He's not a dimpleton like Harry Hamlin, or a weather-beaten blue-eyed hunk a la Harrison Ford. In fact, roly-poly, gold-braceleted and mustachioed Steve Pieczenik looks more like a ladies' shoe salesman than a Tom Clancy super-hero.
That's real life for you.
But like Clancy's scholarly analyst Jack Ryan, the Chevy Chase psychiatrist and author has worked as an investment banker and been an adviser to several presidents. He is an expert on national security, international crisis management and hostage negotiation, and is the brains behind "Tom Clancy's Op Center,' " the best-selling paperback (which neither man actually wrote) and much-hyped NBC miniseries, the second part of which airs tonight. There are plans for several more episodes, depending on the ratings, and more paperbacks.
As co-executive producer, Pie\czenik (pronounced pa-CHEN-ik) joins the ranks of Washington types who have managed to translate the often mundane inner workings of government bureaucracy into a fantasized world of sex, intrigue, bad embassy parties, Georgetown real estate, duplicitous blond newshens and a president -- based more on JFK than on the current occupant of the Oval Office, the creator says -- who can't keep his pants on. A sort of "ER" for policy wonks.
"I've done the op center," says Pie\czenik, referring to his days in the State Department's version of an emergency room, sitting in the modern-art-filled living room of his home. "I got addicted to crisis." But while he had the expertise, he didn't have the fame. Hence Clancy's name above the title. "If this were called Steve Pie\czenik's "Op Center," ' how many people would show up?" he says ruefully, crossing his legs. (It is also doubtful that 4 million copies of the book would have been shipped with his name alone.)
A classical pianist who speaks five languages -- including Russian -- he wrote a full-length musical at the age of 8, and got his PhD in international relations from MIT during his spare time while studying at Harvard Medical School. Pieczenik met Clancy years ago, and the two struck up a friendship. What the psychiatrist offers Clancy is invaluable inside knowledge and a sense of authenticity. What Clancy offers in return is knowledge few eggheads ever acquire: how to create a commercially viable franchise and engineer the inevitable spinoffs without too much heavy lifting.
"Op Center," from which Clancy and Pieczenik will share the profits, was born when the two sat down at their respective computers via America Online and fleshed out the characters and story lines. Their e-mail was turned over to screenwriter and co-executive producer Steve Sohmer for the $12 million miniseries. The book, which has a different plot, was penned by uncredited ghostwriter Jeff Rovin, leaving Pieczenik free to write his own thrillers, including the just-published "Pax Pacifica."
"I don't know if he's a model for Jack Ryan," says Clancy, "but we're buddies. It's that simple. He consults me on stuff. I consult him on stuff."
Like the fictional Jack Ryan (whose wife is an eye surgeon), Pie\czenik is happily married -- to a criminologist. And like Ryan, he is devoted to his family (he has two daughters) and has a circle of highly accomplished friends. Also like Clancy's fictional alter ego, Pieczenik can be an outspoken pain in the butt. "He's very shrewd, very aggressive and has very strong opinions," says a journalist friend.
The first clue that he had a problem with authority came in the second grade when a teacher smacked him in the face. He slapped her back. Years later, in 1979, he resigned as a deputy assistant secretary of state over the handling of the Iranian hostage crisis. He calls himself a "maverick troublemaker. You make your own rules. You pay the consequences."
In 1992, Pieczenik told Newsday that in his professional opinion, President Bush was "clinically depressed." "Boy, did I get flak for that." He was brought up on an ethics charge before the American Psychiatric Association and reprimanded. "It was a kangaroo court," he says. "It's unconstitutional. I can say whatever I want." He subsequently quit the APA.
As for Hollywood, the town can be summed up, he says, in the following line: " Enough about me, let's talk about you. What do you think about me?' There's no substance. No gravitas. They've all re-created themselves. They have no moral center. They have no basic talent center. Most of their experience is living in Beverly Hills, with their Rolls-Royces, smoking cigars. It's not real. I don't have a tolerance for that. You couldn't pay me to live there."
Dealing with Idi Amin and Manuel Noriega was one thing. The tyrants of Hollywood are a different story. "They're not used to a character like me. I can be lethally shrewd. If you play games, I will spot you in a second. That's what they're not used to. It's not a pleasant experience." (There was a nasty battle, he says, over screen credits, but he declines to elaborate.)
When in Los Angeles, he stays at the Vagabond Hotel on Ventura Boulevard for $59 a night and power-breakfasts at Denny's. "I always remind myself where I come from. I started from nothing. I'm one meal away from nothing. I don't take anything for granted."
His father, a doctor, fled Poland before World War II. His mother, a Russian Jew, fled Europe after many of her family members were killed. They met in Cuba, where Pieczenik was born -- out of wedlock, he specifies -- in 1943. Seven years later, after living for a time in a France still ravaged by the war, the family was allowed to immigrate to America.
The early experience was a blueprint for his upwardly mobile life: "You don't have a notion of security. There were no rules." The family settled in Manhattan, and the young boy experienced a rich cultural life.
"Money and power wasn't the issue. It was intellectualism. You have to create, develop and achieve," he says.
But you can never achieve enough.
He is asked if the accomplishments -- the scholarships to college and med school; the graduate degrees; the high-profile government service; the dabbling in real estate and banking -- are all some form of overcompensation.
"Yes, in some ways, perhaps."
Seemingly fearless, Pieczenik says he's faced many a personal crisis. "I'm not afraid of anything. . . . What's to fear? Bankruptcy? I've seen it. Violence? I've been there."
But there's the nagging question:
If he's so smart, how come he's not rich?
Fortunately, Tom Clancy is taking care of that. "I bullied him into getting a computer," says the mega-selling, megabucks author, who recently lashed out at screenwriters for not churning out the words at the same breakneck speed he does. "And getting a doctor computer-literate isn't the easiest thing in the world." CAPTION: Steve Pieczenik, co-executive producer of NBC's "Op Center," on his days at the State Department: "I've done the op center. I got addicted to crisis." CAPTION: Steve Pieczenik: "I started from nothing. . . . I don't take anything for granted."