Forget Kevin Bacon. You want to play “Six Degrees of Separation,” use Timothy Hutton as your hub.
In nearly 50 films, he has costarred with everyone from Tom Cruise to Nick Nolte, from Rosie O’Donnell to Maureen Stapleton.
What makes Hutton unique (and expands his “Degrees” range significantly) is the ease with which he has moved from movies to TV throughout his career.
Big screen or small, his exacting standards don’t change.
“Desperate Housewives’” Dana Delany, who has played Hutton’s wife in both media — in NBC’s “Kidnapped” and in the coming indie film “Multiple Sarcasms” — says in an e-mail, “I love working with him because you know he is going to be always truthful and present. He will whittle away at a scene until every line and moment is true.
“A great example of that is his scene with Natalie Portman in ‘Beautiful Girls.’ I was almost embarrassed to be watching such intimacy.”
Having recently completed a Roman Polanski film in Germany, Hutton has returned to Portland, Ore., to work on the second season of his TNT series, “Leverage,” which debuts this week.
Hutton stars as Nate Ford, a man who lost his beloved son because of an unscrupulous insurance company. Ravaged by grief, Nate eventually assembles a “Mission: Impossible”-like team to take down rapacious fat cats.
It’s a caperish mix of comedy and crime, in the vein of “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Last season, Nate struggled with a weakness for booze, usually losing the battle. He’s about to face new hurdles.
“We’ve eliminated drinking as a vice,” Hutton says, “and replaced it with other things that are just as damaging. Control freak, for one.”
It’s those craggy dimensions that attracted Hutton to the role.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘This is a really interesting character. I could see playing him for multiple years,’” says the actor, who, at 48, still has that anguished altar-boy face.
“That’s one of the things you end up considering: Can I take it in different directions? Is there enough conflict in this series?”
Hutton began dabbling in television while still a teen.
His father, actor Jim Hutton (TV’s “Ellery Queen”), questioned the boy’s commitment.
“I don’t think that he was convinced for himself that I was on the road to becoming an actor,” says Hutton. “I had done a couple of TV movies, but I was young and I had other interests. Unfortunately, he passed away before I kind of got going.”
Boy, did he get going. His father died just before Hutton made an enormous splash in his film debut, winning an Oscar at age 20 for best supporting actor as troubled teen Conrad Jarrett in 1980’s “Ordinary People.”
A year later, he came to the Philadelphia suburbs to star in “Taps.”
“We filmed at the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne,” he recalls. “It was a really fun movie to work on with all those young actors and George C. Scott. George kicked my ass in chess every day.
“At night, Sean Penn and Tom Cruise would pile in my truck, and we’d drive down to Atlantic City. We’d hang out there, and then realize it was 6 in the morning and we had to be on the set.”
Since then, he has worked in films habitually, although he’s concerned at the direction the industry has taken.
“‘Harold and Maude’ — I don’t think that would get made today,” he says. “The studios are only interested in franchise movies and comic-book stories.”
That’s why Hutton has been increasingly turning to the tube. “The really good material,” he says, “is much more abundant on television. We need storytelling, and cable has become the place for those stories.”
He still takes on film roles that intrigue him, like the beaten-down suburbanite in the 2008 indie “Lymelife.”
Alec Baldwin, his costar in that film, says, “Like many others, the first film I saw him in was ‘Ordinary People.’ But the film he really impressed me in was ‘Daniel.’ It was a great film, and Tim gave an extraordinary performance. I’d been looking forward to working with him ever since.”
Veteran and rookie actors alike treasure collaborating with Hutton.
“Tim has this presence on the set,” says newcomer Beth Riesgraf, who plays the team’s cat burglar on “Leverage.” “He cares about the work. It’s why he’s been successful as long as he has. It would be easy for him to come in, do his job, and go home, but he really cares.”
Hutton has to juggle more than film and TV work. His personal life is also demanding.
Ideally, he’d like to act six months on, six months off, so he could spend more time in Paris with his wife, Aurore Giscard d’Estaing (niece of the former French president) and their son Milo, 7. (He also has a 22-year-old son, Noah, with his first wife, actress Debra Winger.)
“I can speak a little bit of French,” he says. “I’m constantly trying to get better at it. But my son speaks French and English, and his mom speaks English, so there isn’t a dire need.”
Johnny Depp, who lives in similar Franco-American circumstances, has more-developed linguistic skills.
“We know each other. We did a movie, ‘Secret Window,’ together,” says Hutton. One Degree! “He is fluent in French. He learned a while ago.”
Over the years, Hutton has built a remarkably motley resume, but he doesn’t regret a single credit.
“It would be pretty lame to look back and say, ‘I wish I wasn’t associated with that,’” he says. “Everything is an experience. You met some interesting people. You were in an interesting place for a while.
“Sometimes, it’s just as important to learn from the experiences that don’t turn out as well as you had hoped.”
Getting back to Bacon: He appeared in “Frost/Nixon” with Oliver Platt. Platt was in “Kinsey” with Hutton.
Piece of cake. Two Degrees.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More