Tom Hanks' Common Touch

He runs with the Hat Pack and lives for the Cleveland Indians. The star of 'Nothing in Common' is a pretty racy guy

Actor Tom Hanks on the set of the Thompson Twins music video for the theme song of the movie 'Nothing In Common' in Chicago on Illinois, June 1st, 1986. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

Tom Hanks loves the Cleveland Indians. He loves them so much that he wouldn't dream of going on the press tour for his new film Nothing in Common without his favorite Tribe T-shirt in his suitcase. He loves them so much that he considers each afternoon he has spent watching them in the nearly empty Cleveland Municipal Stadium a glorious, intimate experience. He loves the Indians so much that even though as a Californian he could lay claim to a far better team – and as a cool guy, to a hipper one – he is strictly an Indians fan, tracking their fate each summer as they sputter to their perennial parking place at the bottom of the American League East.

Somehow you get the feeling that Hanks is perfectly happy with the Indians' lowly position – and that at most he'd like them to inch into the middle, a place he understands very well. After all, Hanks has made his way to the top portraying the man in the middle. In his first major movie, Splash, he played a regular guy caught between his ordinary life and his extraordinary girlfriend. In Bachelor Party, he was a bridegroom balanced between debauchery and fidelity to his debutante bride-to-be. In Volunteers, he was stuck between his echt-WASP inclinations and his blooming sense of social purpose. In The Man with One Red Shoe, he was unwittingly wedged between rival CIA factions. In The Money Pit, he was caught between a collapsing staircase and a crumbling relationship. And in the recently released Nothing in Common, he is right in the middle of everything: his mother and father, career and conscience, lust and love.

The funny thing is that Hanks doesn't just play at being a middleman – he is one. A member of the class of '74, he more or less missed the Sixties and pretty much predated the M.B. Eighties. ''The legacy of my youth,'' he says, ''was disco,'' By nature, he is something of a loner; by niche – social, cultural and professional – he is, too. While many actors seem to be envoys of their particular demographic bulge, Hanks embodies no era at all: neither the disillusioned idealism of the Hurt generation (William, Mary Beth and everyone else who emerged from The Big Chill) nor the no-illusions ambition of the St. Elmo's Fire squad. If that's made him a little opaque, it's also made him a perfect fulcrum for movies about, as he puts it, ''living in the United States in 1986.''

Nothing in Common shows this balancing act at its best. In his other films, he'd already finessed the role of the adorable wiseacre and could have banked on it indefinitely. Not only is Nothing in Common different because it testifies to his power and agility in a complicated role; it has changed Hanks's career because it testifies to his willingness to wrestle with something other than vanity turns in star-making vehicles.

''The verdict on Tom Hanks,'' says costar Jackie Gleason, ''is that he's got it.''

For the moment, Hanks is just a man in the middle of his lunch at a French-Japanese power-lunch establishment. The Manhattan high-yup aesthetic of the place is lost on him – ''Boy,'' he says, staring at its postmodern turquoise walls, ''this place looks like an aquarium'' – and is definitely way too haute for his white undershirt and jeans. This is not screw-you fashion; it just happens to be what Hanks likes to wear. ''Besides,'' he says, ''I have no style.'' More precisely, he looks like a guy whose personal effects have yet to catch up with his success. No wonder, considering that he has just finished his seventh movie in three years, making his young career virtually an entire section in most video stores.

There was nothing in his beginnings that would have augured this speedy rise. The son of a restaurateur in Oakland, California, he was only the second-funniest child in the family. The funniest, his brother Larry, now studies bugs in Baltimore. ''People used to say, 'Tom's loud,''' says Tom loudly from behind the fashionably oversize menu. ''And then they'd say, 'But Larry – now, Larry's funny.''' Hanks's parents divorced for the first time when Tom was five; they remarried ''any number of times'' before splitting for good. His father was later happily married to an Asian woman with an enormous family. ''Everyone in my family likes each other,'' he says. ''But there were always about 50 people at the house. I didn't exactly feel like an outsider, but I was sort of outside of it.''

After a stint at California State University in Sacramento, Hanks won an internship at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland – yes, the home of the Indians! – where he hung lights, painted backdrops, acted and decided to become an actor. ''I loved Cleveland,'' he says. ''After all, I lived there for the last year of my official youth. I really got my stripes as a repertory actor, which means I did a lot of shitty roles. And I spent a lot of days at the ballpark, in that huge stadium with maybe 3,000 people. It was sort of an intimate experience.'' In 1978, he moved to New York, married actress-producer Samantha Lewes, became a father and starved his way through a few seasons with the Riverside Shakespeare Company.

He got a bit part in a slasher flick and a role in a made-for-TV movie and then won the costar spot in the screwball sitcom Bosom Buddies. ''The first day I saw him on the set,'' says the show's coproducer Ian Praiser, ''I thought, 'Too bad he won't be in television for long.' I knew he'd be a movie star in two years.'' The show's critical raves were never matched by its ratings, so after two full seasons – and later, a half-season effort at resuscitation – ABC canceled it; if Hanks knew he'd be a movie star in two years, his lack of confidence at the time belied it. ''The television show had come out of nowhere,'' says his best friend, Tom Lizzio. ''Then out of nowhere it got canceled. He figured he'd be back to pulling ropes and hanging lights in a theater.''

