A League of His Own: Tom Hanks, American Icon

He can crack jokes in line for the men’s room, and then go out and inaugurate a president

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Sam Jones
Tom Hanks
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Tom Hanks has a problem with his dressing room.

The two-time Oscar winner and generally agreed-upon national treasure has just arrived backstage at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, dragging a duffel bag in each hand with his wife, Rita Wilson, trailing behind. (Wilson's wearing a neck brace, for some reason.) It's been 35 years since Hanks made a living in a place like the Freud – a 567-seat theater whose last big show was a student production of A Chorus Line – and though he has a reputation as a down-to-earth, easygoing guy, he's also, at this point, used to a certain level of comfort – something befitting his station as a man who dines with prime ministers and breakfasts with presidents. So when he sees the piece of computer paper taped to the door of the cramped dressing room he and Wilson are supposed to share, and frowns, the look on his face says there's a problem.

When he locates a PA, Hanks doesn't beat around the bush. "Hey, this dressing room," he says, still holding his bags. "We don't need our own. Give that to somebody else! We can split up – boys and girls." Then, a mischievous smile: "You know – her with the boys, me with the girls."

What? You thought he was going to complain? Come on! This is Tom Hanks. The Nicest Guy in Showbiz. Mr. America's Sweetheart. You could probably put him in the Staples Center men's room and he'd spend the next three hours passing out paper towels. Yes, he recently made headlines at the Toronto International Film Festival when, during a press conference for his new movie Cloud Atlas, the centuries-spanning sci-fi epic from the directors of The Matrix, he sniped at organizers for [running their] "celebrities through a pen like we're bulls on the way to slaughter." But when a guy has a rep as such an all-consuming mensch that a minor gripe like that qualifies as a scandal, he's probably a stand-up dude.

Hanks' rise to stardom has been pretty remarkable, when you think about it. It's been often observed that he's a throwback – a Norman Rockwell type who uses words like "kooky" and "holy smokes" and would be right at home in a Frank Capra film. But over the past decade or so, he's also become our de facto national consciousness, the cool history professor who tells us stories about who we imagine ourselves to be. He's gone from being the guy you want to hang out with at the cocktail party to a bona fide American icon (whom you want to hang out with at the cocktail party).

Hanks came of age during the turbulent Sixties, and he responded not by becoming cynical about America but by embracing it. He's a city-on-a-hill kind of a guy – earnest, and without skepticism. He makes films – ones he stars in (the war ones, the space ones) and ones he produces (the war ones, the space ones) – that speak to our past, our future, our best natures. He takes this role very seriously. One of the few bumpy moments in his otherwise un-bumpy career came when Hanks slammed the proponents of California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 as "un-American" – an accusation that, for him, sounded like the worst criticism he could possibly imagine. Even when he walked it back later, admitting that "nothing could be more American" than voting your conscience, implicit in his apology was the heartfelt notion that American values were worth striving for.

"I think it's a damn fine nation, without a doubt," Hanks says. "I don't feel responsible to go off and promote some kind of rah-rah American agenda. But there's something about the will and the perseverance and the willingness to get it done that only Americans can do. That's not jingoistic, and it doesn't make us better than anybody else – but when Americans put their minds to it, stuff happens."

Hanks is at UCLA today to do a benefit for the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, a nonprofit run by his friend Ben Donenberg. Each year, he and Wilson wrangle a dozen of their actor pals – Billy Crystal, Martin Short, William Shatner – and put on one of the Bard's comedies. This year it's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which they're doing as a psychedelic Sixties musical with lots of tie-dye and boomer songs. They meet up around lunchtime, do a table read and one dress rehearsal, and then perform a few hours later for people who have paid up to $1,000 per ticket – the wackier and more screwed-up, the better. "The whole message is, this is not medicine," Hanks says. "You do not have to work at this. I called up Tony Hopkins to do it one year, and he said" – here Hanks slips into a perfect patrician Anthony Hopkins accent – "'Look, I'm asked to do this all the time, and it's absolutely dreary. It's a hideous occasion with a bunch of snooty people.' And I said, 'Tony – we rip it up! We play everything for maximum laughs.' And he said, 'Oh, all right. That sounds like fun!'"

Dressing-room situation sorted, Hanks heads off to catering to get some coffee. He's drinking it with honey these days, because he's trying to cut out sugar. "I ran into Alec Baldwin, who looks fabulous, and said, 'Dude, your health is so fantastic!' And he said" – cut to a perfect raspy Baldwin growl – "'Yeah. White sugar. I'm staying away from white sugar as much as I can.' You get into your mid-fifties and you find out you have high blood sugar, and you say, 'What the fuck? Me? No.' But, yeah!"

