The Coolest Square

‘The World According To Tom Hanks’

He’s gotta be the coolest square to ever live–the very avatar for a new archetype. Just look at all he’s got going on: the fiction writing, the typewriter collecting, the David S. Pumpkins playing, the history reading, the mischievous-sense-of-humor having. He’s proven, again and again, continuously, that being decent doesn’t have to mean being dull–this man for whom “virtue has been not just its own reward but the foundation of a better life.”

That last line comes from Gavin Edwards, who’s written a splendid new book called The World According to Tom Hanks: The Life, the Obsessions, the Good Deeds of America’s Most Decent Guy. Just looking at that subtitle, you know you’re in for a good time. However, even Hanks’ friends wondered aloud to Edwards just how he was going to make the man interesting. Not in a disrespectful way, of course, but because niceness gets such a bad rap as a subject worthy of study and consideration, and because the inner life of Hanks is so much richer than the outer.

Those friends spoke to Edwards with Hanks’ blessing, even if Hanks himself couldn’t bring himself to participate, apologizing with all the Hanksness you’d expect in a polite and whimsical note batted out on one of his vintage typewriters: “I have a book of my own to push, a movie to prepare, a movie to promote, a family to care for and like, you know, exercise I gotta get.”

Hanks likes those typewriters so much because they turn “writing or composing into a very specific physical process that has a soundtrack to it.” He not only writes his letters with his typewriter, but he types up the box scores of baseball games–no bullshit–while he watches along in a private stadium box.

He also used the typewriter for those works of short fiction recently collected in a volume called Uncommon Type. The stories vary wildly in quality. Hanks has a real feel for human behavior, naturally, and a knack for making his characters behave in unexpected ways on the page, even if many of the stories, particularly in the back half, meander erratically. (This view, as it happens, is very close to Edwards’ own.) And why is the book called Uncommon Type? Because in every story, a typewriter appears–sometimes in a cameo, sometimes in a starring role, but it’s always there, a talisman reminding one of the circumstances of each story’s creation. You get the sense that this is very important to Hanks.

“For an Everyman, he’s pretty damned opinionated,” says his friend Steven Spielberg. Most would agree with that. But he doesn’t do politics, not in the way, and to the extent, that we’ve come to expect from celebrities in the present day. And it’s not because he’s afraid to take sides or has no convictions, but because he’s the kind of guy who understands the awful predictability and concussiveness of political rhetoric. “The whole idea of politics bores me to tears,” he said. “I’d rather have flu than discuss it.”

Edwards writes, “Hanks has the smile of a man who’s lived long enough to understand how the world is put together,” referring here not just to the sheer duration of Hanks’ life, but to the quality of those years that comprise it. Hanks is a man who understands the difference between fatuous discourse and true activism, between contributing to a conversation and contributing to the world.

*****

He’s had sex with seven women in his life. That’s the square in him. Here’s the cool guy, talking about simulating sex with Sarita Choudhury in A Hologram for the King, at damn near 60 years old: “We embraced the fact that, when it gets down to it, you’re all sweaty and damp. So we end up being fleshy, but it’s about the tactile pleasures of it as opposed to the purely visual ones. You can almost smell the pleasure.”

You can almost smell the pleasure. That’s the Hanks ethos in a line, if you examine it close enough. Engage all the senses–the exotic, the erotic, the obvious, the less-than-obvious. Consume the world not just on the terms in which it presents itself to you, but on the terms in which you can make it yours. And making it yours, you make it the best world it can be.

Like with his son Chester–one of four Hanks kids–who once worked as a rapper calling himself Chet Haze. This is what Hanks had to say about that: “I dig his stuff. It’s getting better.” And that’s just perfect, isn’t it? It’s exactly what you’d expect, but somehow better than you’d expect: From the outdated but ironically hip slang of dig to the current and respectful-but-not-reverential slang of stuff, and then the piece de resistance, the coolly affectionate but decidedly noncommittal, even sly, It’s getting better.

