Ground Control to Major Tom

By Jeff Gordinier
June 23, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Entertainment Weekly
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The following was the cover story from the Jun. 23, 1995 issue of EW.

It looks like a shark with wings. Long and thin, with a flattened shovel of a snout, the plane rolls across the tarmac at Ellington Field and stops just a few yards away from Tom Hanks. Hanks seems ready to hop in. For one thing, he’s wearing an astronaut’s white jumpsuit. He’s got a patch of Old Glory on his left shoulder and an inch of plastic tube sprouting next to his shirt pocket. Sure, the man who played Forrest Gump has come to this airfield south of Houston to shoot scenes for Apollo 13, but he fits in so well with the vibe of the place that the NASA men ushering the ER-2 along the tarmac don’t treat him like one of the most celebrated movie stars in the world. They just treat him like a runway regular, with straight talk and firm boot-camp handshakes.

Frankly, it’s Hanks who’s starstruck. See, there’s…that plane! As the jet hums to a halt on the runway, the actor stares with a sort of quiet rapture. ”That’s it,” he says. ”That’s a bona fide U-2.”

”Yep,” replies one of the NASA men. (Actually, the ER-2 is an update of the famed U-2.) ”It gives a roar like a rocket when it takes off.”

”It’ll be taking off today?” This is too much. Let the rest of the world think of U2 as an Irish rock band; Tom Hanks gets one glimpse of this version of the U-2 — a piece of vintage aero-machinery first unveiled in 1955 for high-altitude spying on the Russkies — and he’s beamed back to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and a Cold War youth bewitched by visions of spy planes and spaceships.

Which is how it should be. With Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton in the cockpit, Apollo 13, opening June 30, is the true story of three astronauts — Comdr. Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise — whose space capsule suffered an explosion en route to the moon in 1970, crippling the vessel and leaving the crew gasping for air, water, and hope 205,000 miles above the globe. Their mission: to make it back alive. Director Ron Howard calls it ”the ultimate stress test,” but by now, a couple of generations have let the white-knuckle odyssey of Apollo 13 fade from memory.

Not Hanks. ”I talked to my crack staff of show business experts long ago,” recalls the actor, sly as ever, ”and I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to find somebody to write Apollo 13. It’s an incredible saga.”’ As it turns out, Hanks got his wish: Lovell and science writer Jeffrey Kluger penned Lost Moon, an account of the botched moon shot, and the rights landed with an old friend of Hanks’ — Ron Howard at Imagine Entertainment. Says the actor, ”I got a call saying, ‘You won’t believe what I just read! Here’s Apollo 13.”’

Since then, Hanks has been going at the movie with the ardor of a boy reeling from his first crush. ”Tom,” cracks Paxton, ”is gonna build a lunar module in his backyard.”

”He just does stuff that no one else wants to do,” says producer Brian Grazer with a bemused sigh. At one point Hanks insisted on taking Grazer and Howard down to Florida, where he prodded them out of bed before dawn to watch one of the most mundane rituals of the American space program: a group of astronauts walking across a patch of pavement to hop in a van. ”I said, ‘I don’t want to do that,”’ Grazer says. ”He said, ‘No. We have to do that.”’ So they did. ”Sat there for a bunch of hours,” Grazer recalls. ”Ate in the NASA cafeteria, which was awful. But Hanks loved it. He loves everything.”

Even the clothes. At 38, the two-time Oscar winner wears his astro-gear like a boy who just got it for Christmas. “I followed the space program heavily when I was a kid,” Hanks explains. “I could name all the crews of Apollo 7 through 12.” Not true. Actually, Hanks can name the crews of Apollo 7 through 17, with a few Gemini flights thrown in for good measure. He knows the commanders, the missions, the glitches. Drop your guard and he’s liable to unspool the entire history of the space program. “And then Apollo 11, of course,” Hanks goes on, referring to man’s first step on the moon. “That was the one the whole world stood still for. But I sort of stood still for each one of those Apollo missions.”

