Greg Kinnear: Golden Boy?

He claims to be "leery of show business," yet Greg Kinnear sure looks like he knows how to play the game, having gone in record time from cable TV wise guy to network chat-show host. Now, will he manage the jump to the silver screen with Sabrina?

____________________________

Sydney Pollack wanted Tom Cruise. Instead he got Greg Kinnear. Who the hell is Greg Kinnear?

That's what I wanted to know. So for a week I walked around Los Angeles with a notepad that said, in big letters. GREG KINNEAR. I approached anyone lucky (or unlucky) enough to cross my path, told them that I was doing research for an article, and asked if they knew who he was. A group of rockers at the Mondrian hotel pool look a look at the pad and said, "Sorry, we can't help you, we're from Sweden." Just then, a woman climbed out of the pool and ran toward me. "I'm American. I'm American." she shouted, as if that was something to brag about, "maybe I can help." I showed her the pad. "Oh. no," she said apologetically. "I don't know a thing about music."

"He's not a musician." I told her and the rest of the crowd that had gathered around us. "He used to he the host of 'Talk Soup' on the E! channel."

The crowd passed the pad around, as if they'd figure out who Kinnear was by osmosis. "Sorry," said a guy with dread-locks, "I don't think we get the E! channel in Michigan."

At the bar. I passed the pad around to 10 more people. "Maybe you know him as the Eagle pitchman," I tried, hoping they'd remember his car commercials on TV.

"I tape," said an Englishman, "and then just fast-forward past the commercials. Never heard of the guy." His friends were all frowning and shaking their heads.

On Melrose Avenue the new day, I showed the pad to anyone who looked as if they might stay up past mid-night. "Greg Kinnear," said one guy, "isn't he the dude who has that talk show with the other dude?"

"Yes, he is," I told him excitedly. "He has a talk show called 'Later with Greg Kinnear' that goes on at 1:35 in the morning,.."

"Oops, wrong guy," the fellow told me. "I had him confused with that redhead, what's his name'.' Conan O'Brien. Sorry."

I showed the pad to Brian, the maitre d' at Tommy Tang's on Melrose. "Yeah, sure." he said. "Greg Kinnear, 'Talk Soup,' right?'"

I nodded like one of those dolls that bob up and down in the rear window. "And they're remaking Sabrina ..." I began.

"Sabrina" Brian said, not missing a beat. "Nineteen fifty-four. Billy Wilder directing Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Am I right?"

"Sure are," I said, "only this time it's Sydney Pollack directing Julia Ormond. Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear."

"Greg Kinnear in the William Holden part?" he asked, brow knitted in concentration. I nodded again. "Well," he said finally, "I might have gone a different route there."

Yes indeed, a lot of other people might have gone a different route there, too. But according to Sydney Pollack-- director of Out of Africa, The Way We Were and Tootsie, among others--when Tom Cruise turned down the role because it wasn't meaty enough and he was getting ready to shoot Mission: Impossible, the filmmaker went looking for someone new, "It was difficult to find somebody who could play the irresponsible, younger brother of Harrison Ford," Pollack told me. "Then someone who works with me suggested Greg, because they had seen "Talk Soup.' I was very charmed when I met him and I did a video test. It was promising, so I spent a couple of weeks coaching him. Then I did a very extensive video test of his scenes with him, with me playing all the other parts. I found him delightful, and my instincts were right: he's exceptional in the film. Anyone who has their doubts better hold off till they see the guy's work."

I am one of those doubters. Not just about Kinnear, but about the whole remake of Sabrina. I remembered it as a wonderful Audrey Hepburn film, and I couldn't understand why they would remake a classic. But when I looked at Sabrina again, I had to admit that this is one very slim movie, in which both the male leads are miscast and terrible. So maybe they do know what they're doing. But still, Greg Kinnear?

Kinnear films "Later" in the same Burbank studio as "The Tonight Show." Jay Leno's Mustang is parked right next to the front door, so I walk around the parking lot looking for the spot with Kinnear's name on it. It's not very far from Leno's, which must mean something. Inside the "Later" offices, dozens of people are running around. It's hard to believe that more than 70 people are needed to put together the half-hour show, which consists of a short monologue by Kinnear and then his chat with one guest.

"It's insane, isn't it?" Kinnear asks, rolling his eyes--something he has down pat--while escorting me to his office. "It's like a beehive, everyone working towards the same goal."

Kinnear, at 32, is so dry that it's often impossible to tell when he's kidding. When we get to the office, he settles in behind his desk and looks jittery. "I'm not used to being interviewed," he says. "I'm a little nervous."

"What do you have to be nervous about?" I ask. "You're the one with a parking spot a stone's throw from Leno."

"Yes, they just upgraded me recently. I'm slowly moving closer to our offices here, but I've still got an extra quarter block to go."

"What do you drive?"

"A Jeep Cherokee."

"Aren't you the spokesperson for the Eagle Talon?"

Kinnear turns a bit red. "Well, I do some commercials for them, yes. And I should point out that I also have a Talon, which I love. But you asked me what I drive on a regular basis and, you know..."

"Relax," I tell him. I show him the pad with his name on it and explain what I've been doing.

"I'm sure nobody knew who I was," he says.

"Right you are," I tell him. "So, who the hell are you?"

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