is in the slow devolution – the inevitable inequity of the disease's manic progress ("The average time from diagnosis to death is four years, four months," says the actor) – that the star's comet of commitment to the part leaves behind its most illuminating tale, in which "you watch the person in front of you literally melt."
Give in to the disease before every muscle and bowel gives out?
Knowing when to fold 'em is one theme of this episode, which fits so well into the fine hands of the poker-playing performer flush with fine notices in his career.
"Acting and poker," muses Woods. "You've always got something to learn."
Especially when you're aces at both.