The son of a Czech-American golf pro, Jon Voight was active in student theatricals in high school and at Catholic University. In 1960 he began studying privately with Neighborhood Playhouse mentor Sanford Meisner, and made his off-Broadway debut that same year in O Oysters, receiving a daunting review which opined that he could "neither walk nor talk." Fortunately, Voight persevered, and in 1961 took over the role of "singing Nazi" Rolf in the Broadway hit The Sound of Music (his Liesl was Laurie Peters, who became his first wife).
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Blessed with handsome, Nordic features, Voight kept busy as a supporting player on such TV series as Gunsmoke, Coronet Blue, and NYPD, and in 1966 spent a season with the California National Shakespeare Festival. The following year, he won a Theatre World Award for his stage performance in That Summer, That Fall. Thus, by the time he became an "overnight" star in the role of wide-eyed hustler Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969), he had nearly a decade's worth of experience under his belt. The success of Midnight Cowboy, which earned Voight an Oscar nomination, prompted a fast-buck distributor to ship out a double feature of two never-released mid-'60s films: Fearless Frank, filmed in 1965, starred Voight as a reluctant superhero, while Madigan's Millions was a 1968 turkey featuring Voight's Cowboy co-star (and longtime friend) Dustin Hoffman.
Entering the 1970s with dozens of producers clamoring for his services, Voight refused to accept roles that banked merely on his youth and good looks. Instead, he selected such challenging assignments as crack-brained Army officer Milo Minderbinder in Catch 22 (1970), a political activist known only as "A" in The Revolutionary (also 1970), reluctant rugged individualist Ed Gentry in Deliverance (1972), and real-life teacher/novelist Pat Conroy in Conrack (1974). In 1978, he won both the Oscar and the Cannes Film Festival award for his portrayal of paraplegic Vietnam veteran Luke Martin in Hal Ashby's Coming Home. The following year, he earned additional acclaim for his work in the remake of The Champ.
Devoting increasing amounts of time to his various sociopolitical causes in the 1980s and 1990s, Voight found it more and more difficult to fit film roles into his busy schedule. A reunion project with Ashby, on the godawful gambling comedy Lookin' to Get Out (produced 1980, released 1982), failed dismally, with many reviewers complaining about Voight's terrible, overmodulated performance, and the paper-thin script, which the actor himself wrote. Voight weathered the storm, however, and enjoyed box-office success as star of the 1983 weeper Table for Five. He also picked up another Oscar nomination for Andrei Konchalovsky's existential thriller Runaway Train (1985), and acted in such socially-conscious TV movies as Chernobyl: The Final Warning (1991) and The Last of His Tribe (1992). He also produced Table for Five and scripted 1990's Eternity. Voight kept busy for the remainder of the decade, appearing in such films as Michael Mann's Heat (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996), and The General, a 1998 collaboration with Deliverance director John Boorman, for which Voight won acclaim in his role as an Irish police inspector. During the same period of time, a bearded Voight also essayed a wild one-episode cameo on Seinfeld - as himself - with a scene that required him to bite the hand of Cosmo Kramer from a parked vehicle.
In 1999, Voight gained an introduction to a new generation of fans, thanks to his role as James Van Der Beek's megalomaniacal football coach in the hit Varsity Blues, later appearing in a handful of other films before teaming onscreen with daughter Angelina Jolie for Tomb Raider in 2001. After essaying President Roosevelt later that same year in Pearl Harbor, Voight went for laughs in Ben Stiller's male-model comedy Zoolander, though his most pronounced role of 2001 would come in his Oscar nominated performance as iconic newsman Howard Cosell in director Michael Mann's Mohammad Ali biopic, Ali.
Taken collectively, all of Voight's aformentioned roles during the mid-late 1990s demonstrated a massive rebound, from the gifted lead of '70s American classics to a character actor adept at smaller and more idiosyncratic character roles in A-list Hollywood fare ( the very same transition, for instance, that Burt Reynolds was wrongly predicted to be making when he signed to do Breaking In back in 1989). To put it another way: though Voight rarely received first billing by this point, his volume of work per se soared high above that of his most active years during the '70s. The parts grew progressively more interesting as well; Voight was particularly memorable, for instance, in the Disney comedy-fantasy Holes, as Mr. Sir, the cruel, sadistic right-hand-man to camp counselor Sigourney Weaver, who forces packs of young boys to dig enormous desert pits beneath the blazing sun for a mysterious reason. Voight then signed for a series of parts under the aegis of longtime-fan Jerry Bruckheimer, including the first two National Treasure installments (as John Patrick Henry) and - on a higher-profiled note - the audience-rouser Glory Road (2005), about one of the first all-black basketball teams in the U.S.; in that picture, Voight plays Adolph Rupp, the infamous University of Kentucky coach (nicknamed 'Baron of the Bluegrass') with an all-white team vying against the competitors at the center of the story.
In 2007, Voight tackled roles in two very different high-profile films: he played one of the key characters in Michael Bay's live-action extravaganza Transformers, and portrayed a Mormon bishop who perishes in a Brigham Young-instigated massacre, in the period drama September Dawn, directed by Christopher Cain (Young Guns. He appeared in 24: Redemption, and became a part of that show's regular cast for its seventh season.
Voight is the father of Angelina Jolie, and has often been the subject of tabloid coverage because of their occasionally fraught public bickering.
~ Hal Erickson, Rovi