May 07, 2001 12:00 PM

Thomas Jane wasn’t exactly dressed to impress when he auditioned last year for the role of Mickey Mantle in HBO’s baseball drama 61*, making its debut April 28. Not only was his hair long and untamed from shooting the forthcoming thriller Original Sin with Angelina Jolie in Mexico, his aversion to footwear was abundantly clear. “If I don’t wear shoes, it relaxes me,” he says.

“Here is this guy with hair down to his shoulders, slight, barefooted,” recalls Billy Crystal, for whom directing the story of Mantle and New York Yankees teammate Roger Maris’s 1961 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record was a labor of love. “I brought him one of Mickey’s jerseys, a hat and a bat. We pinned his hair up and I interviewed him as Mickey. Everyone said, ‘Oh my God, here he is!’ I said, ‘And you can play, right?’ ” Jane, alas, played stickball as a boy, but “I never had a glove,” he says. “I never swung a real bat. I told Billy, ‘I don’t know how to play baseball.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’ll learn.’ He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

Viewers tuning in to 61* (the asterisk refers to the fact that Maris achieved his record in a season eight games longer than the one in which Ruth played) will see more than Jane’s surprising resemblance to the dimpled golden boy from Oklahoma. According to one discerning critic, Jane, 32, costarring with Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan), who plays Maris, captured the Mick’s essence. “He brought across the way Dad was,” says David Mantle, 45, whose hard-drinking father died at 63 of liver cancer in 1995. Visiting the set at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium last year, Mantle says, “I thought I was watching Dad and Roger back in ’61.”

Tutoring by Crystal, who in Mantle’s later years became a close friend of his boyhood idol, helped Jane know his character inside out. “I was able to be Tom’s Jiminy Cricket,” says Crystal, 53. “I know how Mickey salted his food, how he held a fork and knife, how he laughed, how he cursed.” Says Jane: “They flooded me with stuff about Mickey. And I spoke a lot with his sons [David and Danny, 41]. They wanted me to tell it like it was. They didn’t want an idealized version. They wanted to see their dad.”

To make it happen, Jane gained 20 lbs. on a high-protein diet and underwent a rigorous eight-week training program with former major-leaguer Reggie Smith. By the time it was over, Jane had mastered the Hall of Famer’s switch-hitting batting style as well as his injury-hobbled gait. “He was a different guy,” says Crystal. “He became a ballplayer.”

Off the field, Jane has rarely shown that kind of swagger. “He was painfully shy,” Jane’s girlfriend, actress Olivia d’Abo (TV’s The Wonder Years), 32, recalls of their first meeting, in 1994. “He held his head low and I could barely see his eyes.” And d’Abo, who lives with Jane in a three-bedroom hilltop home in Studio City, north of Hollywood, noticed one other thing: “He had a delightfully funny walk.”

The quirkiness didn’t end there. Jane, whose given name is Thomas Elliott, adopted his mother’s maiden name as his own because, he says simply, “I like having a woman’s first name as a last name.” The oldest of six children of a Maryland biotech company owner, Michael, 59, and his antiques-dealer wife, Cynthia, 54, Jane discovered acting in high school. At 17, he dropped out after landing a part in a movie that was cast in the U.S. but shot in India. “It was a mind-boggling, life-altering experience,” he says of the six months he spent overseas.

Back in the U.S., Jane eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he did the Hollywood shuffle with little luck. “I had a $2 suitcase and a $2 suit,” says Jane, who found that acting jobs came intermittently. “I slept on park benches.”

After he landed a role in 1997’s Boogie Nights, cushier parts—and accommodations—followed, including a leading role in the 1999 shark-bait flick Deep Blue Sea. “Thomas has a very Gary Cooper quality; he’s confident in his own skin,” says Roger Kumble, who directs Jane and costar Cameron Diaz in The Sweetest Thing, a romantic comedy (due next year). To prepare for a scene at a golf course, Jane found himself in training once again. “All I have to do is look like I know what I’m doing when I swing a golf club,” he says with Mantlelike charm. “It’s a walk in the park.”

Steve Dougherty

Cynthia Wang and Mary Green in Los Angeles

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