Eric Roberts is an acquired taste: those watching his movies fall into two distinct camps -- they either love him and consider him one of Hollywood's most intense and underrated actors, or they loathe him and consider him a pretentious, shameless ham. Both viewpoints are not without merit for Roberts has seen many ups and downs in his career. Tall and dark-haired, with a chiseled face, swarthy complexion, and arresting eyes, the young Roberts had the look of a classic movie rebel and off-screen displayed an arrogance and self-possession coupled with a tendency toward womanizing, drug abuse, and behavior that created a bad boy image on and off the screen. A serious car accident roughened his facial features and led to the second phase of his career during the '80s in which he primarily played villains; he spent the third phase during the late '90s trying to establish himself as a character actor.
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Growing up in Atlanta, GA, Roberts was no stranger to actors and the theater as his parents ran a successful acting and writing school from their home. A terrible stutterer as a child, Roberts and his father discovered that he could speak normally if he memorized his speeches ahead of time. Thus Roberts participated in his father's classes as a form of therapy. It was while watching English character actor Robert Donat during a late-night showing of Goodbye Mr. Chips that Roberts became inspired to become a movie actor. He made his acting debut at age five playing a cripple in a locally produced Saturday morning TV show, The Little Pioneers. He also performed for poor kids on his father's "showmobile." Roberts was quite close to his father, who taught him the spiritual side of acting, but after his parents divorced, became estranged from his mother, who married a man Roberts detested. He was however, a loving brother to his younger sisters, Julia and Lisa, both of whom became actresses. Roberts began experimenting with drugs at age 11 and by 13 was an avowed pot smoker. Later, he admitted that smoking dope was a way of coping with his broken family and that the drug in many ways arrested his emotional development. During his late teens, Roberts' father sacrificed much to send him to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
By the time he finished training, Roberts was a hardcore Method actor, something that somewhat hindered his personal life as he was unable to easily disassociate from his characters after appearing in a film. In 1976, Roberts' first break was portraying Ted Bancroft in the daily soap Another World. He disliked the job and left to work off-Broadway until agent Bill Treusch discovered him and helped Roberts land the role of a young man who is crowned a gypsy leader by his dying grandfather in King of the Gypsies. The film flopped at the box office, but like his two subsequent films, it has become a cult favorite among video fans. Roberts then appeared in a television movie before starring his next feature as a handsome sailor who falls for Texas divorcée Sissy Spacek in The Raggedy Man (1981). In June that year, Roberts was involved in a serious car crash while driving home from visiting his much older lover Sandy Dennis. He was comatose for three days afterwards with a bruised brain and much facial trauma, a broken collarbone, and an injured hand. No longer suitable for the same roles as before, Roberts bounced back with what became his most famous role, that of the sleazy Paul Snider, the man who killed actress Dorothy Stratten, in Bob Fosse's disturbing Star 80 (1983). The actor made a chilling villain and after playing another bad guy in The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), found himself typecast. Roberts proved well suited to those roles and received an Oscar nomination for playing an escaped convict in Runaway Train (1985).
After that, Roberts chose quick money over artistic integrity and played in a long series of B-movies and direct-to-video fare; while he disappeared from mainstream view, he still maintained a loyal following. Meanwhile the career of his sister Julia Roberts, who made her debut co-starring opposite Roberts in Blood Red (1988), became the most popular female star of the late '80s. Though both were in Hollywood, the formerly close siblings argued and have remained bitter and estranged. In 1987, a drugged Roberts was arrested for harassing a woman and for striking a police officer. He spent 36 hours in jail, pleaded guilty for harassment, and had all other charges dropped. In 1991, he made Hollywood news for a bitter breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Kelly Cunningham. He lost the battle for custody of their daughter, Emma. The next year he married again.
Careerwise, Roberts' tempestuous personality and lifestyle did little to make him bankable to studios. In 1995, Roberts gave up drugs and has worked on becoming a more ingratiating, congenial person. That year he made a comeback with his first romantic lead in It's My Party, playing an AIDS-afflicted homosexual who hosts one last bash for family and friends before committing suicide. His hope was that the film would allow him to return to his original dream of becoming a great character actor. In 1996, he played the Master in a new installment of the long-running Dr. Who saga. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi