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Dateline NBC
updated 4/3/2004 1:22:54 AM ET 2004-04-03T06:22:54

For Billy Bob Thornton, Hollywood's latest version of "The Alamo" was a chance to play a straight-shooting, tough-talking American legend. Now there is some tough talk from the actor himself, as he speaks out about his violent, troubled childhood and about what really happened with the wife he loved and lost: Angelina Jolie.

Billy Bob Thornton: “At the risk of sounding pompous, I'm going to say that my life has been, up to this point, similar to Davey Crockett's." 

It sounds farfetched at first. Billy Bob Thornton as the legendary Davey Crockett, king of the wild frontier? But it is a role Thornton believes he was born to play.

Thornton: “Davey Crockett was born in the backwoods. I grew up in the backwoods. He was a storyteller. He was a humorous guy. He was a serious guy. He was kind of a tough guy at times. There are things that are so parallel that it's kind of frightening.

Crockett was at The Alamo, the 1836 battle in which a few hundred settlers fought to their deaths, against more 2,000 well-armed Mexican soldiers, their courage inspiring the birth of Texas. But even before the premier, reports of extensive re-editing were leaked to the press. 

Ann Curry: “How do you respond to the industry buzz that "The Alamo" is in trouble?"

Thornton: “The people who start that crap are the people that I fight with every day. Name one movie where the filmmaker was not asked to cut it. And I'll kiss your butt. This is standard practice.”

Curry: “This movie's not in trouble?”

Thornton: “Of course not.”

Thornton is prickly in defending "The Alamo" because he says the movie's message is one he cares deeply about, that even flawed men can rise to greatness. 

Thornton: “We're making a movie about people that we consider heroes. We did it because we cared about it. And if somebody wants to put that down, then I think they're assholes. We tried. We gave it everything we had.”

And when Thornton cares deeply about anything, what does he do?

Curry: “Now, is it true that you have ‘The Alamo’ tattooed on your back?”

Thornton: “It is true.”

Thornton's Crockett is nuanced, conflicted about fame, ambivalent about killing, and fearful about dying. It is his first leading role in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Thornton: “So when they start asking to do stuff like that, it's like, I am somebody aren't I?”

Curry: “You've done 50 movies. And it took this to teach you that you're doing okay?”

Thornton: “Yeah.”

Curry: “Why?”

Thornton: “I don't know. And I don't even realize that people know who I am sometimes. Like I'll be in a record store looking through some-- I still call them records. Sorry. And somebody'll come and he'll say, ‘Excuse me.’ And I think I'm in the way.”

A troubled childhood
Thornton's deeply held insecurities come from his profoundly difficult upbringing. I spoke to his mother, Virginia, on the telephone and she explained just how tough his childhood was.

Curry: “Your mother told me that your father beat you repeatedly. And that sometimes he would wheel his belt so angrily, that he would hit you on the head wildly. She described a horror.”

Thornton: “That's right.”

Curry: “Is that how you remember it?”

Thornton: “Yes.”

Curry: “As intense as that?”

Thornton: “Worse.”

Curry: “Do you remember how young you were when you first were beaten?”

Thornton: “Well, I remember being about probably three or four.”

His father, often out of work, could barely support the family.

Curry: “To all the people listening, who right now are living with this violence in their home or who themselves have lived with this violence, you say what?”

Thornton: “I say get away from it, but don't punish the person who has inflicted it upon you.  Forgive them and leave.”

Curry: “If you're a kid, it's hard to leave. You couldn't.”

Thornton: “If you're able to, if you have the capability of leaving it, you do. If you don't, turn towards your imagination and dream of a future when you can.”

Curry: “Here’s a thing your mother tells me, that as your dad was lying there dying of cancer, lung cancer, he was hallucinating.”

Thornton: “That's right.”

Curry: “That bugs were falling into his mouth. It was so horrible to watch, that your other brothers turned away. But you stayed with him, and you took care of him. You took care of the man who beat you.  Now why'd you do that?”

