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A new kid on Broadway

Updated: 2013-03-03 08:04
By Patrick Healy (China Daily)


A new kid on Broadway

Tom Hanks, who trained as a stage actor before moving to television and film, is making his Broadway debut. Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times 


When Tom Hanks's old friend Nora Ephron sent him the screenplay for a biopic, "Lucky Guy,"several years ago, he took an instant dislike to his character, Mike McAlary, the muckraking columnist of New York City tabloids in the 1980s and '90s.

"I told Nora that McAlary sounded like a real"jerk, Mr. Hanks said, using a more piquant word.

Mr. Hanks reconsidered only years later, after running into Ephron while promoting his 2011 movie "Larry Crowne."They got around to talking about "Lucky Guy"- she had turned it into a play - and Mr. Hanks asked to see the latest version. This time he felt drawn not only to McAlary's swagger, but also his drive to be worthy of his own celebrity.

"Look, the title is 'Lucky Guy.' It's about somebody who is almost good enough to deserve what he achieves. And I understand that,"Mr. Hanks said during an interview on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater, where the play, his Broadway debut, was set to begin its 15-week run on March 1.

"I still feel sometimes that I'd like to be as good as so-and-so actor,"he continued. "I see some other actors' work, and I think I'll never get there. I wish I could."

Will audiences buy him as unlikable? Mr. Hanks, 56, has defined decency for three decades in Hollywood, playing white knights in "Splash," "Forrest Gump," "Apollo 13"and the "Toy Story"series. He appeared delighted that McAlary is pretty far from a predictable Tom Hanks part. His director and fellow actors say he has thrown himself into a role that calls for no vanity.

It has been a twisting path to Broadway for Mr. Hanks and "Lucky Guy,"and a heartbreaking one. The sharp-elbowed McAlary, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his columns about the brutalization of a Haitian man, Abner Louima, by police officers, died later that year from colon cancer, at the age of 41. Soon after, Ephron, a former reporter for The New York Post who cherished the tabloids of yesteryear, began to research McAlary's life and spent years rewriting the script.

Once Mr. Hanks signed on, Ephron began meeting weekly with the play's director, the Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe ("Angels in America"), to sharpen the central device - other journalists sharing and arguing over anecdotes about McAlary - so that the lead character came into sharper focus. All the while, Ephron was quietly battling leukemia; to the shock of her "Lucky Guy"collaborators and many friends, she died last June, at 71.

"After she died, we were even more determined to do the play,"Mr. Wolfe said.

Writers are a pretty hands-on lot, especially with new works going to Broadway. Without Ephron, Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Hanks have become keepers of the "Lucky Guy"flame. Aside from Ephron's script, there are pages of discarded dialogue that Mr. Wolfe has cherry-picked for an extra dash of nuance or sprinkle of clarity. "My motto is, 'When in doubt, reference Nora,' "Mr. Wolfe said, and he has done so with the blessing of her widower, the writer Nicholas Pileggi.

Mr. Hanks first fell for theater at Skyline High School in Oakland, California. After three years as an actor cum stagehand in Cleveland, Ohio, where he had bit parts in Shakespeare plays, he decided to try his hand in New York.

"I lived around the corner from Broadway, but I couldn't even get arrested,"he recalled.

He had far better luck with television, landing a lead role in the comedy series "Bosom Buddies."His co-star on "Bosom Buddies,"Peter Scolari, is also among the cast of "Lucky Guy,"playing a friend and rival of McAlary.

Mr. Scolari, who was last on Broadway in 2012 in "Magic/Bird,"said that Mr. Hanks had changed little in the 31 years since "Bosom Buddies"ended, after two seasons.

"The work ethic and the looseness are still the same, still as strong,"Mr. Scolari said, "and the lack of ego on set. George has been really challenging Tom, and Tom says, 'Well, I guess I was dead wrong on that choice,' just like the rest of us."

Perhaps the toughest task facing Mr. Hanks are the scenes between McAlary and his wife, Alice, with whom he moves to Bellport, Long Island, and then abandons many a night to chase a tip or blaze through barroom rounds with his buddies.

"Will audiences buy Tom Hanks treating his wife very shabbily?"said Maura Tierney, who plays Alice and is best known from the television series "ER.""It's hugely important to the play that you buy Tom as a not-likable guy, and I think he's pulling it off. Tom has really put vanity aside here."

Buzz that "Lucky Guy"had only a $5 million advance in paid ticket sales - good but not great, considering the stature of Mr. Hanks - prompted the play's lead producer, Colin Callender, to say in a mid-February interview that the advance was $7 million.

"We're just resorting to imagining the headlines for bad reviews - 'Lucky Guy, Unlucky Audience!' 'Yucky Guy!' "Mr. Hanks said.

Then he added, on a more serious note: "I am afraid of blowing it myself. I'm afraid of having something being my responsibility, yet not having the wherewithal or lack of self-consciousness or stamina to pull it off. Look, I have just as impressive a track record of movies and projects that didn't work out.

"But when I walk home at night, that's when I hear Nora's voice the clearest,"he added, "and that's when I feel the most excitement about taking on this play."

The New York Times


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