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'I'm so fortunate in my life'

NBC, Warner Bros., TriStar, Code Productions  
iconGood-looking suds: The New York Times calls "Titans" producer Aaron Spelling's "latest collection of soap flakes." Casper Van Dien stars in the show -- click here to ogle the young, the rich and the insufferably rude.

Casper Van Dien: Cast in conflict

November 24, 2000
Web posted at: 3:59 p.m. EST (2059 GMT)

In this story:

Living color -- and contrast

Navy brat

'Going back' ahead

'Complete opposites'


(CNN) - "Not that I want to be this overpowering Christian or fanatic -- I'm not. But I'm a very spiritual being. I believe in all these faiths for different people. I believe that whatever works for the individual is going to be great. And that's fine. Everybody's different. They have a different way of worshipping. A different way of praying. You just can't be prejudiced against them all."

Someone interrupts Casper Van Dien. He's needed on the set of "Titans."

graphic How often do you think Hollywood careerists face the compromise Casper Van Dien describes -- an interest in doing more "wholesome" work than the industry makes?

It must happen a lot: They're caught between their best ambitions and what makes money.
It's hard to tell how much support deeper projects can attract in today's market.
It's an excuse: If show people really wanted to do better work, they would.
View Results

"I'm going to have to go, but I'll be right back."

While he steps away to shoot a quick scene in Aaron Spelling's latest trash-triumphant prime-time soap, explore your "cognitive dissonance." Remember that phrase? It means you know two things that don't jibe.

•   Here's the first thing. Actor Van Dien, who'll turn 32 on December 18, has yet to move across the screens of Hollywood's weightier, more thoughtful efforts.

His biggest films to date are "Tarzan and the Lost City" (1998) and "Starship Troopers" (1997). Neither has had serious traction in critical circles. "Starship Troopers" did pull an Oscar nomination for the special effects that put director Paul Verhoevens' insect-aliens onto the sugar trail toward a $52 million U.S. box-office gross.

For the most part, Van Dien has played good-looking but badly flawed guys. Among them, an "undead" dude amid club-going "Modern Vampires" (1998); a heady suitor in "Sleepy Hollow" (1999); and now in "Titans," a central player in a family of opulent rogues.

•  Now, here's the other thing. Actor Van Dien is also an intense, giving and invigorating conversationalist who actually gets into the "dissonance." He enjoys exploring the contrast between the spiritual family life he celebrates -- and the comparatively tawdry spectacles in which he plies his craft.

Van Dien's first wide-release recognition was in the 1997 "Starship Troopers" -- gore, militarism and a jubilant coed shower scene  

His career goals, he says, include getting into a position to produce films of more significance, works that reflect his values of social tolerance, family involvement, spiritual commitment.

He's back and speaking fast, partly because he's on call for the next scene but also because he's fully engaged in what he's saying. Van Dien goes a mile a minute, a joyous fizz of sincerity flooding his speech.

"Where were we? Yeah, I mean if things keep going as they are now, I'll eventually produce those projects. Because I'm a father, I'd love to do some spiritually influenced, family-oriented films. I'd love to do some good, wholesome films. I'd love to do an action film but something like 'Swiss Family Robinson,' or my own 'Tarzan,' something that I thought would have a huge influence on society in a way I thought was positive."

But in the meantime? "I like doing the action films, even those that have violence in them. I mean, you look at violence like 'Starship Troopers' -- we're killing bugs. It's rather silly. This is entertainment."


Living color -- and contrast

When asked how he handles criticism of Hollywood for work deemed less than "good, wholesome films," Van Dien doesn't duck. But he lets no one off the hook, either.

They scheme and squeal, they live in across-the-street mansions and they always look at the camera in a very sultry way. Casper Van Dien and his buddies in "Titans" are ready for their close-ups."

"Nowadays," he says, "kids are a lot smarter and they realize it's just a film. It has to go with the parenting. I didn't idolize movie stars when I was growing up. I idolized my father and my grandfather. And my mother was like my best friend. With that kind of communication level between me and my parents, I knew the difference in what was wrong and right.

