The nice man cometh

July 09, 1993


The easy-to-like star of Sleepless in Seatlle tries out a new role : grown-up Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks is squinting out at the Pacific Ocean on an overcast, early summer morning, describing a version of heaven. "It's the week and a half before you actually start shooting a movie," he says in a reverie, peering from behind black Ray-Bans past an apron of Santa Monica sand to the breaking waves. "You're rehearsing a little bit and you walk onto the set that is gonna be your house for the first time-Oh, look! Oh, look!-and you're trying on the wardrobe. I've always had really good relationships with wardrobe people, which I foster because I have no taste as far as that goes whatsoever, so I'm always at their mercy-Please help me, please come up with some good ideas, what kind of pants do you think I should wear? And your posture sort of changes and you get to slowly get into the work. That's the best." Hanks is excited. His head bobs, he leans in, he's a guy describing membership in a really cool club. Then his mouth goes wry. "Of course, after that it becomes bitter compromise left and right as you slowly wind yourself down to just wanting to be done with it. But, in fact, almost every day of the slow, rolling routine of shooting is spoiling in its simplicity and its completeness. Working in the movies is almost always just as much fun and as glamorous as it is portrayed to be. The work itself is never the way it's portrayed to be, but the actual atmosphere of hanging out and talking to people and watching what goes on, it's a blast. It's a little holy shrine." A sun-leathered local pedals by on the beachy bike path, his dog in a front basket with paws draped over the handle bars like a lady receiving a manicure. Tom Hanks sips caffe latte with nonfat milk and looks out at the sea. He is the sweetheart center of the summer feel-good movie Sleepless in Seattle, and at 37, he has known the pleasures and compromises of moviemaking for over a decade. Hanks has been a bona fide movie star since he played an average guy who falls in love with average mermaid Daryl Hannah in the 1984 comedy Splash. And in just five years, he has experienced the full membership rituals of the movie-making club: For his beguiling performance as a 12-year-old boy trapped in a 35-year-old's body in Big in 1988, he received an Oscar nomination, made the cover of Newsweek, and became every man's favorite Everyman actor, every woman's favorite man-boy crush. Just two years later, for his starring role in The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the defining bombs of recent cinematic history, he was roundly, sternly, critically drubbed. Following which, Hanks took a good long break from the fun and glamorous business of movies, holing up at his Los Angeles- area home and nearby beach house with his wife, actress Rita Wilson (see story on page 18) and their son, Chester, now almost 3. (Hanks' 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter from his previous, eight-year marriage live elsewhere in California with their mother, actress Samantha Lewes.) These days, and in the months to come, Hanks knows he is in for another round of scrutiny. Sleepless, summer-light, date-perfect, costarring Meg Ryan and directed by Nora Ephron, opened last month to good reviews, wide-awake ticket sales ($17 million on opening weekend, second only to the omnivorous Jurassic Park) and happy word of mouth from women smitten with the Hanksian character of Sam Baldwin, a grieving widower dad destined to meet cute with a professionally winsome Ryan. He also served with charm and honor on June 25 as first-string guest on the final Late Night With David Letterman. In December, Hanks stars in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, playing a brilliant gay lawyer who, stricken with AIDS, loses his job and hires scrappy, homophobic lawyer Denzel Washington to defend him in a discrimination suit. Buzz is already extremely hot on Hanks' performance, for which he lost 30 pounds and shaved his head. "Yeah," he says, glib wit stretched like a protective membrane over momentary discomfort. "And we shot in Philadelphia and didn't show the Rocky statue, so right away we should win the Humanitas Award." On the beach, wary of the sun, Hanks is thin and pasty, with hair rudely cropped -vestiges of his Philadelphia work last winter. On the screen in Sleepless, he is full-bodied, handsome, appealing. But even thin, even sticking to a diet of watery milk-and-egg-white omelets, there is a new dimension to Tom Hanks in evidence, a fullness that has nothing to do with weight of body or curve of smile. The personable guy from Northern California with the benign wise-guy sense of humor who first made his mass-market name on TV in the early 1980s chumming around in drag with Peter Scolari in an all- girl residential hotel in the ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies has gained some gravitas. The boyishness of Big is gone. "There," says Hanks, "you have it." The characters he plays now, he says, are men. He gives a pleased shake of a finger and explains the appeal of Sleeplessness. "I like that (Sam Baldwin's) motivation was immediately understandable. The guy is enmeshed in grieving, and no one has to work too hard in buying that attractive premise-as opposed to a guy who gets off the airline and picks up the wrong suitcase and it's full of uranium." Says director Nora Ephron, who also cowrote the screenplay, "Tom is a man in a very attractive way. He is never going to spill his guts or confess in some intimate way to anybody. He's not like that." In Sleepless, she says, "Tom is manly in a part that requires him to be tender -and a lot of other things." He's one of the few actors around, she continues, "who can do tender and irritable and angry all at the same time."