But zeal has a price. A price that comes straight from the gut. A price that becomes clear every day around noon at Ellington Field, when the cast and crew of Apollo 13 gather for lunch under a blue tent. Today’s meal — perfectly delicious, mind you — consists of grilled chicken breasts, tins of tabouli, baked potatoes, and heaps of fresh wheat bread. The subject of conversation is barf.

“Yesterday was bad,” says Bacon, 36, kicking off the queasy colloquium. Now the table reels with talk of bad weather. A bumpy ride in the cumulus. A cameraman who, uh, kissed the sky in the middle of a key scene.

A born Texas raconteur, Paxton, 40, points to an amber stain on the wrist of his white jumpsuit. “I found a clump of vomit in my hair,” he continues. “Puke in my hair, man. It was in my hair!” Suddenly, the scoop of tabouli has lost its savor. “It’s better to eat,” Paxton advises with a smile. “Dry heaves are much worse.”

The source of this digestive discourse is an experience at the heart of Apollo 13: the Vomit Comet. The Vomit Comet is a plane. Not one of those sleek, dinky ER-2’s that Hanks was ogling a few minutes ago, but something bigger — a padded, windowless jet officially known as the KC-135.

Under normal circumstances, NASA uses the KC-135 to give budding Neil Armstrongs and Sally Rides a taste of zero gravity. The process is pretty simple: The plane flies in a series of parabolas, rising straight into the sky and then plunging toward the earth. For 23 seconds at the top of the arc, you are weightless. Everything-even a Hollywood heavyweight-turns to cotton fluff.

“Basically,” says Bob Williams, NASA’s test director for the zero-gravity program, “it’s a great big roller coaster in the sky.”

Ron Howard got wind of the Vomit Comet while hunting for a way to convey the sensation of zero gravity in Apollo 13. He was mulling over the usual bag of tricks-pricey computer stuff, actors hanging on wires-when it dawned on him: Why not try the real thing? “I knew about this plane,” Howard remembers, “and I just thought, You know, if we could just go up there and shoot on it, wouldn’t that be simpler?” After a trial run, he took the idea to the suits at Universal. “I started pursuing it really aggressively,” he says. “They didn’t quite say, ‘Ron, I think you’re nuts,’ but I got the sense there was some eye rolling going on.”

Once the eye rolling stopped, Howard wound up here at Ellington, christening what is sure to go down as one of the wildest experiments in filmmaking folklore: a flying set. See, there’s the plane. Inside the plane sits the spacecraft, nesting in a forest of cameras and lights. Whatever room is left is cramped — so cramped that crew members have to duck and shimmy through tunnels along the walls of the plane. Meanwhile, anything that’s not taped or bolted down — from an ice chest to a paper clip — has a habit of turning into a flying weapon. “We all have our eyes open for stuff like that,” says chief lighting technician Andy Ryan. “You don’t know how lethal that stuff can be in the air. I’ve got scratches all over my back. My wife’s gonna wonder what the hell I’ve been up to.”

Once the Vomit Comet takes off, the routine “is like a two-minute drill in football,” says Howard. First, the plane gets ready to dive. Bob Williams gets a signal from the cockpit and screams to the director. At that moment everything floats, and the crew has 23 seconds to nail the scene until it all comes crashing to the floor. “We’re shooting all of these scenes like stunts,” says Howard. “You know you only have a couple of passes at it, so you do the best you can.”

Hanks and company have the strangest task of all: They’re acting-searching for just the right movement or expression while their torsos are flying like feathers on the breeze.

In a space the size of a closet.

On a plane that happens to be hurtling toward the crust of the earth at 500 miles an hour.

