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Lost's true survivor
Terry O'Quinn seems to have been born to intimidate, and few actors do it as effectively. He has the authoritative look of someone in charge - a persona that has suited him well as a shadowy government figure in shows such as Alias, The X-Files, and Millennium.

He also excels at menace as in his breakthrough film role as a serial killer who will murder for the perfect family in The Stepfather.

His remarkably blue-green eyes can turn into a steely stare, and they can communicate more than most actors can accomplish with pages of dialogue.

He has the classic look of a commanding character actor: the sinewy form, the ability to morph into any role, and an air of power he can bring to any performance, even in fluff such as The Cutting Edge.

As he entered his 50s, O'Quinn was settling into a nice niche as the go-to guy for no-nonsense authority roles. He had a recognisable and reliable presence as someone who would always turn in a quality performance, and it seemed he would continue the pattern for years to come.

That all changed with the television phenomenon known as Lost, which has finally propelled the actor from underrated supporting player to the most complex - and cool - character on network TV.

As John Locke, the mysterious plane crash survivor who seems just as likely to quote Proust as decapitate you with a hunting knife from a 100-yard distance, O'Quinn finds himself playing father figure to his fellow castaways.

In an ensemble filled with outstanding actors, he manages to steal scenes, as the boar-hunting, frog-dissecting, darkly humorous Locke continues to confound expectations. Is he a well-intentioned patriarch, a cunning strategist, a harmless old man with dreams of glory - or is there something sinister he's not sharing with us?

As played by O'Quinn, the answer is all of the above, and watching the character unravel has been one of the highlights of the season. In an early episode, it was revealed that Locke was nothing more than a pathetic office drone working at a box company prior to the crash.

But that wasn't the big surprise: by the episode's end, viewers learned the character had been confined to a wheelchair for four years when he boarded that fateful flight, only to have the island miraculously restore his legs to working order for reasons still unknown.

In lesser hands, such revelations, along with Locke's tendency to wax philosophical, would be a disaster, but, thanks to O'Quinn and a terrific writing staff, it has made for one of the most fascinating TV shows ever.

He took the role in the pilot without having any idea of Locke's history, primarily because it was a chance to work with Alias creator JJ Abrams again.

"It was another instance where I really needed a job, and thank God it was JJ that called me," O'Quinn recalls.

"Basically he said, 'There's a part on this series -' and I said, 'That's great, I'll take it'. He said, 'Well, it shoots in Hawaii -' and I said, 'That's okay'. He said, 'Well, you're not going to have much to do in the first couple of episodes or the pilot, but the part will develop.' I said, 'Great, I'm in'."

He admits to being concerned when he received the script for the pilot, in which his character barely said a word. "But I said, 'I've got to have faith'," he says, echoing a theme that will come up several times in the conversation.

"That's the point at which the show as an experience began to parallel my own, in that I had to go on faith. You'll see coming up, there are times when Locke's faith is tested, and mine is, too. I don't ask what's coming up, I just wait for it, and I'm excited every time I get a script."

However, it can be difficult to play a character whose history and future is uncertain. O'Quinn recalls the moment he was first told of his character's handicap; his first thought was that he might have moved differently in the first episode had he known.

"I thought, 'Wow. What did I do in the pilot? How are we going to get from there to here?'" he says.

"It's kind of like, when somebody gives me something wonderful, I'm always afraid I'm going to break it. I just don't want to break it." Far from it, the episode Walk-about has achieved status as a favourite of fans, with its breathtaking, operatic finale when Locke first realises he can walk .

"Of course I was filled with doubt, but, when it finally aired, it blew me away," he says. "It was a wonderful moment, but it wasn't just me. It was the music, it was the cinematography, the script, the directing, the editing. There are a great bunch of people on this show, and the contribution from all the elements is so obvious and strong."

And, as Locke's history begins to unravel, O'Quinn finds not knowing too much surprisingly easy. O'Quinn first discovered his love of acting at Central Michigan University in the early 1970s. While attending the University of Iowa on a scholarship, he met director Ed Berkely, who invited him to the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

"It was the end of my college experience, so I was happy to go," says the actor. "I did a play, and he introduced me to agents in New York, and it took off from there."

He appeared onscreen here and there throughout the 1980s, mostly in authority roles such as lawmen in Mrs Soffel and Silver Bullet and physicians in the soap opera The Doctors and the TV movie An Early Frost. But his biggest break came in the form of what his agent at the time dubbed "a sleazy horror flick".

Even O'Quinn didn't have high expectations for The Stepfather, which co-starred former Charlie's Angels actor Shelley Hack. "It all went by in kind of a blur," he says of landing the iconic role.

"I was cast out of the blue."

Although the film won critical acclaim and earned O'Quinn an Independent Spirit Award nomination, his reason for doing it was practical: money. But he still took the role as seriously as any other, and he turned in a creepy, complex performance in what turned out to be a taut thriller. Still, he never thought the film would achieve much success.

Following the surprise success of The Stepfather, O'Quinn worked steadily in a wide array of projects, from the good (Tombstone, Primal Fear) to the less good (Amityville: A New Generation, several TV movies with titles such as My Stepson, My Lover).

He turned in a delightful cameo as Howard Hughes in The Rocketeer that would have done Scorsese proud, and he is probably remembered everywhere by women now in their 30s as the controlling father of ice-skater Moira Kelly in 1992's The Cutting Edge.

Despite what would appear to be a steady career, O'Quinn says he was still struggling. "I've worked a lot. But, in all honesty, I didn't work for much," he says.

He says he was often broke and found himself at a crossroads two years ago, when things began to spin out of control. "I got (to) a point several times in my life where I just wept. There were bad things in my life, family things that sent me to the hospital because my heart just hurt."

He credits Lori, his wife of 25 years, with turning things around. "She turned to me one day and said, 'You know, we can't spiral down. We can't continue to hurt until we die. We have to start letting the cards fall on the table, playing them when they hit, and take the best attitude you can'."

With the runaway success of Lost and O'Quinn's recent leap from "that guy" status to bona fide TV star, one would imagine he could have his choice of roles from now on. Even the actor seems a little stunned to find himself landing a seminal role in a blockbuster after all these years.

"Given my career and as long as I've been acting, you get to the point where you prepare for the worst," he says. "I never thought it was my lot, or that I deserved it. I thought I would be happy if I could keep working and pay my bills and stay under the radar. To be perfectly honest, I've been scuttling along for so long that popping my head out makes me jumpy. I think somebody's going to shoot it."

O'Quinn is still adjusting to being a recognisable face, noting he's not a terribly public person.

"People used to know me, and they would... go, 'Hey! Hey! Hey!' Some people would recognise me from Step-father... Now they just say, 'It's Locke,' which is funny... and nice. Locke is such a cool guy... it's OK to be Locke."

© 09/2005, Jenelle Riley, tonight.co.za