Would the real Brad Pitt please stand up?

BLUE eyes shine forth there is an evangelical look in those eyes, at times and Brad Pitt seems as relaxed in a tuxedo as he did in dress-down cotton trousers and sweatshirt earlier in the day.

He talks in the slow, slightly hesitant manner of his native state, Missouri. Think along the lines of the accent he shaped for Jesse James himself, who came from the state. It's not too far-fetched to say that Pitt, as ever pleasant and gracious, always seems to be peering into the distance, like someone on the edge of open prairies.

I have followed Pitt's career for the past 20 years, and have seen him grow from a work-hungry young actor happy to divulge his passion for film and women to anyone who would listen, to the deeply private multi-millionaire he is today. He and his partner Angelina Jolie notoriously rarely give interviews, and when they do they are no longer of a personal nature. So talking to Brad Pitt these days really just means being in his presence and attempting to figure out what makes him the star he is today.

We first met on March 28, 1989, in Budapest, Hungary. Pitt was an unknown who had four episodes of the television series Dallas to his name, playing a character called Randy.

Our most recent meet was in Venice, earlier this month, at the city's film festival. Pitt walked the red carpet like a gunslinger who knew he has the fastest draw in town. He had triumphed last year as best actor for his film The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and he was determined to once again prove that his career is on target. He may have failed in the end (it was won by Italian actor Silvio Orlando), but, in a sense, he achieved what he set out to do. He once again shot down accusations that he's an acting lightweight and won more admirers for his glad-handing style among fans and critics.

I never expect to have good reviews, he tells me.

That's just the way it is. I have not built up my expectations and will not suffer disappointments. I never start a movie to do bad work.

Sometimes, things don't quite work out as you'd have hoped. There are so many factors which come together in making a movie - script, director, location, the quality of the crew, the mood of the actors, that it's a wonder how many good movies are actually made.

His latest film, Burn After Reading, is another bizarre mixture of comedy, satire and drama from the Coen brothers. But Pitt's numbskull gym instructor is a joy to behold. Despite being 44, he manages to look about 28, with spiky haircut, harebrained energy and Spandex shorts.

He also doesn't mind sending himself up. He's a gum-chewing, iPod-addicted bubble-brain, he observes. I said to the directors: But he's such an idiot. They just smiled and nodded. So I had to get on with it. I have been a big admirer of the Coens since watching films like The Big Lebowski and Fargo. George (Clooney] had worked with them before on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and said it was an exceptional experience.

It was. They will watch you film a scene, never say a word and then move on to the next, very quickly. You think to yourself: Am I doing a good performance or not? Only people like them would have persuaded me to have a blond streak in my hair and wear Spandex shorts. But it was a new film experience and that's what I always say that I am after. It was also a lot of fun to work with George again. I like to have a good, light atmosphere around a film set to work on. With George, he manages to keep a string of jokes coming. He always cracks us up and, sometimes, it is hard to do a scene with a straight face. I don't think anyone enjoys their work as much as he does.

Pitt is always happier discussing films these days and even lighting cameramen than his private life. He also does not duck responsibilities. He has given a slice of his income to helping flood victims in New Orleans with the Make It Right project, another $100,000 has gone to help the cause of gay marriages in California and considerable help to several charities in Africa. But, like it or not, it is the public's fascination with his life away from the screen which has made him an international name and face.

As one who first met him long before he was famous, with regular interviews over the years, I know he puts on the bravest, most uncomplaining face. He will deliver convincing arguments, with passion, about why he should be with someone. He wears his heart not so much on his sleeve, but plastered across his forehead.

He has sworn his love to me for Gwyneth Paltrow and former wife Jennifer Aniston. Then he dumped both, suddenly and unexpectedly. There was a long relationship with Juliette Lewis, his co-star in his 1993 film Kalifornia. She fell from grace and into depression when he walked away.

Back in Budapest in 1989, when he was visiting his fiance, the more successful actress Jill Schoelen and who can remember her now? on the set of Phantom Of The Opera, a horror movie with Robert Englund. Even then, he was a full-blown romantic.

