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A League of His Own: Tom Hanks, American Icon

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In the Shakespeare play at UCLA, Hanks is portraying one of the Mechanicals, the six amateur actors who put on a play-within-a-play. He's Nick Bottom, the troupe's resident ham. (It's a stretch.) True to form, he plays it comically over-the-top – as a Lebowski-ish stoner who punctuates his sentences with a blissed-out "maaaaan" – and milks his death scene for all it's worth. At one point, he even upstages Shatner, which is a feat.

At the beginning of Act IV, he's supposed to bring someone up from the audience for a cameo. The guy's name is Ken; turns out he paid $6,100 in an online charity auction for the chance to say one line, as a fairy named Cobweb. It's the kind of thing you'd think Hanks would be grateful for, but as Ken makes his way to the stage, the actor is being a little ungallant.

"Hurry up, Cobweb!" he needles. "How much did you pay for this gig?"

Eventually Ken makes it onstage. It's his big moment; he seems pretty nervous. "Ready," he says, reciting his line. "What is your will?" But Hanks, instead of answering with his own line, turns to face him. "Good job, man!" he says, with the tiniest hint of condescension. "The audience applauded and everything. Now, off you go – exeunt, amateur!"

But if there's any awkwardness, it passes quickly. The rest of the play is a sloppy riot: Crystal doing gentile jokes, Short impersonating Katharine Hepburn in a nude bodysuit with a penis drawn on. At one point, Cedric the Entertainer is straight-up chatting with the audience. "Sorry," he says. "I just don't have a lot of lines." ("It's true," Hanks shoots back. "In the script, you don't have a lot of lines.") Out in the audience, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn are cracking up. By the end of the show, the thing is in shambles, and Hanks' script is literally falling apart. He rips off the top half and chucks it across the stage: "Stupid Shakespeare!" The audience goes wild.

It's not often he gets to really cut loose like this. One of the few things that bugs him is when people say that he always plays the same character – variations on "Tom Hanks." After all, he says, it's not like he's out there doing Forrest Gump 6. "When we did Road to Perdition," he says, "the reports were, 'You always play such a nice guy.' I shoot a dude in the head! 'Yeah, but you do it for the right reasons.' In Green Mile, I played an executioner – I fried, like, three people. 'Yeah. But you did it to improve yourself.'"

One of the funniest scenes in tonight's play comes early on. The head of the Mechanicals is assigning roles, and Hanks, as Bottom, is volunteering for every one. First he wants to be Thisbe, the play's Juliet; then the lion, so he can show off his roar. But Quince, the carpenter, already has him typecast. "You can play no part but Pyramus," he says. "For Pyramus is a sweet-faced man; a proper man . . . a most lovely gentlemanlike man: Therefore, you must play Pyramus."

Hanks lets out a big, melodramatic sigh. "Well," he says. "I will undertake it."

Here's what a typical day is like for Tom Hanks, according to Tom Hanks:

"Well, first I kick the dog out of the bedroom. We have this white shepherd, Cleo, and she wakes me up by licking my hand and nuzzling me. Yesterday she was up at 6:30, so I was up at 6:30 as well. Got the coffee turned on and the paper spread out, and by the time the wife comes down, I'm already pumped. I have energy and opinions. All the kids are out of the house; my 16-year-old goes to boarding school – his choice! We didn't ship him off – so I have no child responsibilities. It's just me and the wife. We read the paper, I get my exercise in – 'cause you gotta maintain the temple. One hour of low-energy workout – weights and push-ups and the treadmill. I do it to the Dave Letterman show on the DVR – that's my timer, you see. As soon as Craig Ferguson comes on, I'm done.

"After that, Tim Allen and I got together. About seven times a year, he and I will have a sit-down summit about everything that's going on in our lives. We had lunch and talked for two and a half hours. Tim's brain is like an engineer's. He can talk about how air-conditioning units are made wrong. He actually designed a prototype of a drill he tried to sell to – I don't know, Black & Decker or something. I swear to God, that's the way he operates.

"It was Yom Kippur, everything was shut down, so I went back home and watched My Beautiful Laundrette, which I'd never seen. Daniel Day-Lewis – holy smokes. Then it was dinner. Without the kids, there's no rules, so we end up going out a lot, getting together with peeps. But last night the wife and I ate at home while we watched the BBC News and NBC News, and then most of Vegas because our friend Dennis Quaid is in it and our friend Nick Pileggi wrote it, and we sorta know Mike Chiklis because he's Greek and Rita's Greek and all Greeks know all Greeks. Then she took care of some business while I watched the 1974 Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds.

"Now, I have sinned, so even though I'm not Jewish, in my mind I atoned a little for the big mix-ups. You know – I'm a jerk sometimes, and I don't see my kids enough, and I can be . . . I can be gruff. But I took care of that in a few minutes, and now I feel great. Then pretty much brushed the teeth, got in bed, read a little bit of my Alan Furst novel, The Spies of Warsaw, and then went to sleep. And that was my Yom Kippur."

One of the big themes in Cloud Atlas is the way little moments ripple through time and have major consequences. Over breakfast in New York (scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, capers, toast, grapefruit juice), Hanks ponders that theme. "If you start putting together the connections from where we were to where we end up," he says, "jeez, anything kicked out of there is gonna make a huge difference. For instance, if I had been cast in a show in Sacramento, I wouldn't have even gotten started on this whole thing."

In college at Cal State Sacramento, Hanks couldn't book any theater gigs, so he spent his summers interning at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, where he'd change sets and haul costumes between rehearsals. Lucy Bredeson-Smith, a friend from those days who still works in theater in Cleveland, remembers a sweet, hardworking guy who was the backbone of the company. "People always ask me for dirt," Bredeson-Smith says. "But there is no dirt." She does, however, remember one night at a house a bunch of them shared, when they were all watching Saturday Night Live. "Steve Martin was hosting – I think it was the 'King Tut' night – and we were all rolling around on the floor laughing," she says. "And Tom said, 'I'm going to host that show someday.' And we said, 'Yes.'"

Nowadays, Hanks is very good at being famous. Think about it: How many stars can you name who are both extremely, publicly famous, and also seemingly completely comfortable with that fact? There's Clooney. Will Smith, probably. Brad, but not Angelina. Maybe Justin Timberlake. And that's about it. Hanks has never thrown a phone, never jumped on a couch, never had a breakdown or a slip-up of any sort – and yet for 25-plus years he has been not only constantly in the public eye but smiling every minute of it. Being famous suits him. He wears it well.

Besides his $26 million mansion in the Pacific Palisades, Hanks lives a pretty unaffected life. He drives his Chevy Volt to his office in Santa Monica, wears T-shirts and shorts to business meetings, and waits in line for Dodger Dogs like everyone else. At President Obama's inauguration in 2009, he cracked jokes for the crowd while in line for the Port-a-Potty – and then went onstage to give a speech. Lately he enjoys a pilsener at the end of the day, a habit he picked up while filming Cloud Atlas in Germany, but never more than two. His favorite curse word is "horseshit" – not to be confused with bullshit, "which is totally different" – and he likes "pussy," too, though "not in a pejorative sense." It ticks him off when people don't use their turn signals, but otherwise not much bugs him. After all, he says, "Pet peeves are for pussies."

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