“I feel strangely drawn to it,” says Paxton. “It almost is like a weird addiction. Just to float-there is something liberating about it.” Bacon and Gary Sinise — who plays grounded astronaut Ken Mattingly but took a ride in the plane to shoot a dream sequence-have slightly different responses. “It just scares the s— out of me. And I don’t like being scared,” says Bacon. “I mean, if I never got on another plane, it’d be fine with me.”

“We were up there to discover all facets of weightlessness,” says Sinise, 40, “and so I think I was chosen to get sick. But, you know, it’s nothing to get embarrassed about. Anybody could get sick. It’s like gettin’ off a Tilt-A-Whirl. The fluids in your head are just goin’ crazy.”

And Hanks? Well, there’s that boyish enthusiasm again. Maybe even a tad too much. Most passengers prep for the KC-135 by taking a capsule of Scop-Dex, a drug that steels the body against the ensuing nausea. Some veteran astronauts don’t take the drug — it’s a macho thing — so one time, Hanks decided to go without.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m familiar with the drill, so I’m gonna pass on the narcotics,’ ” he reports. “Oh, boy. I got very, very ill. I didn’t throw up, but man, did I want to! I was literally just lying on the floor, right next to the set, for the longest time, having these bizarre out-of-body experiences. It was really strange. And then, like, one half of my body just went flush. There was like a line right across my waist, and my lower extremities were suddenly freezing cold. I just laid there and laid there and laid there and laid there and laid there.”

Later, down on Ellington Field, the consensus is that the pretty boys from Tinseltown are not, as had been predicted, wimps. “I was expecting a whole raft of prima donnas,” confesses NASA’s Williams, “but it turns out I’m very impressed at how hard these guys work.”

The temperature in Los Angeles hovers somewhere in the 60s, but the crew of Apollo 13 is bundled up in mittens, ski caps, and down jackets, sequestered deep within a dark soundstage at Universal Studios. Giant air conditioners have chilled the studio to 38 degrees, while misters on the ceiling are lacing the air with puffs of dew. An intern is handing out tiny heat packets, but Bacon passes. “I won’t use those things,” the actor says. “I’m convinced they’re carcinogenic.”

The room feels like a cold drizzle on a midnight construction site. But it makes sense. Early on in their 1970 mission, with their electrical system on the fritz, Lovell, Haise, and Swigert found themselves losing heat in the frosty precincts of space; Howard wants the audience to see the billows of their chilled breath. “It’s awful to work in,” Howard concedes, “but it’s paying real dividends. Just a texture, a sense of putting the audience in the capsule with these guys.”

Suddenly, a small blaze burns in a corner of the studio. As it hisses out, a sturdy, white-haired man leaps out of his folding chair and whispers to Howard. This is Dave Scott, one of Apollo 13‘s technical consultants. A real astronaut, Scott flew with Apollos 9 and 15; on the latter mission, he actually drove a dune buggy on the moon. So when Scott talks, Howard listens. And as for that fire, which is supposed to look like a leak on the damaged Apollo ship — well, it ain’t gonna cut it.

“It’s sort of like a mist,” Scott offers as an alternative. “A vapor.”

“It’s not actual fire?” asks Howard.

“Oh, no,” says Scott, 63. “It doesn’t resemble fire in any form.”

Howard grimaces. “I’m going to have to find some way to re-create it in the real world.”

Herein lies the Apollo 13 conundrum: On one hand, there are the facts. From the start, Howard has taken pains to get the details of the Apollo mission right — down to every button and bolt. On the other hand, there are the facts. Truth be told, a lot of the chitchat between the Apollo astronauts and Mission Control sounds as dull as a Caltech computer class. And, despite the goose-bump drama of the story, Grazer concedes that a good number of key scenes boil down to “three astronauts pushing buttons and pulling levers and looking at dials and reading charts and doing math and physics.”

