The Brosnan Conundrum : TV’s suave ‘Remington Steele’ still trying to solve the puzzle of making it big on the big screen
A waitress dallied, taking a damp cloth to a clean tabletop. Nearby, four women in business suits were paying more attention to a diner than to their menus.
Rearranging containers of sugar and Sweet ‘N Low, the waitress wondered, “Do we need any more ice in our iced tea? And, how are we doing with that cappucino?”
Waitresses are not always so attentive. And lunching professional women not so easily distracted. But, in this case, the object of their attention was Pierce Brosnan.
Ever the polite Irishman, Brosnan smiled but didn’t encourage chitchat with the waitress. Then he directed his gaze toward the ducks swimming in the “pond” in the atrium of the Embassy Suites Hotel--his way of not interrupting the dialogue at hand, and getting on with an interview.
Brosnan, 36, is famous as one of TV’s prettiest leading men because of “Remington Steele"--the NBC series in which he played a suave detective with a mysterious past. But that glamour image that’s made him so much in demand may be taking a toll on his long-range goals.
Consider: He’s here starring in the dramatic caper, “Heist,” a TV movie for HBO, and he’s sitting for an interview to publicize “Around the World in 80 Days"--the globe-trotting NBC miniseries in which he stars.
But it doesn’t take much pressing to get Brosnan to admit that he’d much rather be making feature films.
But how to shake that suave “Remington Steele” image?
“It’s been a good fight,” admitted Brosnan. “It needles a bit that some people really think I’m just like the character I played. It’s really interesting how this dapper image, this model image, has come about. I’ve been party to it--and got into it. Jeez, I like wearing clothes. But you know, it’s pretty vacuous that kind of thing. After all, I trained and studied as an actor.”
Brosnan mused: “Maybe I’m going through my ingenue period and I need to live in my face a bit more.”
He grew somber as he added, “But you know, with what’s happened in my personal life, I’ve got less of, well, I still have hunger and ambition and desire, but things have also certainly been put into perspective.”
What put things in perspective for Brosnan was his actress-wife’s battle with ovarian cancer.
Cassandra (Cassie) Harris’ cancer was diagnosed in late 1987. She has since gone through three surgeries and continuing chemotherapy.
“She has been nothing short of remarkable,” said Brosnan.
Taller and more rugged-looking than he appears on TV, the 6-foot-1 Brosnan was wearing loose-fitting black short-sleeve shirt, baggy pants and loafers without socks.
The casual look was for an upcoming scene in “Heist,” with Brosnan as an ex-con out for revenge against his former business partner (Tom Skerritt), who helped send him to prison and is now romantically involved with his wife (Wendy Hughes).
“This movie works on a number of levels,” explained Brosnan. “It’s about how people con each other within relationships, as well as at the race track.
“I like the character I play. He’s tough--a man who can handle himself.”
And what of persnickety Phileas Fogg, the 19th-Century aristocrat who wagers that he can travel around the world in 80 days?
“He’s a character with a good arc to him. In the beginning, he’s a man who’s very starchy and polished and reserved and private. For him, the unforeseen does not exist--he lives his life by the book. Then he takes this wager. And as he travels around the world, he falls in love.
“And there’s this slow kind of crumbling of the man’s interior. You see him reborn, as it were.”
Based on the classic Jules Verne adventure story, “Around the World in 80 Days,” begins airing tonight at 9 and continues Monday and Tuesday.
The late David Niven played the role in the 1956 film. The Oscar-winning movie featured more than 40 name stars in bit parts, which for the first time were dubbed cameos.
Does Brosnan worry about comparisons?
“I don’t think we’re treading on hallowed ground. David Niven was a well-loved performer. And mention of the movie always brings a smile to people’s lips. But I think what people remember most about the original ‘Around the World’ is the balloon (that Fogg sails away in), and that there’s a whole host of stars.”
When he was first offered the role, Brosnan--who starred in the 1988 NBC miniseries “Noble House"--nixed it.
“He was leery about doing TV,” recalled Susan Baerwald, who oversaw the project as NBC vice president of miniseries and novels for TV. (Baerwald, whose husband, Paul Baerwald, produced “Around the World in 80 Days,” has sinced formed her own production company.)
She added, “I told him, ‘Read this (script) and understand that this is something you can watch with your children.”
In the end, Brosnan admitted, it was the script by John Gay (whose credits include “Fatal Vision”) that persuaded him.
“I read it, and I agreed with the producers. It was a script I couldn’t refuse.”
Before shooting “Around the World in 80 Days,” Brosnan took six months off work in order to be with his ailing wife and take care of the household. (Together for nearly 16 years, the Brosnans have three children.)
“She has got great inner strength and resilience,” he said proudly, adding: “What’s happened is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s a dreadful thing, it’s a frightening thing. But somehow we have come through. I think it’s been an enormous help that we have a good love and knowledge of each other, and of life. You just get through it.”