He had taken $600 from his $800 savings to buy an air ticket to travel more than 6,000 miles from Los Angeles just to visit Schoelen. We talked as he looked around the film set. I would love to get in to movies, he said, hopefully. But I am here today to see my girl.

He was in for a shock that night, as he told me later. We were sitting in this wonderful restaurant, which she had been telling me all about on the phone, he recalled. Then she tells me that she thinks she is in love with the director. (Dwight L Little, for the record]. She then starts crying. I said: You are crazy. I am out of here. No more of this. I want no part of it. I am gone.

He had a vague plan to go and see friends in Yugoslavia, then, like Hungary, still clinging on to the Communist empire. He took a cab to Budapest's railway station, to find it closed. "I spent the night on a bench, with a bum who could not speak English, he said.

The next day, I took a train to Yugoslavia. And what happens? I get arrested at the border for not having the right visa or papers. They took me off the train and kept me in a room for several hours. I was having visions of the film Midnight Express, when the guy is locked away for years.

He was finally handed a visa to visit Yugoslavia, but still had to return to Budapest to take a return plane home, virtually broke. As he sat waiting for that plane, he told me he had never felt more depressed.

But by the time we did meet up again, he had made considerable headway. Suddenly, he was getting regular film work and his bank account was looking healthy.

He reflected then exactly what he had done to keep himself going when he arrived from small-town Springfield, Missouri, in Hollywood, aged 22. I did everything from delivering refrigerators, dressed up as chicken for a restaurant opening and drove strippers, he said. It was a rude awakening for me. With the strippers, I would do the driving, play the music, try and make the deal and then get the strippers out, safely, with their clothes. We went to people's homes bachelor parties and things like that. Some were a couple of hours drive from Los Angeles.

I sometimes did three shows a night. The girls were all actresses supposedly. They were not the kind of girl you would take home to mom. A couple of them I liked very much. They were small-town girls in a big city and they were doing this to earn money, just as I was.

But even what seemed like good money at the time I got $25 per girl, with $325 for one particularly party was not enough. The whole thing got to me after a while, he said. All the girls were actresses in their own minds. Not one of them was a stripper, according to them. I felt bad for them.

His lifestyle was hardly luxurious, with or without the money for driving strippers. I was sleeping on a floor, he said, flatly. I had a friend back in Missouri who said that his father had a place in Burbank and I could stay there. I stayed with this woman, who could not speak English.

There were eight guys in one room, with no furniture. I had my own corner, with my pile of clothes stacked up, and my own sheet on the floor. I had a sheet and a blanket and that is how I lived and slept for 18 months. I did not mind going through it all at the time. That was part of the gig. That was what I signed up for when I arrived, in the hope of becoming an actor.

Such tales are unlikely to be repeated today, of course. The memories fade. They were already in the distant past by the time we met early in 1997 in freezing cold British Columbia, Canada, on the set of Seven Years In Tibet. At that time, he was freshly engaged to Gwyneth Paltrow. Over dinner he talked of his expectations.

I have bought her the biggest engagement ring in the world, he said. I designed it over a period of time. I spent almost a year on it, looking at rings. I went to a lot of shops, wanting specific things. We are going to set aside a big chunk of time for the wedding and spend time to experience life together.

I believe in marriage and want to kiss the bride, wear the ring, wear my suit. And wake up the next morning and go: Good morning, my wife. Can I get you tea or coffee? Exactly four months after this conversation, Pitt called off the engagement.

Since that moment, he has been far more circumspect in his praise for the women who have shared his life. Even Jennifer Aniston, when they married on July 29, 2000, did not win such fulsome public praise as Paltrow. He was emphatic about wanting children the marriage did not produce any and divorced her in October 2005, after he had met Jolie on the film Mr & Mrs Smith.

But, unless I have been fooled to the point of blindness over the years, Pitt remains both loyal to the woman in his life and curiously old-fashioned at least, for Hollywood about affairs.

It bothers me that people cheat on their partners when they are making a film, he told me. I do not know where people are coming from when they do that.

I know it happens all the time on film sets, but I operate in the belief that it catches up with you. These people have to live and make their own choices.

