04/13/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
AROUND THE OFFICES OF THE Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, they know Dan Gearino as a curious character, a tall, gangly, low-key guy who keeps his graying hair in a buzz-cut, designates particular clothes for particular days of the week and says he eats the same breakfast and dinner every day of the week. "He's a dork and he knows it," features writer Gigi Anders says good-naturedly. "I think it's nuts he still wants to work here."
They also know that Gearino, 44, whose first novel, What the Deaf-Mute Heard, was published in 1996, is on his way to becoming one of Hollywood's favorite writers. Made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie starring James Earl Jones and Matthew Modine, What the Deaf Man Heard (as the upbeat, folksy film was retitled) attracted nearly 37 million viewers when CBS aired it last Nov. 23—more than any other show in the Hallmark series' 47-year history. Now, Gearino's second novel, Counting Coup, published in July, has been snapped up by PolyGram TV, whose senior vice president Karen Danaher-Dorr calls Gearino one of today's most appealing writers. "There's a strong emotional core to his work," she says. "He creates characters you care about."
Like Sammy, played in What the Deaf Man Heard by Modine. Abandoned at a bus stop by his mother as a child, Sammy remembers her last words—"Not one more word out of you!"—and takes her command literally. Completely silent and feigning deafness for the next 20 years, Sammy learns the darkest secrets of the small southern town that adopts him. Gearino identifies with the outsider role. "I'm suspicious of anything that involves any group of people," he says—a trait he also shares with the disillusioned newspaper columnist at the center of Counting Coup. "Both characters chafe at the notion they should behave a certain way," notes Gearino.
The elder son of George Gearino, now 69, a retired government auditor, and his wife, Grace, 66, a retired manager for the Mutual radio network, George Daniel Jr. chafed plenty as a kid in the schools of Doraville, Ga., a crossroads town near Atlanta. "I was always thinking about other things," he says. "But it appeared to me fairly quickly that good writing would get you through a lot of tests." After graduating from the University of Georgia, the aspiring journalist responded to an ad from the Alberta Report in 1975 and moved to Canada without realizing he had mistakenly accepted a job as an ad salesman rather than a reporter. "I thought, 'What the heck, it's an adventure,' " he says and went on to become advertising manager before moving to the newsroom in 1977.
He was a journeyman reporter and editor at newspapers in Miami, Denver and Flint, Mich., where he met wife Karolyn in the marketing department of the Flint Journal. Married in 1982, they now have a daughter, Meghan, 14, and a son, Evan, 12. Gearino found his way to Raleigh in 1993, signing on at the News & Observer as business editor. But as his family settled in, memories of an earlier stab at fiction writing made Gearino restless. "I said to myself, 'If you're going to write a book, you better do it now.' " So he set his alarm for 4:15 the next morning, and after 18 months of predawn labor, finished a draft of Deaf-Mute. An agent in New York City helped sell the book to Simon & Schuster for an advance that Gearino calls the "low five figures," and a year later, Hallmark Productions bought the movie rights for 10 times that amount. When Gearino sold the rights (at a "substantially greater" rate, he says) to Counting Coup, he had enough to remodel his kitchen.
But don't think Gearino—who recently started writing a weekly human interest column—will let success go to his head. With a third novel nearly done and ideas for another two percolating, he can afford to be amused by the Armani-clad hotshots he saw observing him from afar during a breakfast meeting at Hollywood's Bel Age Hotel. "For a moment you feel like a real Hollywood insider," he says. "Until breakfast is over. Then you become a nobody again." Munching on a $1.60 ham salad sandwich at the counter of Elliott's Pharmacy in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., Gearino seems to prefer it that way.
PETER AMES CARLIN
GRACE LIM in Raleigh