Tom Hanks Is Mr. Big

Though he's past 30 and newly wed, the actor gets to feel like a kid again in his latest movie "Big"

Tom Hanks in a scene from the film, BIG, 1988 Credit: 20th Century-Fox/Getty

Oh, bacchanalia! Tom Hanks is about to divulge details of his very recent bachelor party.

"You saw the film," he says. "Now live the reality."

So let's hear it. "I was on a sailboat with a bunch of guys," he says coyly, but not without promise. "We sailed to Catalina Island for the weekend. Seven guys on a boat. We left early Friday evening and got into Catalina by midnight. For two days, we just drifted around, ate a lot, jumped in the water, caught fish and got very, very stanky. We didn't shower or shave in 72 hours. It was a manly thing."

Yes. Fine. But what about the debauchery? Girls in baked goods. Donkeys in lingerie. Your basic fraternal ripsnorting and cavorting. Like in the movie.

"Shamefully," he says, "there was no debauchery whatsoever. I'm not a real debauched kind of guy. I had a few beers. That was about it. Call the cops."

Long pause. He sighs guiltily, then caves in.

"We did smoke cigars."

Uh-huh. Anything else?

"Well, you know, funny thing." Yes, yes? "As soon as we got out there on the island, we all envisioned ourselves as pirates." He smiles. "Arrghh, matey! You know, old men and the sea, grand adventurers who braved the 26 miles to Catalina. It was fun."

Fun.

"I even got to steer."

Tom Hanks is still a single man when I meet him. Within two weeks, he will pledge his connubial troth, and that will be that. For the moment, however, freedom prevails. Possibility is at hand. There is still time to indulge whims, to tempt fate, to fly in the face of responsibility. He suggests we play golf. "Wanna go tap the Titleist, whack the Wilson, spank the Spalding?" he asks, but it is all for naught, since rain douses the City of Angels even as we deliberate. I propose that we do what he normally does, but what he normally does is drink coffee, read newspapers and yammer on the phone (as he is inordinately fond of pointing out). He mentions something about going to the carwash, but, damn, the rain again. We decide at last to see a movie. On a lark, I suggest we take in a switch flick, one of those yarns wherein a gawky adolescent mysteriously finds himself trapped in the body of Dudley Moore or Judge Reinhold or George Burns. Hanks contorts his face at the notion.

In Big, the latest Tom Hanks film, a gawky adolescent wishes he were bigger, older, more formidable –and he wakes up the next morning as Tom Hanks. ("Maybe this has happened all over America," Reinhold says in Vice Versa. "Invasion of the body switchers!") It is the quixotic allegory for our fast times: a wistful fable about fleeting innocence, about growing up too quickly, about the inalienable right to act geeky. I ask Hanks what he would call the genre. "Planet of the apes," he says. "Well, that's what I heard."

He has steadfastly avoided seeing the other films. "No real point to it," he says, resigned to the glut, his work done. But, to be fair, Big was the archetypal property, reputedly in the works long before the formula fell into the craven clutches of Hollywood cloning engineers. Moreover, in this film bodies aren't truly switched – a kid simply grows up overnight. The situation is explored gently; extraneous high jinks are eschewed. "What I dug about it was there was no car chase, no bad guys, no guns," Hanks says. "A massive amount of the movie is just two people sitting around talking." Says the film's coproducer, Broadcast News director James L. Brooks, "It was our conscious decision not to rush and try to beat everybody but to just do our movie like the others weren't happening."

Hanks's performance in Big transcends the film's premise. This is a controlled, sustained, sensitive, sweet piece of business. He is vulnerable. He is uncoordinated. He plays puberty as though his body hair sprouted yesterday. It is his finest work to date. And never once in the film can he be accused of being a smartass, his trademark attitude. "I was a little worried about that," says Penny Marshall, who directed Big. "His fans like him to be irreverent onscreen; most of his parts have been very sarcastic. But this is an actor's part, and he's an actor."

