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He Raced for a Bomb to Save the World from Hitler
October 13, 2015  | By David Hinckley

John Benjamin Hickey jokes that his role on Manhattan is both a great acting gig and a remedial college course.

In Manhattan, whose second season premieres Tuesday, 10/13 at 9 p.m. ET on WGN America, Hickey plays Frank Winter, one of the key scientists working on the top-secret Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II.

Frank starts the new season in a bit of difficulty. His government has hauled him off and chucked him in a barren, isolated prison where personal rights and little things like habeas corpus don’t seem to apply.

Bad for Frank Winter, good stuff for an actor. Hickey radiates enthusiasm, infused with a little wry humor.

“There are so many gifts this job has given me,” he says. “One is how I get to go back to school. I paid no attention in physics class, but this role involves such a wealth of information that it’s like a crucible.

“This was the birthplace of the modern world. The atomic age, it all started right there.”

More specifically, it started with the scientists, who in this fictionalized tale as in real life were not just your average bunch of co-workers.

“So many brilliant minds and so much creative energy,” says Hickey. “They were born to create physics history.”

Their more immediate mission, of course, was to save the world. As their leaders knew and everyone else gradually learned during season one, the Manhattan Project was the American team in a race with German scientists to create the ultimate super weapon, the atomic bomb.

Whoever won the race would almost certainly win the war. So for the Americans, the message was this: Lose this race and the world would be run by Adolf Hitler.

“There’s pressure on a brilliant mind anyway,” says Hickey. “In this situation they had to become single-minded…not afraid to sacrifice the few to save the many.”

Frank Winter spent much of the first season as a renegade in the Los Alamos complex, one of the first to argue that the fastest route to creating the bomb was the controversial so-called “implosion” theory.

In a place full of brilliant academic minds all accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, pushing any theory was a constant, harsh battle, and over the first season it visibly wore Frank down.

By the end of the season, he was taking a different personal approach, one that had its own risks and took its own toll.

“He had a change of heart,” says Hickey. “For one thing, he became more aware of his wife. She had always been his intellectual partner, but because of the secrecy there, he couldn’t share his work with her.

“Finally he can’t stand it. He tells her what he’s doing, and now she has to be on the inside.”

That’s the kind of strain, Hickey suggests, that was inevitable in the Los Alamos pressure cooker.

“These guys drank 200-proof alcohol,” he says. “Very few were unaffected.”

Fortunately, a tough gig for the scientists can be a sweet gig for the actors.

“The most interesting people to play are the ones who are flawed,” says Hickey. “You could say that the greater your character, the harder you may fall.”

Before Manhattan, the 52-year-old Hickey was already well known from dozens of roles on TV, on stage and in the movies.

He may have been best known around New York for the 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. He won a Tony for his portrayal of Felix (left), a writer who contracts AIDS.

One of the most satisfyingaspects of playing that role, he says, was reflecting on the progress the LGBT movement has made in a relatively short few decades.

“Compare what happened this summer,” he says, referring to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision and other advances, “with the situation when Larry wrote the play back in the early ‘80s.

“Today it’s more like ‘Well, we got what we wanted, now what?’”

But the story still has a powerful message for contemporary audiences, he says.

“It’s not just about the lives of the people in the play, it’s about political disenfranchisement,” he says. “It’s about what it feels like to not have your voice heard.”

He loved the later TV production of The Normal Heart, he says, though he also suggests live theater in general is “really different” from filmed media like TV and movies.

“In the theater, you’re closer to the possibility of the moment,” he says. “It’s the difference between having one day to shoot a scene, then you move on, and going back to it every day, so you can mine it for all it’s worth.

“Even if you’ve been doing a part for a while and you feel you’re losing your spontaneity, you can always bring yourself back to the moment again.

“There will be some Saturday when you show up for the matinee, after the Friday night show, and you wonder how you’ll get through it. Then you end up having the best show you ever had, and you ask, ‘Oh, theater gods, how did that happen?’”

Clearly it’s more than just physics.

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