From Penn to Hollywood: Steinberg hits a home run with HBO

Hank Steinberg, a 1991 Penn graduate, wrote the screenplay for the HBO hit movie `61*.'

· September 6, 2001, 5:00 am

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Ten years ago, a college student with a dream decided to make history.

Hank Steinberg wanted to be different. He didn't want to finish his college career writing, as he calls it, a "long-winded thesis paper on some archaic piece of literature."

So the Penn English major conned the English department into allowing him to write a screenplay for his senior thesis, a substitute that had never before been permitted by the University.

And so he sat in front of his computer and churned out his very first screenplay -- a tale about a minor league baseball player -- called The Final Season.

And with that, his odyssey into the world of movie-making began.

Well, it actually began a year earlier, when Steinberg's career path took a dramatic turn toward the silver screen.

You see, Steinberg loved sports and he loved writing, and what better way to combine those two passions than to be a sportswriter. So, Steinberg wrote some sports for The Daily Pennsylvanian and was well on his way to being a DP sports editor, when he decided to spend a semester abroad in Israel during his junior year.

After that, it was so-long to the tape recorder and the ballgames and the long hours and the countless interviews.

His journalism career was over.

"Deciding to go away, I was definitely one half of my way to moving away from sports writing," Steinberg says. "If I really was committed to being a sportswriter, I would have stayed my junior year and I would have become the editor."

And once he was in Israel, Steinberg realized what he wanted to do with his life.

He wanted to write movies.

"While I was [in Israel], I just realized how much I missed movies," Steinberg says. "I had always been a real big movie buff, and I always thought creative writing was interesting. I just kind of decided I was going to try to be a screenwriter. I didn't really know what that meant exactly or how hard it would be or how long it would take..."

"You know, you're 19 years old, you think you can do anything."

*

A decade later, Hank Steinberg plops himself down onto a luxurious couch in a gorgeous Los Angeles home.

He's a bit older now, a little slower on the basketball court, but still as ambitious as ever.

He leafs through some pages about a couple of guys named Maris and Mantle and looks up to see a die-hard Yankees fan staring him in the face.

Not just any Yankees fan, though. He was in the house of the star of City Slickers.

After all, who better to bring the magical 1961 baseball season back to life than Billy Crystal?

And who better to write the screenplay than Steinberg, a huge Yankees fan finally ready to catch his big break?

Together, Steinberg and Crystal created the HBO film, 61*, a baseball drama about the chase for the single-season home run record between Yankees stars Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961.

For Steinberg, the situation could not have been any sweeter.

"It's a dream-come-true project," Steinberg says. "Combining all my passions -- sports, the Yankees, drama, the friendship between two guys, the movies.... It was just a dream come true."

And working with a Hollywood star like Crystal? That was just a surreal experience.

"I'd be on my 25th writing session with him, sitting in his house, having him offer me a drink from his refrigerator just like a regular guy, and I forget Billy Crystal for maybe a little bit," Steinberg recalls. "And then all of a sudden, I'd look up and say, `Oh my God, I'm in Billy Crystal's house.'"

Since Steinberg was born eight years after the '61 season, a lot of research was involved in creating the screenplay, including interviews with Yankees legends Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.

And those guys, with the help of Crystal, told the writer all he needed to know.

So Steinberg went to work, toiling at his keyboard, writing draft after draft, trying to bring Yankees heroes back to life.

A dream come true.

*

This dream of his didn't come easily, though.

Ask Steinberg, and he'll tell you it takes a lot of work to make it in Hollywood.

Just ask Steinberg what it was like to pack his bags and head to Los Angeles, hardly knowing anybody, leaving his friends, his family and his life behind.

Ask him what it was like working as a production assistant for various movies or, as he calls it, a "glorified gopher."

Ask him what it was like moving back to New York, living with his parents again, trying desperately to find someone, anyone, to plug him into the movie industry.

Let him tell you how he'd "take a job, get sick of it, have a little money saved, try and write a script, run out of money, take another job."

Steinberg eventually caught a few breaks, but nothing huge. He wrote a screenplay called The Duel, a period drama about the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The piece got him signed by Endeavor, one of the top agencies in the business.

He got some interviews with producers, and eventually got a job writing an HBO mini-series about America's founding fathers.

Steinberg worked on that for a couple of years, but it was never made. He then got a job writing a movie for director Robert Zemeckis, but that too never made it to the big screen.

But when Steinberg approached the HBO movie division about making a movie about Maris and Mantle chasing Babe Ruth, the people there loved the idea.

And from the success and popularity of 61*, Steinberg is now getting more and more opportunities. HBO recently bought the rights to The Duel, which will probably get made in the near future, and Steinberg will also be writing a movie for the producers of American Beauty.

"It's a pretty fun time for me," Steinberg says, a mixture of happiness and relief in his voice. "My career is really picking up."

Certainly a long way from his days conning the Penn English department.

And certainly not too bad for a glorified gopher.

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