Big was good for Tom Hanks big time-and yet also a trap. The charm, the enthusiasm, the guileless sense of sly, happy fun he conveyed as Josh Baskin was seductive. But, in an odd way, Hanks was left like an overstimulated kid in a treehouse filled with toys: What should he play with next? The question tripped him up professionally in the years that followed. After Big came Punchline (shot before Big but released later in 1988), in which Hanks played an angry, aspiring stand-up comic, receiving strong reviews in a movie of only moderate strength. He then churned out work as if searching for solid footing: The 'Burbs (1989), Turner & Hooch (1989), Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). He became a favored guest host on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Even Hanks felt he was working too much. "What had happened was, the kind of glamorous fun of making movies had just completely dissipated for me. And I just felt as though I was no longer the hammer, but I was the anvil instead. I was very, very, very, very tired." Later in 1990 came The Bonfire of the Vanities, based on Tom Wolfe's essence-of-'80s novel. Against type, and against the comprehension of anyone who had ever read the best-seller and envisioned the protagonist, Hanks was cast by director Brian De Palma as Wall Street titan Sherman McCoy. The movie became a benchmark of lavish cinematic wrongheadedness. And it crashed. Hanks, to be blunt, calls it "Vietnam." What, he is asked, was he thinking when he slicked back his hair and fiddled with a lame Southern drawl? "I knew I was not the physical embodiment of Sherman McCoy," he agrees. "But I wasn't about to say, well, gee, I can't do the role. I'm not gonna turn down that any more than I'd turn down a chance to do Richard III." He signed on. "I had people on a plane just leaning over and examining me and saying, 'No, I don't see it, I just don't see it,'" he says. "I bought a sandwich at a place and the lady handed me the sandwich and this piece of information: 'You don't have no Yale chin.' You know?" Hanks laughs. "What could I say? 'Yes, but I will, I'll show you!' I'm trying to figure out, just what exactly is a Yale chin?" He turns his head in profile. His is strictly a few-credits-at-Cal-State- at-Sacramento-before-dropping-out visage. The scrutiny took its toll: What was the right place for the man voted Class Cutup of Oakland, California's Skyline High School in 1974? Should he play to his cute-guyness? To his engaging averageness? Should he stay home with the wife and kid and work on his surfing technique? Then, last summer, the best thing that ever happened in the maturation of Thomas J. Hanks came along: A League of Their Own. Hanks piled on 30 pounds via a Dairy Queen regime to play Jimmy Dugan, the broken-down, bloated, $ alcoholic ex-big league ballplayer, reduced to coaching an all-girls professional team formed as a promotional gimmick during World War II. It was a surprising liberation. "League of Their Own did an awful lot for me, and this is strictly from the crass business point of view," he acknowledges. "I had any number of people saying, 'What the hell are you doing? It's not even your movie, you're just a guy passing through. Do you love Penny Marshall so much that you want to spend the summer and listen to her whine? Look what you could be doing!'" What could he have been doing? "I have no idea. I could have done Popo Goes to the Big Town and Oops, I Tripped on a Lawn Chair. Things like that. I was looking for something to do different and I think the message got out that he'll do anything. Which is a good thing. He'll get fat. He doesn't have to be the cute guy. He will cut his hair in an unattractive manner. He will be disgusting and sit there. He doesn't have to be the king of every scene that he is in. Well, that's a marvelous message to put out there."

