Thursday, April 7, 2011


A long and winding road to making it Big
The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Tom Hanks was not born in a log cabin, but his beginnings were modest enough. He was born on July 9, 1956 in Concord California. His father, Amos, worked as a chef; his mother, Janet was a housewife who bore three other children (Tom was the third of the four). Two important facts of life destabilized his family life. The first was the itinerancy inherent in his father’s job, which led to frequent moves around California and in Reno, Nevada. The other was a string of blended family arrangements that began when his parents divorced when Hanks was five years old. Three of the children, including Tom, went on to live with their father; custody of his youngest brother went to his mother. Amos Hanks would go on to marry two more times, first to a Mormon and then to a Chinese woman, both with children from prior marriages and different cultural traditions than Tom (who had been born, an initially raised, as a Catholic). With some variations in tone over the years, the basic tenor of childhood recollections is melancholy. "There's no denying I had an unhappy childhood," he said in 2010. His father was frequently absent and remote, though the two were relatively close by the time of Amos’s death in 1992. He remains in touch with his primary siblings, though he said in 1984 that he would not remember his stepsiblings from his wife’s second marriage if he encountered them in person, and did not respond to subsequent overtures from that stepmother. Hanks remains in touch with his biological mother, who he typically saw on holidays while growing up, but scars clearly linger. "I am not as close to my mom as other kids are, but that doesn't stop the fact that I love her," he has said. "I say to my mom, 'I love you, but I don't know you because I didn't live with you'.’"[1]
Hanks attended high school in northern California, where he kept a relatively low profile. An evangelical Christian group was an important basis of his social life (“it beat smoking pot,” he explained, with a wry tone that would become a staple of his interview mode).[2] He also started acting in school productions. Hanks’s relationship with his acting teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, caused an unintentional stir in 1994 when he inadvertently outed him as a homosexual by way of thanking him in his Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia (1993). The incident later became the basis for the 1997 Kevin Kline movie In and Out.[3]

