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'Pirates' of the Modern Age

June 20, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TNT's latest movie is filled with skullduggery, feats of derring-do, acts of greed and deception, and colorful, brilliant nemeses trying to outwit each other.

"The Pirates of Silicon Valley," which premieres Sunday on the cable network, chronicles the true story of the technological race between Apple Computer and Microsoft in the 1970s and '80s.

Written and directed by Martyn Burke ("The Pentagon Wars"), the highly stylized, fast-paced comedy-drama stars "ER's" Noah Wyle as the driven, passionate co-founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs. Former Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall plays Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, and Joey Slotnick ("The Single Guy") is the film's narrator, Apple founder Steve Wozniak, who walked away from Apple to teach children about computers.

"It would be hard to take a straight linear approach to these two guys," says Burke of Jobs and Gates. "I guess you could, but part of the fun of doing this thing was that on the surface these guys were completely wacky. It was natural for the goofiness [to be in the film], yet underneath it was one of the most serious topics I've ever dealt with."

When TNT came to Burke about the project, he told them he didn't want to do a dry treatise on the history of computers. What piqued his interest was the personal drama he found in a place "where you would not normally expect it to exist."

Burke sees Jobs and Gates as true revolutionaries of their era. "They overthrew the way the American establishment was working," he says. "That is what fascinated me about them. It is basically a Shakespearean tale with greed, envy and lust."

Wyle, says Burke, was the perfect choice for Jobs, who was removed from Apple in 1985 in a power struggle, only to return two years ago as its interim CEO. "If you look at the image of Noah Wyle today and the image of Steve Jobs in his early 20s, it is almost like they are twin brothers."

For Wyle, "Pirates" was a perfect opportunity to stretch his acting muscles playing someone totally different than Dr. Carter on TV's top-rated series. Jobs is a complex visionary who drove his workers to his exhaustion during his first tenure at Apple.

Despite the fact that Jobs doesn't come across as the nicest of people, Wyle says he did grow to like him. "I always feel like he believed he was right," Wyle says.

"I think that's true of most people when they tackle a part of someone who comes off nasty. You have to believe they are right [to be that way]. If they had any self-doubt at all, they probably wouldn't be acting that way."

Jobs exercised such an obsessive control of Apple, Wyle believes, because he had such a clear-cut vision of the direction he wanted computer technology to go. "Anything that deviated from that path, he saw it as the signs of a crumbling castle. He was the only guy who could captain that ship. He ruled it with an iron fist sometimes, and other times with a velvet glove. But he always stayed true to his own internal voice that told him what to do."

He sees Jobs' relationship with Gates as a great chess match. "What you end up seeing is that Bill Gates is a very linear thinker who doesen't act off emotions," says the actor. "Jobs is a guy who is ruled by his emotions and passion and that's what makes him successful and destructive. There is a core of a very sensitive human being in this tyrannical taskmaster."

It was actually Steve Wozniak, who was the creative genius behind the Apple computer. But it was Jobs who knew how to package the idea. "He really made the axiom the truth," says Wyle. "It is not the man with the idea that profits, it's the man who makes the idea profitable."

Slotnick believes the partnership between Jobs and "Woz" was akin to John Lennon and Paul McCartney's. "They would have done really well separately," says Slotnick. "But they needed each other to pump each other up. Woz was going to be pretty happy working at Hewlett-Packard the rest of his life. It was Jobs who had the vision and saw that [computers] were something people will need."

Burke believes audiences will be surprised by Hall's uncanny performance as Gates. At the age of 20 in 1975, Gates and his friend Paul Allen adapated BASIC, the first computer language program for use with personal computers.

"People remember him as this little goofy kid," says Burke of Hall. "Michael came in and probably wanted this part more than any human being could want anything. He blew us away in the audition."

"The day I got the job was probably the best day of my career," says Hall, who appeared in the '90s in such films as "Edward Scissorhands" and "Six Degrees of Separation."

For six weeks before filming began, Hall worked with an acting coach to get his body language and voicing right. "I made it my goal to turn in a method performance to the extent that you really become the guy as much as possible."

Like Wyle with Jobs, Hall grew to like Gates. "He is someone who is truly brilliant," says the actor. "He is a devoted businessman. One of his biographers actually said Bill Gates will go down as the best businessman of the century."

"The Pirates of Silicon Valley" premieres Sunday night at 8, 10 and midnight on TNT. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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