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Fly Him to the Moon

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

“I think I went into a kind of nervous, waxing-eloquent kind of thing,” Hanks recalls of that first meeting with Albrecht. “He was dressed in a tuxedo to go off to some benefit. He just said it sounded great. He said it sounded expensive, and there was some stuff we’d have to work out, but he was right there on it.”

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Because the series departs from the conventions of the archetypal miniseries-as-soap-opera and features no big stars, Hanks took the project to a network that wouldn’t have to cut away for commercials and worry as much about overnight ratings. For its part, HBO is hoping to woo new subscribers by offering tonight’s first two episodes free to basic cable viewers, presenting one of its periodic preview weekends. A project like “From the Earth to the Moon,” says Albrecht, is not about immediate financial return but about enhancing the stature of the HBO brand name, thanks to the deep pockets of Time Warner, the channel’s parent company. To that end, the show has been heavily advertised, with TV spots running during both the Academy Awards and the NCAA championship basketball game.

“From the Earth to the Moon” examines the Apollo space missions from all angles--the technical challenges, the political machinations in Washington, the toll the missions took on the lives of the astronauts’ wives. Done in hourlong installments, the series examines the tragedies (the pre-launch fire that claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee) and the triumphs (the launch of Apollo 7, whose crew was the first American trio in space) of the Apollo program, which encompassed 17 missions in all--the first in 1967, the last in 1972.

Stylistically, the series is a canny blend of documentary footage, special effects and scenes where nerdy guys in thin ties stare transfixed at computer terminals. Ultimately, “From the Earth to the Moon,” with 500 actors and 10 different directors, is not so much a miniseries as a collection of filmed short stories, built around the belief that nearly every aspect of the Apollo missions contained its own inherent drama.

That is exactly what Hanks says he realized during his research for the role of astronaut Jim Lovell in the 1995 film “Apollo 13,” produced by Imagine Entertainment’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who served as co-producers of “From the Earth to the Moon.”

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Among the books Hanks read at the time was Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,” and in that 584-page tome (which he read twice) he saw the blueprint for something bigger than “Apollo 13,” something that would, in his words, “show people what an amazing and cool thing it is to go up in space.

“Because in all honesty, that’s been lost,” Hanks continues. “We’re all awash in Capt. Kirk and ‘Babylon 5' and ‘Star Wars,’ in which the whole idea is reduced to essentially cowboys and Indians.”

In other words, Hanks didn’t want to do a thriller or a creepy sci-fi epic; rather, he wanted to film space history, and in so doing bolster a genre that has one benchmark work (Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”) and a host of other films that played fast and loose with the facts of space travel.

“From very early on, we said, ‘Let’s not lie to anybody,’ ” Hanks explains. “ ‘Let’s not put in bad guys, or drinking problems where they don’t exist. Let’s not put in mock jeopardy in a place where jeopardy exists without having to make it up.’ ”

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Hanks estimates that “From the Earth to the Moon” consumed a good three years of his professional life, overlapping into his lead role in “Saving Private Ryan,” due this summer. In that film, which co-stars Ed Burns and Matt Damon, Hanks plays the leader of an Army squadron that goes behind enemy lines to rescue the only survivor of four soldier brothers.

While on location in Ireland for the shoot, Hanks was faxing “From the Earth to the Moon” script changes overseas and looking at video cuts.

“His influence on the editing is unmistakable,” says David Frankel, who directed two of the series’ episodes. “He was the 500-pound gorilla with HBO.”

Hanks directed tonight’s debut episode, titled “Can We Do This?” It examines the historical forces behind the birth of the Apollo space program--the Gemini missions, the Cold War urgency to beat the Soviets in the space race, the pronouncement by then-President John F. Kennedy that America would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

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Juxtaposed against today’s political climate, when NASA is cutting jobs and many greet news of the joint Russian-American space station Mir with a collective yawn, the can-do spirit of the “Can We Do This?” episode can seem jingoistic.

