A League of His Own: Tom Hanks, American Icon

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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.

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