By John Stark
December 10, 1984 12:00 PM

Under the outlandish fright wig that Tom Hulce sports as Mozart in the movie Amadeus is a mane of brown, tempest-tossed hair, which he continually runs his fingers through, combing it down and messing it up. His face is joyously mobile: Mouth, eyes, nostrils, brow all seem to go their own ways. Yet every so often, if only for a second, everything comes together and he looks dashingly handsome. On this cold autumn day he sits in front of a crackling fire in a Connecticut cottage, where he’s resting up after a European promo tour. If this were a movie, a Mozart concerto would definitely be on the sound track.

Until the smashing success of Amadeus, Hulce, who turns 30 this week, was virtually unknown to movie audiences. The actor had secondary leads in National Lampoon’s Animal House, Those Lips, Those Eyes and September 30, 1955. His biggest stage success was as Peter Firth’s replacement on Broadway in Equus, the play Peter Shaffer wrote before Amadeus. Although steadily employed, Hulce was “slowly going into debt,” he says. That all changed when director Milos Forman picked him over Baryshnikov, Bowie and all the other names who coveted the plum role of Mozart. The only person not surprised by Forman’s decision was Hulce, whose naïveté seems genuine. “I really believe if I’m the best person for the role, I’ll be hired,” he says. “That’s always been my experience.”

In part Forman tapped Hulce because “he looked believable playing the piano,” says the director. Although the movie’s sound track was prerecorded with professional musicians, Hulce really is pounding out those notes. “It was my job to have it all seem effortless and believable,” Hulce says. “I never knew when the camera was going to be on my fingers.” Before going to Prague for filming, Hulce hired a piano teacher. “I spent four weeks, four to five hours a day learning to play. The first two days were scales and exercises. The next day was a concerto.” All that hard work had an unexpected payoff. “It helped me understand Mozart,” claims Hulce. “How someone could write from morning to dark, then go out and drink and dance and carry on. The energy from my piano playing got me all revved up to go out and trash myself.”

During a masked-ball sequence in Amadeus, Mozart astonishes guests by playing the piano while lying backward, his hands crossed behind his head. “Milos has a way of asking people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do,” Hulce says. “He said to me, ‘Of course you’ll do this trick,’ with such innocence and simplicity that I agreed.” Hulce was amazed that he could learn the stunt. But not Forman. “He rarely said anything. I would only hear when he didn’t like something. I would hear fast and hard,” says Hulce.

Actors who have worked with the Czechoslovakian director agree he’s not one to give compliments. After a long flight from New York to Prague, Hulce was driven directly to the set to begin rehearsals. “I was trying to open a door on one set and speak at the same time when I heard Milos bellow, ‘What are you doing? How can you do two things at once?’ He just started in. At that point I didn’t know who or where I was.” Six months of filming in a Communist country left Hulce and the rest of the cast somewhat paranoid. “When I would be talking on the phone and mention something about living conditions there, the connection would go bad,” he says. “Who knows? It might be a coincidence. It might not.”

The obnoxious laugh Hulce created for Mozart has provoked extreme reactions. Some viewers are charmed. Others liken it to fingernails on a blackboard. “The laugh is historical,” says Hulce. “People who knew Mozart refer to it in their letters. Milos asked for something extreme. I paced around my loft in New York before the first screen test. I know a director who is quite brilliant, but when he laughs you think he is of subnormal intelligence. The next day I said to Milos, ‘I’m going to do this. Just tell me if you think it’s too much.’ ” Re-creating the cackle was no laughing matter. “I’ve never been able to make that sound except in front of a camera. When we did the looping nine months later, I couldn’t find the laugh. I had to raid the producer’s private bar and have a shot of whiskey to jar myself into it.”

Although he deliberately kept his distance from co-star F. Murray Abraham, 45, who plays rival composer Salieri, Hulce did become close friends with Elizabeth Berridge, who plays Mozart’s wife. Says Berridge, “He’s wise and hysterically funny. I’d marry him in a second if he’d ask.” But according to Hulce, who has no steady, “When it comes to commitment, I’m in the next county already.”

Acting has attracted Hulce since he was a kid growing up near Ann Arbor, Mich. The youngest of four kids, Hulce performed in local musicals, including Peter Pan. “Yes, I got to fly! It was excellent!” he says. Before getting married, his mother was a singer in an “all-girl orchestra” in New York. His father is a management exec for Ford Motor Co. When his parents were divorcing, the 16-year-old found sanctuary at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he spent two and a half years studying theater. During that time he directed a stage drama in Florida starring Polly Holliday, who recommended him for an apprenticeship at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Six weeks later he auditioned for Equus. After nine months as an understudy, he took over the role of the troubled teenager.

Hulce has followed Amadeus with a small-budget, still-unreleased film, Echo Park. Shot in L.A. and the Austrian Alps, it’s about a stripper, a bodybuilder and a pizza deliveryman (played by Hulce)—all of whom are trying to make it in show business. “It’s an offbeat, quirky film; I hope it works,” he says. With the fame that Amadeus brought, Hulce is hoping to alternate gracefully from stage to film. “I don’t, however, have a clear image of myself,” he says. “How do you see my face?” Recently he and Shaffer sneaked into a packed screening of Amadeus in New York, where the actor owns a Lower Manhattan loft. Hulce found looking at himself an uncomfortable experience. “It was like making love with someone while sitting and watching yourself do it, with 500 other people sitting and watching,” he says.

In no way did Hulce think a movie about a classical composer would be so popular, especially with younger audiences. “Teachers don’t tell us the truth about historical people,” he says. “If we knew the truth, parents couldn’t hold their lives up as examples. Mozart rebelled against authority, married badly, gambled obsessively, drank, danced and rolled around a lot.” When Hulce saw Prince in Purple Rain, he wasn’t ready for a certain juxtaposition that helps explain Amadeus’ appeal. “To my surprise they showed a preview for Amadeus,” says Hulce. “It was exciting. Mozart was wearing the same clothes as a rock star in 1984!” Throwing another log on the fire, he muses, “I guess the good things just keep coming back.”