It’s common for boys to grow up worshiping sports heroes and rock stars.
But Nobel Prize-winning physicists?
Actor Bruce Greenwood was that kind of kid.
“My dad turned me on to Richard Feynman by the time I was 10 years old,” Greenwood says. “My dad was a scientist, so he was a flag-waving fan. Naturally, after hearing him sing Feynman’s praises, I became a big fan too.”
Meaning it was more than just another acting gig to Greenwood nearly 50 years later when he snagged a key role in The Challenger Disaster.
The movie, which chronicles Feynman’s tireless efforts to uncover the cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday on the Science and Discovery channels.
Oscar winner William Hurt stars as Feynman, the only independent voice on the 14-person presidential commission investigating the tragedy in which seven crew members died.
Greenwood plays Gen. Donald Kutyna, a fellow member of the commission, the one who secretly fed Feynman insider information that led to a solution.
Even though Greenwood has landed more than his share of dream roles in his career, from President Kennedy in Thirteen Days to Captain Christopher Pike in two “Star Trek” flicks, he says no actor can secure them all.
“So you sort of learn to live with rejection,” he says. “But with this movie, if I hadn’t gotten the part, I would have been camped outside the director’s house saying, ‘Listen, we need to talk some more before this goes any farther,’ because this one was that special.”
The movie is a marvel, too.
It is to scientific investigation what All the President’s Men was to journalism.
Feynman’s story is of a lone D.C. political-military outsider doggedly raising questions in the face of pressure to ignore an industrywide cover-up. Thanks to his integrity, scientific logic and curiosity, he was able to determine that two of the shuttle’s O-rings failed during launch.
In a famous televised hearing, which is re-created in the movie almost word for word, move for move, Feynman demonstrated how the O-ring was not as pliable as previously believed.
The real story was so compelling — and that climactic moment so powerful — that the makers of The Challenger Disaster found no need to cook the plot to produce a more dramatic film.
“It’s an incredible story,” Greenwood says. “And I think it’s appropriate that this is Science Channel’s first original movie, because it speaks to the strength of science to tell the truth.”
That said, the movie also works as a chilling conspiracy thriller, one that’s stronger than most because the conspiracy was all too real.
“There was a culture of obfuscation and cover-up that was part and parcel of being at NASA at that time,” Greenwood says. “NASA was publicly funded and everyone attached was afraid that if they revealed where the warts were, the money would dry up.
“So rather than tell the truth and risk having the plug pulled, everyone, scientists included, began to interpret data in such a way as to make everything look good, and they fooled themselves as well as others.”
So great is Greenwood’s admiration for Feynman that he’s also narrating the companion piece to The Challenger Disaster. Science Channel will air Feynman: The Challenger, a one-hour documentary chronicling a remarkable life, at 9 p.m. Monday.
Feynman, one of the theoretical physicists involved in the Manhattan Project that developed a weapon using nuclear fission, was initially reluctant to join the Challenger commission.
Frustrated by bureaucratic red tape and political niceties, he grabbed the spotlight during televised hearings in February 1986. He had been tipped off that the accident might have stemmed from the effects of cold weather on O-rings (rubber seals inside the solid-rocket boosters).
Waiting for the right moment, when the TV cameras were focused on him, Feynman dipped a piece of O-ring in a glass of ice water and demonstrated how quickly it lost elasticity.
“He was famously curious and famously outspoken and willing to follow where the evidence led,” Greenwood says.
The actor also speaks highly about Hurt, his co-star, who brought his “A” game to the performance.
“It was an incredible thing to be part of and to watch William Hurt do his thing,” Greenwood says. “He’s a legendary actor who does tremendously in-depth research. Watching him come loaded for bear with all that research and intention was exciting and inspiring.
“It was a reminder that that’s the kind of commitment that results in real quality, a reminder that you should always work your butt off.”