Jigsaw puzzle

Not that long ago, Tobin Bell escorted his 12-year-old daughter on a school field trip. Upon joining his daughter and her classmates, Bell was overrun by a bevy of pre-teen girls, all anxious to meet the notable actor.

“You’re that guy,” the girls stammered, “that guy …”

Yes, thought Bell, known primarily as the nefarious John “Jigsaw” Kramer from the successful Saw film series, I am …

“That guy from Charmed,” they exclaimed.

Such is life for a working character actor — a Hollywood “that guy” on par with the late J.T. Walsh and the comedic David Koechner — one who now rivals the Freddy Kruegers and Jason Voorheeses of the world in terms of horror-icon status.

While Bell’s twisted Jigsaw helped the first four Saw films rake in more than $550 million in worldwide box office (Saw V hits theaters nationwide on Friday, October 24), in some circles he is perhaps best known for a variety of guest spots and one-offs on a slew of popular films and television shows. In addition to roles in Goodfellas (parole officer), Mississippi Burning (Agent Stokes), and In the Line of Fire (Mendoza), Bell has appeared in TV series such as Seinfeld, The Sopranos, ER, 24, The X Files and, of course, a single episode of WB series Charmed.

Although he still garners considerable on-the-street recognition for those roles — not to mention his portrayal of Theodore Kaczynski in 1996’s made-for-television flick, Unabomber: The True Story — Bell admits the Saw series has elevated his celebrity status to a whole new realm.

“`The recognition` is much more frequent now,” he says, perhaps pausing to accentuate the cultural impact of the Saw franchise. “Much more frequent.”

For those who don’t follow the “Saw” franchise, you’re missing out on a rarity — a torture-filled morality play. The series’ fifth installment (with a fifth-straight pre-Halloween release) finds Bell’s Jigsaw character in a rather odd position as the film’s antagonist. For the second consecutive year, Jigsaw is dead, leaving his John Kramer character to live on via pre-Jigsaw flashbacks while apprentices carry out his work.

“I talk to the writers, but I always leave the `plot` up to them,” Bell says of his character’s onscreen deceased status. “I am here and willing to contribute. I compare it to a tree growing from a seed. One acts to keep the branches flowing throughout. We keep that genetic makeup as well, and let it flow through the story.”

That villain-is-dead twist didn’t derail the plot of Saw IV, which ranks just behind the second installment as the series’ most fitting example of torture porn as cinematic artistry. For the opposite effect — essentially, torture porn done simply to shock and appall — see Saw knockoffs like Hostel: Part II and Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake.

“Obviously, the traps, tricks, and surprises `are popular`,” says the 66-year-old Bell. “Other films have tried to use those `methods`, but what the Saw writers realize is that there is an opportunity to layer the film. It can be smart, and the script is what takes these films to a new level.”

Having also spoken with Bell in advance of Saw IV, I can say that he ranks among the most humble, polite actors I have ever interviewed. He refuses to take credit for the success of the Saw films, and instead deflects it to the series’ behind-the-scenes crew.

While Bell is the antithesis of a murderous villain — involved in charity work, coaches little league, etc. — so, too, some ways, is Jigsaw. While Freddy, Jason. and Michael Myers slay anyone who stumbles into their paths, Bell’s cancer-stricken Jigsaw is more selective in scope, seeking out those who fail to appreciate the sanctity of life — crooked cops, predatory scum, a guy who assaulted Jigsaw’s then-wife in IV, terminating her pregnancy in the process — making him less a cold-blooded killer than a particularly vicious vigilante with an unsettling amount of job satisfaction.

If anything, Jigsaw is the purest character the Saw series has spawned, even if his methods are extreme: syringe-filled pits, bone-breaking mechanisms, skull-crushing steel fly traps — he isn’t one for subtlety. But unlike less-forgiving cinematic serial killers, he at least gives (most) victims a chance to escape their fates.

“He thinks it’s appropriate, because he sees a lot of wrongs in the world and our lives,” Bell told me last year. “He thinks the world is going to hell, and it’s no longer survival of the fittest. Although none of us would do what he does, he feels justified in his severity.”

Regarding Saw V, Bell says critical and commercial reaction will help producers determine whether another “Saw” will unspool in theaters the next year, while various online reports claim Saw VI has already been greenlit.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it went further,” Bell says. “It’s amazing how much story there is left to tell. It’s not always easy to develop a series, and it’s hard to keep the bar up. At some point … you just have to decide at which point the story has played itself out.”

“But it’s a business we’re in,” he adds, “and if the fans want more, it means there’s a market for more.”

Whether or not Saw lives on past 2008, Bell will be addressed as “Jigsaw” in public spaces for years to come. Not that he minds. If anything, Bell says, it’s a sign of career accomplishment that people recognize him as the serial killer — or even the guy from Charmed — for years to come.

“I appreciate it,” he says. “As an actor, it’s better than no one knowing who you are.” •

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