FILMS

Peaking Tom

Onscreen and off, Tom Hanks is Mr. Nice Guy

Brian D. Johnson July 11 1994
FILMS

Peaking Tom

Onscreen and off, Tom Hanks is Mr. Nice Guy

Brian D. Johnson July 11 1994

Peaking Tom

FILMS

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Onscreen and off, Tom Hanks is Mr. Nice Guy

It was an unusually clear day in Los Angeles, a smogless Sunday afternoon. It was also two days after the O. J Simpson motorcade, and in the aftermath the city seemed suspended in a state of preternatural calm. From the balcony of the hotel suite where Tom Hanks was conducting interviews, the cluster of downtown spires could be seen rising Oz-like from the sprawl of the city, and dun-colored mountains were etched against blue sky in the distance.

Everyone was still distracted by the 0. J. affair, including Tom Hanks, who was talking about his new movie, Forrest Gump—and puzzling over the uncanny parallels between it and the drama of the fallen football star.

In the title role, Hanks plays an Alabama simpleton with an IQ of 75 who becomes an unlikely all-American hero. Slow-witted but quickfooted, he becomes a star running back in college football. Later, after a string of remarkable exploits make him a Yietnam war hero and a prosperous entrepreneur, Gump runs across the United States and back for no apparent motive, while fans cheer him on from the roadside. “It’s very, very, very strange,” said Hanks, as he settled in for an interview with Maclean’s. ‘You know, I saw these pictures from 0. J.’s career wearing number 32, and I thought, Thank God I picked number 44 for Forrest.’ Who knows what connections somebody would have put together.”

Aside from the obvious football parallel, there is a deeper connection between Gump and 0. J.: at a time when the American media are mourning the fall of yet another idol, and lamenting the fact that all their heroes seem tarnished, Forrest Gump conjures up nostalgia for a lost innocence. It offers a safe, new prototype of heroic virtue. Gump is a mascot for common sense, a noble naff who is not smart enough to lie or conspire, who takes everything at face value, and who never displays a hint of sexual aggression. The movie unfolds as a whimsical, fast-forward replay of postwar history, seen through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on (page 55). “Gump,” says Hanks, “doesn’t point fingers or lay blame. He doesn’t ask for excuses. He just sits there until someone asks him a question or tells him what to do.”

For Hanks, who turns 38 on July 9, Gump is the latest in a series of roles that have redefined what it means to be a leading man in Hollywood. As a lovelorn widower in last summer’s hit Sleepless in Seattle, Hanks served as a paragon of new male sensitivity. Then, with his Oscar-winning tum as a gay lawyer with AIDS in Philadelphia, he championed the cause of tolerance towards homosexuals. Now, playing dumb in Forrest Gump, he delivers a childlike lesson in basic human decency. In his next movie, Apollo 13, Hanks brings back untarnished American heroism by playing an astronaut in distress, Cmdr. James Lovell.

Increasingly, the actor’s career seems dedicated to reversing the proposition that nice guys finish last. Onscreen and off, Hanks is Mr. Nice Guy: personable, witty and unintimidating. Before the interview, he asks a publicist for more herbal tea. She says there is only English Breakfast left, but they could have room service send up some herbal tea. No, says Hanks, English Breakfast will be fine.

In an industry of pampered, stuck-up stars, Hanks is a publicist’s dream. And that same, easygoing civility is what audiences seem to find appealing. Asked to analyse his image, the actor evaluates himself with a bemused objectivity. “I think that maybe people will sort of, like, follow me anywhere,” he ventures. “I do have that Everyman persona that is part and parcel of every job I’ve done. I really don’t think anyone fears me or is threatened by me. And if that is my image as an actor, it’s a very nebulous thing that still allows me to do everything that a human being has to do—get mad, run away, be chicken, be funny.” Then, with a self-deprecating laugh, Hanks adds, “Maybe I’m just one big free pass for everybody. Free admission to the park, that’s me. You don’t have to believe anything, all you have to do is come in.”

There is something about Hanks that inspires trust. Sally Field, who co-starred with him in Punchline (1988) and plays his mother in Forrest Gump, calls him “a textbook case on what actors should be in their lives. Tom is the quintessential example of someone who’s always growing and pushing himself,” Field told Maclean’s. “He’s fearless in his ability to reveal his heart and soul.”

In accepting his Oscar for Philadelphia—with an earnest-

ness rivalling Field’s own ‘You really like me” outburst—Hanks revealed too much heart and soul for some tastes. A number of critics condemned the actor for going over the top in his emotional tribute to those who have died from AIDS. In fact, it was not the most coherent performance, especially from an actor who, in the words of Gump director Robert Zemeckis, “never has a problem not being in absolute control of his character.”

