Tom: If it’s possible to turn compassion into an economic commodity – if you can make a movie about compassion, understanding and have it be so glamorous, because it’s a movie that you paid to see, that you want to emulate what that is. Well, then there you actually have created a purpose for a movie beyond the holding up the mirror to human nature.
Alan: I first met Tom Hanks on a plane, decades ago, and I ran into him a couple of times at awards shows, and we even made a picture together (Bridge of Spies)—but I never really got to know him until he came into our studio in Manhattan and we talked about some of his eclectic interests —like finding meaning in pop entertainment, communicating with children, and of course, typewriters. I said he was eclectic, right? Come on in and enjoy the eclectic world of Tom Hanks. It’s a really nice day in the neighborhood.
Alan: 00:00 Tom, this is so great that you’re in here talking to me today.
Tom: 00:03 I’m kind of pinching myself. You did a TV movie. This was long before The Green Show. You did a TV movie, I think it was called The Glass House. It was shot in a prison. I’m still haunted. I might’ve mentioned this to you.
Alan: 00:21 No, you never did.
Tom: 00:22 I’m still haunted by the final image in which you’re the innocent man, there’s mayhem that’s going on and you are shot dead on the other side of the wrongly chosen door. And it was a long shot of just you hunched over with all the backstory behind it. Now that’s a thing that you’re in, I’m not one to date myself, but I want to say I’m in junior college or high school and I’m watching on TV and TV movies were not supposed to be that poignant in those days. You had the occasional Brian’s Song. You played Carol Chessman.
Alan: 00:58 You know more about me than I do.
Tom: 01:00 And I’m not just studying your IMDb, I’m just going on pure, pure memory. And I remember I was always on the lookout for something other than the standard fare of television because I’m from the generation that knew what time it was by what was on TV. When Love of Life was over it was time for me to go to school. And every now and again when that 90 minute television movie came out there was kind of an art form to it and Steven Spielberg made Duel. That was one of the movies that came out during that time. There was Brian’s Song of course with James Caan as Brian Piccolo, the football player. All the guys at school were talking about it the next day. But The Glass House and a few other things would come along and I just thought, well that’s not like an episode of Mannix. That’s not like the High Chaparral. This is something else.
Alan: 02:00 What do you think it is? And you made a career doing this. Of doing stories that appealed to a popular audience, want to be entertained and yet have meaning, have a layer of meaning.
Tom: 02:14 There’s a trick to it, isn’t it?
Alan: 02:16 How have you gone about it? I’ve been lucky to be able to do that many times too.
Tom: 02:21 Well, you kind of in a lot of ways you set the standard.
Alan: 02:26 Well I don’t know about that.
Tom: 02:27 Well, on The Green Show you would do things because I know you started writing them, you started directing them as well and you became one of the power brokers there. And The Green Show of course would talk about M’ A’.
Alan: 02:38 Why do you call it Green?
Tom: 02:39 I heard that somebody on the show called it The Green Show because every day you went to work and you had to put on those olive drab uniforms.
Alan: 02:46 Nobody ever mentioned that to me.
Tom: 02:50 Maybe it was… Oh I can’t remember. And you would do things like set a half hour in real time, what happened in real time.
Alan: 02:59 That was a show I wrote with the doctor who was our advisor.
Tom: 03:03 Oh. And then there was one from the perspective of the patient who couldn’t talk because he had a tracheotomy and the whole thing was from his perspective.
Alan: 03:11 His point of view, yeah. We really loved it when we could tell a story in an unusual way.
Tom: 03:20 This is Tom Hank podcast and I’m talking to Alan Alda about the secrets of his career. I remember the first couple of seasons of that show. There were times where they’d tried to have kooky episodes, boxing matches and whatnot.
Alan: 03:34 Traditional things until writers got used to the idea that we wanted a little more substance, they would give us standard servers comedies.