Hanks is 56 and still looks like a movie star – not bad for a guy who once described himself as having "a big ass and fat thighs . . . a goofy-looking nose, ears that hang down, eyes that make me look like I'm part Chinese and . . . a gut I've got to keep watching." As he sits outside in a blue polo, Levi's and brown work boots, the least-becoming thing on him is his new mustache – a thin, John Waters-y number that he can't stop touching, as if he's worried about it coming off. "Crappy little mustache," Hanks says. He's growing it for his next role, as Walt Disney. "And much like Disneyland," he says, "my mustache will never be finished."

"Look at this stud!" shouts Cedric the Entertainer, who just showed up.

"Hey, man!" says Hanks. "You good? I'm so glad you're here. Thanks for coming through."

"Yeah," says Cedric hesitantly. It's his first time doing this. "It's fun, right?"

"Oh, it'll be a blast."

"Because I don't know any Shakespeare."

Hanks smiles. "That's going to be a plus."

It's obvious why Hanks is sometimes called the Mayor of Hollywood. He loves glad-handing, gabbing, shooting the shit. Meg Ryan once said that if she ever had to wait in a long line, he's the guy she'd want next to her. Once, at the Oscars, his walk-on music was "Hail to the Chief," but Hanks says he's more like the vice principal crossed with the class clown. "I'm, like, in charge of wisecracks," he says. "I'm the guy who'll sit you down in the cafeteria and say, 'You know what would be great? If the jazz band and the orchestra could get along.' And next thing you know, the problem is solved."

A few minutes later, Hanks heads to the bathroom to take a piss. It's not as epic a piss as the 49-second monster he took in A League of Their Own, or as painful as the one he took with the urinary-tract infection in The Green Mile, or as intergalactic as the zero-gravity one he shot into space in Apollo 13, or even as urgent as the one he had to take in Forrest Gump after chugging all those Dr Peppers at JFK's White House party. But it's an impressive piss nonetheless, a real workmanlike, everyman kind of piss that's only slightly lessened by Hanks calling it "a wee-wee."

While Hanks is zipping up, William Shatner shuffles by out in the hallway, rehearsing his lines from the song "California Dreamin'." It sounds just like you'd hope it would – Shatner declaiming Mamas and the Papas lyrics in that unmistakable Shatner cadence. ("Stopped . . . into a church . . .") Hanks turns to the next urinal. "That guy," he whispers, "is a goddamn genius."

Talking to people about Tom Hanks is an exercise in praise fatigue. His friend Martin Short says he's "a very polite, charming, soulful guy with a fertile, active mind." His friend Meg Ryan calls him "easy and fun and relaxed and smart and tough and just a pretty consistent character." His friend Nick Pileggi, who co-wrote Casino and GoodFellas and was married to Nora Ephron (who directed Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail), says he's "very thoughtful, incredibly bright, very entertaining and great company." And his friend David Geffen says, "He's interested in everything, he reads a tremendous amount, he's engaged." Talk to enough of Hanks' famous friends – and really, they're all famous – and you start to feel like Julia Roberts a few years ago, when she was tasked with speaking near the end of a Tom Hanks tribute and said basically all that was left for her to say: "All right, well, it's late and I'm paying my baby sitter overtime and I have to pee, so: Evvvvvvverybody fuckin' likes you."

Still, spend a little time around him, and a fuller picture starts to emerge. For one thing: He's a bit of an attention hog! Ryan, who's played his love interest in three movies, says it's a generous, non-ego thing – he knows people like him and he wants to make them happy. But he also loves to get the laugh. Take the time on the set of Cloud Atlas, when at the end of another very long day, Hanks had the whole crew in stitches by reciting his lines in whatever style they threw at him: Now do it like Al Pacino! Do it like Tennessee Williams! Like Tolstoy! Like Frankenstein! It was just like the time when he was a kid and his family was driving somewhere, and little Tommy heard a bird outside the window and said, "Hark, a mourning dove!" and was so amused by himself that he tried to re-create it for the rest of the car ride: "Hark, some cows!" "Hark, I have to go to the bathroom!"

Second: He can be a bit of a jerk! That's like saying Santa hates kids, but Hanks admits it's true. "I can be really harsh," he says. "I've had meetings where I've blown something completely out of the water just by opening my mouth. What I should tell people is, 'Let's agree to not have egos, and say everything that we think.' But I don't say that until after I'm a real asshole."