Upon his graduation in 1974, Hanks deepened his study of theater by enrolling in Chabot College, a large community college in the Bay area. He later transferred to Sacramento State, where he earned a scholarship, intending to become a stage carpenter. But his immersion in all aspects of theatrical production led to a focus on acting. It was at Sacramento State that Hanks met his first wife Susan Dillingham (stage name Samantha Lewes), who he would marry in 1980. He was also noticed by the artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, who invited him to work as a summer intern. Hanks and Lewes eventually moved (six months shy of graduation) to Cleveland, where he landed a series of leading – and paying – roles. It wasn’t much, but enough to qualify him for unemployment benefits, a crucial resource for aspiring actors.[1]
With Lewes – and infant son, future actor Colin – in tow, Hanks headed to New York in 1978, where the couple hoped to make their breakthrough. Lewes did not; Hanks struggled long enough to win a small role in the third-rate slasher film, He Knows You’re Alone (1980), which was shot on Staten Island. His acting, for which he was paid $800, consists of a seven-minute sequence in which he escorts to young women to a carnival and lectures them about the dangers of the human mind.[2]
A few months before the release of He Knows You’re Alone, amid an increasingly desperate economic situation, marital tension, and a brief flirtation with drugs, Hanks was invited to Los Angeles, a city for which he professed “an in-bred hatred,” to audition for a new ABC sitcom, Bosom Buddies.[3] The show, in which he would be paired with Peter Scolari, was essentially a two-season running gag about a pair of men who cross-dress in order to live in a cheap New York resident hotel (they also pass themselves off as the two brothers of these women). Bosom Buddies was a moderate success after it went on the air in late 1980s, but ran out of ratings steam and was cancelled after two seasons, or 39 episodes, in 1982.
It’s worth pausing here to note that Bosom Buddies provides empirical confirmation of Hanks’s appealing comic gifts, skills that were often noted among his youthful contemporaries but which were vividly in evidence in his early television career. Though he lacked the chiseled good looks of Eastwood, Day-Lewis, or Washington – all of whom also got their start in (dramatic) television – Hanks’s manic, yet subtly controlled personality dominates any scene in which he appears. A great example of this is a 1981 episode starring his future wife, Rita Wilson, who was cast as a romantic partner for Scolari. Hanks’s mugging amid their cooing is vastly amusing, redolent of Carroll O’Connor’s mastery of facial expressions in All in the Family (1970-77). It’s not surprising that his talents attracted the attention of other television producers, leading to a leading (and atypically dramatic) role in the forgettable 1982 CBS production Mazes and Monsters.[4] Hanks would also go on to host Saturday Night Live on a number of occasions, his very frequency the subject of a comic sketch with serial hosts Steve Martin, Paul Simon and Elliot Gould.
The most important piece of such freelancing, however, was a 1982 performance on the longtime running hit series Happy Days. In that episode Hanks plays a martial arts expert with a longtime grudge against the legendary character Fonzie (Henry Winkler), and challenges him to a fight. It’s a brilliant sequence, animated by some terrific writing – there’s a wonderful meta-commentary on Westerns running through it – and fine ensemble acting in which Hanks more than holds his own with the veteran Winkler. The episode attracted the attention of Ron Howard, whose lifetime of acting on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days had just culminated in his directorial debut, Night Shift (1984). A shrewd judge of talent, he cast Hanks in the lead for his next film Splash (1984)
Splash was a movie that marked breakthroughs for multiple careers, among them Daryl Hannah and John Candy; for Howard it marked the burgeoning of a film empire. But its substantial box office success was grounded in low-budget charm. (Indeed, the movie was in turnaround until Mermaid, a competing project with a similar premise, was scotched.)  Hanks plays Allen Bauer, who with his brother Freddie (Candy) runs a produce business in lower Manhattan. As a child we see in an opening prologue, Bauer creates an alarming incident when he jumps off a vacation vessel near Cape Cod in pursuit of a mermaid, which of course no one believes. As an adult, Bauer is a likeable fellow, but one with a persistent vein of melancholy who cannot sustain a romantic commitment. Into his life returns the mermaid, who comes to New York and acquires a temporary set of legs. Bauer dubs her “Madison” during a midtown jaunt, and the two begin – or, perhaps more accurately, resume – their romance. The gill/limb issue is complicated further by a nosy scientist played by Candy’s longtime crony Eugene Levy. But this is a comedy that ends with Bauer casting his fate into the sea.
Splash was a pivotal experience for Hanks. The movie was released at the dawn of the home video era, and its rental prowess built substantially the initial box office success. Hanks also became an informal student of Howard, himself a longtime student of the moviemaking process.[5] Though it would be a decade before the two would team up again for Apollo 13, they would repeatedly collaborate in the years that followed in a variety of permutations. Hanks would also act again with Candy in Volunteers (1985) before Candy’s untimely death from a heart attack in 1994.
Splash generated a lot of momentum for Hanks, but he was unable to build on it. Over the next four years he released a string of movies – Bachelor Party (1984); The Man with One Red Shoe (1985); Volunteers (1985); The Money Pit (1986); Nothing in Common (1986); Every Time We Say Goodbye (1986) and Dragnet (1987) that suggested stasis at best. Only The Money Pit was truly terrible, which is somewhat ironic given its origins in Steven Spielberg’s production company and high-profile pre-release buzz.[6] (The film was an updated version of the comparably lame Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House [1948], starring Cary Grant, an actor with whom Hanks is sometimes compared.) These movies varied widely in tone and content; Bachelor Party was a hit, but one whose lowbrow raunchiness held long-term risk for an ambitious actor. Nothing in Common was a prestige project for Hanks in that he was cast adult son of Jackie Gleason and Eva Marie Saint, but it was flatly written and flunked at the box office. So was Every Time We Say Goodbye, an Israeli romantic drama set during World War II in which Hanks plays an American volunteer in the British air force. One Red Shoe was an abortive spy caper that turned on mistaken identity. Dragnet was part of a mania for movie resurrections of TV series that began in the eighties, in which Hanks was teamed up with SNL veteran Dan Aykroyd in a role he liked because he didn’t have a love interest.[7] Taken as a set, these projects constitute the agenda of an ambitious but unlucky actor eager to take what came his way in the unrealized hope lightning would strike twice. By the end of the decade, Hanks was essentially an established B-actor.
Then came Big. This 1988 high-concept film in which a child is granted his wish to inhabit an adult’s body was developed with a strong Hollywood pedigree that included Anne Spielberg, brother of Steven, as co-writer. Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford and Warren Beatty were all in serious discussions for the lead, but declined (De Niro and Beatty over compensation, Ford over disagreements over who would direct the movie, prospects which included Steven Spielberg, who also declined). There was also concern at the time because there were a spate of other child-as-adult movies in that came out the same year, including 18 Again! and Vice-Versa, both of which stiffed. The project was eventually given to Penny Marshall, brother of Garry Marshall, creator of Happy Days and a veteran director whose credits include Nothing in Common. Hanks himself took some persuading, but eventually signed on to appear in what became his first blockbuster movie.[8]
And Big really is a Tom Hanks movie. One can see why a Beatty, De Niro, or Ford would have been interested in playing thirteen year-old Josh Baskin; the role brought with it technical challenges that would appeal to serious actors. Yet, talented as they are, in retrospect it would be hard to imagine them playing the part with the stunningly graceful unselfconsciousness Hanks achieves. By design, Big is a simple story: suburban New Jersey boy gets what he wishes for; becomes an executive for a Manhattan toy company; gets enmeshed in corporate politics and an love triangle; finds his way back to childhood again. The performance is all in the nuances of facial expression and bodily movement, in a simplicity that is both inherent and achieved.  It earned Hanks his first Oscar nomination.
The movie also gave him a new opportunity to take his work to a higher level. Actually, even before Big Hanks took the part of a stand-up comedian in Punchline, which was released shortly after Big in 1988 and thus widely viewed as a follow-up. The movie paired him with Sally Field, a bigger name at the time, who played a suburban housewife with similar ambitions. Punchline was generally viewed a critical and commercial disappointment, but it portraying an edgy, competitive person who never becomes completely unlikeable, it ranks among Hanks’s best work.
Punchline may have been an artistically ambitious undertaking, but it was nevertheless part of another string of less-than-stellar movies – one that included The ’burbs (1989) Turner & Hooch (1989), and Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) – that once again threatened Hanks’s standing. Once again, each had a certain rationale and/or appeal. The ’burbs was a potentially interesting fusion of sci-fi/horror and comedy that didn’t cohere the way a few of director Joe Dante’s other projects, like Gremlins (1984) did. Turner & Hooch, which paired Hanks with a slobbering pooch who witnesses a murder, was a cheapo, but commercially effective, comedy that the Disney Touchstone subsidiary churned out like clockwork in the eighties and nineties. Joe Versus the Volcano was an offbeat fable written and directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley. A commercial flop, it nevertheless fascinated a few reviewers who marveled over its visual style, notably Roger Ebert, who called it “wondrous,”[9] and it continues to have a cult following. The movie is significant in that it represented the first of three romantic pairings with Meg Ryan, which included the far more successful Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail! (2001). But at the time, it was widely considered one more notch in a mediocre string.
Hanks’s next movie was thoroughly understandable, but a thorough fiasco: he took the lead role in the Bonfire of the Vanities, the 1990 movie directed by Brian DePalma and based on the 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe about a Wall Street trader who becomes embroiled in a racial firestorm after a hit-and-run accident in the Bronx. The rise and fall of this once-hot Hollywood property has been brilliantly documented by journalist Julie Salomon, who did the research on it in real time and subsequently published The Devil’s Candy, one of the best books ever made about the movie business.[10] The conventional wisdom is that this legendary flop was hobbled by a number of problems, among them a storyline that couldn’t effectively encapsulate Wolfe’s novel, a saccharine sermon in its conclusion (after late rewrites and ethnic shuffling within a script that preview audiences considered racist), and, above all, poor casting choices, among them Melanie Griffith as a southern belle and Bruce Willis as an alcoholic journalist who is simply impossible to take seriously. Many reviewers also believed Hanks was miscast as the blue-blooded Sherman McCoy. But he had already done a good, albeit comic, turn as a boozy 1960s Yale graduate who escapes angry bookies by joining the Peace Corps in Volunteers, and nothing in his Bonfire performance rings particularly false. Had the movie been a success, it might well have entered his personal pantheon. He managed to walk away largely unscathed – indeed, he’s one of the few major players who emerges from Salomon’s book with his dignity intact – but also tried to take stock. Part of this involved getting a new agent, Ron Meyer of Creative Artists Agency, one of the most powerful in the industry. Meyer advised Hanks to take a role he had rejected multiple times already: a small part as an alcoholic manager of a 1940s women’s baseball team.[11] Hanks took that advice, and began making history.

