August 03, 1998 12:00 PM

Tom Hanks has a problem. A few minutes after arriving at the CBS television studios in L.A. to tape Dennis Miller Live—promoting his new movie, Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s bloody memorial to World War II combatants—Hanks suddenly realizes that the garment bag he has pulled out of his black Dodge Ram truck contains the dark suit he plans to wear, but no dark socks. He appeals to a member of Miller’s staff. “Does Dennis have a pair?” Hanks asks. Sorry, no. All anyone can offer are a blue pair and a black pair taken off the feet of two crew members. Hanks seems less than thrilled—prompting another staffer to offer Hanks his own socks. “No, thank you,” says Hanks. “I’d rather not see you take them off your feet before I put them on mine.” Choices being what they are, the two-time Oscar winner who commands up to $20 million a picture settles on the black hand-me-downs. “With a little talcum powder,” he says, giving the container a few good shakes, “I’ll never know they were just off someone else’s feet.”

No one said the guy wasn’t fastidious—just extremely nice. Since he first tottered into the nation’s living rooms in 1980 in a dress and a wig on ABC’s short-lived cult hit Bosom Buddies, Hanks, now 42, has sealed his reputation as the celebrity mensch: not too handsome, not too slick, just really, really nice. Over the past decade he has gone from enchantingly nice as a boy trapped in a man’s body in Big to heartbreakingly nice as a lawyer dying of AIDS in Philadelphia (earning him his first Best Actor Oscar) to heroically nice as he fulfilled every kid’s fantasy—including his own—playing a stoic space cowboy in Apollo 13. And lest anyone think the good-guy factor that permeates his work is an act, take it from Tom Miller, executive producer of Family Matters, Laverne & Shirley and Bosom Buddies, it’s not. When Buddies was still a fledgling pilot nearly 20 years ago, Miller recalls, Hanks was so broke he asked the producer and his partner to lend him $5,000. They decided to double the amount.

“As soon as Tom received his first paycheck,” says Miller, “there was only one priority he had: paying the money back. Even today, if he sees us on a soundstage or in the lobby of a motion picture theater, the man drops to his knees and says, ‘Thank you guys! Thank you for helping me with my career!’ It’s embarrassing.” But to Hanks, the over-the-top display makes sense. “Not only did they grant me a career in television by casting me,” he says, “but they were the greatest gentlemen in the world.”

Most, if not all, of those who have worked alongside Hanks reserve the same accolade for him. “One of the things I just love about Tom is that he’s incredibly democratic,” says Meg Ryan, Hanks’s costar in Joe versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle. Ryan says that while filming their forthcoming romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail, on the streets of Manhattan last spring, he was “waving at whole busloads of people as they drove by. It cracked him up, and it cracked them up.” She adds, “He just takes people in, not in a showy way, just because he really notices them, which is what’s so sweet.”

In some ways, Hanks’s current role as Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan—so brutal in its depiction of the D. Day invasion of Normandy that Spielberg has been giving interviews warning parents that the film may be way too violent for young people—brought out a more serious side of Hanks. There were, to be sure, moments of fun during the three-month shoot in England and Ireland. Hanks’s wife of 10 years, actress Rita Wilson, 41, was on location with their two sons Truman, 2, and Chester, 8—who was often spied darting in and around the trailers playing soldier with Spielberg’s 6-year-old son, Sawyer. Still, Hanks will not allow his young sons to see Saving Private Ryan, about a platoon on a mission to save a young soldier behind enemy lines. “Not my kids, no,” says Hanks, who has two older children, Colin, 20, and Elizabeth, 16, from his first marriage to actress Samantha Lewes (they were divorced in 1987). “Without any difficulty kids can be filled with the most violent forms of entertainment,” he says. “There are times I’ve turned on the television on a Saturday afternoon, and I’m watching a movie about gangsters imprisoning people and making them fight to the death. It’s problem solving [for kids] to kick somebody in the face so hard that their tongue flies out of their head? Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if a few young kids saw Saving Private Ryan and came out of it weeping.”