"If I did something wrong, I couldn't blame it on something else -- a book I read or a song I listened to or a movie I saw. Those things can influence you, but you're responsible for you and for your actions. If you can find unconditional love for yourself, you can be a good person."

The scene he's working on at the moment, he says, has two of the female characters in "Titans" trying to "out-bitch each other." His character -- the wealthy adopted son Chandler -- and Chandler's up-to-no-good brother Peter are "trying to stay out of it" as the women go at it in intermittent shooting stints.

"The failure of my first marriage started me reading some spiritual work. It was definitely difficult. When you fail at something, you feel like, 'Oh, my God.'"

It's hard not to wonder if the deeper, more thoughtful work Van Dien is talking about every time he steps off the set isn't coming to mind as an antidote to the glittering bitterness of "Titans" -- the kind of show the New York Times' Ron Wertheimer noted in his review that "no one will admit watching."

But Van Dien says he gets his emphasis on family life -- and not the dysfunctional "Titans" kind -- from a boyhood he describes as a military upbringing gone right.


Navy brat

"Even my perception of military school -- which I wanted to go into -- was different from other people's. I see the military and military schools as places you have structure to work within."

Van Dien was born in Milton, Florida, about 18 miles from Pensacola. He was raised in New Jersey, "in Ridgewood. A lot of people say Ridgefield, but it was Ridgewood, where the (American) Van Diens originated. As a matter of fact, we lived at 243 S. Van Dien Avenue for 13-and-a-half years."



His family traces its roots back to "some of the original Dutch settlers, they came over in the 1600s. One side of the family came over on the 'Love Boat.' I don't know how you say that in Dutch, but it was a ship called the 'Love Boat.' My mother's side of the family has some American Indian, too. I think by the time it's gotten to me, my left earlobe is probably American Indian. I have Indian, Dutch, Swedish, French, English.

"My father retired from the Navy as a commander, a Navy pilot. The uniforms I'm wearing now in the show are the ones I saw my father wear when I was a kid."

Van Dien has "three beautiful sisters," Kristin, Sudi and Debbie. His mother is a registered nurse and has taught pre-school. His father has taught high school during his own career. "He and my mother have been together for 39 or 40 years. One of those loves most people don't want to write about because there's nothing wrong.

"If I could wish one thing on everybody in the world, it would be that they'd have parents like mine. I never had any hardship until I came out to Hollywood."

Comfortable with military life, Van Dien enrolled in Admiral Farragut Academy on Boca Ciega Bay in St. Petersburg, Florida, a coed prep school designated an Honor Naval School.

The acting bug bit him in Tallahassee at Florida State, where he'd started studying medicine. He decided film and TV looked better than operating theaters and cardiograms. Van Dien moved to Los Angeles, made the usual entry into television through guest roles -- "Beverly Hills 90210," "One Life to Live" and other shows. From there he slid into some straight-to-video films including "Night Eyes 4" and "Beastmaster 3" -- Blockbuster fodder.

With the 1997 "James Dean: Race With Destiny" (on video, "James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young"), Van Dien started to move into bigger budgets.

With him in that film was Carrie Mitchum, granddaughter of Robert Mitchum. He'd met her in 1992, they married and had his son Casper Robert Mitchum Van Dien (called Bo, now 7) and first daughter Gracie, now 4.


'Complete opposites'

Van Dien's breakup with Mitchum in 1997 -- the year "Starship Troopers" was released -- still dogs him. "The failure of my first marriage started me reading some spiritual work. It was definitely difficult. When you fail at something, you feel like, 'Oh, my God.' But we were just complete opposites. She's the kids' mother. We get along fine. But it was hard."

He married actress Catherine Oxenberg in 1999. She has a daughter, India, now 9. "And Catherine and I just go together. She's my teacher. We have the same belief system. It's just amazing. We do yoga together and go on hikes. We go to spiritual events. We have dinners for friends, all different religions - Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, it doesn't matter.

