By Jeannie Park
December 23, 1991 12:00 PM

For six months earlier this year, the set of Steven Spielberg’s Hook, his extravagant, revisionist tale of Peter Pan, was Hollywood’s hottest attraction. Everyone and his mother and father wanted a glimpse of the fantastical $8 million Neverland, with its 70-foot Jolly Roger pirate galleon, the Lost Boys’ labyrinthine tree house and the live storks and flamingos.

“There were some unreal visitors there,” recalls production designer Norman Garwood. “One day you’d be saying excuse me to Demi Moore and then have to shuffle around Whoopi Goldberg and then get a call to come meet Tom Cruise.” Also on the guest list: Michelle Pfeiffer, Jordan’s Queen Noor, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening (their Bugsy was filming next door), Mel Gibson and Prince.

“I don’t think they all came just to see the sets,” says Dustin Hoffman, who plays the villainous title character, Capt. James Hook. “They knew something special was going on.”

Or maybe they just wanted to see for themselves whether Julia Roberts, fresh from her almost-at-the-altar split with Kiefer Sutherland last June, was as emaciated and emotionally fragile a Tinkerbell as rumor insisted. Or whether Hoffman, in keeping with his reputation, was grabbing the directorial reins from Spielberg’s hands. Or whether the just turned 40 Robin Williams was able to fight, fly and crow credibly as the pixieish Pan.

What most visitors observed, in fact, was that Spielberg had managed to get his stars—including Maggie Smith as Wendy, now a great-grandmother, and Bob Hoskins as Hook’s aide-de-ship, Smee—to toss their egos overboard (for the most part) and release the child within for the year’s most eagerly anticipated film.

Indeed, Hook represented a milestone for Spielberg, who turns 44 this week. “I was finally able to break through my 20-year fear of working with movie stars,” says the director, who often sticks with special effects and youthful unknowns (E.T., Empire of the Sun). “My God! It was so easy!”

Of course, working with movie stars is also so-o-o expensive, with Hoffman and Williams (and Spielberg) making off with a guaranteed load of booty even if the movie, which opened around the country last week, doesn’t return the studio’s investment.

With the principals’ pricey deals and a production tab estimated to exceed $60 million, which makes it one of the most expensive movies of all time (Terminator 2 holds first place at a reported $100 million), the film may have to smash all existing box office records just to make a dime.

Initial reviews were mixed, but Spielberg is banking on audiences losing themselves in the same spirited sense of fun that he and the Hook gang seem to have enjoyed while making the film. According to Dante Basco, 16, who leads the band of orphans known as the Lost Boys, “It was like coming to Disneyland to work each day.”

Turning work into play: Steven Spielberg’s comedy club

The mood on Sony soundstage 27 was set each morning in the makeup trailer, says Spielberg, when Hoffman, ostensibly for health reasons, “would down an entire bowl of hot onions and garlic. To counter directing him nose-to-nose, I would have six mouthfuls of the stuff. So Robin would have six mouthfuls too. Together we’d walk onto the set and gross out the entire crew. They’d part like the Red Sea when we came in. That was the best special effect we had, I think.”

Hoffman and Williams would then begin exchanging dirty jokes and limericks in a joust of wits that would continue all day. Luke La-Fontaine, a Hook pirate, recalls, “There was this parrot on the ship, and Robin could imitate it perfectly. Invariably he would screech ‘Aaaack!’ just when Dustin was in the middle of a long scene.”

On one occasion, recalls an extra, “Dustin said, ‘I’ve lost my motivation. Let’s do it again.’ Then Robin quipped, ‘When all else fails, try acting,’ referring to a famous Olivier quote on Method acting [which Sir Laurence flung disdainfully at Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man in 1976]. Dustin was tight-lipped.”

Still, Hoffman managed to get in a few slashes of scimitar wit himself. One day, says pirate David Speaker, “Robin flubbed his lines, and Dustin looked straight into the camera and shrugged, ‘What can you expect from Mork?’ ” Not to be outdone, Robin “did the next take perfectly, then looked into the camera and whispered [referring to Hoffman’s notorious 1987 bomb ], ‘Ishtar is on television tonight.’ ”

Yo ho ho…

Capt. Dustin Hoffman and the (Method) School for Scoundrels

Explaining why he jumped for the rogue’s role, Hoffman points out that the other great movie villains had already been snatched. “I was dying to do the Joker in Batman,” he says of the part Jack Nicholson landed. “And Danny DeVito is playing the Penguin in the next Batman.”

Reveling in his preening Hook persona, which he based in part on columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Hoffman stayed in character between takes, amusing some—and annoying others. Inviting the mermaids to join him, he “drank champagne and Guinness [black velvets],” reports one cast member, “which was OK, ’cause that is what [Hoffman felt] Hook would have drunk, but it also made him a little aggressive and mean spirited. Maybe that was part of his character too. He’d also walk up to any of the girls and ask, ‘Did you dream about me last night?’ ”

Hoffman, as is his tendency, sometimes began calling the shots on the set. “It was weird,” says Basco, who adds that Hoffman generously helped him rehearse his lines. “It was like having a lot of different directors.” But Spielberg says Hoffman’s behind-the-camera forays were helpful, and he proclaims Hook “the most collaborative movie” he has ever made.