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."

After breakfast, Hanks strolls down Fifth Avenue, along Central Park. A light rain is falling; he's on his third cup of coffee. Up ahead, at the corner, a pair of tourists – Italian, by the looks of them – are trying to corral a subway map when they look up and see Tom Hanks coming toward them on the sidewalk. They go through the steps people go through when they see a famous person: "Is that him? I think it's him. Should we ask for a photo? No, we can't. . . ." But Hanks sees this all unfolding and immediately takes charge, leaning into the punch.

"Hey, how you doing? You want a picture?" he calls from halfway up the block. It's a move that, in someone else's hands, might seem pretty douchey – except they did want a picture, and they were too shy to ask, and now they have one, and he's happy he could give it to them. It's an effortless, mutually satisfying celebrity transaction, conducted by an expert.

Ryan remembers one of those. "We were shooting something in New York," she says, "and we were sitting on a bus bench, and in between takes, this bus came by and people waved at us. At the time I felt so embarrassed – like, 'Ohhhh, God.' And Tom just looked at me and went, 'What's the big deal? Just wave back! It's a wave!' Sometimes as a famous person you make the mistake of interpreting people's interest in you as personal. But it's all a goof – and he seems to have always known it."

Hanks likes it in this neighborhood. He and Wilson bought a place on the Upper East Side about 20 years ago, when the kids were still young enough to like playing in the park, and they stay here when they're in town. Right now they're here to do an event at Radio City Music Hall – a benefit for the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon's Children's Health Fund. ("I'm on the benefit tour," Hanks jokes.) Wilson is singing, and he's going to accompany her on guitar. "You know how in Spinal Tap they went to 11? Well, I'm gonna have negative-1," he says. "I'm gonna have the quietest guitar in history."

Hanks has always been a serious rock geek. When he got enough pull in Hollywood to direct his own vanity project, the one he picked was That Thing You Do!, about a Beatles-era rock band that became the original one-hit wonders. He even named his production company, Playtone, after the fake record label in the film. (These days, Playtone is a powerhouse in its own right, producing miniseries such as John Adams and The Pacific, as well as less typically Hanks-y stuff like Where the Wild Things Are, and the HBO movie Game Change. Hanks won an Emmy for the latter. He taped it to the hood of his car.)

Playtone also produces events for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and at the 2008 induction ceremony, Hanks introduced the Dave Clark Five, sounding like a senator on the stump as he talked about how, as a kid, rock & roll gave him "a world beyond" tiny Red Bluff, California – when he'd watch the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, listen to "a speaker the size of the bottom of a soda can" on his sister's clock radio and save up dimes for the jukebox at his local pizza parlor. Fifty years later, Hanks is friends with the same legends he used to worship, like his fellow Oscar winner Bruce Springsteen (Philadelphia). Just the other night, in fact, Hanks and his friend Robbie Robertson were hanging at Geffen's house in Beverly Hills, dining on fish and lobster potatoes and discussing the Middle East with Tony Blair.

Hanks keeps strolling. It actually wasn't far from here that he and Wilson had one of their first romantic moments, when they were holding hands at a light on the corner of Fifth Avenue near the park and he told her she'd never have to change a thing to make him happy. They first met more than 30 years ago, when she had a guest role on his sitcom Bosom Buddies. But they didn't meet again until three years later, when they shot a movie together called Volunteers. Their first date was to see the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense; Hanks proposed on New Year's Eve 1987, while they were vacationing in St. Barts with RoboCop star Peter Weller. Now they've been married for nearly 25 years, and they're clearly still head over heels. He calls her Bobcat, Babydoll and Chick-o-Stick; she calls him Wolf Dog. "She has degrees of social graces that I do not," he says. "She has an ability to interact with people that I'm amazed by. She has no fear. She's fascinating, she's just fascinating."

That said, he'd rather you didn't ask Wilson about him. "I think we're enough of a commodity as it is without commoditizing ourselves even more," Hanks says. "You don't get that stuff back. We've never done anything from our house, we've never been on TV together. Honestly, what would we say? I like her; she likes me. I drive her nuts sometimes, but I don't want you to know when."