"One of the most beautiful blessings we've ever gotten was when I asked an atheist friend to say it. He said, 'Casper, you know I don't believe in God.' I said, 'Just bless all of us and our friendship and the food, however you want to do it.' And he said a beautiful blessing. Afterward, he said, 'Thank you. Nobody's ever asked me to do that before.'

"And one of my Christian friends said, 'Hey. You've never asked me to do the blessing.'"

Van Dien's laugh is younger than the man. It's fast, untempered. The clock has stopped ticking down to the next moment he has to get in front of the camera, the set and its technicians seem to have dropped away. He savors the memory of this moment among friends, with Oxenberg.

"We got engaged, you know, at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem."

Van Dien co-starred with his second wife, Catherine Oxenberg, in 1999's "The Omega Code"  

They were working on "The Omega Code" (1999). "It was a Christian film. And we'd love to do more like that. We were in the Middle East at a time when it was relatively peaceful. "

"The Omega Code" was financed at $7.2 million by televangelist Paul Crouch, founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network. "Basically, it's a biblical prophecy thriller," wrote Desson Howe in the Washington Post, "in which Dr. Gillen Lane (Van Dien), a motivational speaker and mythology expert, becomes an unwitting pawn for wealthy businessman Stone Alexander (Michael York) who has dastardly plans to rule the world. The script is woeful. And I have seen better special effects on 'Barney and Friends.'"

More to the point for Van Dien, it was a glimpse of something beyond the mere entertainment value of "Titans" -- something grounded in the "spiritual consciousness" he says he and Oxenberg are exploring.

Not that it's all one big walk in paradise. "My wife's been out of town," he says, laughing at his own rush to keep everything going. "Our nanny, who we use to help us with our three kids? -- she just gave birth. So my sister's been helping out. I've been like a chicken with his head cut off."


'Going back' ahead

Van Dien says he's looking forward to the release next year -- no date announced yet -- of "Going Back," a Sidney J. Furie film about U.S. Marines who return to Vietnam to relive some of their wartime experiences there for a television crew.

"It's all based on true incidents. They age me -- I'm 20 years younger in Vietnam, and then older when we go back to re-enact certain events that happened there. It's really intense."

And while Van Dien looks for his chances to do the meaningful work he thinks about, can "Titans" succeed on NBC?

"Well, you never know."

"I've learned to appreciate everything I have. If you have love, you have so many other things."

"We're going to succeed big or fail big," his co-star, Victoria Principal, told CNN's Paul Vercammen as the show premiered in October. "This is not a show that I think you can just be ho-hum about. It's 'The Brady Bunch' on acid."

"Titans" moves on December 4 from Wednesday nights to Monday nights at 8 p.m. EST. "That's so the girls," Van Dien says, "have something to watch while the guys are seeing 'Monday Night Football.'" This is also the former 'Melrose Place' berth in which producer Spelling did much better in the ratings than the 66th-, 68th-, 74th- and 64th-place rankings "Titans" has pulled in the past month. Not what's wanted.

But whatever happens to "Titans," Van Dien says, "Acting has given me a chance to travel, to see more and meet more people. And that means living more in a state of consciousness. I'm getting to see things without having prejudices against them.

"My son sometimes says, 'Dad, when you were Tarzan,' or 'Dad, when you were James Dean.' He's growing up knowing me in different roles, us in different cultures. I have a shot of him running around in Africa in a little Tarzan loincloth and Reeboks. I've learned to appreciate everything I have.

"I'm so fortunate in my life."



The three Ls: Lust, lies, leers -- trashy, titillating, torrid 'Titans' readies to bow
October 3, 2000
The fall TV season: Big names come to the small screen
September 29, 2000
Review: 'Sleepy Hollow' -- Burton goes bump in the night
November 19, 1999
Deciphering the success of 'Omega Code'
October 26, 1999
Review: 'Tarzan and the Lost City' is jungle rot
April 30, 1998
Review: Fascist 'Starship' troops lacking in irony
November 11, 1997

Admiral Farragut Academy
NBC: "Titans"
"The Omega Code"
"Sleepy Hollow"
'Tarzan and the Lost City'
Trinity Broadcasting Network
Casper Van Dien, official site

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