He is certainly no wisenheimer, this Hanks. I expect arrogance, smugness, glibness. I expect rapier retorts and high-voltage banter. Instead he is courteous and sincere. His liquid eyes, with their almost Asian set, are even a bit melancholy. They are never quite mirthful. Yes, he's funny, but almost never frenetically so. His laugh is an old guy's laugh, a slow, lumbering, fogyish sort of huh-huh-huh. And yet at 31 he has a childlike enthusiasm about him. He drives a Dodge Caravan, he says, because "I like sitting up high; it's nice to see what's causing the traffic jam." Whenever he spies an accident on the road, he lurches with excitement: "Whoa! What happened here?" When he stumbles upon a good parking spot, he crows: "Look at this! Beeyooteeful!" Even weather sparks him: "This rain is crackin' me up!"

Hanks wants to see Stand and Deliver, so we head over to Westwood, a community that doubles as a multiplex Cinerama. It is early afternoon, and since he hasn't eaten anything today (he does not believe in breakfast), we first duck into one of his favorite Mexican haunts, a simple, cafeteria-style cantina. He orders himself a chicken burrito, black beans, rice and a grapefruit soda, then he plunks down his tray on a wobbly table beneath a photograph of Pancho Villa. As he devours his burrito, a gangly guy in a business suit approaches tentatively.

"Tom, right?" says the suit guy, screwing up his courage. "Can I just shake your hand?"

"Sure," says Hanks, warmly offering his grip.

"Just so I can say I've shaken your hand," says the guy.

"You did," says Hanks with a tolerant grin.

"Really appreciate your movies," says the guy. Hanks graciously thanks him. The guy then says, "I saw you over here and thought, 'Wow, he looks like an old friend of mine.'"

"And," says Hanks, chuckling, "you thought, 'Who the hell is that guy?'"

Self-deprecation aside, Hanks has raised a salient issue here. Just who the hell is this guy? "I guess I come off in movies as a guy who you wouldn't mind hanging around with," he says, not exactly answering the question. Of course, in movies he's our old friend, the life of the party, the king of quippery. But that's entertainment. The guy sitting across the table from me just spilled his grapefruit fizz all over and didn't even joke about it. Invariably, he is portrayed by the press as nerve-deadeningly normal, but that doesn't seem quite accurate, either. As Peter Scolari, his partner in drag in the gender-bending sitcom Bosom Buddies, says, "There's nothing normal about the guy. He is an imaginative, eccentric individual. He's a very quirky, very unusual young man."

According to Sally Field, Hanks's costar in the forthcoming Punchline (in which Hanks plays an ace stand-up comic), "It would be one thing if he was just this great, goofy guy. But that lasts for about 30 seconds, and then you want to meet somebody real. The reason he's a movie star and is going to stay one is that he's much more complicated than that.

"Yes, he's very entertaining and funny and easy to be around. But you know there's somebody else underneath, somebody dark. There's a sad side, a dark side. And that's what makes him so compelling on the screen."

Just don't try to pin him down on matters dark, sad or angry. He won't hold still long enough to allow for scrutiny. He bops and jostles through conversations and changes subjects so adroitly that hours and days pass before you realize that he has done so.

"Did you ever watch the TV show Then Came Bronson?" he asks in a rare wistful moment. "Michael Parks as Jim Branson – now that guy I honestly wanted to emulate. I wanted to be a friendly guy on a motorcycle who gave everybody a fair shake and yet always rode out of town at the end of the hour."

***

"What kind of reporter's notebook do you use?" he asks me, pulling out his own. It's true: Tom Hanks keeps on his person at all times an authentic reporter's notebook! He flips open the narrow pad (Stationers Model 801) and shows me that it is crammed with jottings, phone numbers, reminders. "I have a whole boxful of them at home," he says. "They're perfect for just keeping track of regular stuff."

We are now drinking coffee at a pizzeria, killing time before the movie. So I ask him about regular stuff, like his impending wedding to actress Rita Wilson, who costarred with him in Volunteers and now shares his living quarters. Hanks blanches slightly; talk of personal details, no matter how mundane, makes him nervous. He takes privacy seriously. For this reason, he politely refuses to let reporters visit his Brentwood residence. He won't tell me who sailed on his bachelor-party cruise ("Naaah, just some friends") or even the identity of his best man ("Naaah, his name wouldn't mean anything to you"). I innocently ask whether he'll be married at home, but he stiffens and says pleasantly enough, "No, it will take place at a location whose whereabouts will remain under lock and key."