This is Hanks' nondirty little secret. When you see him at the Oscars or dedicating a veterans' memorial, you think, "Tom Hanks – I know that guy." But you don't, really. For instance, did you know he was married before? Or that he's a child of divorce himself, who lived, by his count, in 10 different houses with three different stepmoms by the time he was 10? When he was on the cover of Rolling Stone 24 years ago, Sally Field said of Hanks, "He's very entertaining and funny and easy to be around. But you know there's somebody else underneath . . . a sad side, a dark side." Hanks says that was true then, and it's still true now. He just doesn't feel the need to talk about it, particularly.

"There are absolutely aspects of pain and hurt and sadness to what I do," he says. "Otherwise I'm just Monty Hall. But it's a high-wire act – maintaining the equipoise. The thing Sally and I were doing [the movie Punchline] was about the poisonous atmosphere of stand-up comedians – and you don't have to dig too deep to find the poisonous atmosphere of anything. But the place to examine that is in the work, and when you're having heart-to-heart conversations with your kids."

"I'm going to use a terrible word," says Pileggi, "but I think Tom is a grown-up, adult man. You keep your own counsel sometimes. You don't have to answer every question. That's what grown men are supposed to be."

Meg Ryan agrees. "I think the pleasure with Tom is that he has complications, but we're not really gonna know what those complications are," she says. "I think that's smart. Movie stardom is a lot about suggestion: You have to be a blank enough canvas so people can project their feelings about what a good guy is. And there isn't much Tom has done to dispute that. He's wise enough to suggest that we know him – even though we also know we don't."

There's a great, unsung moment in Saving Private Ryan when Matt Damon, as Ryan, is bonding with Hanks' Capt. John Miller a few minutes before the climactic battle. Ryan is worried he's starting to forget his brothers – he can't picture their faces. Miller says the trick is to think of something specific, some favorite memory. For him, Miller says, it's watching his wife prune her rosebushes. Ryan thinks about it, and starts reminiscing about the last night he and his brothers were all together, before the war. Pretty soon he's laughing, and they're back with him. Then he asks Miller to tell him his story – about his wife and her rosebushes.

Miller, who up to that point had been laughing and smiling too, suddenly gets quiet. "No," he says. "No, that one I save just for me." Some things Hanks saves just for him.

 

Here's a fun game: Try to name an actor with a better six-year stretch than this: A League of Their Own. Sleepless in Seattle. Philadelphia. Forrest Gump. Apollo 13. Toy Story. Saving Private Ryan.

Seriously, give it a shot. Can't be done. 1992-1998 Tom Hanks is simply un-fuck-with-able – like '87-'93 Jordan, or the '66-'72 Stones. Even the six movies that followed (You've Got Mail, Toy Story 2, The Green Mile, Cast Away, Road to Perdition and Catch Me If You Can) would be a career for most actors, and that's Hanks' B game. Not to mention, his contributions to the pop-culture vernacular: "There's no crying in baseball." "Houston, we have a problem." "Life is like a box of chocolates." "Wiiiiillllsoooooon!" The guy's like a one-man Hollywood Bartlett's. When he dies, decades hence, the poor editor in charge of putting together the Oscar-tribute montage is going to have some pretty tough choices on his hands. Not for nothing, Hanks is the highest-grossing box-office star in the world – $8.5 billion and counting.

Lately, though, he's been in a bit of a slump. First came The Ladykillers, remembered mostly for his awful mustache. Next was his third Steven Spielberg movie collaboration, The Terminal, which opened a distant second to Ben Stiller's Dodgeball. The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons were both hits, but underwhelming ones; and Hanks' last directorial effort, Larry Crowne, was a genuine bust. ("He wanted to make it, and he made it for nothing," Geffen says. "But, you know, nobody only makes hits.")

To his credit, Hanks is realistic about the past few years. "Sometimes someone comes up to me and says, 'Mr. Hanks, I gotta say – Angels & Demons just blew my mind.'" He laughs. "Really?" For one thing, he's been dedicating a lot of effort to Playtone, which comes at the expense of acting. But he also says that's just how it goes sometimes. "That's art, man. What can you do? You aim for something and don't always hit it, but you keep slugging away. It's like any great band that's been together a long time. Not all the records work – but you can still hear the band in there."

And it's true – even when the movie's a bomb, you can still see Hanks in there. As Spielberg once said, Tom Hanks "is America." He makes movies about baseball, childhood, space, romance, war – all the things we're good at. He plays homespun archetypes with a realistic twist: the insecure sheriff, the frightened soldier. This is a guy, says Short, who sings the national anthem at baseball games with his hand over his heart. Who is unusually proud of the fact that there are six flags on the moon and every one of them is the Stars and Stripes. Who ends his Oscar acceptance speeches with the phrase "God bless America" and says he sometimes wishes he was a United States park ranger. ("Green uniform, Smokey the Bear hat. The whole bit.")

Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer, who is German, says Hanks' appeal is universal. "You can imagine how hugely debated Saving Private Ryan was in Germany, and I think the only reason people were able to get into it was because of Tom Hanks," he says. "In Europe, people have even forgotten that Forrest Gump was an American." In a time when our reputation has taken some hits abroad, there's still something inarguable about Hanks. He's an ambassador for the country the whole world can agree on; even in Islamabad, no one's going to protest a Tom Hanks movie.

Hanks has long been mentioned as someone with a future in politics. It makes sense: an active, deep-pocketed West Coast liberal who's close to both the Clintons (he slept in the Lincoln Bedroom) and the Obamas (he narrated this year's campaign video), who's also a champion of soldiers and veterans' issues and one of the few figures on the left whose patriotism has never been questioned. (If the McCarthy hearings were held today, Hanks would have nothing to worry about.) He's just heartland enough to be corny, and just Hollywood enough to be cool – a bridge-builder who invites Republican Clint Eastwood and former LBJ aide Jack Valenti over for the same dinner parties. Even Bill Clinton wants to be him: Around the time that Mike Nichols was adapting Primary Colors for the screen, Clinton said if anyone was going to play him in a movie, he wanted it to be Hanks.

Short says he could see Hanks running a studio or running for office. Geffen calls him "a good citizen – someone you can admire without feeling foolish." But Hanks says it's all just a laugh: "I've never had any interest in running for office," he says. "Never."

In fact, he says, when it comes to his pet causes like the space program or veterans, he can actually do more as Movie Star Tom Hanks than he could on some congressional subcommittee. "If I show up, more people show up. That means more money raised, and more people doing the groundwork – the actual making phone calls and building buildings, and stuff that serves the cause."

These days, Hanks really wants his movies to make a difference. A voracious history buff who buys books by the crate and named two of his sons Chester and Truman Theodore, Hanks loves being able to tell people stories and facts they didn't already know. "There's actually kind of a Playtone manifesto we have, which is, 'Where have the myths become inaccurate?'" he says. His goal is to be as accurate as possible – to make movies that "become historical documents and are literally put on shelves in libraries, or that you could show in a class." It's what inspired him to take on two movies he has in the pipeline: Captain Phillips, about an American sailor held hostage by Somali pirates, and In the Garden of Beasts, about the U.S. ambassador to Germany before WWII. (Not that he'd ever want to be an ambassador himself. "All those cocktail parties? It's like being on a press junket for the rest of your life!")

Now that he's getting older, Hanks is looking for roles that are a little more complicated. "For a long time, I was the generational example of who everyone kind of, like, is," he says. "I wasn't the Man With No Name coming in to clean up the town. I was the ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. I'm 56 now, and I don't think anybody's looking for me to save the dog and get the girl. Not that I can't still do that – but there's a little more gravitas. I think maybe I get to play guys who actually are kind of extraordinary. I'm the experienced American now."

In Cloud Atlas, Hanks plays six different characters, ranging from a 1970s nuclear scientist to a nefarious doctor, maybe the first true bad guy of his career. "He got to play some pretty gnarly, flawed people this time," co-star Halle Berry says. "And I saw the fun he had with it." Early reactions have been polarized; some call the movie a gorgeous masterpiece, while others think it's bloated nonsense. But either way, Geffen says, "This was an ambitious movie, and he loved making it. And if it isn't successful, you know, c'est la vie – he had an awful lot of fun being a villain."

Which may be the key to understanding Hanks generally: He just gets into stuff. He once was enthralled reading a book about cod. Short remembers him being captivated by one on the history of the potato. "I could go to HBO and say, 'The most important thing ever pulled out of the ground is the potato. I see a six-hour miniseries,' and I bet you we could at least get a couple of scripts written," says Hanks. "I'm such a dope, I can be intrigued by anything. I think you could make a fascinating movie about building a bridge across the Mississippi River – because I saw a documentary about it, and it was fascinating. I got so many goofy facts rattling around in my head – I'm a pain in the ass at dinner parties. Rita's gotta go, 'You know what, hey – enough about the Weimar Republic.'"

Hanks has a good laugh at himself. "But you know . . ." he adds, a twinkle in his eye. "The interesting thing about the Weimar Republic is . . ."

This story is from the November 8th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1169: November 8, 2012
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