A League of His Own: Tom Hanks, American Icon

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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.

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