- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

It’s sometimes a little sad to remember that the vast majority of stars don’t burn out. They just fade away.

“The Great Buck Howard” is the tale of one such star; based on a semiautobiographical account of writer/director Sean McGinly’s time as a personal assistant for the Amazing Kreskin, a once-famous mentalist on the downside of his career, the film looks at the end of stardom and the psychological toll it inflicts.

“I had been given the advice to just get any job I could in the entertainment industry and just learn and try to soak up anything I could,” Mr. McGinly said in an interview. “So I got this job working for a magician/mentalist kind of guy named the Amazing Kreskin. I didn’t know who he was. It was a job as his road manager and personal assistant, and I was dumb enough to think that this would be a good start on my career as a writer and a filmmaker.”

The Amazing Kreskin, born George Joseph Kresge Jr., hit the peak of his popularity in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, appearing on “The Tonight Show” and hosting his own variety show for a brief period. By the time Mr. McGinly served as his assistant, however, it was the ‘90s and Kreskin’s star was fading.

“It was just very interesting to me: He was still very good, and when I watched him perform he was very impressive,” Mr. McGinly said. “But we were playing these small towns and sort of out-of-the-way places. He never said this to me, but I sensed that he was frustrated by this and wondering what exactly had happened.”

Out of Kreskin’s struggles was born the character of Buck Howard. The Great Buck Howard, that is, a mentalist/magician with more than 60 appearances on “The Tonight Show” under his belt. John Malkovich brings Buck to life as only he can - glad-handing and petulant and charming, all at the same time.

“Luckily, I didn’t have to do much because he showed up with this character and was really engaged in the process of trying to bring more to it than was there,” said Mr. McGinly of Mr. Malkovich’s performance. As a result, Mr. McGinly didn’t have to do much in the way of directing, an unnerving prospect for a young director confronted with a towering theatrical presence like Mr. Malkovich.

Taking on the role of Mr. McGinly’s younger self was Colin Hanks, a key figure in getting the project off the ground. His role as the straight man to Buck’s cut-up was harder to craft than some might think, according to Mr. McGinly.

“I think it was challenging, just because John as Buck is such a larger-than-life character and getting to do all these goofy, funny things, and Colin has to play sort of the straight man,” he said. “It’s more challenging because you have to find a hundred different ways to react to a crazy sort of over-the-top performance. It’s challenging technically.”

Mr. Hanks brought more than just his acting skills to the part: He also brought his father, Tom.

“Colin was the first person to come onboard, and then we showed the script to Playtone, which is Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, so I think them putting their stamp of approval on it was what started to get it noticed,” he says.

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