As someone who has also allowed his family to be photographed by glossy weekly magazines, he has put his life with Jolie into the public arena. And how long this most ambitious of actors can carry on being a full-time escort and father figure to the gloriously nutty Jolie is open to question.

He is already father to six of her children three born naturally, the other three adopted. He swears that he loves it, with that easy smile of his. It is the most fun I have ever had and also the least sleep I have ever had, he says. In fact, sleep is nonexistent.

To see him surrounded by a family in magazine spreads seem in sharp contrast to his obsession with progress in his career. Children make me much more efficient," he insists. That is my main focus. I can still find time to do other things, by being more focused on what is important.

It is true that Pitt has always wanted children he was saying so, 15 years ago. He has more than got his wish: adopted son Maddox, aged six, is from Cambodia; Pax Thien, four, from Vietnam; Zahara Marley, three, from Ethiopia; and he and Jolie are biological parents to Shiloh Nouvel, born in Namibia on May 27 2006. Their twins, a boy Knox Leon and a girl Vivienne Marcheline, were born on July 12 this year.

So what of the record of his partner, Angelina? She loved second husband Billy Bob Thornton so much, she carried a tube of his blood around her neck and bought His and Her burial spots in a churchyard in Arkansas, so they would never be apart, even in death.

What she has with Pitt seems, on the face of it, much closer: children and charity work and a shared desire to change the world for the better.

In the meantime, Brangelina have become Hollywood's most successful brand. Even the disappointment of Pitt producing last year's mighty flop, A Mighty Heart, in which Jolie starred, has not halted an unstoppable surge. Angelina will next be seen in Clint Eastwood's latest, Changeling, released on November 28.

The children are still young enough to travel with the two stars, on location from their current base, a rented property in the south of France. They will soon need schooling. Jolie has made it clear that children give her a far greater thrill and purpose in life than films.

Pitt, on the other hand, is a movie junkie. He loves being on a film set, creating. He is soon going to have to make a painful choice between career and full-time fatherhood with the demanding Angelina.

He balances his private life, though, with a career which looks in good shape. Pitt delivers some scene-stealing moments in Burn After Reading, again alongside Clooney, who plays a federal marshal enjoying an affair with Tilda Swinton, who is married to a top CIA man, played by John Malkovich.

The film is set between the CIA's headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and the fitness centre where Pitt's character works. The only constant thread is the wish by a fellow fitness centre employee (Frances McDormand) to be able to afford cosmetic surgery.

Pitt also has some strong forthcoming features, including The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, based on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald in which an old man ages backwards. By the time he has regressed to the age of 50, he begins an affair with a character played by Cate Blanchett, who is 30. They have to come to terms with their relationship as they age in the opposite directions.

The film is lined up for a big Christmas Day release in America there is no release date yet in the UK which usually guarantees not only a healthy box office but a possible Oscar nomination. He has also finished The Tree Of Life, co-starring Sean Penn, and directed by Terrence Malick.

Pitt has added to his movie fortune by appearing as Rusty Ryan, alongside old acting friend Clooney (playing Danny Ocean) in Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, which represent his biggest box office successes. I am not saying anything against those films, he says. They entertain and were great to work on.

But Pitt has, quietly, given back a lot of what he has earned. Apart from his charity work, on virtually every film set, whether Meet Joe Black (1998), Snatch (2000), Ocean's Eleven (2001) or Troy (2004), he has made secretive and generous gifts to the film crew and others.

I cannot give specific details, since I promised secrecy at the time, but they have ranged from a new Ford Mustang convertible to Rolex watches. I remember him handing $5,000 to a crew member in Argentina, to pay for an operation for his daughter.

Pitt makes no apology about how his views have been shaped by his upbringing in Missouri. One of the things we had when growing up is that you do not talk about yourself, he says. It is all about actions and actions speak for you. I believe in that. I have never been impressed by words or promises, to be honest. What you actually do says more about a person.

But when hard decisions have to be made, particularly those of the heart, then Pitt can make them with deadly effect. He may not know the answer yet, but surely the ultimate one on the horizon is Angelina Jolie and the kids or William Bradley Pitt's film career?