After three days of testimony before the Iran-contra committees, Lt. Col. Oliver North is hotter than a Hawk missile. He is poised on the brink of celebrity fission. This is the metaphysical process by which a flash of fame is converted into books, movies, money and all the other basic elements of mass consumption -- an unstoppable chain reaction whose end product is a hot property.
"My heart is pounding," casting director Jane Feinberg said yesterday from Hollywood, where she has been getting up at 6 each morning to watch Ollie in the dock. "I gotta tell you, I'm opposed to his politics, but I respect this man so much. I wept, I cried, when he told that story about his wife -- you know, 'she's probably hearing this for the first time' ... Oh! This man got to me!"
Feinberg is not alone. Judging from the swooning reactions of several book publishers, agents and TV types who say they have been riveted by North's performance, the loyal Marine will soon be receiving enough "enticements" (as he might term them) to fill the Halls of Montezuma and flood the Shores of Tripoli.
"There's almost no price that he couldn't exact," said New York literary agent Esther Newberg.
"We've always had a great deal of interest," said Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, "and we have a great deal more now."
"Random House has made it clear to anybody who'd listen that we'd be very interested in talking about Oliver North's book," said Peter Osnos, the firm's associate publisher. "There is something about him that is just very compelling. A book by North has the potential to be remarkable."
"The best actor I've seen on television," said Barbara Brogliatti, vice president of corporate communications for Lorimar Telepictures.
"I think he could be a motion picture star," said Feinberg's partner Mike Fenton, who dreams of casting the colonel as an American war correspondent in a soon-to-be-made picture titled "The Bengal Lancers." "I have not met Ollie North personally, but I think in his persona, there is something that can be magic. He is arresting. He is charming. Those moments when he talks to his counsel and puts his hand over the mike, with that cute little smile. When he makes his asides, drops his little bon mots. That twinkle in his eye."
Then there's the question of who could star in "Oliver North: The Movie."
"I see him as more Treat Williams than Dean Jones," said Brogliatti. "He's not the boy next door. He's not Mr. Golly Gosh. But he's not slick, or what you'd consider a polished military man. He's warmer than that."
As for "Oliver North: The Book," Korda would look for a "good collaborating writer," who could be tempted to share a probable seven-figure advance.
"No price is crazy if you can earn it back with a best seller," Korda said, contrasting North with former budget director David Stockman, who received more than $2 million for his memoirs, creating another huge deficit. "You have Ollie North, Iran, the president, missiles, Israel, intrigue and espionage. That sounds like a more appetizing package than how we put together the public budget."
Korda would not be troubled if such a book were self-serving. "What is an autobiography for, if not to be self-serving?" he demanded. "In the entire history of literature, has anyone written one that is not? Why should Ollie? Did Julius Caesar begin his book, 'I murdered many innocent Gaulish women and children'? Come on!"
Korda and Osnos agreed that a book about, rather than by, North would be a dicier proposition. Not so, said New York publisher Donald Fine, who is bringing out just such a book -- by Boston Globe reporter Ben Bradlee Jr. -- and predicted 100,000 copies in advance orders for its late-fall release. "I think what we've seen on the tube only heightens the possibilities for the book," Fine said, adding that as soon as Bradlee delivers it, "we will crash-produce it."
It is the only book about North in the works, so far as Fine has been able to determine. "Of course, I'm not searching for bad news," he added.
Meanwhile, Bernie Swain, a partner in Washington Speakers Bureau, which handles television personalities, said North has improved his stock as a lecturer for hire. But he cautioned, "People who make news sometimes last and sometimes don't last, and it's just too early to tell whether he's viable. There's a big difference between a movie or a book and speaking to major corporations and trade associations."
The question, said Swain, is whether North could tell "American corporate executives ... something constructive or important to either their business or the country."
Even if he could, North's future as a megacommodity could be seriously (as he might say) "at risk." Newberg warned that he must not appear too eager, lest he lose his heroic sheen. "As soon as he decides to sell to the highest bidder, the price will go down in a second," she said. "I think you'll find that if he's the guy he says he is -- who did it all for love of country and the Corps -- well, the Semper Fi type does not do 'Live at Five.' "
On the other hand, Newberg added, "if the news broke that Oliver North has decided that he would never sell his story, the Republicans would have to beat back his presidential candidacy with a stick."