Lucky Guy: Tom Hanks makes his Broadway debut in Nora Ephron play

At long last, Hollywood's great polymath is making his stage debut. Nikhil Kumar reports on the actor's role as a legendary tabloid journalist – and the thousands clamouring for tickets

A first for Tom Hanks? The Oscar-winning actor, director, writer and producer appears too have done it all – and won it all – in a Hollywood career spanning more than three decades. But unlike other luminaries from the West Coast – and more than a few not-so-luminous stars – he's never been on the Broadway stage, something that's about to change with the opening next month of Lucky Guy, a new play written by the late Nora Ephron.

Currently in previews, the show is among this season's most hotly anticipated – and ticket sales are said to be booming ahead of a grand opening night slated for tomorrow night.

Ephron, who was a friend of the Hollywood star and worked with him on Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, began writing the story of Mike McAlary, the fabled New York tabloid journalist played by Hanks, in 1999 – a year after McAlary's death from colon cancer at the age of 41.

Over the years, McAlary worked at all three of the city's tabloids – the New York Post, the Daily News and Newsday – and was reputedly one of the country's highest-paid reporters, known for his stories on crime and the inner-workings of the city's police department. In 1998, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of Daily News columns about alleged assault by city cops on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. While undergoing treatment for cancer, he followed up an anonymous tip to expose the police.

Headstrong and charismatic, this isn't the first time that his life story has been appropriated for the stage. In 2011 he was the subject of Dan Klores' The Wood, which ran at New York's Rattlestick Theatre. He has also been referenced on screen. In 1994, a columnist character in Ron Howard's movie The Paper, about the editor of a fictional New York City tabloid, was said to be based on McAlary.

Ephron, who died last summer at the age of 71, was familiar with McAlary's world: she worked as a tabloid journalist herself, as her son, Jacob Bernstein, remembered in a recent piece for The New York Times.

“My mother knew a lot about McAlary's world,” he wrote. “She dreamed of being a newspaper reporter from the time she was in high school, and wound up spending much of her twenties working at the New York Post. Moreover, McAlary was what she liked to call 'a problematic human being'. And after a decade of writing and directing romantic comedies, a lead character who wasn't entirely likable seemed like a good way to keep herself from getting boxed in.”

The late writer also viewed McAlary's death as the end of an era. “She saw his career as 'the end of something', a bookend to a time when reporters could still believe there was power in the job; when Elaine's was still one of the city's most glamorous rooms; when much of Times Square still belonged to prostitutes and drug dealers; and when the West Village had not yet been taken over by hedge-fund magnates and Russian oligarchs,” Bernstein wrote.

But, as he recounted, other projects kept getting in the way of what was initially meant to be a film for the HBO network. The switch to the stage came much later, in 2008, when Colin Callender, the HBO executive working on the development with Ephron, left the network to go it alone as an independent producer. He then suggested turning the story into a play.

“She'd conceived 'Lucky Guy' [then called 'Stories About McAlary'] as a film for HBO, but the structure was unconventional, relying largely on the other characters to tell their versions of what happened to him, essentially breaking the fourth wall,” said Bernstein. “And everyone, including her, was unsure of how it was going to work on-screen.”

Hanks had come into the picture earlier, when, years before refashioning it for the stage, Ephron had sent him a screenplay. He wasn't interested initially, but reconsidered when he had a look at the stage version.

Now it's his stage debut, directed by the Tony Award-winner George Wolfe and produced by Callender, who, backed by the BBC and HBO, is also currently helping to adapt Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning novel Wolf Hall to the TV screen.

Though ticket sales are reported to be doing well, Hanks stands to cash in some big cheques regardless of the show's success. The star has committed to perform for 15 weeks and will earn 12.5 per cent of what the play takes every week at the box office, according to a recent Bloomberg report. At minimum, however, he has reportedly been promised $75,000 per week, a figure that could climb to $150,000 if the show attracts sell-out audiences.

Moreover, he stands to make money even if he leaves the production after the 15 weeks. If the producers then decide to extend the show, he will continue to get two per cent of ticket sales, according to the show's operating agreement seen by Bloomberg.

He will, however, be hoping for more than just money. He's been very fortunate in Hollywood. Everyone is waiting to see if he's just as lucky a guy on Broadway.