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Fly Him to the Moon

Two Oscars and a sure touch at the box office have allowed Tom Hanks to pursue his lifelong fascination with space.

April 05, 1998|Paul Brownfield | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — Tom Hanks comes bounding into a posh suite at the Lowell Hotel, instantly jokey and down-to-earth. It doesn't matter that he's nursing a cold or that he's facing an all-night shoot on the set of his latest movie, the romantic comedy "You've Got Mail." In fact, the only time he betrays anything resembling ego during a two-hour interview is when he's asked why he turned down the role of the Clinton-esque presidential candidate Jack Stanton in "Primary Colors," a part that eventually went to John Travolta.

"I just talked to Entertainment Weekly about this yesterday," he sighs, then proceeds to anticipate the obligatory follow-up questions, sinking a little deeper into his chair. "Was it because I didn't want to play someone unlikable? Because I'm friends with President Clinton? [Hanks and his actress wife, Rita Wilson, have stayed at the White House.]

"Ultimately, I said I can't do it because I'm involved in something that's costing $60 million and I don't want to be an absentee name on the opening titles."

That $60-million something is "From the Earth to the Moon," and it's more like a $68-million something--a 12-hour HBO miniseries on the Apollo space program that premieres tonight at 8 with the first two installments and continues on consecutive Sundays through May 10, with episodes repeated during the week.

This is not a project to which Hanks simply lent his name. In addition to conceiving the idea and bringing it to HBO, Hanks executive produced the series, directed one episode and co-wrote nearly half of the others, making this the most ambitious endeavor of his career.

But if the three-year-long project is testimony to Hanks' lifelong fascination with the space program, it's also an indication that the 41-year-old actor, having conquered the Hollywood box office, is going behind the camera to find new challenges for his career.

As an actor, Hanks now commands as much as $20 million a movie, and his films have grossed a reported $1.3 billion in total domestic box-office receipts over the last 10 years. His next two starring roles don't figure to tarnish that mainstream marketability--Steven Spielberg's World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan" and "You've Got Mail," which re-teams Hanks with "Sleepless in Seattle" co-star Meg Ryan and writer-director Nora Ephron.

Yet since winning back-to-back best actor Oscars in 1993 and 1994 (for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump"), Hanks has spent as much time behind the camera as in front of it. In 1996, he wrote and directed "That Thing You Do," about a 1960s-era rock 'n' roll band with a hit song. Two days after premiering the film, he went to work on "From the Earth to the Moon."

So does Hanks see himself as the latest version of a Robert Redford or Kevin Costner, an A-list actor who wants to be taken seriously as a director? Hanks takes a beat before answering. Yes, he says finally, though in his hesitation you sense he hasn't quite decided himself.

"I can't really call myself a writer and director yet," he says. "I mean, my 'directing' career is at best checkered. . . . But I do want to pursue it further for two reasons. Number one, it's different from being an actor. The mind-set for being an actor ultimately is a very specific one. You've got the job, you're always thinking about it, and yet you're not responsible to anybody but yourself when the time comes.

"The job as the screenwriter or the director is that you're sitting there with a blank piece of paper and saying, 'OK, what's a cool idea here?' What that does to me as an actor is it frees me up from just depending on the marketplace for my inspiration."

It's no coincidence that Hanks' two films deal with the iconography of his youth. As an adolescent in the San Francisco Bay area, Hanks says, he was mesmerized by two subjects: the Beatles, and the Gemini and Apollo space programs.

"In my consciousness, there's nothing that was a bigger deal than the advent of the Beatles and landing on the moon. I've been able to address those as a filmmaker now. The real test for me is, what happens when I'm done examining those things? What is my output going to be? Because I'm not a natural filmmaker. I'm still stumbling around with the stuff that's locked up inside my own head."

In 1995, armed with his name and some index cards mapping out "From the Earth to the Moon," Hanks met with Chris Albrecht, HBO's president of original programming. It wasn't a long meeting, but by the end of it Hanks had a green light on a program whose budget would equal what HBO spent on all of its original programming combined in 1990.

"The amazing thing about first meeting with Tom was he knew exactly what he wanted to do," Albrecht says. "In that first meeting he had a handful of index cards that contained an outline of every episode as he saw it. And we got lucky in that Tom wanted to take a break from being a movie star."

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