Meet Bill Pullman

He's been around for years playing every sort of character. But even after he starred opposite Sandra Bullock in the hit While You Were Sleeping, people were still not sure who he was. Will the big blast of Independence Day liberate Bill Pullman from the vestiges of anonymity?

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After the fifth or sixth person looks at me blankly when I tell them who I'm going to interview and says, "Who?" I find myself shouting. ''Bill Pullman!!"

How is it possible that most of my movie-maven friends can't place the name "Bill Pullman." but my six- and seven-year-old godchildren know exactly who he is? "Casper's dad," they yell in unison when they see his photo on the coffee table. While that's not completely correct (he was Christina Ricci's father in Casper), they also know him from Spaceballs. "May the Schwartz be with you," they shriek with laughter, quoting one of Mel Brooks's zanier lines.

My sister, on the other hand, tells me she loved Pullman in Sommersby, but even more so in The Butcher's Wife. She's half-right--Pullman was in Sommersby, but that was Jeff Daniels in The Butcher's Wife. And when a friend mentions how terrific he was in Unlawful Entry. I realize she has him confused with Kurt Russell.

For the record: Bill Pullman started his movie career as Earl Mott ("perhaps the stupidest person on the face of the earth") in Ruthless People, with blond hair and black roots and an attitude matched only by his naivete. He played William Hurt's publisher in The Accidental Tourist, Jodie Foster's spurned boyfriend in Sommersby, the mild-mannered academic duped by his beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman) in Malice, Meg Ryan's allergic boyfriend in Sleepless in Seattle, Linda Fiorentino's ill-fated husband in The Last Seduction and the absolutely wrong man in Mr. Wrong. He's also done a million other roles in small films of head-spinningly varying quality. But here's the part that'll place him for you, especially if you're a woman. He was the guy who wooed and won Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping.

This summer Bill Pullman will be hard to miss: He's the President of the United States in Independence Day.

I go to meet Pullman in Toronto, where he's filming HBO's Mistrial. The plan is that I'll arrive at the crack of dawn, which I do, and meet him on the set, which I don't. There's been a mix-up and he's not going to be working till evening. By the time I reach the warehouse where Mistrial is being filmed, a freak spring snowstorm has blown in and it's freezing cold. I've been up for over 36 hours, and. it turns out, so has Pullman. There's no heat in the warehouse, and neither of us is dressed for the weather. We huddle by a small kerosene heater. The world of filmmaking sure is glamorous.

"There's a lot of confusion about who you are," I begin, turning on the tape.

Pullman nods, "I know. I'm often confused with other actors. But the people who know my work don't have that problem."

"That's true. There are legions of kids who loved you in Spaceballs, and now in Casper."

"I can't go anywhere without little kids saying 'hi' to me. They love those two films. With Spaceballs, it's weird because most of those kids don't even get the Star Wars references. And Casper, that's a film my kids can watch, even though they don't. I mean, it doesn't hurt my feelings or anything, but when they look through the videos at home, I notice that Davy Crockett gets a lot more play than Casper."

I glance at the papers I've collected on Pullman. "Wife, three kids," I say, "And half-a-dozen films in the last two years. Are you a workaholic or what?"

"I know it seems that way. I do take lots of time off between projects, but when the right thing comes along, I don't like to turn it down, I've been doing this for a decade, and I remember what it was like when I started. You spend maybe five percent of your time actually doing it, and the rest of the time, you're trying to get that five percent. I just wasn't built for that, the waiting-to-work business. And now, suddenly, I am fully employed. Things are going great. The Last Seduction, Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping did a lot to get me noticed for bigger roles. Is this the time for me to take a sabbatical? I think not."

"I agree," I tell him. "Things could all fall apart after this."

"Thanks for the vote of support," Pullman says with a tight smile. "You really think it'll never get better for me?" He has a slightly worried look.

"All I'm saying is that you were a supporting actor for years, and you were great, and now they see you as a leading man. But what happens if you don't have that wonderful chemistry that you had with Sandra Bullock ever again? What happens if you never get another role that good?"

"Jesus." he mutters. "Well, I guess I should enjoy it while it lasts. There are all these little things that change when you're the quote-unquote star of the film. I think people expect you to have more attitude now."

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