Rita Wilson will be his second wife. He entered his twenties under the freight of early wedlock and fatherhood. It's a subject fraught with peril. He has been known to turn surly in deflecting discussion of his first marriage, to actress-producer Samantha Lewes, a union that gave him a son, now 10, and a daughter, five. The divorce was finalized within the last two years; he remains devoted to his children and keeps their visits frequent and regular – "like clockwork."

He will say this much about the approaching wedding: "It's a wonderful thing to do – such a neat, optimistic, good-feeling, cleansing separation between an old life and a new life." I ask him what he values most about his relationship with Rita. "We say what's on our minds without worrying about any repercussions," he says after a moment of consideration. "Just very open communication, good news and bad news. As well as being able to laugh. We have laughed an awful lot You need that. The person you're gonna marry is somebody you're gonna probably talk to every day for the rest of your life. You're gonna have to want to do that."

Earlier, I noticed on Hanks's dashboard a greeting card propped open just enough to reveal a message from his bride-to-be – "I love you always, Rita" and a tiny hand-drawn heart.

She seems to stir in him an almost profound sense of gallantry. Last year, Hanks took Rita to the Oscar ball. At the boisterous party, he encountered a most unsettling trespass. "Bette Davis was sitting in my fiancée's chair," he says, still incredulous. "She just came over and sat down! Arlene Dahl, who was sitting at our table, said, 'Oh, go over and tell her to get out of your chair! Do it, she'll love it! Go tell her.' So I went over and said, 'Miss Davis, you're sitting in my girlfriend's seat, but if anyone can sit in her chair, you can.' She just looked at me and finally said, 'I can't hear a word you're saying.'"

***

"Did I mention to you that this is a private screening?" he blusters as we step into the minitheater, which is virtually empty for the midafternoon showing of Stand and Deliver. "I bought out the house." He finds a seat and crumples into a comfortable slouch, then hollers, "Okay, Rocco, roll it!" The screen, of course, remains blank. A teenage couple straggles down the aisle. "Hey!" Hanks calls after them. "Hey! I think you folks are in the wrong theater! Hey!" The couple ignores him and plops down ahead of us. "Damn", he says, grinning stupidly.

At last, a truly Hanksian display. Frankly, I had begun to worry. I had even proposed that we storm through some torpid business office where he could cast sly bon mots at hapless working stiffs, the way he did in the triumphant – and largely ad-libbed – opening moments of Nothing in Common. Hanks brightens at any mention of that film, a seriocomic exploration of strained father-son relations, in which Jackie Gleason portrayed his cranky old man. "It changed my desires about working in movies," he says of the experience. "Part of it was the nature of the material, what we were trying to say. But besides that, it focused on people's relationships. The story was about a guy and his father, unlike, say, The Money Pit, where the story is really about a guy and his house."

The remainder of Hanks's oeuvre doesn't depart too radically from this sort of formula. Take, for instance, Splash: a guy and his fish. Bachelor Party: a guy and his libido. The Man with One Red Shoe: a guy and his footwear. Volunteers: a guy and the Peace Corps. Dragnet: a guy and his badge. Every Time We Say Goodbye: a guy and – um, has anyone actually seen or, for that matter, heard of this movie?

"I don't think I've ever gone back and repeated myself, though," he says. "There have been times when it was close. The guys I play all have a lot of flaws. Part of that is the confines of this face and this body. There's not a lot I can do to change it." Here he is just being cagey. As Penny Marshall says, "He has that handsomeness that isn't too beautiful. It's approachable. I think he's adorable."

Legions of women agree. They see him as a youthful avatar of romantic comedy, the rightful heir to Cary Grant. Last year a major men's magazine built an elaborate fashion spread on the concept, togging out our boy (a celebrated jeans enthusiast) in all manner of debonair pastels. "Bad duds," he says. "I looked like a sleazy French golf pro."

