Early experiences in childhood often have a lasting impression on our lives. Actor Tom Skerritt, best known to outdoor sportsmen as “Rev. Maclean” in Robert Redford’s 1992 homage to fly-fishing, A River Runs Through It, says that a touchstone moment that inspired his lifelong passion for conservation was when as a little boy, his grandfather took him to a cottage in Ontario on the shores of Lake Erie. When the young Skerritt walked down to the beach for the first time, it was littered with dead fish. His grandfather told him about pollution, and that memory has stayed with him all his life.
“I was back in Detroit recently,” Skerritt says from his home in Seattle. “The way that Lake Erie and the Detroit River have recovered is really marvelous,” Skerritt says.
“You don’t see many scripts like that one,” Skerritt says of A River Runs Through It. “When I get a script I read it and ask myself whether I would pay $10 to go see it. After having read the script for A River Runs Through It, I felt not only would I go see it, but that it was a masterpiece.
“As I developed the character of ‘Rev. Maclean,’ I rediscovered my father, who was a major influence on my life. When I sat on the shore with Norman, watching Paul swim into the river after a fish, I found myself thinking about myself, as well as my stoic Canadian father serenely watching me. The movement I made touching Norman on the knee, while we sat there, that was what my father did to me to show affection.”
Born and raised in Detroit, after attending Wayne State University, Tom Skerritt has gone on to make over 150 film and TV appearances as an actor. Skerritt made his television debut in the Gunsmoke (1965) TV series and his film debut in War Hunt (1962). Some of his many notable film appearances include M*A*S*H (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), Ice Castles (1978), Alien (1979), Contact (1997), SpaceCamp (1986), and in Top Gun (1986), as CDR Mike “Viper” Metcalf, aka “The Man.”
Skerritt starred in the 87-episode television series Picket Fences (1992–1996) in the role of Sheriff Jimmy Brock, for which he won an Emmy. More recently, he has starred in Tears of the Sun (2003), Brothers and Sisters (2006-2009), Bonneville (2006) and Whiteout (2009).
In another 30 films, Skerritt has been the host/narrator, including Rivers of the Lost Coast (2009), which chronicles the rise and decline of salmon and steelhead fishing in northern California rivers.
Skerritt says that like the characters in Rivers of A Lost Coast, he has a special fondness for steelhead fishing, which he recently did in Canada. “I was attracted to the documentary because it hits home on so many important points,” he says. “The loss of tradition and integrity and what we had at the beginning of the 20th century, and how we’ve exploited and ruined so many rivers; it all makes us ask where do we go from here.”
The big and little screen is not the only place where Skerritt applies his passion for rivers. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Rivers conservation organization. “Like a river, American Rivers has to flow, when it meets resistance, it acts like water, applying steady, constant pressure, and it will ultimately prevail.”
One of the recent accomplishments of American Rivers that Skerritt is proud of is its work on restoration of the Elwah River. “The Elwah used to have such a large run of salmon and steelhead, fish up to 100 pounds, but the dams on the river severely reduced the run. Thanks to lobbying efforts of American Rivers, other groups and the local Indian tribe, several years ago a decision was handed down that the owners of the dams had to build fish ladders around all five dams. When they looked at the costs of building the ladders, they decided it was cheaper to simply tear down the dams, which they did. This is a significant study that will help heal our rivers for many years to come.”
“After the dams came down, it’s amazing to see how the life in the river is recovering. In six months you can see a big difference.”
Another way that Skerritt walks his talk, is working with Orvis to become involved in promoting the release of a high-definition version of A River Runs Through It. “Not enough people today know the passion of the rivers, and the feel of the wind in your face, “ he says. “Good films like A River Runs Through It and Rivers of the Lost Coast can do that – make people feel the spirit of the river. It’s that drama and passion that makes people become conservationists.”
Skerritt laments that Hollywood does not make more conservation films like these two pictures. “Hollywood has fallen into patterns, making variations of the same thing. So many scripts are formulas these days. They don’t take chances and take the risk of new possibilities.”
“When Robert Redford made A River Runs Through It, he had to get independent funding as the studios did not get a fishing movie. We all worked for scale on the picture. Then, when they saw that it was a masterpiece, Columbia picked it up, and see what it is has done – financially, as well as for promoting fly-fishing and the conservation of rivers.”
“The outdoor sports community does a lot of good, important work lobbying and fighting in court to save rivers and wildlife. I hope they also can realize the need to reach out beyond preaching to the choir, and connect with mainstream audiences, which includes making films and videos.” True to form, Tom Skerritt is working with American Rivers on a short movie about the soulfulness of rivers.
And if you want to learn how to make movies, in 2004 Skerritt launched TheFilmSchool in Seattle, where Tom now resides, which offers a wide variety of courses and experiences to make writers and directors effective storytellers. Many of the 700 graduates say attending the school “changed their lives.”
This fall Skerritt is taking the life-changing power of storytelling to Fort Lewis, where a separate program, (not connected with TheFilmSchool), The Red Badge Project, is designed to teach storytelling to returning PTS vets at in Washington State. “These guys need to know their stories are worth the telling, if they so choose to,” Tom says.
As we ended our conversation, we mused about how we both grew up in Michigan, and how pleased were we that the Michigan fisheries have rebounded so dramatically. Tom’s final thought was that he wants to go back to fish the waters of the Wolverine state again.
Image courtesy SenArt Films and Tom Skerritt