He was desperate and needed the part. She was no pushover and knew he was all wrong. Too cute. Too young. Too Tom Hanks.
Heck, he was Tom Hanks.
“I can’t have you look the way you do,” Penny Marshall told him.
That was all he needed to hear. In the summer of 1991, Hanks was on the wrong kind of roll. “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” “Joe Versus the Volcano.” A film called “Turner & Hooch,” with a slobbery French mastiff as his co-star. With Marshall’s support, Hanks, at 35, began his reinvention.
“He ate his way through Chicago and Indiana,” Marshall jokes today.
In “A League of Their Own,” Hanks would be Jimmy Dugan, a washed-up, hard-drinking, tobacco-spitting cretin hired to manage the Rockford Peaches, a women’s baseball team organized during World War II.
In his first scene in uniform, Hanks, noticeably thicker and unshaven, boozily limps past Geena Davis and Rosie O’Donnell to a urinal to relieve himself. For 53 seconds. Madonna times it.
The cutesy, boy star of “Splash” and “Big” was no more.
For Hanks, “League” marked an important shift away from work he could simply get to a career defined by unexpected, inspired and often difficult creative leaps.
Over the next five years, he produced a six-pack of performances that could stand up to any in Hollywood. He played a lawyer with AIDS, a determined World War II Army Ranger, a shy widower, a jealous toy and Forrest Gump, a simple man with a gift for the serendipitous. Four months before his 39th birthday, Hanks had a pair of Oscars and he still hadn’t uttered a word to a volleyball named Wilson.
With that résumé, it’s easy to understand why Hanks has been named a member of the Kennedy Center Honors Class of 2014. But he’s more than just versatile. Over three decades on film, Hanks has created a body of work that has earned him a spot as one of the great actors of his generation.
‘It’s easy to say yes to something,” Hanks says during a recent interview in New York, where he was filming a Cold War thriller with director Steven Spielberg. “The money’s going to be good. It’s hard to say no to something.”
He is talking about his quick rise and the not-so-discriminating approach he took to his career in those years.
To hear Hanks explain it, one day, he could hardly pay his rent. Then, in 1980, he got a gig on “Bosom Buddies,” a sitcom that called for boyish charm and lots of lipstick as he played a man forced to disguise himself as a woman. “Bosom Buddies,” which co-starred Peter Scolari, lasted two years and 37 episodes. In 1984, Ron Howard cast Hanks as Darryl Hannah’s romantic interest in “Splash.” The film was a critical and commercial hit.
By then, Spielberg could tell that Hanks had a special ability to connect with people.
“When audiences saw him in ‘Splash,’ they wanted to adopt him,” the director says. “The women wanted their daughters to marry him, and the families wanted him to come have supper with them.”
Hollywood producers understood that, too, and continually offered him work. A string of films followed “Splash,” three released in 1986 alone. But even in the rare critical success from those days, 1988’s “Big,” the Hanks archetype seemed unshakable: cute, cuddly, confused. That Tom Hanks, he decided at a low point, had to go.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to play guys who can’t figure out what’s going on. Or are in the middle of something that’s bigger than them and fell into it by accident. And why isn’t the world working out?’
“You also learn stuff as you grow older,” he continues. “In my 20s, I was looking for employment and adventure and excitement, a tribe I could join. In your 30s, you end up entering an aspect of maybe legacy.”
It’s a late morning in October and Hanks is sitting in a New York hotel room. His wife of 26 years, Rita Wilson, an actress and aspiring singer, recently wrapped up a two-week engagement performing at the Hotel Carlyle. Hanks arrives for his interview after a breakfast meeting with producer Scott Rudin.
He’s headed back to Los Angeles for a few days of family time before flying to Berlin, where filming continues with Spielberg.
On the surface, Hanks is defined by his ambitious schedule. He doesn’t race cars, own a minor league baseball team or play bass in a celebrity rock band. His work, he says, leaves little time for much else. Beyond the acting, there is Playtone, a company he formed in 1996 and that has been particularly adept at producing multipart programs for HBO, including “John Adams,” “Olive Kitteridge” and “Band of Brothers.” “Lewis and Clark” is up next.
