By Jeff Labrecque
Updated March 05, 2010 at 05:34 PM EST

Image Credit: Bruce McBroomDuring a December episode of 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy stepped in front of an ultra-powerful high-definition camera that revealed him to be a younger, thinner, even more debonair version of himself. In fact, it was footage of Jack Ryan, the dashing intelligence analyst Baldwin played in the submarine thriller, The Hunt for Red October. It’s been 20 years since Tom Clancy’s first novel sailed on to movie screens, but whenever Baldwin catches a glimpse of himself in his hunkish prime, he only notices his youthful naivety. “I can’t help but think, ‘Look how hard that guy is working,'” chuckles this year’s Oscar co-host. “When you’re young, you want to put a finer point on everything—you have to have a prop like a cup of coffee and a binder and a briefcase and a pencil in your ear—but the bigger the screen, the more you have to take the English off the ball.”

Director John McTiernan, who’d just launched Bruce Willis to stardom in Die Hard, was constantly pleading with his new leading man to ease up. “Alec worked a little too hard for the sort of character I was looking for, which was sort of an empty vessel that the audience can put themselves into,” says McTiernan. But there’s nothing in Baldwin’s DNA that reads “empty vessel.” The actor had the looks of a Movie Star, but he also had an amazing chameleon-like quality that allowed him to play all types, many of whom happened to be slippery and shadowy characters. In 1988, he played a brutal mobster (Married to the Mob), a promiscuous heel (Working Girl), and an inept ghost (Beetlejuice), so the fact that Baldwin was considered for the hero to launch a blockbuster action franchise represented a major Hollywood gamble. But when Red October‘s producers spent a small fortune to secure the rights to Clancy’s best-selling Jack Ryan books, Baldwin’s prospects brightened. “I was under the impression that there were other people they wanted to play Ryan in those films but [those actors] would’ve cost even more money,” says Baldwin. “I was at that point in my career where there were five guys who had to die before I got that part. They had to pass or die. Thankfully, none of them died.”

If Baldwin was elated to land the plum role, Sean Connery needed at least a little prodding to take on the role of Ramius, the wily Soviet sea captain who attempts to hand over a lethal new stealth sub to the Americans in order to stave off a potential preemptive nuclear attack. “The big thing to getting Connery was assuring him that I could get people to buy him as a Russian, and that I wasn’t going to make him pretend to talk in a silly accent,” says McTiernan, who rightly concluded that an American audience would accept just about any foreign accent, even Scottish, as Russian. (Hence, New Zealander Sam Neill and Brit Tim Curry played the Red October’s top officers.) And then there was Connery’s sublime hairpiece, which practically shared top billing. “Sean had made a thing of going bald nearly 10 years before to prove himself as an actor and that he wasn’t going to do anything phony in front of the camera,” says McTiernan, who believed Bald Connery’s Oscar win for The Untouchables had finally confirmed his bonafides and that it was time again to have some fun. “I convinced him to go ahead and come up with a specific look, and he said, ‘I want to be Samuel Beckett,’ [who had] very skinny and long, spikey, straight-up hair. So we just went for it.”

Connery’s involvement altered the direction of the entire production. His name helped attract an eclectic collection of supporting actors (Scott Glenn, Courtney B. Vance, James Earl Jones, Fred Thompson, Stellan Skarsgard) and his mere presence on the set made everyone stand at attention. “In the first five minutes of his first day on the set, Sean just excoriated the assistant director and it terrorized all these Russian kids [who were playing the sub’s sailors],” recalls McTiernan. “The AD figured out what Sean was doing because from then on, anytime Sean did anything, anytime he stepped past one of [the sailors], they were like, ‘Whhoooaaa! He’s a big scary guy.’ Which was perfect for his character.”

The Russian plebes weren’t the only ones affected by Connery’s superstar aura. On the first day that Baldwin and Connery worked together, shooting the scenes where Ryan boards the Soviet sub, McTiernan arrived on the set to a brewing hurricane. Baldwin had exploded on his makeup person and retreated from the set. “I went to his trailer, and listened to a lot of stuff—something about his hair,” remembers McTiernan, “and finally at some point, this thing blurted out of his mouth, ‘He’s going to blow me right off the set.’ “

Baldwin confirms his fears at the time, “I just said to myself, ‘I am so screwed. I am invisible in this movie now. This guy looks like $10 million just stacked end to end. No one’s even going to see me in this movie.’ “

But after five minutes on the set with Connery, Baldwin settled down. “Once he started to work with him, he realized that Sean was very generous to other actors and that Sean respected him,” says McTiernan. “Alec was fine—and there was never a problem with his hair for the rest of the shoot.”

On the weekend of March 2, 1990, The Hunt for Red October successfully evaded a few critical torpedoes and accomplished its mission: The year’s first blockbuster grossed more than $17 million in its first three days, and a month later, Baldwin cemented his newfound stardom with his first stint as host of Saturday Night Live (“That was very nerve-wracking; it’s like being shot out of a cannon.”) The film’s eventual $201 million worldwide gross assured a sequel, and Baldwin and McTiernan were eager to continue what they’d begun. “At the time, John said, ‘This is a really great opportunity for you because if you play all three films’—which was presumed back then that I would—’then you will have that rare opportunity to develop a character over that arc.’ His line was, ‘By the time we do the third one, I’m going to have you rowing a scull down the Potomac with a cigar in your mouth.’

Baldwin had meetings with the producers about the sequel, Patriot Games, and was excited by where his character might go. But he also wanted to star in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and when the projects’ schedules conflicted, Paramount simply replaced him with a bigger name: Harrison Ford. Baldwin shouldn’t have been too surprised by the decision. Right when The Hunt for Red October hit theaters, before any of the Jack Ryan drama began to swirl, he told TIME magazine that for a newcomer in movies, “the train pulls out at 12:01. You’re on it or you’re not. The greatest plateau in Hollywood is when they hold the train for you.”

The Clancy Express may have departed without Baldwin (and McTiernan, who instead directed Connery again in 1992’s Medicine Man), but the subsequent Ryan films with Ford, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), never quite clicked the same way. A 2002 reboot with Ben Affleck, The Sum of All Fears, suffered from a plot that echoed the 9/11 attacks, but it also reminded audiences that the first Ryan was also the best. When box-office heavyweight Harrison Ford assumed the role, many predicted that Baldwin was fated to be the franchise’s George Lazenby, an accomplished actor who’s one-and-done James Bond is overlooked if not entirely forgotten. Twenty years later, quite fittingly, if ironically, Baldwin is rightfully heralded as the Sean Connery of Jack Ryans.

Episode Recaps

30 Rock

Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Tracy Morgan star in the Emmy-winning comedy. You want to go to there.

  • TV Show
  • 7
  • Pending
  • NBC
stream service