'Lucky Guy': Tom Hanks believable as Mike McAlary

Tom Hanks as Mike McAlary and Maura Tierney Tom Hanks as Mike McAlary and Maura Tierney as Alice McAlary in Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy" at Broadhurst Theatre, Manhattan. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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In a rambling clapboard house in Port Washington, Alice McAlary is watching snow fall in her backyard. And thinking of Tom Hanks.

The Academy Award winner is making his Broadway debut in "Lucky Guy," a new drama by the late Nora Ephron, which opens at the Broadhurst Theatre Monday. McAlary, along with her teenage son, Quinn, recently sat in on a rehearsal.

"It took my breath away when I saw him come out," she says. She wasn't star-struck. Her son saw it, too.

"Ma, he looks just like Daddy, doesn't he?," said Quinn.

The mustache, the hairline, the same fervent energy.

"He looked a lot like Mike," she says, getting quiet and turning back to the snow. "So . . . it was kind of . . . difficult."

Hanks plays Mike McAlary, the popular, brash New York City tabloid columnist of the 1980s and '90s, and Alice's late husband. Mike McAlary, who worked as a police reporter and columnist at New York Newsday, went on to write for the New York Post and Daily News. He died of colon cancer in 1998. Ephron never met him, but saw drama in his career.

Her original script was called "Stories About McAlary." She changed that. "She was looking for the perfect title, and I think she found it," says director George C. Wolfe.

"Actually . . . I was apprehensive," Alice McAlary admits. "Lucky guy? He died at 41. I don't get it. But now I do. A lot of the things that happened along the way were due to hard work. And luck. A combination."

 

Smoke! More smoke!

The play is an Irish wake come to life, with an ensemble cast featuring Maura Tierney as Alice. The actors chat up the audience as if they've just walked into Maguire's, a former midtown bar and newsman hangout. They haul out a portable smoke machine to remind the crowd of days when cigarettes were as much a reporter's tool as typewriters -- when Ed Koch was mayor, Rudy Giuliani was a U.S. attorney and a new thing called "crack" was ravaging city streets.

Ephron first approached Alice about a possible project in 1999, and worked on it off and on for years, interviewing Alice, plus her husband's co-workers, some of whom wound up as characters in the play, including former Daily News editor Debby Krenek (now Newsday's editorial director and senior vice president of digital media).

The script is grittier than Ephron's usual rom-com fare (like "Sleepless in Seattle" or "You've Got Mail"), harking back to her earliest days as a New York Post reporter.

"I was in love with journalism," she wrote in her 2010 book, "I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections" (Vintage). "I loved the speed . . . the deadlines . . . and playing dollar poker."

Mike McAlary loved it, too. In 1986, the day after Koch announced a citywide drug bust, the local papers all ran standard news stories. But McAlary's piece for New York Newsday included humorous banter between a police officer and a teen drug dealer.

He made it personal. He listened. And got people talking -- especially cops, who came to trust him.

As Hanks tells the audience in Act One, "Bad things happen -- you think nobody's gonna talk about it, but they do. You learn that early."

 

A story that changed everything

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McAlary's break came in 1986, when 13 officers of Brooklyn's 77th Precinct were charged with thefts and other felonies. He got exclusive interviews with officers, like Brian O'Regan, whom he met one night at a Rockaway Park diner.

Ephron depicts the encounter, quoting from McAlary's article.

"Sometimes, I used to get a feeling, a deep feeling of guilt, but then it went away," O'Regan says. "I just didn't care. It was like I was dead."

Hours after McAlary's story hit newsstands, O'Regan was found in a Southampton motel, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

McAlary's career took off after that, and Ephron charts his early days as a columnist, settling in tony Bellport, the lucrative contracts at the Post and Daily News. Late nights drinking and a $12-million libel suit followed (after a column in which he erroneously challenged the veracity of a Brooklyn rape victim).

Through it all, Alice is there, supporting her husband, challenging him, making him laugh. She's quiet, but admits she does a spot-on impression of a Long Island Rail Road conductor reciting the Babylon train line -- a routine Mike loved. Ephron included it in the script, and Tierney recorded Alice to get it just right.

"Yeah . . . OK, I have a Long Island accent," Alice concedes. "But it gets a laugh."

"It's a hometown play," says Wolfe. "People cheer when they hear the train stops, because it's theirs."

 

The C word

Cancer eventually claimed the lives of both Mike McAlary and Ephron, who spent her final years battling leukemia while rewriting this script, perhaps knowing it would be her last. (She died in June at 71.)

"Cancer consumes you -- or it can if you let it," says Alice. But her husband, she says, fought back, leaving in the midst of a chemotherapy treatment to follow up a tip about a Haitian man sexually brutalized in police custody. McAlary broke the story, writing a series of columns based on exclusive interviews with the victim, Abner Louima.

His coverage of that searing case earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. He died a few months later.

Ephron, too, worked up to the end, and her extensive archive of interviews and drafts has helped Wolfe make adjustments to the script when necessary.

"Nora has altered Nora," he says. "The only difference is she wasn't in the room saying yes or no."

"I'm really proud she chose this story," says Alice McAlary. "I'm happy for my family, as well."

For the McAlarys, life goes on. Alice, who'd moved to Brooklyn, then Westchester, is now back on Long Island. Of her four kids with Mike, Ryan, 27, and Carla, 26, are pursuing careers; Mickey, 20, is in college. And Quinn, a 1-year-old when his father died, just made the high school tennis team.

"They're all doing OK, really," Mom reports. "It's lucky . . . very, very lucky."

She shakes her head.

"There's that word again."

 

Meet the press: Journalists on stage, on TV and on screen

BY JOSEPH V. AMODIO, Special to Newsday

Newspapermen (and women) have been depicted -- lovingly or not -- on stage and screen. Here are some of the best:

 

BROADWAY

THE FRONT PAGE (1928) -- A fast-talking comedy by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which inspired three revivals and three film versions (the best of which is "His Girl Friday," starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and worth the rental).

 

TELEVISION

LOU GRANT (1977-82) -- Starring Ed Asner as the gruff if affable news editor. Earning 13 Emmys, it was a daring show for its day, not only in its depiction of a Los Angeles paper, but as a drama that had spun off from a sitcom ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show").

 

FILM

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) -- This is the one to beat. No tale of journalism on stage or screen has the power to inspire journalism grads (or enthrall general audiences) like this Oscar-winning political thriller, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

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