Anthony Edwards has blood on his hands. But they aren’t the hands of savior Mark Greene, the doctor he plays on ER. They are, for the moment, the hands of a sinner. In perhaps the most audacious career move since Madonna became a mother, Edwards has chosen to ditch Greene’s trademark hypersensitivity for the hyperdysfunction of a child molester and sociopath: Dick Hickock, the real-life mastermind behind the mass murder of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s 1965 true-crime classic and now a $10 million CBS miniseries (Nov. 24 and 26).
On a bleak day of filming on the Calgary set, Edwards’ handcuffed character is about to pay for his wicked ways. Edwards, in a crew-cut wig and with an ugly scar distorting half his face, is preparing to mount a flight of steps to the gallows. A chaplain solemnly follows, murmuring last rites. Eyeing the noose, the trapdoor, and the big canvas-bag counterweight, the actor freezes in mock panic. ”Hey,” he asks, ”how do I get down off of there?”
If the star’s got butterflies, you can’t blame him. In playing Hickock, he’s not only tackling a role that’s already handicapped one career (that of Scott Wilson, who played Hickock in the 1967 film version) but also stepping into the shoes of one very creepy character. As his costar Eric Roberts puts it, ”Saint Dr. Greene who saves lives is playing this uneducated a–hole who takes lives!” It’s this extreme difference that drew Edwards to the project: ”The spirit of it is just bizarrely sick.”
No kidding. Consider the case on which In Cold Blood is based: On Nov. 15, 1959, Hickock and his partner, Perry Smith (played by Roberts), savagely murdered four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan. They crept into the house as the family slept, killed the mother and daughter in their beds, and the son and father in the basement. The pair, who’d been led to believe that the wealthy farmer kept thousands of dollars in a safe, ended up taking four lives for a mere $41.
In these days of Millennium, Seven, and Dean Koontz novels, this case may strike some as — dare we say it? — tame. But back in 1965 — when Capote published his chilling account of Hickock and Smith’s crime, months on the run, and capture — violence and mass murder had yet to become pop-culture staples. The groundbreaking in-the-mind-of-real-killers book went on to sell more than 5 million copies, introduced a new genre (the nonfiction novel), and made Capote rich — but at great cost to his mental health. ”It did kill me,” the stressed-out author later said; indeed, Capote struggled for years with writer’s block.
Those involved in the 1967 film paid heavily too. Shortly after the movie earned four Oscar nominations, the pigeonholed-as- a-freak Robert Blake (who played Smith) was on unemployment; it was another seven years before the TV series Baretta resuscitated his career. And although Scott Wilson still works as a character actor, he never landed another high-profile leading role.