September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

”I’ve always been very quiet,” says gentle giant Tom Noonan, who edits the movies he also writes and stars in at a dingy Manhattan pied-a-terre, the same one he lived in when he first won fame in 1978 by brandishing an exhumed infant in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child Off Broadway. ”It’s a reaction to having been so big and wanting people not to be frightened.”

Quiet or not, it’s easy to be intimidated by a 6-foot-5, 43-year-old Yale dropout who once got hired alongside five beer-can-hurling Hell’s Angels to do security at Grateful Dead concerts and who can be devastatingly evil on screen. Some critics find his serial killer in the 1986 Manhunter more terrifying than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in its follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs. Noonan also had killer roles in RoboCop 2 and Last Action Hero, and his ugly sex scene in the 1981 play Farmyard so spooked one theatergoer that she called the cops to stop it. ”It doesn’t feel good to go around the world feeling people are afraid of you,” mourns the actor.

So Noonan decided to go behind the cameras, directing and pouring about $200,000 of his earnings into the adaptation of his play What Happened Was, which ended up costing in the six figures. After a five-week theatrical run in the 70-seat Paradise across the street from his East Village flat, it was filmed in 1992 in 11 days, which was how long it took him to write it. Editing whenever he could get away from the Last Action Hero set, Noonan indicated his cuts by using the time codes on a video version.

”It’s risky, because if one number’s off, every number after is off, and the whole movie’s ruined,” he says. Luckily, the numbers were right, and the finished product earned him the ) Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Now he’s got France’s Ciby 2000 backing his next under-$1 million film, Wifey (also based on one of his Paradise Theater plays), starring himself as a psychiatrist, Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, and his wife, Karen Young.

Noonan revels in the freedom from big-budget pressures. ”That’s the great thing about no-budget moviemaking,” he says. ”You have no money, but you have all the time in the world.” And you don’t scare people either.

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