Tom: 03:42 Yeah. Wacky visitors from higher… you play a trick on a visiting Colonel or something like that. And then you guys I thought, was there a palace coup here amongst everybody that you ended up doing [inaudible 00:03:58] of real of substance particularly… look what the subject matter was. The Korean war.
Alan: 04:07 I wanted to make sure before we did the show that we would not shrink from showing how bad a war can be.
Tom: 04:17 There was I think too, you had the surreptitious comment on Vietnam and that showed that we did not have anywhere else in popular culture, particularly not on a network show. Korea was substituting for what we had just been through not that long before. Less than 10 years before the Vietnam War ended. So in MASH we had you doctors presenting a humanistic portrait of how mad the whole thing was.
Alan: 04:45 And some people say that we contributed to the end of the war and I never thought so, but I’ve heard you say in an interview that you felt, for instance, Philadelphia did help the movement toward accepting AIDS as something we needed to work on. Did I get that wrong? Did you think it’s possible to do that?
Tom: 05:05 I was answering a question at some point and it was, what do you think you’re going to accomplish with this movie? Philadelphia was a movie that costs X millions of dollars and it needed to make that money back. It had to compete in the marketplace.
Alan: 05:23 That’s what I’m asking you. How do you go about that?
Tom: 05:27 Well, my answer I believe to that question was look, if it’s possible to turn compassion into an economic commodity – if you can make a movie about compassion, understanding and have it be so glamorous, because it’s a movie that you paid to see, that you want to emulate what that is. Well, then there you actually have created a purpose for a movie beyond the holding up the mirror to human nature.
Alan: 05:58 But boy, there are so many movies that are the opposite of compassion.
Tom: 06:03 Well, yeah and that’s fun. I grew up watching movies like the Seven Faces of Dr. Lao and Jason and the Argonauts and Doris Day movies, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, things like that. And by and large I was usually entertained by almost all of the movies. I remember seeing a movie and the name of it was Duel at Diablo. It was a Western. It had Dennis Weaver and I think Sidney Poitier in it, and those were the movies that we were used to seeing. That was a type of commerce that even our parents had… John Wayne movies. I remember going to see McClintock or Chisholm with my dad and my dad was receiving two hours of entertainment just like he had been receiving since he was in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s. It was the thing to do and spend your time.
Then by the time I became a discerning viewer, I was looking for something that I could recognize myself. Where I could say, “Oh, I’ve seen that. I feel like that guy. I’ve seen that in my community or I’ve had those same sort of questions about what life is like.” I would just say I ended up growing up watching movies about grownup people going through grownup things and that was what I ended up. I was always attracted to those particular kind of human elements as opposed to, we got to get these 40 guns through Apache Pass.
Alan: 07:31 Or the procedural detective stories.
Tom: 07:35 Yeah. Mannix, Name of the Game, things like that. The movies, the TV series in which everything was done, there was no irony. Everything was done wrapped up, solved, buttoned up within the end of the movie or within the end of the half hour. I was born in 1956. The Beatles came around when I was eight. Vietnam took 10 decades of my life were spent wondering what was going on in Vietnam from ’66 to ’76 and I was looking for that same sort of reflection in whatever popular art came my way. I remember reading the Hobbit JRR Tolkien, and then I started going off and reading the next one, the Lord of the Rings series, and I thought, well, this is just the Hobbit over again. So I never bothered with those other three books that everybody else read. I went off instead read Leon Uris novels about Berlin after the cold war or Exodus or things like that.
Alan: 08:42 You seem to me to have not only this deeper interest in the material you work on or what you might work on, but you also have this… When I first read your writing I was surprised at how much I admired it because I didn’t know of you as a writer. And you’re book of short stories is amazingly good.
Tom: 09:08 Oh, you read that? Thanks.
Alan: 09:09 Oh my God, it’s so good. You use language to get inside my head and surprise me and keep me amused and interested, but to get me deeper into the people. And you don’t use language to show off, which I really admire you. You could be poetic if you wanted to, but you’re more plainspoken and I really love that.
