From pirate captive to hot media property

Could George Clooney play him in a film?

Being rescued by Navy SEALs who killed his pirate captors off the coast of Africa can definitely change a man. But for Capt. Richard Phillips, meeting the president, testifying in Congress, throwing out the first pitch at a Red Sox game and landing a half-million-dollar book deal are part of the heady experiences that have turned him from sea captain to hot media property.

Phillips’ name was etched into the public consciousness in April when he selflessly gave himself to Somali pirates in exchange for the safety of the crew of his ship. And while the story had a decidedly happy ending for everyone but the pirates, Phillips is still sorting through the aftermath.

Accompanied by his wife, Andrea, on Thursday, Phillips told TODAY’s Matt Lauer he’s still wading through the floods of offers pouring in. He believes he’s still the same humble seafarer who upon his release claimed he was only a small part of the amazing story.

“I don’t think it’s changed me,” he said. “There’s more opportunities and there’s more decisions. It’s more complicated than it was previously in my life.”

Clooney as Phillips?
Smiles, laughter and friendly exchanges came easily between Phillips and Lauer, who previously interviewed the captain just days after his daring and risky Easter Sunday rescue. Lauer quizzed the couple on the upcoming plans, including whom they would like to play them on the big screen now that Sony/Columbia Pictures has bought the rights to Richard Phillips’ story.

“I would like to play myself,” Andrea Phillips asserted. While Lauer laughed and asked who she might line up to play her husband, she said, “I thought of a few people. [Richard] jokingly says Danny DeVito, but I’m all for maybe George Clooney.”

With an ear-to-ear grin, Richard Phillips quipped, “That’s why she wants to play herself!”

Talk of book deals and major motion pictures seems like a million miles away from just four months ago, when Phillips’ life hung by a thread. In the fateful moments before his rescue, he found himself with an AK-47 aimed straight at his back by one of his captors.

On April 8, with the nearest Navy patrol ship some 300 miles away, Phillips and his crew aboard the Maersk Alabama were attacked by a band of Somali pirates some 350 miles off the coast of the East Africa country. The ship managed to elude the pirates for some three hours before the pirates forced their way aboard.

The crew played a cat-and-mouse game with the bandits, hiding out in a control room before mounting an attack that saw them capture one of the pirates. Seeing the situation escalating, Phillips bargained with the pirates, agreeing to board the ship’s 28-foot enclosed lifeboat with the pirates in exchange for the safe release of his crew.

The U.S. Navy vessel USS Bainbridge reached the lifeboat the following day, and negotiators aboard began arduous negotiations to free Phillips. Both sides drove a hard bargain: U.S. officials demanded the pirates’ surrender and arrest, while the pirates countered with an offer of $2 million and their ensured freedom. One day into his hostage situation, Phillips managed to jump overboard but was quickly corralled back in by his captors.

Two days into the negotiations, the military received permission from President Obama to use deadly force if personnel believed Phillips’ life was in danger. The situation presented itself a day later, on April 12.

At dusk, seeing that Phillips had a rifle pointed at him, Navy SEALs pumped bullets into each of Phillips’ three captors. The only pirate to survive the siege, Adiwali Abdiquadir Muse, currently sits in a New York jail awaiting trial on charges ranging from piracy and kidnapping to seizing a ship by force.

Keeping focus on piracy
While Phillips said he’s enjoyed the newfound opportunities his amazing saga has presented in his life, the safety of other merchant ships out there is still foremost on his mind. Speaking before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last spring, Phillips stated, “These pirates are evolving, and we must stay with the curve and evolve with them.”

Merchant ships aren’t allowed to use most world ports if they are packing weapons, leaving the ships with little more than a water hose to ward off pirates. Last year alone, nearly 30 ships were hijacked, with companies paying millions of dollars in ransom for the release of their ships and crew.

Phillips told Lauer the subject of how to handle hijackers was high on his list of topics when he met with President Barack Obama in May. “Even today there’s still ships taken, they’re still seamen taken,” he said. “There are still people over there being held captive and still being attacked today.”

Now that Phillips has become a national celebrity, with many deals in the works, the lure of continuing his career as a merchant ship captain could be waning. He hasn’t been out on the high seas since his dramatic capture and rescue, but Phillips told Lauer he’s due to go back out on his regular rotation in September.

When asked whether he will actually go out on his rotation, Phillips gave a nervous chuckle and said, “I haven’t really made my mind up. I am looking at other options of things that have come with the incident, but I am due to go back.”

Wife Andrea says she backs her husband no matter which way he goes. “I told Richard whatever decision he made, I would stand by him. I always said Richard is a smart guy and whatever he encounters or does when he’s out to sea, he does it right.”

When Lauer asked Mrs. Phillips whether she might want Richard back to sea because she’s tired of having him around the house, she smiled and said, “Well, that too!”

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