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TOM HANKS, NEW KING OF CUTUPS

Give Tom Hanks a prop and he’ll give you a performance.

Sitting in front of a makeup mirror preparing for a TV appearance, the brash young Hollywood star was seeing what kinds of laughs he could wring from a green foam Statue of Liberty crown.

First, he flipped it over and wore it down below his eyes, spikes down. “Look,” he exclaimed. “Whoopi Goldberg!” Then he lifted the crown and fitted it around his shoulder. “Aha!” he said. “ ‘The Road Warrior.’ ”

It’s no wonder Hanks was in high spirits. His new film, “Nothing in Common,” which co-stars Jackie Gleason, opened Wednesday to generally laudatory reviews. And Hanks was doing his part to hype the movie, taping a stint as co-host of “Friday Night Videos,” a late-night NBC-TV rock video program whose youthful viewers are prime moviegoers.

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Backstage, Hanks was kidding around with the video show’s co-host, Garry Marshall, the TV comedy tycoon who directed “Nothing in Common.” The pair sounded like a couple of old vaudevillian troupers, finishing each other’s sentences and trading punch lines as they tried to work up a few sketches for the show.

Hanks took particular relish in making light of Marshall’s hazy awareness of nearly any rock event since the breakup of the Beatles. When Hanks mentioned the pop group Wham! Marshall quipped, “Isn’t that the guy on ‘The Flintstones’? “

The pair also discussed the possibility of doing a Phil Donahue segment, perhaps with the makers of another current film. “They want us to sit around and gab--talk about good movies in America,” Hanks explained as they walked over to the taping studio.

Marshall shrugged. “Well, that’s five minutes. What then?”

Hanks laughed as he walked into the studio, which had a small clump of equipment, some spotlights and a lot of bare wall. “You know,” he said slyly as he surveyed the premises. “This is just as glamorous as it looks on TV.”

That last joke, which subtly emphasized the vast gulf between appearance and reality, offers a classic example of why Hanks is Hollywood’s reigning comic cut-up. In many ways, Hanks is like a boyish version of David Letterman. They both share similarly irreverent on-camera personalities, offering wry, barbed and occasionally smug commentaries on the strange, chaotic world that surrounds them.

As a film star, Hanks has had the opportunity to experiment with different guises, sometimes appearing as a cocky, self-absorbed romantic hero (as in “Volunteers”) or a dazed and bewildered character, buffeted by forces beyond his control (as in “Splash” and “The Man With One Red Shoe”).

“I like characters who go through some kind of transformation,” the 30-year-old actor said earlier that afternoon, munching on a cheeseburger at a burger palace near his home. “There’s nothing more boring for me than to look at a script where the guy never changes.

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“I really identify with characters who are just average guys in an extraordinary situation. It’s got instant drama. Is this guy going to survive or not? It gives the part some beef.”

You could easily sketch Hanks with the same brush strokes. Not dazzlingly handsome nor startingly profound, he’s an ordinary guy who’s been thrust into an unexpected predicament--stardom.

Offscreen, Hanks has few hipster affectations. He drives a gray VW Jetta, is a rabid Cleveland Indians fan, hasn’t read “Less Than Zero” and prefers an authentic ‘50s coffee shop like Ships to Johnny Rocket’s. He’s also the kind of guy who, when he took lessons for his role as a violinist in “The Man With One Red Shoe,” learned how to play both a section of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and the theme from “Father Knows Best.”

“Nothing in Common,” to use his own phrase, has a little more “meat on its bones” than some of his past throwaway comedies. Its story line, which combines his character’s comic advertising exploits with the poignancy of his troubled relationship with his father, sparked a few flashbacks to Hanks’ own boyhood.

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“There definitely was a lot of familiar turf,” he said. “My folks were both divorced and remarried, my father several times. So I guess you could say I had a special frame of reference. It certainly raised the stakes a little.”

The third of four children, Hanks was the only one who lived full time with his father. “We had a pretty laissez - faire relationship,” he said. “I pretty much called my own shots. I was the third kid and by the time you come along, the folks--well, they pretty much don’t care. I mean, it’s--'Are you coming home any time soon? Are you in jail?’ ”

Hanks shrugged. “We’re all pretty close now, but it was rough for a while. My dad’s wife--the third one--is a wonderful lady, but we made it very hard on her at first. We were awful. There was lots of tension and craziness, for all the classic reasons.

“I was only 10 when my stepmom came along and I’d been living alone with my dad for a long time and it was like--no one’s going to tell me what to do. It took a while to adjust.”

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Hanks has other adjustments to make now too. He’s never spoken much about his wife, actress Samantha Lewes, and his two young children, but he acknowledged that he’s currently separated. However, Hanks was quick to add that his grueling film schedule, which had taken him away on location for most of the last several years, had little to do with the breakup.

“My work didn’t ruin my marriage,” he said. “You can’t put the blame on the film business. It’s just as hard working at a bank and staying happily married as it is doing movies.”

Hanks studied his half-eaten cheeseburger. “For a long time, you go through this period of swearing that you’ll never make the same mistakes as your parents. But then you realize that they didn’t really make mistakes. They just did what what had to be done. That’s just the way it works out sometimes.”

Reared in the Oakland area by his father, who was a local restaurant chef, Hanks was a sophomore at Cal State Sacramento when he saw a production of “The Iceman Cometh” and quickly decided to try his hand at acting.

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After playing minor characters with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Ohio and working in theater in New York, he was cast in “Bosom Buddies.” The ABC-TV comedy was canceled in 1982 after two seasons, but Hanks won rave notices.

When Hanks did a guest spot on (the Marshall-produced show) “Happy Days,” he attracted the attention of actor-director Ron Howard and a pair of “Happy Days” writers, who cast Hanks in their new film, “Splash.” Since then, he’s played a series of starring parts in such films as “Bachelor Party, “Volunteers” and “The Money Pit.”

Hanks seemed unfazed by the films’ mixed critical reception. “Listen, I loved my character in ‘The Man With One Red Shoe.’ I thought it was great, that he was totally oblivious to all the craziness around him. Yet the movie went down the tubes.

“I think sometimes you put all this work into a film, but the actual theme--the thing that makes people out there really care about the movie--gets lost along the way.”

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He grinned. “I gave Garry a hard time one day when we were getting ready to shoot this movie. I said, ‘But what if people don’t care about the movie?’ He gave me a real pep talk. But about three months later, he came up and told me, ‘You know, I lost a whole night’s sleep over what you said. I kept thinking that whole night--so what if they don’t care?’ I think we really did capture something here, but you never know.”

Hanks mulled over that dilemma, then took a big bite out of his burger. “In a way, a movie is like a massive steamroller,” he finally said. “Once it gets going, you just do your best and then get out of the way and see what happens.”


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