Thornton: “I just-- I felt tortured myself. And I didn't want to see somebody else in that kind of pain.”

Curry: “Do you think if you had not lived through this suffering you would be the actor you are today? 

Thornton: “There's no question about that. I would not be the actor that I am without those experiences.”

But the 48-year-old Thornton says he is still paying the price of that upbringing, which he says is responsible for his obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Curry: “How does that affect you, the OCD thing?”

Thornton: “Well, it exhausts you… You're constantly doing mathematics in your head.”

Curry: “Tell me what it's like.”

Thornton: “Certain numbers represent certain people. And I can't use that number in a certain circumstance. And then I have to use it in another circumstance.”

Curry: “Do you see somebody for it?”

Thornton: “No.”

Curry: “Maybe you should see somebody?”

Thornton: “Really?”

Curry: “Well, it would be nice not to be so exhausted.”

Thornton: “I got a pretty strong constitution. I do okay anyway. I can do on three hours' sleep what most people do on 12.”

Perhaps that is why he is so prolific. He is working on his sixth movie in the twelve months, in which he plays a high school football coach.

Curry: “It's interesting that you smoke.”

Thornton: “It's very interesting.”

Curry: “Yes. Given that there's a history of lung cancer in your family… You're not tempting fate, then, purposefully?”

Thornton: “No. I wish I didn't do it simply because it hurts other people in my life. For me, if they told me tomorrow that smoking is good for you, I would go outside and kiss the grass and sing hallelujah to God and say, this is great. This is good for you? Good. Because I love it. Some people love hot fudge sundaes I love this-- this thing.”

The marrying man
He finds love easily. He has a new girlfriend. But unlike cigarettes, so far he's had a hard time staying hooked on one woman. He's married and divorced five times.

Curry: “You fall too hard with infatuations and try to rescue people. True?”

Thornton: “True. Yes. I try to rescue them, and I expect them to rescue me.”

Curry: ”Well, five times it hasn't worked.”

Thornton: “Yeah. Some guy who screws 60 people a week, for some reason that is cool, but if you try and get married five times and it doesn't work out you are some bizarro. All I can say is at least I was trying. Because I believe in romance. I believe in love. Angie was the only person that I ever had a chance with. And I screwed that up.”

Angie would be Angelina Jolie. America was fascinated with their marriage and the unusual ways they showed affection, with tattooing and wearing vials of each others blood around their necks. He seemed ready now to explain what happened.

Thornton: “Nothing was her fault, it was all my fault. And that's the truth.”

Curry: ”Are you just saying that to be gallant?”

Thornton: “No. I'm saying it because it's the truth.”

Curry: “You want to tell us what you did, how you screwed it up?”

Thornton: “It wasn't my cheating with the waitress in Columbus, Ohio, which was what was reported. That did not happen. I walked away. I left that relationship in fear.”

Curry: “Fear of what?”

Thornton: “I was afraid of her. She was too beautiful for me. She was too smart for me. She had too much integrity for me. I felt so small next to her.”

Curry: “Were you afraid because of those things that she would leave you?”

Thornton: “I'm a scared person. I'm almost ruled by fear. You know, it's funny. Anytime, you know, for some, like, crazy-ass reason that I see something about her that's not positive, I'm like a-- I'm like a tiger about it. You know, I want to go attack the people that attack her.“

Curry: “Wow. I think a lot of divorced wives would love it if their ex-husbands spoke about them like you speak about Angelina.”

They are no longer romantically linked, but Thornton says they are friends once again, and that he is getting to spend  time with the son they adopted, Maddox.

Curry: “How nice is it for you two to be able to be friends with Angelina now again?”

Thornton: “It's peaceful.”

For all his success, peace has always eluded Billy Bob Thornton. After all his ups and downs, is it finally his turn have some?

Thornton: “I feel a certain peace inside myself right now.”

Curry: “You do.”

Thornton: “Yes, I do.”

Curry: “What makes you feel that way?”

Thornton:
“Because I've reached that place. And I don't know any other way to say it.”

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