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Actor studies Manson to get at the heart of "Helter Skelter'

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Actor studies Manson to get at the heart of "Helter Skelter'
Jeremy Davies plays Charles Manson in the new television version of "Helter Skelter," an account of the murderer's killing spree.

LOS ANGELES -- While preparing to play Charles Manson, actor Jeremy Davies made a 20-minute tape of himself as the mass murderer.

The film never happened, but the tape made the rounds of Hollywood and eventually landed on the desk of Mark Wolper, an Emmy-winning producer.

Coincidentally, Wolper was preparing a new version of "Helter Skelter" and he had no idea where he'd find an actor to play the role.

"I didn't even recognize Jeremy as the actor who had done all these great feature films," Wolper says. "The director, John Gray, and I just about fell off our seats. It was the most amazing footage we had ever seen in our lives. We said, 'This is Charles Manson.' "

CBS, however, was interested in a "name" actor. "In fear, we sent the tape over to the network," Wolper says. Execs agreed: "This is the guy."

The tape, Davies says, was responsible for him getting a part in Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris." Soderbergh and actor George Clooney were so impressed with his work as Manson they wanted to bankroll their own version with Davies as star and director.

But, says the actor, "I had kind of given up on it. I actually felt like I should be grateful for all the good that came from the tape."

When he got the word that Wolper was interested, Davies was thrilled to put to use the two years of research he had done.

Rather than watch a few tapes in order to capture Manson's mannerisms, Davies took the murderer's interviews, transcribed them and broke them down into vocabularly lessons. "My goal was to find his arsenal of language and study his actual interaction with all the interviewers."

From that, he hoped to figure out how Manson could move someone.

Interestingly, that's what Wolper wanted to do, too. Because there had already been another "Helter Skelter" made for television, the producer didn't want to go over the same material. Instead, he wanted to show how Manson could control his followers and prompt them to kill.

Using Vincent Bugliosi's book, Gray focused more on the man, less on the trial.

When "Helter Skelter" was on television several decades ago, it wasn't broadcast in Los Angeles or Chicago because the subject matter was so intense. Now, says Wolper, times have changed.

The new edition is actually closer to what Bugliosi's publisher wanted him to do with the book. "I thought it would have more of a limited appeal," Bugliosi says. "The focus of the book is on the investigation and the trial. Whenever I write a book, my primary motivation is to do something I can be proud of."

"Helter Skelter" turned out to be one of the biggest true crime books of all time.

The new film's material taps into the stuff Davies had done on his own. It shows how Manson gained and kept control.

"It's so bizarre that if this were not nonfictiona nd you put out a fiction novel with the same story, you'd probably put it down after about five or 10 pages because, to be good fiction, it's got to be somewhat believable," Bugliosi says. "This is just too far out."

Although the author hasn't had contact with Manson for some time, he knows he still has a strong hold on people.

"Why, 35 years later, do people continue ot be fascinated with this case?" he asks. "He's bigger in England and Germany than he is over here. In England, they've got billboards up, 'Free Charles Manson.' They have 'Free Charles Manson' concerts. For whatever reason, people are magnetically fascinated by things that are strange and bizarre."

Davies discovered that dwelling on Manson had a negative effect. "Two weeks before we were supposed to start shooting (the original film) I was kind of having a nervous breakdown in the hotel room," he says.

Finally playing the role enabled him to exorcise Manson from his life.

Because he knew the man so well, the new film's director let him ad lib some scenes. "It just kind of ignited me for more authenticity," he says.

"Helter Skelter" airs at -- p.m. --- on CBS.

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