To prepare for his role before shooting began, Hanks, along with several costars, agreed to stay in character for a six-day boot camp in which he, like the other actors, slept three-hour nights in a flimsy tent on hard, cold ground, did drills with a 60-pound backpack, ate something resembling Spam and faced blank “enemy” fire that seemed frighteningly real. By the fourth day the mock soldiers in Hanks’s unit—including Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper and Adam Goldberg—decided to mutiny, having gotten the point about the rigors of war. Hanks voted to stay on. “Of course, we all felt like a bunch of idiots after that,” says Goldberg. “Tom made a very strong case for sticking it out and turned us all around.” Adds Matt Damon, who plays Private Ryan: “What Hanks does is lead by example”—whether by working long, hard hours or simply eating off the catering cart like everyone else. “He could have ordered cracked crab from Alaska every day, because this business really does indulge people,” says Damon. “But he didn’t want the special treatment.”

“A lot of us had never been in such a big Hollywood film,” says Ed Burns, 30. “Tom kind of took us under his wing. This is one of the biggest stars in the world, and he’s not bossy or arrogant and is nice to everybody. Without being hokey, we all felt lucky to work with him and become his friend.”

The fact is, Hanks spent much of his youth searching for a mentor of his own. He was born in Concord, Calif., in 1956 to Janet Turner, a hospital worker, and Amos Hanks, a cook who often supervised large hotel kitchens. “If there was a place with crabby professional union waiters,” says Hanks, “it was the kind of place my dad worked.” The pressures of raising Hanks and his three young siblings (Sandra, 47 on July 31, a writer; Larry, 45, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Jim, 37, an aspiring actor who was Hanks’s body double in Forrest Gump) took its toll. Hanks was just 5 when, late one night, his father arrived home in his truck, scooped up Tom, Larry and Sandra (Jim stayed with his mother) and drove off to Reno and a new life. Within a year the Hanks kids had a stepmother and eight new stepsiblings. Two years later that marriage was over, and the Hankses were on the road again, settling in Oakland only after Amos (who died in 1992) had married his third wife, Frances Wong, in 1966.

Hanks, though, embraced this migratory childhood. “I’m sure I had self-defense mechanisms in place,” he says, “but I kind of loved all the moving. Just about the time you started getting bored with your apartment, Dad would get another job, and suddenly we would be up and living somewhere else.” Nor did he even mind changing schools. “I liked being the new kid in the class,” he says. “It was always two days of being shy, and then boom, you’re in with the unit, and you get elected social chairman.”

Still, friends say Hanks has spent much of his adult life facing down loneliness. “He comes from a non-family,” says Sally Field, his costar in 1988’s Punchline and in 1994’s Forrest Gump. “He was a boy in search of a family.”

During his adolescent quest to belong, Hanks took paths both typical and not: At Skyline High School in Oakland he played soccer, ran track—and, for a couple of years, became a born-again Christian, joining a fundamentalist movement affiliated with the First Covenant Church of Oakland. “It was one of the best things I ever did,” Hanks told the Chicago Tribune in 1994. “I had been a confused kid…. Religion helped me.” Emmy Perry, whose son D.J. belonged to the same church, vividly remembers Hanks’s odd Afro: “Tom had very curly hair, and it would never grow beyond [his] shoulders like the real [Jesus] freaks, no matter how much [he] plastered it down.”

And yet the thing he became most devoted to was acting. Rawley Farnsworth, the high school acting teacher Hanks thanked upon receiving his Oscar for Philadelphia in 1994, remembers him stealing the school production of South Pacific as campy cross-dresser Luther Billis. “At 17, he told me he was going to make it,” says Emmy Perry. “He had great determination.” And a long way to go. After spending a year at Chabot Community College in Hayward, Calif., he enrolled as a theater major at California State University at Sacramento in 1976 and that summer worked as an intern at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland. He quit school the following year and spent the next two summers with the festival, winning critical acclaim for roles in such plays as The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In 1978 he sold his Volkswagen Beetle and used the $850 to head for New York City—and his dreams of Broadway.