Robin Williams as Pan: Not acting his age

For the sake of Pan, Williams, 20 lbs. lighter than in last summer’s The Fisher King, dared go where even Kevin (Robin Hood) Costner wouldn’t: into a pair of green tights. By all accounts, the actor-comedian was a pirate’s treasure chest of mirth. “He was like another one of the kids,” says Lost Boy Basco. “He’d do things like dance really funny to make us laugh.” Says mermaid Regina Russell: “He was always calling us Sushi or Sashimi.” Raushan Hammond, the 9-year-old who plays the rotund Lost Boy Thudbutt, recalls that when he asked Williams to play Mork, the actor obliged with a hilarious routine about Mork hooking up with Barbara Bush.

According to Charlie Korsmo, 13, who plays the grown-up Pan’s son, Jack (see box, page 96), “Robin also has a shy, serious side. He gave me a computer, and he’d come in and play computer simulations.” Production designer Garwood says, “We were always having kids in wheelchairs visit, and Robin would always take the time to go talk with them.”

Julia Roberts: Travails of a troubled Tinkerbell

If Williams, Hoffman and Spielberg sometimes earned on like the Three Musketeers—or the Three Stooges—then the odd woman out was Julia Roberts, exhausted from coping with the Sutherland breakup and a blossoming romance with Jason Patric. Because of her frail state of mind and body, she was plagued with rumors of drug abuse, which she has called “just absurd.”

At one point the Hollywood buzz said she might be replaced, but Spielberg rises to her defense. “Julia was fine to work with,” he says. “Her biggest problem was timing. Her personal life fell apart, and she reported to work on the same weekend. It was a bad time for her, and under those highly charged emotional conditions, she was a pro.”

Still, says Garwood, when Roberts left for a trip to Ireland with Patric before she was scheduled to begin filming, “There was a lot of tension arising from the will-she-or-won’t-she-show-up question. The producers seemed really worried, and some of the worrying spread down to us. We would have to work on one set instead of another to time it with her arrival.”

Perhaps the most telling incident occurred when Roberts was heading toward the set one afternoon, where her Tinkerbell (who is 7″ tall onscreen) was filmed against a blue background screen, and heard a voice calling, “Hey, Kieffo, get over here.” At that, Roberts bolted for her trailer, telling the set coordinator, “Get him out of here. I don’t want to see him! Call security. How did he get on the lot?” “Who?” asked the puzzled coordinator, “Kiefer,” said Roberts. “Kiefer?” replied the coordinator. “They were calling Kieffo. You know, Dustin’s stunt double.”

Roberts’s recent prickliness about public attention apparently caused Williams some concern. According to one cast member, “Robin said to me, ‘I hope Julia is going to be kind to all those kids that come up to her and expect her to be Tink. Tinkerbell is magical.’ ”

Captain Hook’s pirate crew: Trying not to monkey around

Not everyone in Neverland was filled with happy thoughts. Recruited at biker hangouts, the 150 salty sea dogs, who mostly lie around Pirate Wharf drunk and dazed, were governed on the set by six coordinators and a printed list of 35 rules, including: “Do not talk to the principals. Do not touch the principals. Do not ask for autographs. Do not eat or drink the cast or crew’s food. No taking pictures. Do not touch the animals. Do not pet the monkey [a Neverland resident] or YOU WILL BE FIRED.” (Two pirates were exempt: David Crosby, who has a cameo, and Glenn Close, whose character is punished for disloyalty to Hook.)

Between scenes the extras were sent to a holding area on another soundstage, where they were fed pretzels and water, while the stars reportedly enjoyed tastier snacks of soup and chili. A few pirates contemplated mutiny. “The hierarchy on the set was hard to take,” grumbled one. “I personally was thinking of petting that monkey on several occasions.”

Family fun: How Peter Pan finally discovered fatherhood

Behavior on the set may have been a bit infantile at times, but then where would Hook be without children? In Nowhere and probably. After all, it was screenwriter Jim Hart’s son, Jake, 12, who first floated the idea that became the movie’s whimsical underpinning. To wit, says Jake: “The crocodile didn’t eat Hook [as at the end of author J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan] because Hook got away.” Jake later clinched the Hook premise during a traditional Hart family dinner game, What If. “What if,” he asked, “Peter Pan grew up?”

In Hook, Peter has become cutthroat lawyer Peter Banning, an inattentive father of two, who must remember his past as Pan in order to save his kids from the scurrilous Hook. Williams, Hoffman, Hoskins and Spielberg—all dads—helped flesh out the paternal elements of the story. “We all became very conscious of being fathers,” says Roger Rabbit star Hoskins, who has two children at home, ages 6 and 8. “We’d come to work and say, ‘What wonderful story did you tell your kid last night? Did you play ball with him?’ There was this competition.

You know, ‘I’m better with my kids.’ ”

Ultimately, Hoffman may have taken the prize because his son Jake, 10, got a part in a pirate baseball scene and Max, 7, got to play Pan as a young boy. “Steven kept saying. ‘I in looking for a kid who looks like Max,’ ” recalls Hoffman, “so we finally decided he should just do it.”

Memories of movies past: Over the rainbow in Neverland

One day, visual consultant John Napier took his friend, Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, and her son Jesse Cole, 7, on a walk through the sets he had designed. As Napier recalls, “She started to cry, and when I asked why, she said, ‘Did you realize this is the same soundstage where my mother made The Wizard of Oz? This movie is the closest thing that’s ever been done to that, and it’s too overwhelming for me.’ ”

Through good days and bad, says British actress Caroline Goodall, who plays Wendy’s granddaughter and Peter’s wife, every Hook hand felt the power of Neverland’s Oz-like spell. “You couldn’t help feeling you had the chance there to make another classic,” Goodall says. “You could feel the magic at work.”