This one is a true epic

(Here's a story I just sent to papers, about a terrific mini-series that starts Monday. I'll add to this note later.)


We all know that “Moby Dick” –
the book, the movies, the fictional whale itself – is terribly big
and important. It takes a while, however, to figure out why.

“I started it (Herman Melville's
novel) about three other times and I didn't get it,” William Hurt
said. The next time stuck, he said. “It changed my life.”

Now he's starring in a new mini-series
as Captain Ahab, an epic hero-villain. Playing Starbuck, his first
mate, is Ethan Hawke, another latecomer to the novel. “My wife and
I picked a book to read while we were apart,” he said. He was
finishing it when the “Moby Dick” script arrived; “I took that
as a sign.”

Soon, the men were stepping into epic
roles, in classic settings. Some scenes were filmed on Nova Scotia;
others were on a real ship, near Malta. “The greatest acting I've
ever seen,” Hawke said, was Hurt delivering a seven-page monologue
with precision and passion, while the boat rocked.

Nigel Williams grins semi-sheepishly
about that. He's the one who wrote these near-impossible scenes that
Hurt mastered. “I got very lucky with the casting,” he said.

This was a story well ahead of its
time, Williams said. That started with the fact that the fictional
ship was in a Quaker town in Massachusetts, “one of the few places
where racism was not as endemic.”

And it was “an incredibly modern
novel,” he said. At a time (1851) when most novels focused almost
exclusively on plot, it dug into the characters.

At the center is Ahab, whom Hurt sees
as “a perfect tragic hero, in the way (publisher Rupert) Murdoch
is.” He obsesses on the giant whale that already took his leg.

But the story is also about the people
around him, especially Starbuck. “He really doesn't do the right
thing,” Hawke said. “His inability to stop the inevitable”
fuels the novel.

Some people do try to stop Ahab. His
wife – only referred to in the novel – tries to talk him out of
the voyage, yet realizes she can't. “She knows him so well,” said
Gillian Anderson, who plays her.

That whole subject is fascinating, said
Anderson, who has read about historical “women who are married to
geniuses.” In real life, she said, she was once married to a genius
– she won't specify, but has divorced journalist-producer-activist
Julian Ozama and production designer Clyde Klotz – and finds it
fascinating “what an impact it is, living with such a person.”

For Ahab, the influence ripples across
everyone on board. This is epic drama, often delivered on the ocean.
“Fourteen people were heli-ported out” when they became sick,
Hurt said.

Later, he said, word came that a ship
that had once been docked alongside them in Malta had sunk at sea.
“And that was bigger than ours. That still happens; ships still

In Melville's day, it happened a lot –
especially when a crazed genius was in charge. Ahab's fictional crew
rushed toward a classic destiny and lots of movies and mini-series.

– “Moby Dick,” two-night
mini-series, Encore cable channel

– 8-10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Aug.

– Both parts air together at 10 and
11:40 p.m. Aug. 11; more reruns coming