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Billy Bob Thornton's big break

‘Sling Blade’ was written and directed by its gruff star

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If Billy Bob Thornton hadn’t found his way from Arkansas to Hollywood, he’d probably be serving time by now. The 41-year-old writer-director-star of Sling Blade — in which he plays a mildly retarded man released from an asylum 25 years after hacking his mother and her boyfriend to death — seems to have a mind dead set on murder. ”Some kids woke me up the other night when their drinking party spilled into my driveway,” he says in his Clintonesque drawl. ”The next thing I know, I’m running after them with a hammer in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other.”

Fortunately, reason prevailed (the scene transpired, after all, in L.A.’s posh Pacific Palisades, where Thornton lives with his wife, Pietra, and two kids, William and Harry). ”I suddenly realized I’d run out wearing only these stupid shorts with Valentine’s Day cupids on them. I guess I’m not as much of a threat as I used to be.”

That, of course, is a matter of opinion. Sling Blade was purchased by Miramax for a reported $10 million, and the company signed Thornton earlier this month to a multipicture deal that could earn him a minimum of $2 million a film. All of which is something of a hoot for Thornton. ”When I came out of the New York Film Festival [where Sling Blade played to raves], there were all these flashbulbs going off and I felt like Elvis Presley or something.”

True, his is not the classic film school-to-studio lot pedigree. Thornton grew up poor and hungry in Malvern, Ark., where his family ”ate whatever my grandfather shot in the woods.” Thornton was working factory jobs and playing in local R&B bands when his mother, a prominent local psychic, predicted that he would ”have some business” in a place called Slidell. Thornton used the $200 he earned driving a truck to — that’s right — Slidell, La., to head west in 1983. ”That was the first of five or six key steps that sent me on my way.”

After struggling as a rock & roll singer and drummer in Los Angeles, Thornton decided to take some acting classes and eventually landed a job in an HBO movie in which he spoke only five lines. That’s when he planted the seeds for the script of Sling Blade. ”I started making fun of myself in the mirror at lunch, literally making faces and calling myself names,” he says. ”And I ended up coming up with this character — Karl Childers — right there. It was a little bit of a cosmic deal.” For nearly a decade, Thornton fine-tuned Karl’s spooky monologue during stage performances while scoring more mainstream parts in, among others, 1992’s One False Move (which he cowrote with childhood buddy Tom Epperson) and the early-’90s TV sitcom Hearts Afire (in which he played opposite Sling Blade costar John Ritter).

These days, Thornton, who is beefier and more ruggedly handsome than the character he plays in the movie, is getting virtually everything he wants. Miramax hired a limousine to drive him cross-country (”I don’t fly,” Thornton says. ”I get a weird claustrophobic feeling up there”) and has already signed him to direct A Thousand Miles, costarring Bill Paxton and Dwight Yoakam. Flavor-of-the-month talent, however, doesn’t interest him much. ”The first time a Matthew McConaughey or whoever doesn’t come out of his trailer,” he says, ”I’ll just fire him.” But the important thing is that the Sling Blade story has been told. ”I know I nailed it,” he says. ”If I’m ever gonna be perfect, this is it. Frankly, if I never did another movie again, I’d be happy.”