The proof of Hanks' newfound freedom-Nora Ephron describes him as now "completely at home in his skin"-is that the psychological and creative heft and substance he has gained have left him lighter and more flexible on his toes than ever: He can play the romantic lead in Sleepless, and follow that work immediately with the most serious role of his career in Philadelphia. He still has the sweet face, the projection of nice-guy sensitivity. But he is beyond the boyishness of Big. And he knows it. "I'm constantly surprised," he says, "that I guess I have some sort of overpowering image or something. Which is-what?-the sensitive guy? The nice guy, the cozy guy, the ordinary guy? Okay, fine. That's not exactly a Faberge egg. It's not a huge, vibrating, V-8 of a powerhouse kind of motion-picture image." He took the Philadelphia role of Andrew Beckett, he says, because he admired Jonathan Demme tremendously (on his first date with Wilson, the two saw Demme's brilliant 1984 Talking Heads rock-concert film, Stop Making Sense) and he read the script and he loved it and that was that. And Demme, who says he first envisioned Daniel Day-Lewis in the role (the actor decided not to take it), says he then thought of Hanks because "he's got keen intelligence, great charm, tremendous backbone, which are vital to the role of Andrew." Says Demme, "I can only work with actors who assume full responsibilities for their characters. And Tom came in with a strong creative response. There was not a lot of directing I had to do." Hanks sits back, looks to the horizon. He is asked where he would place himself in the Hollywood firmament. "Got me," he says, in that deft and unnerving way he has of caulking most access routes to emotion with wit. "I'm still parking cars. Doesn't it change every week and a half?" He takes another tack: "I guess I've dropped from those lists of the '100 most ' people in Hollywood." A bitter lesson? "No! I haven't had any bitter lessons! Look where we are!" he exclaims, pointing to the sand, the ocean, the gee whiz good fortune of being a rich, successful, happily married movie star with expensive beachfront property up the road and a growing proficiency as a surfer. "What's to be bitter about?!" He does not, he says, want to produce or direct. (He has, however, dabbled behind the camera, directing a Tales From the Crypt for HBO and an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story for Fallen Angels, the noir-ish series of detective stories on Showtime.) "Directing is a test of your communicative skills," he says, "and I don't know how good mine are." And as for producing: "It's a hideous exercise. It's essentially talking on the phone asking people permission to do stuff. And then occasionally coming down with, 'You're not gonna do this to me!' All the posemeister stuff. It's so much more fun to be an actor and to just go in and pretend all day long. Why walk away from that pretty good gig?" (His next good gig: He'll star in Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis from Winston Groom's 1986 novel about a simpleton who's caught up in fantastical experiences throughout his life.)

"I was flipping through the cable and I just saw Turner & Hooch again. I was watching it for a while with all the distance of time and I actually thought, you know, I acquitted myself pretty dang good in that. I was actually able to pull that off. So okay: Reassure the boy on New Year's Eve (in Sleepless) or kill the bad guy because of the dog (in Turner & Hooch). It's a very good spectrum to jump around in. You know, if there has been any bona fide kind of sit-down, analyzed plan to this checkered career of mine, it has probably been that whatever I'm in, it's not too farfetched for everybody to believe." Hanks prepares to leave the sand, buckle into his Dodge Caravan, tool up the Pacific Coast Highway to visit a pal, and, ultimately, head into what may be another crucial season in the evolution of his career. "I have been here before," he says, remembering the flashbulbs, the magazine covers, the glitter of 1988. "The first time it's this kind of whirlwind of Hey! Man, oh, man! Hey, guess what I get to do, this is amazing! Now it's amazing again, but I understand that, one, it doesn't come along often and, two, it only comes out of the good work that you've been able to do." Five years ago, after all, Tom Hanks played a kid. Now he sounds quite grown up.

Source : Entertainment Weekly