In this week's fact-based CBS four-hour film "When Love Kills: The Seduction of John Hearn," Gary Cole stars as a highly decorated Vietnam vet who, in 1985, fell for the wrong woman and became a killer for hire.
Cole's initial reaction to the script was one of disdain. "This is just ugly," he recalls saying.
So why did Cole agree to play Hearn?
"You make choices based on the material and the next thing--who is going to be involved," he says matter-of-factly.
"The script was well-written," says Cole, who is dressed in faded blue jeans and sleeveless T-shirt at his publicist's Beverly Hills office.
But a real selling point was a discussion with director Larry Elikann ("Bonds of Love," "Story Lady").
"He was able to more clearly show me what he wanted to do with this character," Cole says animatedly, running his hands through his hair. "What it really was about was a guy who was manipulated and seduced down the line, doing things you wouldn't think him capable of doing. That's what interested me about it."
In a perfect world, Cole says, "it would be great if there were more original material on television. Stuff that wasn't rooted always in somebody dying."
Though he's starred in such acclaimed TV miniseries and movies as "Fatal Vision" (Cole played Jeffrey MacDonald, the ex-Green Beret convicted of murdering his family), "Echoes in the Darkness" and "The Switch," Cole admits he isn't in the position yet to pick and choose.
"There are just a handful of people out there who can choose," Cole explains. "It's the food chain. I have some choices, but by the same token there are things I would like to do--that door is still shut or I'm still knocking on it. But material like this, if there is something interesting to do and if there are some good people involved, then it is something worth doing. What is valid about it, and is it sensational? Yeah, probably it is. But, hopefully, it will be a piece worth seeing."
Adapted from the 1992 book "The Soldier of Fortune Murders" by Ben Green, "When Love Kills" chronicles the seamy, violent saga of Hearn, a divorced Vietnam vet with a 6-year-old son, who started a bodyguard service in order to obtain financial security.
"I think he had visions of being more of a political or military mercenary," Cole notes, "running guns or doing missions, more espionage-oriented."
Calling his organization the World Security Group, Hearn advertised his services in the militaristic-oriented Soldier of Fortune magazine. Much to his surprise, Hearn ended up receiving more than 50 calls a day from people who wanted him to commit murder. He didn't respond to any of those requests until he received a call from a bank executive named Debbie Banister (Marg Helgenberger). She wanted him to murder her ex-brother-in-law because, she said, he was abusing her two nephews. Unknown to Hearn, Banister and her sister actually wanted him killed for his insurance money.
"He liked the sound of her voice and that's what he responded to," Cole says.
And Banister was a femme fatale who could have stepped out of the pages of a James M. Cain novel: an attractive, charming and extremely greedy woman who wrapped Hearn around her little finger. After they became lovers, the couple started a hit-man service. Hearn ended up murdering three people: Banister's ex-brother-in-law, her husband and a woman. Hearn is currently serving three consecutive life sentences in a South Carolina prison.
"A lot of this guy is defined by Debbie Banister," Cole says. "The reason why he does things is because of her. I believe if he had not went with this woman, maybe he would still have these pipe dreams about being the next James Bond, but he would still be driving a truck in Atlanta today. He wouldn't have killed anyone and he wouldn't be dangerous. I don't think he is dangerous now. I think he was dangerous because he ran into her at the wrong place at the wrong time. She said the wrong thing, but she had the right thing for him."
Cole "feels" for Hearn--to a point. "I think how he was manipulated," he explains. "I hate to use the word victim because I have a problem saying the word victim with someone who committed acts like that. He is responsible for what he did. He pulled the trigger. He killed three people."
Hearn, Cole says, has admitted in interviews he wouldn't have been able to pull the trigger had it not been for his military experience. "He knew what it felt like to take somebody's life," Cole says, grabbing a cigarette. "It's evident, especially in the last murder. He shot this woman point-blank and she still didn't die. A lot of people, if they got themselves to the point where they could do it, they would see her go down and run like hell out of the house."
Hearn didn't. "He stayed to make sure she was dead," Cole says intensely. "She didn't die. He shot her point-blank again on the ground. This is someone who has lived with death and tasted it."
"When Love Kills: The Seduction of John Hearn" airs Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.