Now Hanks just looks rested, which he rarely is. "Big is my tenth movie," he says wearily. "That's almost too many. I made Splash [his first film] in '83. In five years that's a lotta work. For a while there I made movies in an absolute flurry of activity. But the opportunity was there. And I had a great desire to be working. You do get these feelings that you're never ever going to work again." Last year alone, he made three films – Dragnet, Punchline and Big – which left him so worn out that he caught pneumonia and had to spend a month recuperating.

So far he has taken this year off and has no concrete plans for his next project. He is living low.

"There are other things that are just more important than being a hotshot-celebrity movie actor," he says, uttering those last words a tad contemptuously. "I simply want to pay attention to those other things for a while, things like life and love and going to the bank and organizing your garage.

"When I'm on film sets, so much of life is completely put on hold. Eventually, you realize, 'When this work is done, I have to go home to a place I've had so little personal investment in that it might as well be just another hotel room.' Which is just no way to live. And that's how actors get all fucked up. People tell them they're wonderful, and then they go sit alone in a hotel room or in a very nice house, which has been decorated by somebody else, where the furniture has been placed by an absolute stranger. You have no connection to it!"

See Tom Hanks in his latest project: a guy and his priorities. Peter Scolari vouches for his old friend: "I hate to say this, but it's not easy being real successful in this town, particularly for a man of conscience. You get fed a steady diet of adulation. You get fed things that aren't necessarily bad or poisonous or toxic in any way. But they're not really on your meal plan. You have to stop and say, 'Wait a minute – I didn't order this.' You have to take your life by the horns. You have responsibilities that have nothing to do with being an actor. Tom Hanks has dealt with his success. I have never known him to be happier."

***

We visit Hanks's office the next day. Since November, his office has been located on the Disney Studios lot, in Burbank. To get there, you must take Mickey Avenue to the intersection of Dopey Drive and turn right, then clamber up into the Animation Building. There, through a glass doorway flanked by cartoon celluloids of Dumbo and Cinderella, is his sanctum. The decor is Spartan, but there are touches. On the coffee table: crayons and a coloring book, plastic dancing raisins, a ball autographed by Hanks's beloved Cleveland Indians. Tacked to the bulletin board: an Indians T-shirt and a map of the United States. "I had that in my briefcase one day," he says of the map, "and decided to put it up so I can look at it and say, 'Here's our land!'" Behind his desk: an at-a-glance chart of frozen-yogurt flavors available in the commissary. "What's today? Burgundy cherry. No, thank you."

Because he's so intuitively childlike in Big, I had asked him earlier when he most feels like a kid. "I never feel like a kid," he said, "but yet I always feel like a kid." He is now playing with a Duncan Imperial Yo Yo, so the subject resurfaces naturally enough. Childhood for Tom Hanks was a many-splintered thing. His parents divorced when he was five. He and his older sister and brother moved out with their father, while his younger brother stayed with his mother, who subsequently remarried three times. His father remarried twice and, due to a peripatetic career in the restaurant industry, continually uprooted Tom, his siblings and their step-siblings and lugged them all over California. "I moved about a million times," says Hanks sunnily. "I think we moved every six months of my life."

He steps up to his map and, jabbing his index finger at it, diagrams his youthful wanderings for me. Beginning at Concord, his birthplace, his finger thumps repeatedly at points up and down the Golden State, with a brief detour to Reno, Nevada. He taps meaningfully at Sacramento, where he attended Cal State for a year and a half, then his hand darts eastward all the way to Cleveland, where he interned for three seasons at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (and discovered those Indians!). His finger flicks up to New York, where he stayed long enough to attend a cattle-call audition for a sitcom pilot called Bosom Buddies, and then whisks back to where it came from, landing approximately upon the spot we occupy this very moment.

But what kind of kid was he? "A geek, a spaz," he says. "I was horribly, painfully, terribly shy. At the same time, I was the guy who'd yell out funny captions during filmstrips. But I didn't get into trouble. I was always a real good kid and pretty responsible." Philosophical, too. He considers all of his early moving an excellent primer for the actor's life. "It made me flexible," he says. "It gave me confidence to think I can be in any sort of social situation and know how to gracefully get out of it."