But Hanks clearly felt he had a mandate to fulfil. “I wanted to say something that was germane to the real reason I was standing there,” he says. “And that’s because so many gay men are dying of AIDS. I couldn’t just get up and say, ‘Jeepers, creepers, what a great moment this is!’ So I thought about what I wanted to say, and thought it needed

to have some poetry to it—whether it*s good poetry or just busted syntax, I don’t know. I had stuff that I forgot to say and ended up saying things that I never thought I was going to say,” he adds. “Because it’s an incredibly personal moment and your head fills up with blood and it’s very surrealistic. I don’t remember walking out there. I only remember standing next to Emma Thompson as she’s handing me this 25lb. bunch of ingot and telling her, ‘I’ll always remember sharing this moment with you.’ ”

With that moment Hanks officially ascended to the rank of serious actor. He has been a successful actor for some time—ever since scoring his breakthrough, playing a mermaid’s suitor in Splash (1984). And he received his first Oscar nomination back in 1988, for playing a child trapped in a man’s body in Big. But until recentiy, Hanks was in danger of getting perennially stuck in the featherweight world of romantic comedy. ‘Yeah,” he sighs, “I’ve been a funny guy. I know I can more or less handle how to do this or that in a funny kind of way. But after a while, that just wears you down.” Hanks says he always considered himself more actor than comedian. And although he can make people laugh, standing on a stage or sitting in a talk-show chair, he has never worked as a stand-up comedian, except to prepare for his role as one in Punchline.

A turning point in his career arrived with a supporting role in A League of Their Own (1992) as a washed-up slob of a baseball manager. “It was brand new turf for me,” says Hanks, “because it wasn’t the romantic lead of the movie. I was the big fat guy in the back, which actually was a blast to do. And it opened up a lot of avenues for me.”

With Philadelphia, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, Hanks is suddenly playing American heroes who are thrust into the forefront of public life. Which suits him fine. “I’ve always wanted do do things,” he says, “that have a bigger social spectrum to them somehow.” But his career path has not been smooth. Among the 18 movies he has made in the past decade are such clunkers as Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) and Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). “My career has been as checkered as my personal life,” says Hanks. Like his own parents, Hanks divorced when his children were young. He and his first wife, actress-pro>&lt ducer Samantha Lewes, separated in 1985,

0 five years after their marriage. Their son and 1 daughter were just 7 and 3 at the time. Hanks § has since remarried, to actress Rita Wilson, § and they have a four-year-old son.

Bom in Concord, Calif., in 1956, Hanks saw his parents, Janet and Amos Hanks, split up when he was 5. Amos ran a restaurant in Berkeley, where Janet worked as a waitress. In the middle of the night, Amos packed Tom and his older brother and sister into a car and drove off. Tom’s baby brother stayed with his mother, who went on to marry three more times. Tom lived with his father, who was constantly moving and married twice more.

Hanks downplays the trauma of so much dislocation. “As I got older,” he recalls, “I kind of enjoyed moving around. I liked the idea of being the new kid in class. I saw other people who were undone by stuff that I couldn’t imagine. Even my wife, whose parents are still married, she’s got stuff that drives her crazy.” Adds the actor: “This thing of saying the breakdown of the American family is the cause of everything—

mine was not a broken down, busted-up family. Nobody abused anybody. It was fractured, but it wasn’t completely dissipated.”

Although a lackadaisical student, he always enjoyed drama classes. “I got swept up in the theatre,” he recalls. “I wasn’t just mesmerized by the acting. It was the whole thing— the lights, the sets—I thought it was a magical kind of place.” While Hanks was studying for his BA at California State University in Sacramento, Vincent Dowling, a visiting theatre professor, invited him to intern at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Ohio.

Hanks dropped out in 1977 to join Dowling’s troupe. “It was like joining the circus,” he says. “I spent three years at the festival, got my equity card and became a professional actor.”

At 24, Hanks landed a starring role in an ABC sitcom, Bosom Buddies, a Some Like it Hot clone that became a cult hit. Then he plunged into a movie career with Splash. In all his performances, the common denominator is an emotional honesty, a vulnerability that comes across as a strength instead of a weakness. Now, as he expands his range, he would like to portray a villain. “I have good relationships with a lot of folks,” he says, “and they ask me if I’d like to play the bad guy, the loving husband who turns out to be an ice-pick slayer. But it’s just not the right bad guy for me.”

The “folks” he has good relationships with range from Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg to U.S. President Bill Clinton. But Hanks seems to take it all with a grain of salt. “I’ve parlayed a night in the White House into a legendary friendship,” he jokes, referring to the

time last fall when he and his wife enjoyed a sleep-over at the Clintons’ place after a screening of Philadelphia. “It was a huge thrill, he says, “a very prestigious bed and breakfast. But it was very hard to sleep—‘Look at this, we’re in the White House for Chrissakes!’ ”

Like the overgrown kid in Big, however, Hanks is in a position to make his dreams come true. As a youth, he saw the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey 22 times, and now he gets to play a real astronaut in Apollo 13. As for the material rewards, Hanks says he is “very conservative with money—I Il try to live as modestly as I can for someone with too many houses.” t How many? ‘Three, I think, when I you come down to it: one here in town, a place in Malibu, and we’re trying to get a place in New j York.” But for transportation, Hanks relies on "one of those I four-wheel-drive things" and a Mazda Miata.

Not a Ferrari, a Porsche or a Mercedes. A dinky little Miata—a girly little sports car for a movie star who stands over six feet tall. Hanks is unapologetic: “I buy cars that I don’t want to worry about. They’re disposable. Let them get scratched up. My life is too jammed up with worry anyway.” What is there to worry about? “You know,” he says, “making sure that those kids get to the dentist on time. Making sure that the age of 38 sees the age of 39.” Hanks laughs. And as he gets up to stretch his legs before the next interview, he politely asks the publicist if he could get some more tea, and an oatmeal cookie. □