NEW YORK — In the summer of 1983, The Police were on top of the charts with “Every Breath You Take,” James Bond was sipping martinis in “Octopussy” and Woody Harrelson was meeting a man who would change his life.
Harrelson, the then-22-year-old soon-to-be a star of the TV series “Cheers,” was working construction in Houston when he met Frankie Hyman, an older New Yorker with a bunch of funny stories. The two became roommates, spent hours talking, debating and bonding over beers and reefer.
“He just helped open my eyes to a lot of things,” says Harrelson. “He’d seen a lot of the world. I always felt like he was one of the wisest people I’d ever met and I still do. He really had a huge impact on me.”
That sweltering summer saw both men woo girlfriends and meet a lot of interesting characters. Hyman was the second black man Harrelson had ever met and Harrelson was the second white man Hyman had ever met. So they talked about race, sex and history.
Harrelson says he knew that summer could somehow be captured in art: “My head was always about, ‘This could be a great play. It could be a funny play. The characters are all there.'”
And then, like a summer romance, it all ended.
Texas-born, Ohio-raised Harrelson made his way to New York that fall, where he eventually landed his first professional job, as an understudy on Broadway in “Biloxi Blues.”
From there, he became a TV bartender and built an Academy Award-nominated film career with credits such as “The Messenger,” ”Natural Born Killers” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”
Though Harrelson lost touch with Hyman, he found himself constantly thinking back to that summer. He even paid a private investigator to try to track down his lost friend, with no luck. Harrelson would lay awake at night and wonder how he could find Frankie.
“I’m not losing him,” he’d vow.
Jay Leno helps out
Frankie Hyman was indeed untraceable. Things weren’t going as well with him as they were for Harrelson.
“The reason he couldn’t find me is because I’m back in New York,” says Hyman. “I’m in Harlem, but I’m in the sublevels of Harlem. I’m into addiction. I’m in the darker layers. I don’t have a Social Security card active. I was buried pretty deep.”
Hyman says he had cheered Harrelson’s career with a measure of pride. He’d tell his disbelieving brother that he’d once been pals with the movie star. In the meantime, he says he battled demons and was once photographed for the cover of the New York Daily News — in handcuffs.
Then one night in 1993, Hyman’s brother was watching TV when he swore he heard Harrelson, a guest on “The Tonight Show,” tell Jay Leno that he really wanted to reconnect with Hyman.
Harrelson now says he just blurt it out. “Once I got to be famous, I guess it was only a matter of time that it dawned on me, ‘Well, hey, I could just go on a talk show and ask for him,'” says Harrelson with a laugh.
Within 24 hours, the two men were in touch again. Harrelson put his friend on a plane and flew him to the West Coast to help him get sober. “That was the beginning of him actually getting his hands on me and pulling me out of a very dark place,” says Hyman.
Soon they began co-writing a play — naturally, about that summer in 1983. Hyman, who had kicked drugs because of his old friend, now had another reason to thank him.
“I’ve always been a storyteller and I’ve always been able to write. But to think for a minute that I could become a professional writer? No way,” Hyman says during a joint interview in Harrelson’s Upper West Side apartment, a space sweltering due to Harrelson’s dislike of air conditioners. “And not only that: I’ve also developed the confidence and now the passion. He put me on that track.”
‘Ride the Edge’
The result of their collaboration — “Bullet for Adolf” — had its world premiere this spring at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto and opens off-Broadway next month at New World Stages. Harrelson also directs.
The eight-character comedy is, as the creators like to say, 7 percent true and 93 percent fiction. A key decision was to plop a real story Harrelson heard about a gun once used in an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler into the tale of unlikely friends bonding in Houston in 1983.
“I kept wondering how that story factored into this play. I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way.’ Sure enough, it gave us our plot. Because prior to that we kind of lacked a plot. We just had an amalgam of scenes,” says Harrelson.
They’ve written a racy, edgy script. The N-word is tossed around a lot, gross stuff is eaten, pedophilia is joked about and there’s even a reference to the ovens used in the Holocaust.
“We didn’t want to pull any punches writing this thing,” says Harrelson. “I think it’s good to be able to talk about some of these topics and hopefully laugh. That is the first avenue in toward a real discussion.”
Some lines are purely provocative — “Poverty and justification goes together like cream and coffee,” someone says — while other exchanges are just silly, as when one character says, “I like a woman who can beat me up” and another replies: “Then why don’t you like my mother?”
“That’s the way we talk to each other all the time. We try to ride the edge wouldn’t you say, Frankie?” Harrelson asks his friend.
“We do. We do,” Hyman responds, smiling.
Whatever theater critics think — and the play was roasted in Canada before changes were made — “Bullet for Adolf” is about the origin of something real: a deep friendship.
The writers even make a gentle nod to it when they made the character named Frankie say to the character based on Harrelson: “I don’t think either of us knows the give and take of friendship.”
In the apartment, Hyman looks over at his friend of almost 30 years, a man who helped him transition from drugs to art. “Today, we’ve done the give and take until we’ve built this strong friendship,” he says.
They’re even tinkering with another play. This one is set in 1993 and is about two estranged friends who find each other again.