Like when I ask for phone numbers of relatives who might give me a good quote. "They won't tell you anything that I wouldn't," he says very sweetly. "Problem is," he adds, thinking aloud, "what you need is my own self-examination, which, well, I don't do." He shrugs helplessly. I ask him whether he thinks he's easy to know. "No, probably not. A guy with whom I once worked on a movie said somewhere that people on the set felt they knew me and yet nobody really knew me. And that's pretty much true. If I make people feel at ease, well, that's a wonderful thing. If they don't feel as though they're my best friend in the world, that's a wonderful thing, too."

He fetches a remote-control gadget off the desk top. "Want to see something amazing?" he says excitedly, leading me toward the doorway. "Stand back. Watch this." I step into the outer office and, from inside, he aims the remote at the door. It automatically swings shut in my face. The symbolism is not lost on me.

***

"Here they are!" Penny Marshall says. Hanks and Rita have just arrived – 15 minutes late – at the Zanuck Theater on the Twentieth Century Fox back lot, where 500 people have been seated for a Sunday-night test screening of Big. This will be Hanks's first viewing of the film. He and Rita, a spirited brunette in a billowy white windbreaker and leggings, race up the theater steps, where they are greeted by Marshall, Jim Brooks and a handful of studio people. Hanks apologizes to them, explaining that he just drove his children to the airport (to send them back to their mother) and got stuck in traffic.

In Rita Wilson's company, he seems looser, livelier, more Hanksian. Elizabeth Perkins, who costars in Big, says of the couple, "They both complement each other's energy. She bubbles over, she's so effusive. When the two of them are together, there's just another force at work." Tonight they josh and laugh and eventually slip into the back row of the full, darkened theater. To prevent being discovered, Hanks keeps a Chicago White Sox cap tugged down across his brow.

He is pensive as he watches himself onscreen. He never laughs at his own funny moments, although they convulse Rita and the crowd. After a half-hour, the film suddenly melts in the projector, and the picture dissolves into molten goop. "Hey," says Hanks, "great effect!" This happens again twice; each time it does, the houselights come on, and Hanks leans into his future bride, hiding himself. "What do you say we take in a midnight show of Colors?" she says.

At one point I ask whether she knew in advance that her fiancé would be so convincingly pubescent in the role. She looks at me incredulously and guffaws. "I live with this man!" she howls. "This is a man who plays hockey inside the house with a bag of Milano cookies!" Hanks protests: "Oh, stop it!"

Finally, the projector is fixed, and the film winds to its lovely, bittersweet conclusion. Hanks and Rita gallop out ahead of the throng, and it isn't until they are well away from the theater that I see that both are crying. He sweeps her up in his arms, pressing his face against her neck. "It was so sad," she says with an embarrassed laugh. "It's just a movie, hon," he tells her softly. "You'll get over it." He honks his nose and adds, "What a sweet movie. I didn't expect to cry."

They duck into Jim Brooks's production bungalow and split a beer while waiting for the crowd to disperse. "And here's Penny!" Hanks booms when Marshall enters. "She's a genius, a genius." The director casts him a withering look. He chummily throws an arm around her shoulder and keeps jabbering. "I think we should keep the film breaks in! I think they work! Did they work for you? They worked for me! Wonderful film! Delightful! Much better than the other kids-switching-bodies-with-adults movies! What if we called it 13 Again? Think about it."

When Hanks and Rita step outside a while later, a stray cat slinks past them. Hanks, who seems to be gaining buoyancy, affects a mock-showbizzy mien and announces, "Ah, one of the many studio cats here tonight!" Rita joins in the conceit and says, "He's the informer cat, the one who gives away the ideas to the other studios." Hanks snaps his fingers to a Vegas beat and actually begins to sing. Loudly. "He's a stooooooodio cat," he croons. "He's a studio caaaaaa-yaaaaat!" Rita is now dancing around in the dark, meowing in accompaniment. Hanks giddily belts out another line: "He's a snotty, kooky, wacky, nutty, supah studio caaaaaaaaaattt!"

Strangely enough, it is an exhilarating spectacle, a little bit of private lunacy they will forget by morning. He slips his hand into hers, and they saunter off across the empty movie lot, yowling exultantly into the night.