As it happened, director Ron Howard's assistant was a fan of the panty-snapping smart aleck Hanks played on Bosom Buddies and suggested him as a possibility for Howard's upcoming film Splash. ''I thought of him first as Freddie [the role that went to John Candy],'' says Howard – but then he had Hanks read for Allen, the almost straight man who provides the equilibrium between the wacky earthiness of Freddie and the space-naif mermaid played by Daryl Hannah. It was a perfect fit.

While the film was in postproduction, Hanks grabbed a part in the silly bride-of-Animal House bash, Bachelor Party. And even though Splash became a box-office and comic landmark, his next three films were pretty thin.

He didn't just blunder into these quasi bombs; he chose to do them because they were available and he wanted to work. ''This is what I do,'' he says. ''I'm an actor. An actor has to act. What else am I supposed to do – sit around the house?'' Fittingly, he most admires actors who've had long, steady careers, like Michael Caine and Jack Lemmon. He describes his own work as good instincts rather than Method-made, soul-squeezing exorcism. ''I'm not,'' he says, spearing a tidy roll of sushi, ''pissed off about anything.''

He had played occasionally on the Happy Days softball team, so he and Garry Marshall, the show's producer, knew each other when Hanks got the script for Nothing in Common, which Marshall wanted to direct. The film required more than sitcom charm from Hanks. As advertising wonder boy David Basner, he is a jazzy, unencumbered, ambitious wisecracker (he reworked the original script to make Basner nicer and funnier) whose smooth life is suddenly interrupted by the demands of his rumpled, recently separated parents. The role calls for him to juggle his love, guilt, resentment, selfishness, charm and rag – all in the formidable shadow of costars Jackie Gleason and Eva Marie Saint.

''Tom did what no one thought he could do,'' says director Marshall. ''It's hard when you're coming from something like Bachelor Party to have someone say, 'Hey, kid! Cry!' But he did.''

''He's very, very good,'' says Gleason. ''Not only can he deliver a line, he's got great moves. He moves like a funny guy.''

So how does a funny guy move? He walks with a rubbery, childlike bounce-step. He cocks his head a lot and sometimes adopts a wild, mock-fierce voice, which makes the tendons in his neck pop out. When he sings – at this particular lunch, a rousing rendition of the Michelob Light ad – he nods back and forth until he gets to the important part of the jingle. Then he bursts out with ''Who. Says. You can't have it all/Who says you can't have pinstripes/And rock & roll,'' waggling his whole body, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He does have great moves: he looks funny.

Moreover, he thinks he's funny looking – a fact he considers foremost among the reasons he'd never be part of Hollywood's hip clique of younger actors. ''Those other guys,'' Hanks says, ''are universally handsome. I don't think I'm ugly, but I do sometimes look in the mirror and say, 'What is with these lips?'''

There's another reason for his distance from the young guns of Hollywood: He's not as young as they are. ''I was married and had kids since I started working as an actor,'' he says, ''and I started in theater so early. I had responsibility early on. I missed out on this whole concept of free-swinging sexuality.''

Now in the process of getting divorced (his two children live with their mother, but he sees them frequently), he leads a regular-guy life: dinners at his house in the San Fernando Valley, baseball games on the tube. ''Tom is in what I would call the Hat Pack,'' says Garry Marshall. ''You know, a bunch of guys who occasionally wear hats, and that's about as wild as they ever get.''

He is close only to a small group of friends he's known for years, who are mostly outside the movie industry, and he seldom stays in touch with anyone he's worked with. When asked to describe John Candy, who starred with him in Splash and Volunteers, Hanks looks puzzled. ''You know, I don't really know John that well,'' he says. ''I've had dinner at his house, and I've talked to him on the phone, but I don't really know him.'' The same could be said of Hanks. ''Everybody had the feeling they knew him well,'' says Moshe Mizrahi, who directed Hanks in Love Is Ever Young, a love story scheduled for a late-1986 release. ''And yet no one knew him really.''

''Tom wants to be just a guy,'' says Ian Praiser. ''He battled success at first. It made him feel guilty.''

''I don't view myself as particularly successful,'' Hanks says. ''I think of myself as lucky. I still work from the same set of insecurities as I always did. You know, do people really like me, and when will it all end?''

The man is in the middle again: This time it's the center segment of the New York afternoon talk show Live at Five – right between a piece on giant cockroaches and the weekend-weather update. We troop into the green room to wait for Hanks's call. His friend Rita Wilson, who played his love interest in Volunteers, is there, along with Hanks's press agent and a bunch of people on the Live at Five staff. Everyone is gabbing but Hanks, who sits silently, drumming his fingers.

If he's nervous, it's impossible to tell once he's on the set: He leans into the camera, gets off a wicked Jackie Gleason imitation and takes a hilarious poke at the show's film critic. Even when the show ends, the people in the control room are still in stitches. Sure, the cockroaches may have been fascinating and the weather divine, but the second-funniest child holds the middle down just fine.