David Hochman
September 06, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Even the movie version of Primary Colors, Joe Klein’s no-longer-anonymous roman a clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, is surrounded by mystery. The big question these days: Since Tom Hanks abruptly turned down the role, who will play the film’s lead? Although Jack Nicholson and John Malkovich have been mentioned for other parts (along with Emma Thompson, the current front-runner to play the President’s ambitious wife), the most intriguing presidential candidate so far has been John Travolta. ”He’s always been interested,” says Travolta’s manager, Jonathan Krane, ”and he’s seriously considering it.” Travolta certainly has Clintonlike traits (a baby-booming belly, a prominent nose), but don’t jump on the President Barbarino bandwagon just yet. ”He’s got eight other offers on the table for his winter slot,” says Krane. (Colors may begin in February for a fall ’97 release.)

Universal is playing down Hanks’ sudden decision, saying, in the words of spokesman Stu Zakim, ”The movie doesn’t have a script yet, let alone actors or an official start date.” But insiders believe the studio and filmmaker Mike Nichols, who reportedly put up more than $1.5 million to win the motion picture rights to the film, were roundly stunned. The Oscar-winning actor gave no official reason for passing and declined to comment for this story.

The only sure thing now is that Hanks’ exit is likely to spark some major campaigning among top-level actors vying for the part. As Zakim says, ”The search for the actor will probably end up being as heated as the search was for the book’s author.”

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