Tom Hanks, Broadway’s New Kid

February 20, 2013


Tom Hanks swears. Not a blue streak, no, but it’s bracing to hear profanity from the man who has defined decency for three decades in Hollywood, playing white knights in “Splash,” “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13” and the “Toy Story” series. If he is grandma-friendly on screen, he is looser and less predictable in person — as his old friend Nora Ephron was reminded several years ago when she sent him the screenplay for a biopic, “Lucky Guy.” Mr. Hanks took an instant dislike to his character, Mike McAlary, the muckraking columnist of New York City tabloids in the 1980s and ’90s.

“I told Nora that McAlary sounded like a real” jerk, Mr. Hanks said, using a more piquant word — and a perceptive one, since McAlary’s power came from his determination to be the biggest, baddest, bona fide ... jerk who ever dug into corrupt cops.

Mr. Hanks reconsidered only years later, after running into Ephron while promoting his 2011 movie “Larry Crowne.” He was a co-writer, a star and the director of that picture, and it was a critical and commercial disappointment. Ephron, by contrast, represented happier days, during their collaborations on “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

They got around to talking about “Lucky Guy” — she had turned it into a play, and Hugh Jackman had done a table reading — and Mr. Hanks asked to see the latest version. This time he felt drawn not only to 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,” Mr. Hanks said during an interview on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater, where the play, his Broadway debut, is set to begin its 15-week run on Friday.

“I still feel sometimes that I’d like to be as good as so-and-so actor,” he continued. “I see some other actors’ work, and I think I’ll never get there. I wish I could.”

Hollywood stars often come to Broadway to prove something to themselves or to audiences, though they rarely admit it. With Academy Awards for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” Mr. Hanks is less hesitant. While he denied that, at 56, he is here because his film career has cooled — “I have two movies in the can. I have plenty to keep me busy” — he also appeared delighted that McAlary is pretty far from a predictable Tom Hanks part.

Will audiences buy him as unlikable? Mr. Hanks is still a genial guy, 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’ve involved in a reinvention, and any actor who says otherwise is just trying to lower expectations,” said Mr. Hanks, who trained to be a theater actor in the 1970s but quickly moved on to television and then movies.

It has been a twisting path to Broadway for Mr. Hanks and “Lucky Guy,” and a heartbreaking one. The sharp-elbowed McAlary, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his columns about the brutalization of Abner Louima by police officers, died later that year from colon cancer, at the age of 41. Soon after, Ephron, a former reporter for The New York Post who cherished the tabloids of yesteryear, began to research McAlary’s life and spent years rewriting the script, at one point calling it “Stories About McAlary.”

Once Mr. Hanks signed on, Ephron began meeting weekly with the play’s director, the Tony Award 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 last 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,” Mr. 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.”

Writers are a pretty hands-on lot, especially with new works going to Broadway. Without Ephron, Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Hanks have become keepers of the “Lucky Guy” flame. Aside from Ephron’s script, there are pages of discarded dialogue that Mr. Wolfe has cherry-picked for an extra dash of nuance or sprinkle of clarity. “My motto is, ‘When in doubt, reference Nora,’ ” Mr. Wolfe said, and he has done so with the blessing of her widower, the writer Nicholas Pileggi.

Mr. Hanks, meanwhile, read many of McAlary’s columns and interviewed some of his old friends, coming away agreeing with a point Ephron once made about him. “Nora said Mac was good when he was covering the stuff he knew, cops and cop scandals, while other times he was clearly struggling,” he recalled.

Seeing those imperfections has helped him avoid turning McAlary into a classically uplifting Hanks role. Or, as he put it bluntly: “not to” screw “this up.”

Mr. Hanks first fell for theater at Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., playing the small role of the bus driver in Tennessee Williams’s “Night of the Iguana” and the juicier part of Luther Billis in “South Pacific.” (His character is perhaps best known for the number “There’s Nothing Like a Dame.”) He made his first solo trips into San Francisco as a teenager, which he recalls as a rite of passage, to see favorite plays like “The Iceman Cometh.” He preferred to attend without friends so he could concentrate on the stage.

Acting and theatergoing were only part of the appeal, he said. A born crowd pleaser, the high school Tom Hanks found friends backstage who lapped up his jovial sensibility and his loose body language, trademarks of his performance then and now.

