Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
November 08, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

The thought of bossing around a man who’s paid $20 million for three months of work — that’s more than three times what the bionic man was worth and comes out to around $333,333.33 a day — might be a bit daunting. But that’s the bounty that box office bonanza Mel Gibson demanded to star in Ransom, a psychological thriller about the kidnapping of a tycoon’s son, and director Ron Howard, making his 12th feature, accepted the challenge without so much as a butterfly in his stomach.

Howard has, after all, proved himself more than adept at handling gigantic actors, reigning over the likes of Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 and Tom Cruise in Far and Away. True, Hanks and Cruise didn’t have to excuse themselves mid-production to go collect an Oscar honoring their own management style behind a camera. But Howard, who’s freezing one of his many baseball caps off in Central Park on this March day, hasn’t been thrown by rearranging the production schedule to accommodate Gibson’s emergency appendectomy, or by suffering through one of the longest and snowiest winters in New York’s history, and he’s not about to be intimidated by the thought that in two weeks, Apollo 13 will be competing with Gibson’s Braveheart for the Best Picture Oscar.

”The easiest thing in the world is to direct directors,” Howard says on the steps leading to Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, where extras and one ancient German shepherd have been practicing running up and down for five hours, in preparation for the kidnapping scene. ”They’re very empathetic with the poor son of a bitch who has to stand out there and figure out what the hell to do next.” Howard blows into his hands as an exhausted extra finally takes pity on the faltering dog and scoops him, mid-flight, into his arms.

Gibson, naturally hyperkinetic, paces in his trailer, now vibrating after one too many cups of coffee. The actor is definitely getting the better end of the deal on Ransom: It’s not exactly an exhausting stretch to play Tom Mullen, a gorgeous gazillionaire who runs an airline empire and is married to a beautiful woman (Rene Russo) and has a perfect 9-year-old son (Brawley Nolte, son of Nick). But just when the audience might drown in envious drool, the son is snatched by a team of kidnappers (Lili Taylor, Walking and Talking‘s Liev Schreiber, Evan Handler, and former New Kid Donnie Wahlberg); Gary Sinise and Delroy Lindo enter the picture as a New York detective and an FBI agent; Gibson’s character eventually refuses to pay the ransom, and the screws begin to tighten.

The pressure is mounting on the set as well: After three months, Ransom‘s shooting schedule has fallen so far behind that Disney has decided to bump the film from its hot-money August spot to a date in early November. ”We could still open in August, but we’d be planning Ron’s memorial service,” explains producer Scott Rudin. But what a way to go: Ransom, which producer Brian Grazer insists cost just $61 million, is such a plush production that a massage table has been set up in the back of the studio in Queens where some interiors are being filmed, and anyone is free to hop on for a rubdown.

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