October 21, 1996 12:00 PM

FOR TOM EVERETT SCOTT, THE call to greatness came by telephone and caught him, if not completely by surprise, then at least with his arms full of laundry. On that day last September, Scott and his girlfriend, actress Jenni Gallagher, had arrived back in their Manhattan apartment from the Laundromat when he picked up the ringing phone. “Tom Hanks said, ‘Will you be in my movie?’ ” he recalls. “And it was really all too much. I was numb.” Says Gallagher: “We were both like, ‘That’s Tom Hanks on the phone, calling our house!’ ”

Scott, by the way, said yes. As a result, he’s now starring in That Thing You Do!, the first feature film written and directed by Hanks. Scott, 26, plays Guy Patterson, the charismatic drummer—Scott took lessons—whose fictional band, the Wonders, rockets from Erie, Pa., to the top of the 1964 charts. It’s exactly the sort of scene-stealing, goofball part Hanks himself would have been cast in 15 years ago. Back then, Scott was a kid who lived to watch Hanks’s ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies. The future two-time Oscar-winner was Scott’s hero, for two reasons. One was that Scott wanted to be an actor. The other, he says shyly, was that “people in school always used to say, ‘You look just like Tom Hanks.’ ”

Hanks himself was shocked by the resemblance last year when Scott, who had only a few TV appearances under his belt, auditioned for That Thing in L.A. Scott had the character nailed from the start, but the first-time film director worried that the young actor’s physical appearance might be distracting. “I thought, ‘I can’t hire this guy. He looks too much like me at the same age,’ ” Hanks recalled. It was only after Hanks’s wife, actress Rita Wilson, saw Scott’s audition tape and said, “This guy is cute!” that Hanks decided to take the risk. In the end, the character, while still Hanks-like, became Scott’s own. “He did a fantastic job,” says Thing coproducer Gary Goetz-man. “He lost a drumstick once or twice while we were filming, but no big deal.” Not that the going was always easy. Sometimes before shooting, Hanks had to remind Scott, “Don’t do it like me!”

Scott’s road to success began in Brockton, Mass., where he was the third of four children of a father who is a civil engineer and a mother who sells insurance. His parents still live in the “nice house in the woods, pond nearby,” where Scott spent his childhood canoeing, camping and acting kidlike. “My poor father wanted me to fix the car,” he says of a typical afternoon, “and I was out back dressed as Spiderman. I tried to be serious, but it just didn’t work.” He acted in high school plays and worked at a Renaissance fair in Rhode Island but planned to quit performing when he enrolled at Syracuse University in 1988. “You can’t just go to college and study the most fun thing,” he figured.

So he didn’t: He studied communications. But during his sophomore year, he says, “I went down to the theater and saw everything going on—people jumping around being idiots—and I thought, ‘This is my home. This is where I should be.’ ” Scott switched his major to drama and, after graduating in 1992, moved to New York City. There he waited tables and, with three college friends, founded a theater company—named aTheaterco. (He also found an agent, which led to a four-episode stint last year in Grace Under Fire, playing the son Brett Butler had given up for adoption.) Scott still acts in and directs aTheaterco shows, but “right now,” he says, “I want to stay on top of a film career.”

To that end, he spent his summer in Luxembourg, filming An American Werewolf in Paris (costarring Julie Delpy), and he may act next in an independent film with David Moscow—who, by a weird coincidence, played the young Tom Hanks in Big. Scott’s girlfriend, Gallagher, 25, may also play a part in that movie. The couple met in college, but they didn’t go on their first date until two years ago—appropriately, to see Forrest Gump. Now the two share an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with Dutch, their 15-month-old boxer who, according to Gallagher, “commands over the house,” oblivious to his master’s new stardom.

Not that Scott himself takes it too seriously. He still spends his free time walking Dutch, going to the movies with Gallagher and jamming on his drums (the same set he plays onscreen in Thing). From his perspective, fame “looks like a really hairy affair,” he says. “But if it’s part of the job, I’ll figure out a way to deal with it!”


CATHY NOLAN in Luxembourg and CYNTHIA WANG in New York City