TV Guide: Noble House Excitement: The Perils of Pierce Brosnan & Deborah Raffin
February 20, 1998
Even worse: Gornt can't keep his eyes off Casey Tcholok (Deborah Raffin), an American financial tycoon, who can't keep her eyes off Dunross. This is only one of many charged. moments to be unleashed in James Clavell's Noble House.
The party up in the box gets rolling a little late because of an incident on the ground. In a narrow section of the stands, Gary Nelson, director of the miniseries, had given an interpreter instructions on how he wanted the 100 Chinese extras playing race-goers to react to the races that were supposed to be running. Nelson had said, "They are only to look at four places-the straightaway, the far turn, the near turn and the finish line. And then, when the race is over, they're supposed to cheer. Give them numbers and call one for each position." After a 15-minute conference with his extras, the interpreter came back nodding, and Nelson called for a rehearsal. The interpreter yelled out a number-and every one of the extras looked in a different direction. He called out a second number, and they looked in still other directions. Nelson, nearly beside himself, screamed, "Cut!" The extras let out a cheer.
Clearly, when East and West come together, it's not so much a meeting as a collision. Nobody knows this better than James Clavell, whose best-selling novel-reflected in Eric Bercovici's screenplay-is filled with the superstitions, sage sayings and outrageous palaver that are rampant in Hong Kong and China (to which Hong Kong once belonged-and will again in 1997). Says Clavell, "When you're in China, you may not believe in these god things, but you'd better be a little Chinese."
To prove his point, as soon as he heard that NBC had given Noble House a tentative "go" early in 1986, Clavell contacted the best feng-shui man in Hong Kong. Feng-shui is a ceremony, part Buddhist, part folklore, that reveals the advisability of future actions and frightens away evil forces. The ceremony is accompanied by the burning of joss (luck) sticks and the offering of foods-such as pigs, ducks, and oranges-to appease the gods. The first Noble House ceremony was held to get advice on the best day, time and location to begin filming the miniseries. The second, whose purpose was to bless the project, was held in early January 1987 on the roof of the Victoria Hotel where the Noble House company was headquartered. Among the participants were Clavell, Nelson, Brosnan and Bercovici; excluded, as tradition dictates, was anybody born in a Year of the Rat-1924, '36, '48, '60.
East and West occasionally manage a certain harmony. The nucleus of the crew, whom Bercovici hired, is Italian. Very quickly they have learned how to curse in Cantonese, and the Chinese crew members have picked up certain Italian hand and arm gestures and gross references to bodily parts and relationships with family members. It is not unusual for a Chinese crew member on this set, when calling for silence, to shriek, "Sirencio'"
Sometimes the twain never meet. Pierce Brosnan, who's been trying to get into the life style with lessons in tai chi (a Chinese exercise that resembles shadowboxing), complains that he has a running battle with the Chinese woman in the hotel's dry-cleaning department. He will bring in his bag of soiled clothing, and she will "drag all my laundry across the table, underpants and socks, while five Germans and five Americans are watching. I tell her, 'Look, I'm going to give the laundry to you and walk away, and then you can count it when I'm not around.' She hates me, I know she hates me. She throws daggers at me with her eyes."
She may be the only person in Asia who feels that way. To borrow from the Sara Lee jingle: nobody doesn't like Pierce Brosnan (including Freddie, a myna bird that he bought soon after he arrived; he has taught it to say, "Hello darling, hello sweetheart"). Co-star Julia Nickson, who appeared in "Rambo: First Blood Part II," says, "When you work on a Stallone picture, he is the only one that counts. Pierce is very unassuming. You wouldn't know that he's the star of the show at all. If he wasn't so handsome, you wouldn't know who he was." John Rhys-Davies reminisces about the time, "many years ago, when Pierce and I played together in 'Macbeth' in repertory in England. He has, of course, zoomed off into the stratosphere, but in that production he had a small part as third murderer and I was Macbeth. . . . He's a good fellow."
Bercovici, who along with Clavell and Nelson made the decision to offer the part to Brosnan (Bercovici is also producer and Clavell is executive producer), says, "He is obviously an incredibly handsome man, but he's a pro, not a model. I think this is his last television appearance; he's going to be a movie star."
