John Benjamin Hickey moves to 'Manhattan'


• 8 p.m. Sunday


Posted 12:07am on Friday, Jul. 25, 2014

John Benjamin Hickey got it all wrong when he was approached for a new TV series titled Manhattan.

At first, the actor jumped to the conclusion that someone was remaking the classic Woody Allen movie.

“Given the way show business is,” he notes, “there isn’t much new under the sun.”

But Hickey, a native North Texan-turned-inveterate New Yorker, decided to keep an open mind.

“I thought, well, whatever this is, at least it’s going to shoot right here at home, so that’s a plus,” he says. Then Hickey opened the script and saw the light.

Manhattan, premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on WGN, has nothing to do with the East Coast island of skyscrapers. It’s about the top-secret Manhattan Project of the 1940s and the race to build the first atomic bomb. It delves into the lives of the gifted scientists who gave birth to the Atomic Age.

Hickey, a 2011 Tony Award winner for The Normal Heart, plays Frank Winter, a physicist driven to develop the super weapon within the classified facility near Los Alamos, N.M.

“One of the privileges of being an actor is that you get a job like this and it kind of lets you go back to school,” Hickey says. “I wasn’t paying much attention to physics or American history in high school.

“This gave me a chance to learn more about nuclear physics than I ever knew before. It gave me a chance to immerse myself in an extraordinary and epical time in our nation’s history.”

Moral quandary

The scientists working on the Manhattan Project knew exactly what they were doing. They were often torn between duty and moral values. The bomb they built had the potential to hasten the end of WWII and save the lives of countless American soldiers. The weapon also could be used in horrifying ways.

Meanwhile, within a climate of spying and paranoia, the scientists had to keep the nature of their work secret even from close family members. In an environment like this, there’s no need to gin up the story. It’s a premise already rife with drama.

“My character is aware of the moral quandaries; his conscience keeps him up at night,” Hickey says. “But it’s also the most exciting time in his life because he’s doing what he was born to do. And I don’t mean born to build a weapon of mass destruction. I mean born to take science to its outermost limits.”

The crises of conscience that these men faced make Hickey glad he’s “only” an actor. If he bombs a scene, what’s the worst that can happen? The director yells cut and they do a re-take.

North Texas roots

Hickey, whom Showtime viewers will remember from the Laura Linney series The Big C (2010-2013), grew up in Plano. He also has family living in Fort Worth. And even though Hickey has been a New Yorker for three decades, he still considers himself very much a Texan.

His goals in life, he says, include “visiting every great Tex-Mex restaurant in the world and finding the perfect margarita, the perfect guacamole and the perfect enchilada.”

Hickey’s role in Manhattan has complicated that quest, however.

“A whole new world has opened up to me in New Mexico, where we are shooting, because I have discovered New Mex-Mex, which is a completely different universe from what we’re used to from Mi Cocina and the like,” he says. “So now I’m going through my New Mexico-Mexican food phase.

“It’s the impossible dream, trying to cover it all, but it’s been a pretty delicious journey.”

The actor takes pride in the fact that Manhattan is decidedly different from most TV shows.

“Nobody loves a procedural crime drama more than yours truly, but one of the things I love about this show is that it’s hard to categorize,” Hickey says. “There’s nothing on TV like this show. There’s been nothing like it before.

“It’s exploring this fascinating chapter in our history, but it’s also a very modern show in the way that it examines the birth of our current culture of government secrets and surveillance.

“We’re aiming high. But you know what they say: No risk, no reward.”

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