“As a kid, the idea of what [NASA] was trying to do was incredibly glamorous and romantic to me,” says Hanks, who was 13 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. “People tuned in because they wanted to be witness to history. There is no great quest like that in existence today. No one is waiting to find out if crystals are going to be able to form in a zero-gravity environment. . . . But if the Coca-Cola company joined up with General Motors and brought in Rupert Murdoch and said, ‘We’re going to go to Mars. We’re going to slap the Fox TV logo on there and the Coca-Cola sign, and this is the date we’re going to launch this thing,’ people would pay attention to it.”

Back on Earth these days, Hanks has returned to his bread and butter--romantic comedy.

“You’ve Got Mail” is Ephron’s updating of the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film “The Shop Around the Corner,” which starred Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. In the remake, Hanks and Ryan play professional rivals (he runs a large chain of discount bookstores that threaten to put her independent shop out of business), while the two are unwittingly having an e-mail romance.

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“You wish you knew him, which is a certain kind of movie star thing that he has,” Ephron says of Hanks. “He is one of an unbelievably short list of actors that people lose their minds over because he’s so easy to work with, and he’s so funny, and he’s a complete and total pro. I don’t just mean that he shows up every day knowing his lines, although that’s becoming rarer in the movie business. But he knows what he’s there to do.”

Asked to identify his breakout film as an actor, Hanks looks back over his 23-film career and points not to “Big” or “Philadelphia” or “Sleepless in Seattle” but to 1988’s “Punchline,” in which he played a stand-up comic with a stereotypical need for public validation.

“ ‘Punchline’ was an important evolutionary step for me,” he says. “It was my ninth movie--I remember that. It was the first time I felt as though I had learned how to act in films, as opposed to just acting via instinct.” (Hanks won a best actor award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. for the performance.)

More importantly, the role came on the heels of an endless string of forgettable comedies in which he played essentially the same character--part goof-off, part commitment-phobe--whether paired with a bunch of partying cronies (“Bachelor Party”) or a dog (“Turner and Hooch”).

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But if “Punchline” was his breakthrough movie, who saw it? Fortunately for Hanks, another film came out that same year: Penny Marshall’s “Big.” And in playing a 13-year-old in a man’s body, Hanks displayed an acting range that took many by surprise. Indeed, for all of the accolades (not to mention statuettes) that Hanks received for “Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia,” there may be no better stretch than the one he made in “Big.”

“ ‘Big’ should not have been a great movie,” he says. “But you know, it didn’t have bad guys, it didn’t have a suitcase full of money, it didn’t have a cheesy chase scene. It was really just about the reality of being a 13-year-old. It was actually a very emotional story.”

Long gone from the public memory are the Hanks duds--"Joe Versus the Volcano,” “Dragnet” and “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Today, the only thing that plagues his career is the Jimmy Stewart thing.

It’s a comparison that the actor simultaneously shrugs off and embraces; to be sure, the analogy can cut both ways. When Hanks turned down “Primary Colors,” the scuttlebutt had it that he didn’t want to sully his Stewart-like good-guy image by playing a lecherous politician. “Perhaps more than any other star, Mr. Hanks carefully selects roles that are essentially the same,” the New York Times haughtily wrote of his turning down “Primary Colors.” “Whether he portrays a lawyer stricken with AIDS, as in ‘Philadelphia,’ or an astronaut in dire trouble, as in ‘Apollo 13,’ Mr. Hanks is utterly likable.”

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“Look,” Hanks says in response, “I’ve done a lot of movies, and I’ve done a lot of press for these movies, so the natural order of things is, ‘Here’s what you get from this guy.’ That’s how I’ve been defined, which is not completely inaccurate nor is it totally fair. Rather than adhere to any sort of image that will protect that, what’s more important is to try to surprise people. I could go off and play some psychotic killer, but that would be the more crass way of doing things.”

Hanks hopes his move behind the camera will add a wrinkle to the abiding sense that he simply waits for the next well-done formula script to come his way. To that end, “From the Earth to the Moon” is surely one small step in that direction.


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