Next: Hanks becomes a team player

[1] Information on Hanks came from a variety of sources, most usefully distilled in Pfeffer and Lewis, xiv-xv.
[2] Pfeffer and Lewis, 5; Gardner 75.
[3] Gardner, 71, 76-77.
[4] For more on Mazes and Monsters, see Pfeffer and Lewis’s chapter on it in The Films of Tom Hanks, 9-13.
[5] For more on these points, see Pfeffer and Lewis’s chapter on Splash in The Films of Tom Hanks, especially 20, 22.
[6] Pfeffer and Lewis, 49.
[7] Pfeffer and Lewis, 73.
[8] Pfeffer and Lewis, 81-82.
[9] See his review at
[10] Julie Salomon, The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991). The book was republished in 2002 with a new subtitle: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco.
[11]Gardner, 149.

[1] “Tom Hanks: My Mum Dumped Me,” Women’s Day (Australia), June 21, 2010 (accessed via Gale’s “Popular Magazines” database, March 22, 2011);  Gardner, 27. Gardner did a fair amount of original reporting on Hanks’s extended family for his biography.
[2] Lee Pfeffer and Michael Lewis, The Films of Tom Hanks (New York: Citadel, 1996), xii.
[3] Gardner gives what is probably the most detailed account of this incident in The Tom Hanks Enigma, 159-166.