And speaking of music: Is Tom Hanks cool for digging the Dave Clark Five’s stuff, or is he cool despite digging the Dave Clark Five’s stuff? And, moreover, how cool do the Dave Clark Five become by virtue of Hanks liking their stuff? This question became operative in 2008, when Hanks inducted the group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, rhapsodizing about hearing them “blare from a speaker the size of a soda can on your sister’s clock radio, connecting you to a world beyond that cheap but clean rental apartment.” It gets even richer than this. “I was convinced,” he said on another occasion, “that the Dave Clark Five was way better than the Beatles. They had this string of very catchy, beat-heavy songs that just kept coming.”

Hanks is loyal to what he likes. And, come to think of it, he doesn’t like what he likes. He loves what he likes. There’s no other gear. He’s a man of fervent passions and preoccupations, and one of the great virtues of Edwards’ book is the way it captures the essence of these passions. Take Red Vines, the fruity, licorice-like candy that’s kind of the Dave Clark Five to the Beatles’ Twizzlers. “I’ve never purchased Twizzlers,” he once said, addressing the movie-theater moguls of America. “I’ve never opened a package of Twizzlers. I’ve never chewed on Twizzlers. I don’t go for Twizzlers. Why? Because I am a Red Vine man. Twizzlers might be delicious, they might be delightful—hell, they might even be good for you—but I will never know. Because I am a Red Vine man.”

And he is an astronaut man. This is far from esoteric knowledge. Everyone knows Tom Hanks loves tales of adventure in outer space. He made Apollo 13. He made that wonderful miniseries dramatizing the history of space exploration, From the Earth to the Moon. One of the truly bizarre things about Toy Story is that Tim Allen, not Hanks, is the one playing Buzz Lightyear. (“The astronaut’s not that smart,” Hanks said, dismissing the whole thing in that charming Hanks way.)

Producer Bryan Grazer once said that when they were filming Apollo 13, “Tom was at least fifty percent of the driving force….Because of his understanding of what actually happened on that mission, he was the truth meter of the movie. He paid attention to how astronauts are, how they should say things, and he made sure that we adhered to what really went on and portrayed things with an honesty.” He then added, with classic understatement, “This is completely unusual for a star actor of his caliber.”

*****

There are dark places in Hanks that we cannot see. This is true for all of us, of course, but with Hanks it tends to surprise, because he’s spent the majority of his life as a very public figure. So whatever he’s managed to hide seems it’s been hidden twice over, twice as deeply. “I was sad, confused, and emotionally crippled,” Hanks has said about a period of his life that coincides with his first years of major stardom, during which he felt “dead from the feet up.” When his first marriage came apart and Hanks moved out of the house, “Food didn’t taste good, life wasn’t nice, I didn’t sleep.” With most actors, this kind of admission is boilerplate. With Hanks, it qualifies as downright eccentric, even scandalous.

When Hanks hit his 30s, it wasn’t a crisis; it was a cause for celebration. Shedding himself of so much stupidity and neurosis, he felt relieved to leave it all behind. “I like myself more and more as I’ve gotten older. I feel more relaxed, happier.” Sally Field, who somewhat infamously played Hanks’ wife and mother just six years apart, in Punchline and Forrest Gump, has said that “underneath there’s somebody else. Somebody dark. And it’s a man. Not a boy, but a man who I sense has a lot of anger in there. And he doesn’t feel he has to hide that on the screen; he just hides it when he’s not on screen.”

Hanks later acknowledged an indeterminate amount of truth in the statement, then said, “You can only mine these things so many times. I’m running out of emotions in my own life. I’ve got to get some more stuff.” And so it goes. Hanks often says it’d be really swell to play Othello, whom he refers to as “hip.” But then he turns around and says something like, if he were to star in his beloved Star Trek franchise, “Let me play a peaceful Romulan.”

Lary Wallace

Lary Wallace is an American writer living in Bangkok.

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