That said, Howard prefers to stick to.the facts. “The truth is not boring,” he insists. “The truth is really interesting and exciting.” It’s also better PR, offers NASA’s Williams: “You’re going to have a lot of people looking at it very critically, and if you throw in a gee whiz or a golly that is farfetched, people are going to catch it. If they see details that are correct, they’re not going to badmouth the film.” With that in mind, the on-set tutoring has gotten so intensive that when an actor pushes a button, it tends to be the right button. “You initially look at the control panel in the command module and just think, ‘Is it upside down? I have no idea what any of this stuff means!’ ” says Hanks. “I swear to God, after a while a lot of this stuff started making sense.”

In fact, Hanks has emerged as “the truth meter of the movie,” says Grazer. “He tests every single thing for truth and authenticity. Anything that reeks of bulls—, he says, ‘That’s bulls—. That didn’t really happen. We can’t do that.’ ”

If Hanks is the truth meter, he’s also the cash register. All of the primary players in Apollo 13 — Sinise, Paxton, Bacon, Ed Harris — are currently enjoying career upswings, but only Hanks is living in the stratosphere. He brings a staggering record to Apollo 13: two back-to-back Oscars, and four hits in a row — A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, and last year’s Forrest Gump, the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. “He’s hittin’ ’em right out of the park,” marvels Paxton. “He’s Babe Ruth. He can point and just say, ‘You know, I’m gonna put this one over the center field fence.’ He goes wham, and you go wow.”

Hanks does his best to brush off talk like that. A perfect record? “Well, we’ll see how long that lasts!” Early rumors of a third Oscar? “Oh, no. I think that’s more of a joke than anything else. That’s not gonna happen.” Apollo 13, Hanks properly insists, “is very much an ensemble piece. Everybody has great moments in it, and everybody’s really important to the core of the entire movie. This is not one of those types of very flashy or attention-getting roles.

“But it is kind of tough,” he — then stops himself. “Well, no. Look, there’s nothin’ tough about it! It’s just that it’s very difficult to live up to anybody’s expectations.”

The qualities that make Hanks a hero in Hollywood, claims Grazer, are just the virtues that will persuade the action-hungry throngs of summer to sift through Apollo 13‘s Microsoft mumbo jumbo and root for Hanks on screen. “More than anybody in the world, who do you want to save?” says Grazer. “It’s Tom Hanks.” For his part, Hanks doesn’t mind playing a hero, as long as the story — like Apollo 13 — offers a wee bit more than bombs, bullets, and cliches.

“The vast majority of movies really only operate on three or four levels, and I think good movies need to operate on 20 or 30,” Hanks says. “The one thing I really don’t like about movies is when the bad guys are so obviously the bad guys, because you know it’s only a matter of time before the hero — the guy who can’t be killed — eventually vanquishes them. This has become a staple for motion pictures, and it’s boring!

“I’m not on a crusade to make wholesome family films,” Hanks goes on. “I mean, Forrest Gump’s mom slept with the principal! That’s not the issue, and violence isn’t the issue either. I just think that the moneymaking juggernaut that has become, say, for example, the summer blockbuster film, is sometimes only two-dimensional.”

But even with a sophisticated script, can Mr. Nice Guy fly a space capsule?

“In some ways, I think it makes it even more accessible to the audience,” laughs Hanks. “If a guy like me can get to the point where he can fly in space, well.”

Months later, Bill Paxton calls from a cellular phone. He is cruising through the bearish heat of Oklahoma, where he’s shooting Twister, an action flick already being pegged as one of next year’s monster hits. The phone line is fuzzing in and out, but his enthusiasm is at full beam. Paxton — along with the rest of the cast and the top brass from Universal — is en route to Washington to screen Apollo 13 at the White House. He’s carrying a box of saxophone reeds as a gift for Bill Clinton. “I’m going to see the movie for the first time with the President of the United States!” he says, hollering over the splatter of white noise. “I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that!”

Suddenly, a glitch: The phone goes dead, and Paxton’s voice evaporates somewhere in the air above Oklahoma.

Only on Apollo 13 could a glitch be a good omen.

Apollo 13

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