He’s played Forrest Gump, the hero who saved Private Ryan and an Apollo 13 astronaut. Now Tom Hanks, one of America’s most beloved actors, is starring on Broadway in the real-life story of a New York City tabloid reporter who grew up in New Hampshire.
Michael McAlary was a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, a loving husband, a father of four – and a 1975 graduate of Goffstown High School. When he died of cancer on Christmas Day in 1998, he was 41 years old.
Hanks is portraying McAlary in the play, “Lucky Guy,” which opens April 1 and is currently in previews. It’s Hanks’ first Broadway role and the last work by the late writer Nora Ephron.
Kevin McAlary, Michael’s younger brother, said Ephron was a fan of his brother when he was writing for the New York tabloids in the 1980s and ’90s. After he died, she contacted his widow and proposed a movie about his life and career.
Over the years, that script turned into a play that Ephron kept working on even as her own health was deteriorating. She died of leukemia last June, but not before she had convinced her friend Hanks to star in her play.
Kevin McAlary is planning a trip to Manhattan the weekend of April 13 with his parents, Jack and Ellen McAlary, and other family members to see the play. They’ll get to go backstage and meet the cast. “I think it’s going to be a pretty spectacular night,” he said.
Seeing Tom Hanks play his big brother, he admitted, “is going to be almost surreal.”
The play recounts McAlary’s rise to become one of the highest-paid columnists in the country. At one point in the early 1990s, the Daily News and New York Post were in a bidding war for his talents.
Kept illness secret
Alice McAlary, who lives in Port Washington, N.Y., said Ephron approached her after Michael’s death, and they worked together over the years. She never knew the writer was terminally ill. When she first heard the title of the play, she wasn’t sure. “He passed away. He was 41,” she said. “I don’t get the ‘lucky.’”
“But then when you think about his life and everything that happened along the way, he really was. He was really blessed.” Being involved in the play has been like an “out-of-body experience,” she said. “I have somebody on stage that I can’t take home that looks exactly like my husband.”
But the experience has also reignited old friendships with her husband’s colleagues.
“We all have so many stories to tell,” she said.
She met her future husband when both were students at Syracuse University; Michael was a year older.
She literally ran into him at the local campus bar, where beer was a quarter and mixed drinks 75 cents.
“I don’t know what he was looking at, but it wasn’t me,” she recalled. “He bumped smack into me and he dropped his mixed drink. So he looks at me and says, ‘Now you have to buy me another one.’ We talked all night long and laughed.”
Beginning their life
That was the beginning of their long and happy love story.
“He was this light bulb to me,” she said. “He was funny and he was gregarious. Everybody knew him in the place. He had a million friends. Plus he was very handsome.”
They had four children together. Their youngest was conceived while Michael was undergoing chemotherapy, a treatment doctors said would leave him sterile.
“They were wrong,” she said.
Quinn was just a year old when his father died.
Now 15, her son is getting to know his dad because of “Lucky Guy,” Alice said. “It’s a good experience for him.”
It’s harder for her.
At the first rehearsal, she watched Hanks, who had studied taped interviews with McAlary, capturing her husband’s mannerisms, even his appearance.
“He looks so much like Michael. It was a little eerie at first,” she said. “It took my breath away.”
She had brought Quinn to the rehearsal and they went backstage to meet Hanks and the rest of the cast, who erupted into applause when they found out who they were.
“I got a big bear hug from Tom,” she said. “It was just really phenomenal that this greatness was applauding us because this was our life. It breaks my heart.”
McAlary’s story started in Goffstown, where friend and classmate Kerry Steckowych remembers Michael as a voracious reader, a great writer and conversationalist – with a knack for getting in trouble.
“If he was going to throw an egg at a house, his arm would release the egg just as the police cruiser was going by,” he recalled. “He had terrible luck when it comes to those foolish kinds of childhood hijinks.”
But he was also “a really bright young man” who was driven to get where he wanted, Steckowych said.
When McAlary was 16 and working as a sports stringer for the weekly Goffstown News, he decided to hitchhike to the Volvo tennis tournament, held at Bretton Woods back then.
He happened to get picked up by one of the organizers of the tournament, who gave him a press pass and got him an interview with tennis great Rod Laver, recalled Kevin McAlary.
“That wound up getting published in the Union Leader,” he said.
Going to the streets
McAlary would refine his craft in the mean streets of New York, modeling himself after the legendary Jimmy Breslin, his brother said. “He really knew how to craft a story,” he said.
McAlary was hooked up to a chemotherapy drip in 1997 when a source tipped him to a vicious assault by a police officer on a Haitian immigrant who had been wrongly arrested. He left his sick bed to pursue the story. His work won him the Pulitzer Prize.
Steckowych, who is the police prosecutor in Goffstown, said he holds McAlary up as an example to local youngsters.
“I think it’s great that he’s recognized and I think it’s wonderful that you can see somebody who comes from small-town America that ends up winning the Pulitzer prize,” he said.
But there was more to Mc-Alary than the awards and honors he won.
“He really was a powerful voice for people that didn’t have a voice,” his brother said.
Steckowych started a scholarship program in his old friend’s name at Goffstown High School. Awards are given not necessarily to top students but to those like Michael Mc-Alary, he said.
The award is for “kids who really are showing they have character and drive and they’ve set goals, and no matter what gets in their way, they somehow find their way to get there,” said Steckowych.
Kevin McAlary said there’s such a big New Hampshire contingent going to New York to see the show that they have to split up and go to two performances. He knows, he said, “It’s going to be a very emotional day. Because hey, we know how it ends.”
Still, the trip means a lot to those who loved Michael Mc-Alary, he said.
“We’re a pretty closeknit family, and we’re really proud of what Michael was able to accomplish in his lifetime.”
Steckowych will be part of the group going to see “Lucky Guy” on April 14.
Alice McAlary, who is portrayed in “Lucky Guy” by actress Maura Tierney, will be in the audience on opening night; she said she’s proud that people who never knew her husband will get to know him through Hanks and Ephron.
“He was brave, and he had a great spirit,” she said. “People would get mad at him for things he would write, and then they’d see him in a room and they’d forgive him.