In October, Hanks had his first short story published in the New Yorker, about four friends who take a trip to the moon. Within weeks, Alfred A. Knopf had the actor, who attended California State University at Sacramento in the 1970s but never graduated, signed to write a collection of short stories.
It’s fitting that Hanks is writing fiction, because other than perhaps Thomas Pynchon, it’s hard to imagine anybody less likely to publish a tell-all.
Poke around. Ask other actors. Google at will. There’s not much you can find on Hanks. No storming off sets. No DWIs. No errant tweets. He did once extend his middle finger to the paparazzi after being stalked at lunch, but he has never pulled an Alec Baldwin.
In person, he is warm, thoughtful and funny. He’s a dynamic conversationalist, whether referencing Ralph Ellison or making it clear that he’s not just a fair-weather fan of the Cleveland Indians. Who manned third base for the Tribe in 1979? Toby Harrah.
Just don’t mistake that warmth for accessibility. Tom Hanks, the public figure, has rehearsed his lines as well as Tom Hanks, the actor. Long ago, he built a wall between his personal and professional lives. No magazine cover is worth scaling it. Over the years, the few snippy comments the genial Hanks has made to interviewers have come when others have tried to intrude.
“If people don’t know the real me or know what my life’s about, that’s good, because I don’t want them to,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
In 1989, Hanks took Playboy interviewer David Sheff surfing, lent him a towel and even shared a cup of coffee from his thermos. But he wouldn’t let Sheff get farther than his garage. That, Hanks pointed out for the piece, was closer than any other writer had ever gotten.
Privacy is not some late-career response to compounded celebrity. The idea came early on, before the Oscars. Just try finding a Hanks profile, even from the 1980s, that quotes a sibling or a parent. For this piece, Hanks and his publicists declined repeated requests to make available even Wilson, his wife since 1988.
“Once you give that up, you never get that back,” he says of his private life. “Quite frankly, I think I just never trusted the press to get it right. I live in a really nice house. And I’ve got nice furniture and stuff like that. But I represent myself better than my house does.”
Scolari, Hanks’s “Bosom Buddies” co-star, says he has long been fascinated by his friend’s ability to control what he reveals. Virtually everything written about Hanks mentions that he’s nice and a family guy.
“And all that stuff is true,” Scolari says. “But you say it about Tom, you’re only telling half the story. This is a fierce guy. This is a driven guy who doesn’t need to work another day in his life, doesn’t need to make a film.”
When Scolari saw 2002’s “Road to Perdition,” a Depression-era crime thriller in which Hanks played a murderous hit man, he was stunned. The performance was incredible. How did Hanks do it?
“The only way in which a magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat is if the rabbit is in the hat to begin with,” Scolari says. “There’s the magic trick. And when you talk about the work that Tom has been able to do, and you talk about the rabbit in the hat, he doesn’t find that somewhere outside of himself and simulate it. There’s a fire and rage and even a sort of divine confusion. It comes from within. So take a look, enjoy the movie, write about it. And that’s as much as you need to know.”
There is a history, and a past, and it has been reported relatively the same way since the mid-’80s.
Hanks was born in California in 1956. His parents, Amos and Janet, divorced when he was 5. The three older siblings, Sandra, Larry and Tom, went with Amos. Younger brother Jim stayed with Janet. What followed, for Tom, were years of rambling as his father worked at a series of restaurants. Amos remarried, got divorced, then remarried again.
Ask Hanks if the endless moving was difficult and he shakes his head.
“I don’t feel scarred by the peripatetic life,” he said. “I lived in 10 houses by the time I was 10 years old. But I thought it was kind of cool.”
He says the moves helped him learn to travel “emotionally light.”
“I never had a problem going to a school for the first time and saying, ‘I’m new in this school,’ ” he said.
As a boy, Hanks developed twin obsessions that would return and drive much of his professional life. In fifth grade, he was thumbing through a book at the library and saw a picture of a boy in a Polish ghetto. He had heard people refer to World War II, but rarely did anybody go into details. This photo and the others he saw made him sad and intensely curious. He would go on to read Leon Uris and view such films as “The Dirty Dozen” more skeptically. Great fun, he says of the movie, but “a bunch of hooey.”
