WHO SAYS A SPECIAL-EFFECTS wizard has to be glued to a computer terminal or spend long hours in some studio sweating over a miniature version of Teaneck, N.J.? Last October, on location in Denver for the NBC miniseries Asteroid, which stars Michael Biehn and Annabella Sciorra and airs Feb. 16 and 17, Sam Nicholson found himself leaning out of a helicopter hovering 100 feet over a house wired to explode, and clinging to a camera mounted on the chopper's pontoon. The seconds dragged by. "I'm sitting there thinking, 'When is this going to go? Come on!' " he recalls. "Then the house blows, and I see the whole roof come up at me. It was like a 300-foot fireball. The pilot veered out of the way just in time."
Chalk up another close call for the Master of Disaster. As founder and CEO of Stargate Films, Nicholson, 43, orchestrates big bangs and makes big bucks (over $1 million for some projects) by blowing houses to bits (Eraser), whipping up storm clouds (Twister) or shattering hotels (Dante's Peak). His résumé made him a natural for the story of several giant fireballs that rocket to Earth causing earthquakes, floods and mass destruction. "Sam has a reputation for high-intensity effects," says NBC Entertainment executive vice president Lindy DeKoven. "He gave us more than we expected." Indeed, Stargate's 100 employees created nearly 300 effects for the small-screen story with a big-screen ($19 million) budget, including the construction of a 70-foot miniature Kansas City—which they then flooded with 40,000 gallons of water—and the destruction of downtown Dallas.
Nicholson's explosive career comes as no surprise to his father, Mac, 78, a retired naval engineer who designed the first hydrofoils and ran Sealab, the underwater habitat used to train astronauts. "He had a bent for destruction," says Mac, who counts among his friends astronaut Buzz Aldrin and marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. They visited frequently, and young Sam was inspired by these "guys who lived every day on the edge."
Mac recalls that when Sam was 14, he "set his mattress on fire. We had to throw it out the window." That same year, Nicholson says, "I thought it would be neat to make boats blow up. I mixed up some powdered phosphorus, but it was extremely unstable and went off in my face." He spent two months in the hospital recovering from third-degree burns that seared the freckles from his face and nearly blinded him.
Still, the desire to create spectacular sights never waned. After enrolling at UCLA in 1971 on a painting scholarship, Nicholson, then 18, began experimenting with abstract light sculptures. Impressed, a professor showed his work to Robert Wise, director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, who hired Nicholson for his first movie job: building an engine for the refurbished Enterprise. Less successful was his unwitting use in another scene of powerful lights that gave off UV rays and badly sunburned Stephen Collins ("It was like a bad day at the tanning salon," says Collins, who played Cmdr. Willard Decker). After earning a master's in fine arts in 1979, Nicholson continued creating cutting-edge effects—like the explosion of a full-scale 727 for the '89 film Millennium, which he shot from a flame-retardant box inside the plane. Later that year, he launched Stargate. "We're willing to go over the top," he says. "That's how we built the business."
Today the king of chaos—who boasts that none of his workers has been seriously hurt—lives and works in a 50,000-square-foot rented concrete castle in Burbank. "It's a great commute," he jokes. Divorced (his 10-year marriage to photographer Raulette Woods ended in 1996), he currently dates and spends free time scuba diving and skiing. Mostly, though, he works—18-hour days, seven days a week. His career "is not real great for relationships," he says.
Instead, with his dog Rocket, a terrier mix, Nicholson strolls by an area behind the castle he calls the playpen, where work is in progress on seven projects (the company averages 60 a year). Stepping over orange lava created for the Feb. 23 ABC movie Volcano: Fire on the Mountain, Nicholson points to the spot where, one night last fall, he and his crew ignited a charge for Asteroid so loud it set off car alarms for four blocks and blew out windows. "Five fire engines showed up. People were running down the streets in their nightgowns," Nicholson says with a grin. "I've gotten to know my neighbors real well."
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