“Nobody on my track team was funny; no one was looking to crack up; no one got me the way that my theater friends got me,” Mr. Hanks said. “It was a fabulous hang.”

The camaraderie continued during Mr. Hanks’s three years as an actor cum stagehand at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, where he had bit parts in Shakespeare plays. (He did understudy Cassio in “Othello” once and can still recite some of those lines from memory.) But when Mr. Hanks decided to try his hand in New York, he quickly came up short.

“I lived around the corner from Broadway, but I couldn’t even get arrested,” he recalled. “I didn’t know how to dance, I hadn’t taken a voice lesson, and I wasn’t feeling confident.” Lacking an agent, he rarely got auditions; when he did, he invariably got out only a few lines or lyrics before hearing a producer yell, “Thank you!” from the orchestra seats.

He did a few productions with a newly formed troupe, the Riverside Shakespeare Company, and usually found himself playing scoundrels, including the devious Callimaco in Machiavelli’s “Mandrake” in 1979. But he had far better luck with television, landing a lead role in the series “Bosom Buddies,” about two young ad guys who dress in drag to qualify for an affordable apartment in a women-only building.

His co-star on “Bosom Buddies,” Peter Scolari, is also among the cast of “Lucky Guy,” playing a friend and rival of McAlary. Mr. Scolari recalled that on the “Buddies” set he and Mr. Hanks often talked about theater; sometimes when they felt particularly silly in their dresses, they would recite the titles of their favorite plays for ballast — like “Charley’s Aunt,” the last play Mr. Hanks did (in 1981, at his junior college) before “Lucky Guy.”

Mr. Scolari, who was last on Broadway in 2012 in “Magic/Bird,” said that Mr. Hanks had changed little in the 31 years since “Bosom Buddies” ended, after two seasons.

“The work ethic and the looseness are still the same, still as strong,” Mr. Scolari said, “and the lack of ego on set. George has been really challenging Tom, and Tom says, ‘Well, I guess I was dead wrong on that choice,’ just like the rest of us. It’s interesting because Tom comes from a world where he has the keys to the kingdom as a movie icon. I don’t know how often he is truly challenged like this anymore.”

Perhaps the toughest task facing Mr. Hanks are the scenes between McAlary and his wife, Alice, with whom he moves to Bellport, Long Island, and then abandons many a night to chase a tip or blaze through barroom rounds with his buddies.

“Will audiences buy Tom Hanks treating his wife very shabbily?” said Maura Tierney, who plays Alice and is best known from the series “ER.” “It’s hugely important to the play that you buy Tom as a not-likable guy, and I think he’s pulling it off. Tom has really put vanity aside here. I think he also feels a responsibility to Nora to get it right.”

Broadway tends to measure success by ticket sales and critics’ reviews, and the stakes are always higher when a star is involved. Buzz that “Lucky Guy” had only a $5 million advance in paid ticket sales — good but not great, considering the stature of Mr. 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 the paid advance.)

For his part, Mr. 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.” And he added that this hope had nothing to do with his compensation package, which includes the relatively unusual proviso that he will continue making thousands of dollars a week on “Lucky Guy” if the producers extend the show beyond its June 16 scheduled closing and recast his role.

“That deal was made by agents,” Mr. 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 hard to predict, partly because of myriad expectations surrounding a Hanks performance, as well as the thin track record of dramatizing journalism beyond the classic “The Front Page.” Just 16 months ago another drama about McAlary ran Off Broadway: “The Wood,” by the publicist and writer Dan Klores; most reviews harshly dismissed the characters and plot as thinly developed. And Mr. Hanks himself said he told Ephron, years ago, that he was skeptical that journalists and their trade would be gripping to audiences, and 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, Mr. Hanks acknowledged, and he said a “Lucky Guy” movie was possible if the play is a hit. But as for anticipating the reaction to the production, Mr. Hanks 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!’ ” Mr. Hanks said. “But O.K., here’s the thing: I’m not afraid of the end result because I think we’ll have a very good production. But I am afraid of blowing it myself. I’m afraid of having something being my responsibility, yet not having the wherewithal or lack of self-consciousness or stamina to pull it off. Look, I have just as impressive a track record of movies and projects that didn’t work out.

“But when I walk home at night, that’s when I hear Nora’s voice the clearest,” he added, “and that’s when I feel the most excitement about taking on this play.”

By Patrick Healy

Source : The New York Times