From watermelon fields to the lights of LA, Jim Pitt has never forgotten home

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By Carolyn Risner

It’s been almost 30 years since Pat Wilson graduated from Williston High School, but the boy who became the man Jim Pitt has never forgotten the town, community, school and friends that helped shape his character.

Pitt, an actor who plays a space shuttle captain in James Cameron’s Avatar that opens Friday, dropped in last week to catch up with old friends and remind people he is still the person they knew.

At the Driftwood Restaurant, an old haunt from his football days at WHS, with coffee in hand, he settled into a corner table, order the country fried steak with milk gravy (“I love this place,” he said. “This is all I ever order.”) and with good friend Mike Pogue, reflected on the days of their youth.

Along with Sean Mullins, now with the Levy County Sheriff’s Office, the three were inseparable back then and through jobs, relationships and relocations, have stayed close.

“Williston is a great place to be from,” Pitt said.

The best workouts, he said, came from working long, hard hours in the watermelon fields.

“I read that you learned to drive a tractor before a car,” Pogue said to his friend.

“It’s probably true,” Pitt said, describing how the two worked manual labor during the summer, getting physically fit for the sports they played.

“We killed ourselves,” Pogue said,

“Man, it was great conditioning,” Pitt agreed.

Pitt grew up on stepfather William Wilson’s farm on Hwy. 335A.

“I always drive by there when I come to Williston,” he said. “Poignant stuff,” he added softly.

In fact, there was a time when he toyed with the idea of being a farmer but was talked out of it by a Williston farmer.

Instead he married, started a business and for a while found success as a cowboy hat manufacturer and distributor.

“It thrived,” he said, recalling he fell into the business while trying to reshape one of his stepfather’s caps.

“But,” he leaned across the table, “I was horrible at the business part of it.” Despite his keen sense of marketing and promotion, without keeping up with orders and invoices, there could not be a successful business career.

After six or seven years and a failed marriage, Pitt found himself in a dire situation–lost, unsure of his future and left with only one thing–his faith.

“I got on my knees and asked God for help,” he said.

That was no surprise for the young man who gave his life to God at the Williston First United Methodist Church as a boy. In fact, his faith, his testimony, his life were always based on his faith and for a time, there was consideration that he might enter seminary.

“I know that book [The Bible] forward and backward,” he said. Throughout lunch, as he talked about the evolution of his life, he often cited scriptures that pertained to specific moments of his life.

It was through a series of counseling with family, friends and people that one woman’s question changed his life.

“She asked, ‘What do you want to do?’” Pitt said.

Rather flippantly he told her he wanted to do what everyone else dreamed of. “I want to go to Hollywood and be a film actor.”

Calmly, she told him that was not what everyone wanted to do. In fact, that idea terrified her but if that was what he wanted, he needed to pursue it.

By now his mother lived in the Orlando area, and he moved there too, signed up for acting classes and worked as a personal trainer.

Here the story gets deeper, more bizarre as he continued to perfect his acting skills. He sold everything he owned and attempted to live in his Volvo for a year. Through a series of good fortune, or blessings or God’s hand on his life, he ended up sharing his life in the homes of two different families while he continued to hone his craft and do commercial work.

Another chance at love intervened and Pitt turned again to God for direction and before you could say “Quiet on the set” he was living and working in Los Angeles.

Over the last seven years, he has seriously plunged into the acting scene, earning small roles in independent films and television shows, including Navy NCIS, Close to Home and xXx: State of the Union. Some roles are uncredited, but nonetheless have helped him climb the acting ladder.

Avatar, the latest work by director James Cameron who also brought film lovers Titanic and the Terminator franchise, may be Pitt’s big break.

“Cameron’s people contacted me and asked me to read,” Pitt said. “I did. I got the part.”

He stays busy, he said, and while he hasn’t ruled out TV or the stage, it’s movies that drive him.

“Film likes me,” he said.

“He hasn’t changed a bit,” Pogue said. “He’s still the same person he was when we were in high school.”

Pitt said it had not been difficult to avoid the stereotypical Hollywood-scene. Los Angeles, is just like a lot of little Willistons set down in it, he said. He just stays true

But that doesn’t keep him from coming back home, even though he no longer has familial ties in the area.

“I love Florida,” he grinned. “There’s a smell here that’s home.”

And it’s coming home that he does every two weeks to spend time with his now 16-year-old son.

From Orlando to Gainesville and back to Orlando, it’s become a rite that he not only enjoys, but said is critical to he and his son’s relationship.

He doesn’t get to Williston as much anymore, so when he does he makes the most of it by looking up friends and eating at the Driftwood.

“The world is a very big place,” he said. “Part of our job is to go out into it and find out what God wants us to do.”

At last, he thinks he has fulfilled that part of the mission.