Hearing profanity, though not a blue streak, from the actor who has defined Hollywood decency for three decades — playing white knights in Splash, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and the Toy Story series — is certainly considered bracing.
While grandma-friendly on the screen, he seems looser and less predictable in person.
His old friend Nora Ephron was reminded as much several years ago when she sent him the screenplay for a biopic called Lucky Guy. Hanks took an instant dislike to the character Mike McAlary, a muckraking columnist of New York tabloids in the 1980s and ’90s.
“I told Nora that McAlary sounded like a real . . . (jerk),” said Hanks, who actually used a more piquant word — and a perceptive one, given that McAlary derived his power from his determination to become the biggest jerk who had ever investigated corrupt police.
Hanks reconsidered only years later, after running into Ephron while promoting the 2011 movie Larry Crowne. He was the star, director and co-writer of the film, which became a critical and commercial disappointment.
Ephron, by contrast, represented happier days — during their collaborations on Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. The two got around to talking about Lucky Guy — she had turned it into a play, and Hugh Jackman had done a table reading — and Hanks asked to see the latest version. This time, he felt drawn to not only McAlary’s swagger but also his drive to become the next Jimmy Breslin and to be worthy of his own celebrity.
“Look, the title is Lucky Guy. It’s about somebody who is almost good enough to deserve what he achieves. And I understand that,” Hanks said during an interview on the stage of the Broadhurst Theatre — where the play, which marks his Broadway debut, will begin a 15-week run on Friday. “I still feel sometimes that I’d like to be as good as so-and-so actor. I see some other actors’ work, and I think I’ll never get there. I wish I could.”
Although they rarely admit it, Hollywood stars often head to Broadway to prove something to themselves or to audiences.With Academy Awards for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Hanks is less hesitant.
He denied that, at age 56, he is there because his film career has cooled — “I have two movies in the can; I have plenty to keep me busy” — but he also seemed delighted that McAlary is pretty far from a predictable Tom Hanks part.
Whether audiences will buy him as unlikable remains to be seen. Hanks remains a genial guy, one who tends to cope with pressure by yukking it up. But he has also thrown himself into a role that calls for no vanity, his director and fellow actors say. He has a gray-flecked mustache, as did McAlary, and is trying to preserve the columnist’s rough edges.
“Anytime you go off to do something new, you’re involved in a reinvention. And any actor who says otherwise is just trying to lower expectations,” said Hanks, who trained to be a theater actor in the 1970s but quickly moved on to television, then movies.
The path to Broadway for Hanks and Lucky Guy has been twisting — and heartbreaking.
The sharp-elbowed McAlary, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his columns about the brutalization of Abner Louima by police officers, died that year of colon cancer at 41.
Soon after, Ephron — a former reporter for the New York Post who cherished the tabloids of yesteryear — began researching McAlary’s life and spent years rewriting the script, at one point calling it Stories About McAlary.
Once Hanks signed on, Ephron began meeting weekly with the play’s director, Tony winner George C. Wolfe (Angels in America), to sharpen the central device — other journalists sharing and arguing over anecdotes about McAlary — so that the lead character came into sharper focus.
All the while, however, Ephron was quietly battling leukemia. To the shock of her Lucky Guy collaborators and many friends, she died in June at 71.
“Nora was turning around new drafts of the play in a week, and it was confusing to me why she was working so quickly,” Wolfe said. “I had no awareness of the invisible timetable she was on. After she died, we were even more determined to do the play.”
Broadway tends to measure success by ticket sales and critics’ reviews, and the stakes are higher when a star is involved.
Word that Lucky Guy had only a $5 million advance in paid ticket sales — good but not great, considering the stature of Hanks — prompted the play’s lead producer, Colin Callender, to say in a mid-February interview that the advance was $7 million. (Producers rarely speak on the record about paid advances.)
For his part, Hanks said only half-jokingly that “My biggest dream is that there are fistfights out at the box office every night for whatever standing-room tickets are left.”He added that his hope has nothing to do with his compensation package, which includes the relatively unusual provision that he will continue making thousands of dollars a week on Lucky Guy if the producers extend the show beyond its scheduled June 16 closing and recast his role.
“That deal was made by agents,” Hanks said. “But it’d be nice to have happen because it meant the play was a success.”
The reception from critics and audiences is difficult to predict, partly because of myriad expectations surrounding a Hanks performance as well as the thin track record of dramatizing journalism beyond the classic Front Page.
Hanks said he told Ephron years ago that he was skeptical that journalists and their trade could prove gripping to audiences. He said he pushed for added moments that reflect the intensity of chasing scoops and performing on deadline.
The pursuit of the news might be easier to show on film, Hanks acknowledged, and he said a Lucky Guy movie is possible if the play succeeds.
As for anticipating the reaction to the production, though, the actor is relying on one of his best-known traits: laughing in the face of pressure.
“We’re just resorting to imagining the headlines for bad reviews: ‘Lucky Guy, Unlucky Audience!’ ‘Yucky Guy!’ ”