Actor John L. Smith Jr.: Making History

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By Krista Lyons, AliveTampaBay Correspondent

At first glance, you might think that John L. Smith Jr., a Tampa-based actor, is Robert Redford. The resemblance is uncanny. They share the same sandy blond hair and energetic smile and are so close in height that you might find yourself doing a double-take.

Smith looks so much like his Hollywood doppelganger, in fact, that Redford took a liking to him and gave him his first speaking lines when they met on the set of The Conspirator. Redford even employed Smith as a stand-in for him for scenes in 2015’s A Walk in the Woods.

After retiring from TECO Energy, Inc. in 2009, Smith began pursuing his two passions: history and acting. When many people would spend time golfing, Smith spent time studying for roles and studying history, and all of his hard work has paid off.

Since stepping on his first movie set, Smith has had roles in star-studded films such as X-Men, and Iron Man 3. He has spent his spare time writing articles and sharing stories of the American Revolution — sifting through oft forgotten letters, diaries, and journals from the past.

“I love reading old letters, diaries and journals; it is an excuse to read other people’s mail,” Smith said with a chuckle.

Smith took a break from writing his new book to share some insight on how to make it in Hollywood and history.

AliveTampaBay: Has history always been a big passion of yours?

John L. Smith Jr. : It was a passion through my life but it really took off just as I was retiring from TECO Energy. My daughter and I went to hear David McCullough on his book tour for 1776 at the University of Tampa. I was finishing my MBA at UT at the time. I always loved David McCullough; he could read the phone book and it would sound great. Sitting in the audience and listening to his voice and his passion about George Washington and the American Revolution lit a fire in me, and I knew that as soon as I retired and got some of the acting itch out of the way, I would dig into history. I like to read history books, letters, diaries and journals. It is an excuse to read other people’s mail. It is great reading about real events and how real people thought about things and wrote about things during their time.

ATB: How did you get into acting?

JLS: To make a long story short, as soon as I retired, I had a job offer from the Sundance Resort in Park City to run the Sundance Film Institute, so I went out there and interviewed and it was fine. But I really wasn’t interested in leaving Florida and my family. It’s been remarked that Bob (Redford) and I look alike, so the assistant interviewing me said, “Well, since you’re retired, if you have ever wanted to be in a movie, Bob’s getting ready to direct a history movie in your neck of the woods.” He thought Savannah, Georgia, was where Lakeland is. He said, “You can go on up and be an extra in the movie.”

I thought, “Well, I just retired. I let the cat in and out of the house, but that is about it right now.” So I said yes. It was a Civil War movie, and I went up there and got a part after about two weeks. Redford gave me speaking lines. That gave me my (Screen Actor’s Guild) card and it took off from there. Then I got to do X-Men and Iron Man 3.

Then, Bob was getting ready to do A Walk in the Woods, and I had read that book — it is a great book — and he was getting ready to do that in Georgia. So I got a call to come up and see if I could be his body double and his daily stand-in for the scenes. I went up there and everyone nodded and said, “Oh yeah, he’ll do, he’ll do.” So I got to be his stand-in for about two months. I doubled for him — the back of my head and all of that — for a lot of the scenes on the Appalachian Trail. That was a great experience. It was two months of working with people like Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson, who is probably the nicest person on the face of the earth. Bob was, as usual, very focused and hard working, and then once he knows you he opens up a little bit.

I got to work on Killing Reagan as well. It was based on the Bill O’Reilly book, and I got to play Jimmy Carter. That was a very good experience.

Acting keeps me out of trouble, and then when I’m back home, I let the cat in and out of the house and write history stories.

ATB: Do you have a favorite project that you have worked on?

JLS: Well, A Walk in the Woods would have to be my favorite film project because it was two months of going to work every day from sunrise to sunset with Robert Redford. I got to spend time listening to him and talking with him and helping out with scenes. I got to shoot in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. So that one really has to be my favorite.

The other favorite is the history book that I am writing right now.

ATB: A history book sounds like a pretty interesting and immersive project. What is the subject of the book?

JLS: It is the American Revolution for normal people. Most history books are written for academics and scholars or are written for people who have a lot of time on their hands and who want to sit down and read a long book. Most people, like regular Americans, whether they are students or moms and dads after work, they all want to know something about the founders and American Revolution, but they just don’t have time to read a thick book. So my book tells the story of the American Revolution for non-academic people. I share the history through stories, which are all very authentic, and there is no mythology. I also insert humor to see if the reader is still awake and to lighten it up a little bit. So that is my passion right there.

ATB: That is awesome! I love when you can see history and think “these people were just like us. They had the same types of fears and dreams we have.”

JLS: Yeah! You find out that they weren’t people standing on pillars of marble, but they had the same fears and the same concerns about their futures and their family. They worried, “Am I going to be alive tomorrow?” Even without a war going on, life was hard then. You could be doing everything right and then yellow fever or smallpox comes through your village or town and kills everybody. It was just a crazy life, but they persevered.

ATB: So how do you have time for all of this? Do you ever find time to sleep?

JLS: You have to be as busy as you were at work. It is all about good time management and allotting certain times of the day, if you can, to have a life too. I have a wife and kids and grandkids. Taking care of my health and exercising takes discipline.

The author Danielle Steele says, “You have to be ruthless with your time,” and that doesn’t sound fun. But if you want to get some stuff done that you really care about, you have to be ruthless with your time. Some days are just full of home remodeling and some days you have the luxury of doing nothing but writing, but you have to just make sure that there is a good balance.

ATB: Do you have any advice for someone considering pursuing their passion, be it art, history, acting, etc?

JLS: Sure, you have to be realistic. If you are still working, you have to realize that working is going to take a big chunk of your time. For example, they stopped filming TV shows and movies in Florida, so everything is done in Georgia now. So just for A Walk in the Woods, even though Redford and I looked very similar, I still had to go up twice before the movie started for meetings with the producers. They would sit across from the table and stare at me and tell me, “Yeah, he’ll do.” But you still have to have time for working, so you have to be realistic.

But you also have to realize that if you have a good retirement plan, you can live as long in retirement as you did working. Don’t let retirement sneak up on you, like all of a sudden you retire and think, “Well, what am I going to do now?” You can only play so much golf before you get tired of it. So you have to have an idea inside yourself of what would you really like to do, and be thinking of that and have a plan when you retire.

And like the beginning of a horse race, when the bell rings, you are off and running.

Interviews may be edited for brevity, clarity, and style.

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