Brosnan says, "I'd like to do more movies. I've done enough television to last me a while, and enough theater. But I’m not going to be smart and say, 'That's it, I won't do another television series!' You can never say things like that as an actor." With a touch of irony, he adds, "The business is full of surprises." By now most of the world knows that in 1986, when Brosnan's NBC series Remington Steele was canceled, he was offered the role of James Bond in "The Living Daylights." Then Steele was resuscitated, Brosnan was held to his network contract and the deal fell through, with Timothy Dalton getting the 007 part. (When Bercovici is asked, "If Pierce had become James Bond, who would you have hired for Noble House?" he laughs and says, "Timothy Dalton.")
Brosnan is resigned to the Bond brouhaha by now. "Oh, there are times when I was really p----- off at the way the network conducted it. It just went on and on. It was very foolish, I think, a bit of greed, money, gimme-gimme-gimme, we want-to-have-syndication. In the end I just threw my hands up and said, 'What the heck, it was just a job' . . .” His voice dips into regret. “. . . a job that came with a lot of hoopla." His eyes narrow in playful Irish menace. "But there will be a day when sometime, someplace, they'll need me. . . .” He admits, though, that had he played 007 he would have been tied to a five-picture contract, trading one kind of bondage for another. He would also not now be playing Ian Dunross, a role that gives him the chance to be tough, ruthless, romantic and sensitive, minus all the teeth-grinding cutesy antics required by the plots of Remington Steele.
Noble House is about big-business piracy in Hong Kong. When it opens, Dunross is named tai-pan. His archenemy, Quillan Gornt, wants to destroy him and take over Noble House. Meanwhile, a couple of American tycoons (Raffin and Ben Masters) have come to Hong Kong to make a financial deal with him. But in Clavell's Hong Kong there is no such thing as a single deal. Double-dealing and triple-crossing are more the style of the international connivers here, including bankers, government officials, police and a man called Four Finger Wu (Khigh Dhiegh), who runs an opium- smuggling syndicate from a junk in Aberdeen harbor and has a mistress one-third his age named Venus Poon (Tia Carrere).
The eight hours practically sizzle, thanks to Bercovici's articulate script (he also wrote the script for the miniseries version of Clavell's best-seller "Shogun"). Viewers will see a manipulated run on a bank, selling short on the stock market, the fixing of horse races, a kidnapping, seductions and murders. Running counterpoint are the burning and sinking of a floating restaurant and a catastrophic landslide. Add to this a couple of juicy love stories, especially the one between Brosnan and Raffin (who brings a light comic element to her role as a tough wheeler-dealer), with everything done in ravishing cars, speedboats, mansions and casinos.
The biggest star
of the show is clearly Hong Kong, which is more like a video game than
a city, filled with the exotica and intrigue that you used to find in old
movies. Early in the show, a character who's just landed at the airport
asks, "What's that smell?" His host answers, "That's the smell of money."
Finally, Gary Nelson calls, "Action." Smoke rises, hoses are turned on and the platform jerks open. The actors are jolted around, and a lantern hanging above the ship's railing falls to the deck and smashes; this was not part of the plan. Later Brosnan says, "At the very end there, where there was no railing, it was a little bit hairy. But I’ve been through worse, [during childhood] when bombs were falling over [strife-torn] Ireland."
Over three nights, accompanied by vicious wind and intermittent rain, this scene is repeated many times. On the second night, the stars are to be filmed jumping overboard. For this shot, a duplicate top deck has been built a short distance from the Floating Dragon set. It is only 15 feet high, and beyond its edge, instead of water, are corrugated cardboard boxes supporting several layers of mattresses. Raffin gets ready for a choice moment when she will whip off her evening gown, tie it around her waist and dive overboard (the dive from the 48-foot platform will be done by a stunt double in a matching outfit, but in close-up Raffin will be seen jumping as well as swimming in the water). The actress says, "I checked out the water around here and found out that it's clean. But I've requested eye drops, ear drops, nose drops and a tetanus shot."
Somebody screams, "Abandon ship'" and Raffin removes her dress, ties it around her waist and dives onto the mattresses-three times. I’m not sure which was worse-standing out here freezing or total embarrassment at being in my underwear in front of everybody," she says. ''There have been times this evening when I wondered whether I would finish this miniseries alive."
Brosnan, climbing off the mattresses with stupendous elan, has just graciously-though uneasily-accepted the ninth compliment of the evening on how extraordinarily handsome he looks. His smile is satiric as he slaps the sides of his face. "I can't wait to play character roles," he says. "I've been out here for six weeks, eating garbage and drinking beer and getting fat, and when I get home my wife will welcome me as another Orson Welles."
"Poor baby," somebody
says. "Everybody should have his troubles."