Instead, a casting call landed him in Bosom Buddies. And a later appearance on Happy Days so impressed star Ron Howard that he cast him in 1984’s boy-meets-mermaid hit Splash. Several years later, Penny Marshall cast Hanks in 1988’s Big, but while the comedy took in more than $100 million at the box office, it hardly ensured Hanks’s stardom. In 1991, having appeared in a string of megaflops, including The Burbs and Bonfire of the Vanities, Hanks found himself pleading with Marshall to give him the role of the grouchy baseball coach in A League of Their Own. “I said, ‘You’re not necessarily right for the part,’ ” Marshall recalls. “And he said, ‘But I just did five pictures that tanked!’ ” She gave him the jot)—but made him pay. In front of costars Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, she says, “I told Tom, ‘Now come and apologize for the last five films you’ve made.’ ” He did—and added, “I hope this is another Big!’ ”

It was, and since then, Hanks has hit nothing but home runs. Still, with his pick of almost any project he fancies, what Hanks most longs for, it seems, are two things that are probably unattainable. First, to be on a flight to outer space. “He really would go at some point, says Field of Hanks, who has explored his lifelong love of things astronautical both in Apollo 13 and in the recent 12-part HBO series he produced, From the Earth to the Moon. “But,” she adds, “I think Rita would kill him.”

Second on Hanks’s list of impossible dreams: to not talk to anyone on the phone. “I don’t want to call anybody,” he says, “even if I’ve got great news. Which I guess in some ways is a distancing of myself. I can shut down pretty completely now and then.”

Truth told, though Hanks is friendly to just about everyone, his circle of close friends, he has said, is small. Wilson, whom he met while filming Volunteers in 1985, is best friend and soulmate as well as wife. “They are both people who appreciate hard work and excellence,” says Field. “They’re well-read, they’re aggressively curious, they drive each other.” And make each other laugh. “She’s a mimic, really clever,” says Field. “More times than not, Tom’s is the loudest laughter. He’ll run over, pick her up and run out of the room. We go, ‘There they go again!’ ”

Proof of his devotion: He sees his in-laws almost every day—and enjoys it. “Rita’s family is extremely close-knit,” says Hanks. “There’s no substitute for that. Acceptance without question.”

Hanks is striving to create the same atmosphere in his Pacific Palisades home. His greatest challenge as a father: “Being fair,” he says. “I’ve been an actor for the vast majority of my kids’ lives. It always comes down to this: It’s neither wise nor is it fair to thrust them in the public eye, because they haven’t made the choice. I’ve never had to slug anybody to stop them from taking pictures of my kids, but when it gets to the point when I can’t even go to the movies on Saturday night without being targeted [by paparazzi], that’s not right.”

Hanks does what he can to protect—and guide—his children. Colin, for instance, wants to work in the movie industry. Hanks let him intern at his production company this summer, even though, according to his producing partner Gary Goetzman, “I think Tom is trying to keep him in college.” Steering the younger boys is easier: They do chores, watch limited amounts of TV and often just hang out with their dad, whose idea of an exciting afternoon includes noodling with his collection of 1940s typewriters. “I’m a relaxed guy,” he says. “Just being part of a big family means there’s always something to do. At the end of the day it’s like, ‘Whew, where did it go, man?’ ” And that, for Hanks, is enough. “Work, family, life,” he says with his effortless Nice Guy smile. “That’s just it.”

Karen S. Schneider

Danelle Morton, Amy Brooks and Karen Brailsford in L.A., Colleen O’Connor in San Francisco and Mark Dagostino in New York City and Shari Sweeny in Cleveland

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