Richard Jenkins was having a cup of coffee in his living room on the morning of Jan. 22 when his phone rang. It was his son-in-law’s father calling to say “way to go.” Sitting at his computer, Jenkins was unsure as to what he did to deserve such praise and asked his relative what this was all about.
“You were nominated for an Oscar,” he said.
Jenkins, a character actor whose career has spanned over 30 years in Hollywood, has received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as Professor Walter Vale in the 2008 film “The Visitor.”
After years of memorable supporting roles, the actor’s Oscar nod will perhaps allow DeKalb’s notoriety to be more than that of football and barbed wire.
Born in DeKalb in 1947, Jenkins has fond memories of his years spent in The Barb City. Making his way through the town’s school system, Jenkins graduated from DeKalb High School in 1965. He recalls the town being more than just rows of corn at that time.
“DeKalb was like â€˜American Graffiti,'” Jenkins said. “You would get in your car, go to dances, go to the movies, hang out with friends … It was a great time, a great life.”
Although Jenkins never attended NIU, he remembers playing basketball tournaments for his DHS team at Chick Evans Field House. He knows of a time when the whole town went to see the Huskies’ football and basketball games. Some of the actor’s favorite memories of the university, however, overshadow the others.
“We hung out at NIU and went to the dances when we were in high school; we said we were freshmen,” Jenkins confesses. “Once the girls asked us about our classes though; that was it. We had no answer.”
Ironically, his father Dale, who was a dentist that worked on Sycamore Road, had a connection to another future star from DeKalb. “He was Cindy Crawford’s dentist,” Jenkins said.
The 61-year-old hasn’t been back to DeKalb for years (he currently resides in Rhode Island), but he does admit he misses the Midwest.
Graduating with a degree in drama from Illinois Wesleyan University, Jenkins is recognized for the diverse, usually irreverent characters he plays. He has co-starred with everyone from Brad Pitt to Clint Eastwood, appeared in four Farrelly Brothers movies (not to mention) “Fun with Dick and Jane,” “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Flirting with Disaster” and he had a recurring role on the television show “Six Feet Under.”
Jenkins received his first leading role in his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Visitor.”
In the film, the actor plays a frigid college professor who discovers two illegal immigrants living in his apartment. “[Playing] Walter Vale was a responsibility because I was carrying the whole movie,” Jenkins said.
The already award-winning performance has earned Jenkins the first real accolades of his career.
Roger Ebert has referred to him as “an actor who can move his head half-an-inch and provide the turning point of a movie.”
When he goes up against Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Frank Langella and Brad Pitt on Oscar night, Jenkins could be the first person from DeKalb to be thanking the Academy before all is said and done.
Although he remains pessimistic of his odds of winning, Jenkins will have a few words put together of whom he’d like to thank, just in case his name is inside that envelope.
“I will have something mundane,” he said, “but I don’t think I’m going to win.”