News Column

Actor Solidifies His 'Nice Guy' Image

October 10, 2013



Tom Hanks, whose signature early role was a young person who wanted to be an old person, has gotten his wish.

The star of 1988's "Big" is now 57. And he appears to be one of those actors who have managed the trick of growing older along with his audience - while still remaining a star.

His highly anticipated next appearance as the beleaguered skipper of the Maersk Alabama, besieged by Somali pirates in the fact-based drama "Captain Phillips," opening tonight, is already getting Oscar buzz. On Dec. 20, he'll be back as that embodiment of everything lovable - in popular imagination, if not in real life - the great Walt Disney himself, in "Saving Mr. Banks."

Back in Hollywood's studio era of the 1920s and 1930s, the standard actor's contract was five years, on the assumption that no movie star career could last longer. But there were always stars who bucked conventional wisdom. Some, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, weathered a 30-year span by transitioning from spunky ingenues to flinty divas to crazy old hags. Some, like Cary Grant, just seemed ageless.

Then there's Hanks -- the bashful kid who charmed in the early 1980s TV show "Bosom Buddies," climbed to big-screen stardom in "Splash" (1984) and then hit his stride playing heroes with the common touch in films like "A League of Their Own" (1992), "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993), "Forrest Gump" (1994), "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) and "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007). Now, in late middle age, he's still playing the hero in A-list pictures. Why?

For one thing, his brand - Nice Guy - is the kind of thing that ages well.

Beauty lasts but a season, as Melanie Griffith, Meg Ryan, Darryl Hannah, Karen Allen and any of the numerous female victims of Hollywood's notorious double standard could tell you. Muscles last somewhat longer - but even Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and other action heroes have found it necessary to team up, like the monsters in "House of Frankenstein," in order to guarantee a hit.

But a Nice Guy is a Nice Guy, wrinkles or not. And Tom Hanks -- who even nicely announced his diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes this week, by joking about it on "Late Show With David Letterman" -- is the Nice Guy par excellence.

Nice is his calling card, his trademark, his special skill set. Hanks is so nice that he can be called upon to sprinkle some extra nice onto characters that Hollywood is afraid the audience might reject as not nice enough. For instance, the gay guy with AIDS in the groundbreaking "Philadelphia" (1993), for which Hanks won his first Academy Award. Or, less successfully, the Wall Street broker in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990) whose very essence - at least in the original Tom Wolfe bestseller - was his not-niceness. He's so nice that he could even, in that odd 2000 movie "Cast Away," play a love scene with a volleyball and get away with it.

His career trajectory mirrors that of Jimmy Stewart, the old- school Hollywood actor he most resembles. Both started out as boyish, appealing, aw-shucks regular guys in romantic comedies. As a matter of fact, Hanks had one of his biggest hits with one of Stewart's biggest hits: "You've Got Mail," from 1998, was a remake of Stewart's 1940 "The Shop Around the Corner."

Both actors re-emerged, in middle age, as clean-cut heroes - occasionally with dark psychological undercurrents, but still heroes.

In the case of Stewart, the transition was probably World War II. He was a serious aviator who flew many combat missions, was awarded the Croix de Guerre and eventually ended up a major general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. When he reappeared after the war, he was playing soldiers ("Broken Arrow," 1950), cowboys ("Bend of the River," 1952) and popular heroes like Charles Lindbergh ("The Spirit of St. Louis," 1957), and speaking up on behalf of The Boy Scouts, child welfare and other favorite causes.

In the case of Hanks, the transition to Public Spirited Citizen was probably playing a soldier in World War II.

"Saving Private Ryan," the 1998 Steven Spielberg drama, was clearly pivotal for Hanks. He became the national spokesman for the World War II Memorial Campaign, honorary chairman of the D-Day Museum capital campaign and a writer-producer of the award-winning HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers."

Then, too, Hanks played an astronaut in "Apollo 13" (1995). Just as Stewart became a spokesman for aviation issues, so Hanks thereafter became a figurehead for NASA, producing the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon" and pre-recording planetarium shows for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

In short, Hanks is the kind of actor of whom people say, unhesitatingly, "He should run for president."

It could be - who knows? -- his next role. And he's just about the right age for it.

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