The Beatles, Bond, Twiggy -- the English exported some mighty powerful pop icons in the 1960s. But this one -- a hit Brit TV show about a futuristic family of puppets who zip around the planet in funky rocket ships rescuing other puppets from earthquakes and monorail crashes -- never quite caught on in America. Which makes Universal's $70 million live-action adaptation of ''Thunderbirds'' a huge gamble: Aside from nostalgic Englanders, who'll line up to see it? ''We can't even think about that,'' answers director Jonathan Frakes. ''We just have to make a fun, entertaining movie -- not too serious, not too campy -- that people can enjoy even if they've never heard of 'Thunderbirds.'''
In fact, the only Yank on the film's Pinewood Studios set who had heard of the show is Bill Paxton, who plays patriarch Jeff Tracy, the billionaire ex-astronaut who runs the supersecret International Rescue from his private island in the Pacific. ''I grew up in Texas but was a total Anglophile,'' he explains. ''I watched anything English.''
Even some of the British cast seem fuzzy about the ''Thunderbirds'' history. ''I knew about the show but didn't really understand how huge it was in England,'' says 24-year-old Sophia Myles, who stars as Lady Penelope, IR's unflappable London agent (who communicates with Tracy Island via teapot phone). ''But right after I got cast, all these British newspapers had big headlines about how I had been picked as Lady P. It was actually a little scary.''
Anthony Edwards, who plays Brains, the stuttering genius who designs IR's fantastical flying machines, suffered some scary moments too. ''Whenever I tell an English person that I'm in this movie, they always ask me if the actors are going to have strings, like the puppets in the original,'' he says. ''Even smart people ask me that.'' For the record, the answer is no.
THE GOOD NEWS At least the acting won't be as wooden as the original's.
THE BAD NEWS After seeing a final cut, Universal decided to market the movie strictly for kids, meaning the potential audience just got a lot smaller.