(Harris--who co-starred in the Bond film “For Your Eyes Only"--details her bout with cancer in the next issue of the National Enquirer. “Her good friend, Jill Ireland--who also told her story to the Enquirer, and was very pleased with the reaction she received--encouraged her to do it,” said Brosnan’s publicist.)
A one-time commercial artist, Brosnan starred in British and TV stage productions before coming to America on the small screen in “The Manions of America.” The 1981 miniseries was a bodice-ripping romantic saga that cimaxed with the death of the roguish Brosnan.
“Remington Steele” quickly followed. “It was a great launch for a foreigner new to America,” said Brosnan, recalling: “At the time, I didn’t know what the word episodic meant.”
When “Remington” went off the air--after more than four seasons--Brosnan wanted to put light comedy behind him.
“I wanted to go off and act . You know, show that I could do many different things. I did a few movies. ‘The Fourth Protocol’ was good. The others didn’t hit the mark.”
The offbeat thriller, “Nomads” (1986), intrigued some critics but didn’t play long enough to intrigue viewers. (But as the first film directed by John McTiernan, late of the blockbuster “Die Hard,” it may ultimately garner a cult following.) In it, Brosnan is a bearded French anthropologist who discovers that bands of nomadic spirits are haunting modern-day Los Angeles.
He’s a young British officer who infiltrates the notorious Thuggee cult of 19th- Century India in “The Deceivers” (1988). Based on the classic novel by John Masters, the film was produced by Merchant Ivory Films. But it never got beyond the art houses.
In “The Fourth Protocol,” scripted by Frederick Forsyth from his best-selling novel, Brosnan purposely played against type. “I was a smoldering Russian sexual pervert who liked pillows and guns and killing women.” (In an earlier incarnation, Brosnan also went weird--playing a gay IRA hit man in a brief scene in “The Long Good Friday” (1980).
He was a debt collector with violent modes of making people pay up in “Taffin.” Filmed in Ireland on a shoestring budget in seven weeks, the drama went to video after a brief regional release.
“That one came together very quickly. I squeezed it in between ‘Noble House’ and ‘The Deceivers.’ ” Brosnan appeared to be mulling over his career to himself: “I can’t keep on doing that sort of thing. I can’t .
“The next picture I do has got to have some thought behind it. Otherwise, I’ll just never get off the ground.”
Of course, he nearly got “off the ground” in a major way when he was chosen to replace Roger Moore as superspy James Bond. In the well-documented flurry that followed, Brosnan lost his shot when the producers of “Remington” decided to resurrect the canceled series and squeeze six more episodes out of it. (Brosnan was contractually bound to comply.) And so, it was Timothy Dalton as Bond in “The Living Daylights.”
Brosnan initially chose to avoid seeing the film, “for obvious reasons.” But the movie caught up with him when he was on a flight from London. “I was sitting with my little 4-year-old, who said, ‘Daddy, when do you come on? When do I see you?’ You see, he had lived through the whole James Bond episode. I said, ‘Darling, I’m not in it. I didn’t do the movie.’ It turned out that his earphones were broken, so we shared mine.” He smiled, adding: “We watched the movie with our heads together.”
If the Bond brouhaha is by now a tiresome subject for Brosnan, he believes that in a way it has worked to his advantage.
“I don’t think I’m considered strictly TV because of the heat generated by Bond. So in that sense, I had my cake and ate it.”
“It’s really strange. I’ve been given this script recently in which I’d play this maniacal high-powered conglomerate guy--who cackles.
“He’s like Ian Dunross (the business baron of ‘Noble House’), only twisted.”
Brosnan admitted he’s intrigued at the thought of playing this character. But . . . it’s a supporting role.
“There’s a part of me that says, ‘Let’s go for the top--let’s go for the visibility.’ ” he confessed. “Another part--the part that says I trained as an actor in the theater--says go for the role, and for working with good people and surrounding yourself with good projects.
“The thing is, I truly don’t know. I dally between sort of going for the commercial and going for the sincere, truthful work. It’s so confusing I give up thinking about it after a while.”
Because he’s got a development deal at Columbia Pictures, Brosnan is also attempting to find his own roles.
It was Dawn Steel, president of Columbia, who signed Brosnan to the deal. It happened after Steel chanced upon the TV airing of “Noble House.”
“It gives me an office--a place to hang my hat,” Brosnan explained. Currently in development there: A reworking of the Cary Grant comedy, “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer.”
According to producer Jerome Hellman (“The Mosquito Coast,” “Coming Home,” “Midnight Cowboy”), who acquired the remake rights, the romantic comedy will be retitled--"because neither ‘bachelor’ or ‘bobby soxer’ would make much sense today.” And there will be “a new interpretation.” After all, surmised Hellman, “times--and young people--have changed a lot since the original came out in 1947.”
Ironically, the project would return Brosnan to the light comedy he eschewed following “Remington Steele.” Equally ironic: Brosnan’s long been dubbed by the celebrity press as the ‘80s’ Cary Grant.
Insisting that he’s never thought of himself as Cary Grant-like (“there was only one Cary Grant”), Brosnan seemed relieved to report, “this wasn’t one of the Cary Grant’s best known films.”