He also was fixated on the space program and remembers seeing Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968 at the Cinerama Dome theater in Oakland, Calif.
Just talking about the film, which he has now seen more than 100 times, gets him excited.
“Here’s this dawn-of-man sequence and they got the apes to perform this way, which was astounding, and oh, wait, there’s a fight over the waterhole and then the most amazing time cut in the history of cinema when the moon walker throws that bone in the air and it becomes this orbiting satellite,” he says. “Until then, I just watched anything that was on TV. I was never aware of this collection of only light color and you didn’t need even words to explain anything.”
Making movies, Hanks says, is simply “more fun than anything [else] I can imagine.”
It’s more than the action. He loves the conversations he has with people on the set, and not just with other actors, but sometimes the unit photographer or crew members.
That curiosity, that desire to connect with others, has not gone unnoticed.
Meg Ryan, who has starred with Hanks in two of his most successful films, “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” has watched him pepper other people with questions.
“It’s just so lovely and contagious,” she says. “And it does mark him as different, not just from actors but from people.”
Julia Roberts, who, along with her sister, developed a crush on Hanks while watching “Splash,” calls the actor an “excavator,” whether the subject is baseball or war or space. Roberts, his co-star in “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Larry Crowne,” said he is as popular on set as he is with an audience.
“He’s probably one of a handful of people in this business who you wouldn’t be able to find someone to say a cross word about him,” she says.
Spielberg says Hanks hasn’t changed in the years they’ve worked together. He praises his leadership qualities and what he considers old-fashioned, moral values.
“If Norman Rockwell were alive today, he would paint a portrait of Tom,” the director says.
One thing that sets the actor apart is his time on the set.
Hanks tells a story related to him by Ron Howard. For 1986’s “Gung Ho,” the director had cast So Yamamura, a longtime actor. Early in production, Yamamura’s wife kept nudging a production assistant to show her the “edge of frame,” the space just outside camera view. For each scene, she would place a chair there, and Yamamura, rather than hang out in a trailer when others worked, would sit, all day, watching the action. This is how he remained ready for his part.
The anecdote resonated. Sure, there are times Hanks heads off set to take care of business or rest when he’s not in scene. But those moments are rare. When he’s making a movie, he tries to always be around.
It reached a point, during the filming of the 2013 thriller “Captain Phillips,” that director Paul Greengrass began to worry about his star. Conditions were rough at sea, where they were filming the story of a ship captain who was kidnapped by Somali pirates.
“Anyone who has been on one of those lifeboats in the ocean, those things pitch and roll and your inner ear goes every five or 10 minutes,” he says. “And you were trying to get Tom to take a break so he could clear his head. I remember him saying, ‘I would rather be there.’ ”
A storm was coming the day they filmed the final scene of the movie. The moment called for Hanks’s character, who was rescued but in shock after being splattered with his kidnappers’ blood, to be examined by a Navy medic.
The storm meant time was tight. Complicating matters, Greengrass decided to improvise. What if they tried to shoot the scene in the ship’s cramped infirmary?
He recruited Danielle Albert, a 23-year-old Navy medic serving on the USS Truxtun, for the part. The first take was a mess.
“I remember thinking it was Tom Hanks in front of me,” Albert says. “I freaked out.”
But something happened on take two.
Tom Hanks was gone. The man who approached was dirty, sweaty, blinking and struggling to respond to the medic’s questions. She cut off his soiled shirt with a pair of shears. Something clicked.
“It was an instant trigger,” Albert says. “We’re trained over and over again in the military for those instances when we remain calm and have to be there for the patient. He came in, it was just an automatic reflex. When that happened, he was just a patient.”
As Hanks’s character tries to speak, his eyes water, he’s terrified. Albert takes his blood pressure and then has him lie on the table.
“Captain, you are safe now,” she assures him.
It’s a powerfully moving moment in a career rich with them.
And when it was over, and the cameras were no longer running, Albert walked up to the director and whispered. During the scene, she had been taking Hanks’s vital signs. She was concerned.
“Tom’s blood pressure is really, really high,” she said.
Greengrass wasn’t surprised. Tom Hanks was playing his role.
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