July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

THE PHONE RANG AT 2 A.M. LONDON time. John Darnton picked up the bedroom extension while his wife, Nina, took the phone in the hall. On the line was movie agent Bob Bookman with knee-weakening news: Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG studio had just paid more than $1 million for the screen rights to Darnton’s first novel, Neanderthal. “We put the phones down, and we did a little victory dance in the hallway,” says Darnton, 54, of that fateful night last year. “And we didn’t go back to sleep.”

A little lost shut-eye is the only apparent downside to Darnton’s first foray into fiction after 30 years as a journalist. Currently the London bureau chief of The New York Times, the rumpled, soft-spoken author has been on a serious roll since accepting a modest $25,000 advance from Random House to write a story of cavemen discovered alive and well in present-day Tajikistan. The book, which spent eight weeks on the Times bestseller list and has been published in 20 countries, raked in another $1.5 million for paperback rights. “It’s been astounding,” says Darnton, from his Belgravia flat. “We’ve gone through a couple of really frenzied days.”

Not that his life lacked excitement before Hollywood came calling: Darnton the journalist has been strip-searched in Zaire, arrested in Nigeria—and he had to smuggle his dispatches past armed soldiers in Communist Poland. Born in New York City to Byron, a globe-trotting war correspondent for the Times, and his wife, Eleanor, the paper’s first women’s editor, Darnton never knew his father. On assignment off New Guinea during World War II, Byron was killed by friendly fire when his son was 11 months old. Raised in Connecticut and Washington, Darnton lost a chance to go to Harvard when he got kicked out of prep school for sneaking out of his dorm at night. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied science and psychology and met—”on our first day of our first class in college,” says Darnton—his future wife, Nina Lieberman, a comparative literature student. They married two months after he graduated in 1966.

Next came the start of another long love affair, with the Times. At his mother’s urging, Darnton took a job as a copy boy and quickly worked his way up to reporter. Drawn to his father’s old beat, he covered wars and coups in Zaire, Nigeria and Somalia before winning a 1982 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his coverage of the Solidarity movement in Poland. (His brother Robert, 56, a Princeton history professor, won a MacArthur genius award the same year.)

While working in Altamira, Spain, in 1983, the Pulitzer Prize winner was knocked out by the beautiful and majestic ancient cave drawings he saw there. Darnton became a casual student of prehistory and got the idea for Neanderthal after reading a 1991 article about primitive and more developed humans coexisting for thousands of years. Working as the weekend news editor in Manhattan at the time, Darnton got antsy on his two free weekdays. “I was bored out of my mind,” he says, “and it just forced me to come up with this project.”

At first his wife was not exactly clubbed on the head by the novel idea. “When he told me he was going to write about these fascinating Neanderthals, I looked at him and said, ‘I guess it’s just not my kind of book,’ ” remembers Nina, 52, a freelance writer. “But when it became a love story as well as an adventure story, I really got hooked.” Back at the bureau, Darnton assigned himself to cover the 1995 Tory leadership challenge. “The boys at the office were worried that I would mix my Neanderthals in with the elections,” he laughs, “and would anyone notice the difference?”

In 1994, Darnton’s agent Kathy Rob-bins sent five chapters to Random House, and within a year three movie studios were bidding for screen rights. After signing on with Spielberg, whom he has never met, Darnton realized he had unfinished business: the rest of the novel. “I just flat-out worked every day on it,” he says, finally finishing it in January, five years after writing word one. Ironically another author, Petru Popescu, completed a similar tale, Almost Adam, around the same time. Though Popescu’s book sold to 20th Century Fox for $1.5 million, Neanderthal has clobbered it in sales.

As for his unexpected windfall, it’s been a godsend, says Darnton, who had to mortgage his Greenwich, Conn., home twice to put his daughters Kyra, 25, and Liza, 22, through Duke University. (The Darntons’ son Jamie is 13.) Darnton plans further adventures in fiction after he leaves London for New York this fall to become the Times’s culture editor. “It makes me less moody than writing a complicated news story that has to be in by 5 or 6 o’clock,” he says. “That’s the most pressurized situation imaginable. In fact, I don’t know why I’m still doing it for a living.” So why not move to Hollywood and schmooze with Spielberg and company? “I think I’ll leave the movie to them,” says Darnton. “They know what they’re doing.”



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