Tom: 09:36 Thank you. That’s the stuff that I just naturally ended up gravitating to. I remember we were asked to buy books at a “book fair” and I looked at these titles that they had on card table, after card table in high school or junior high school. And I had never heard of any of these books. They were by writers I’d never heard of and they had titles I’d never heard of. And I finally said, “Is this a scam you guys are running?” They said, “No, we’d like you to read. We promote reading.” And it turned out that these books were specifically written for high schoolers.
Alan: 10:16 Oh, that’s why you’d never heard of them.
Tom: 10:18 So the stories were simplistic. So instead I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. That’s the book I got and it scared the living daylights out of me and from a very early age on, I wanted to read about the way things actually worked and perhaps the way things, actually happen.
Alan: 10:38 That’s exactly the way I approached reading as a kid. I was 11 years old and a friend of the family said, “Do you like to read?” And I said, “Yeah, I really enjoy it.” “What have you read lately?” I said, “I just read What Makes Sammy Run.”
Tom: 10:51 Oh my Lord. Had they even read it?
Alan: 10:55 No. She had this stunned look on her face and then she said, “Well of course that’s over your head.” And I thought, no, it isn’t.
Tom: 11:02 No, it’s not really.
Alan: 11:04 That shows you how people really behave.
Tom: 11:06 It’s not this, the granddaddy of them all. There’s that experience when somebody has read enough of a book. There was a book that was going around and the first line used the word crap in it. All that David Copperfield kind of crap and none of us had ever seen a book in our library that had anything remotely like a swear word in it. And so all of a sudden everybody wanted to know… well, it was Catcher in the Rye. So we’re reading Catcher in the Rye and that led to nine stories and also… And to be empowered, but to discover it yourself. I would say that. To discover it yourself with the help of a good librarian who realizes you’re hanging around and you might want to… If you enjoyed reading Airport by Arthur Hailey, you might enjoy reading Armageddon by Leon Uris and so off begins it kind of like guided thing. When you were young would… I’d give up on 30 or 40 pages if I wasn’t really into it. I still have a tendency to do that.
Alan: 12:07 When I was young I loved reading anything that seems like it came from real life because I really wanted to understand how things got the way they were. So we had a living room that had been decorated, I guess, by somebody who bought books by the yard.
Tom: 12:23 As opposed to the color.
Alan: 12:25 They were red leather-bound books but they happened to be the congressional record. So I opened up a book and lay on the floor and read the congressional record from I guess it was from the 1940s and I couldn’t get over it. These people would say, “The distinguished member from Idaho.” And they’d insult each other in the most elite, classical terms. And I thought, well, this is fascinating. This is like a play. It’s dialogue. And I loved it.
Tom: 12:56 There were those types of books that I pretended to have read for a long time. When I finally read Moby Dick.
Alan: 13:05 Oh, I loved Moby Dick when I read it.
Tom: 13:08 I pretended to have read Moby Dick for an awfully long time.
Alan: 13:10 See I’m like that with the Russians. I read War and Peace but I pretend to have read the rest on the cuff book.
Tom: 13:18 I tried to read the silly Grossman’s Love… What is it? Love and Fate. Oh, I couldn’t crack it, man it just went on and on forever. But I would always get up to the reverend’s sermon in Moby Dick and I mean, it goes on for 17 pages and I couldn’t get past that. I couldn’t get past it. And I was out with some friends at whatnot and a friend of mine, one of the guys says, “What are you up to?” I said, “I’m reading Moby Dick” He said, “I could never read Moby Dick.” I said, “No, you can.” And he said, “If you could just get past that reverend sermon it really does take off.”
Alan: 13:55 So everybody had that same thing.
Tom: 13:56 But when I got passed it I understand why it’s now one of the greatest books ever written.
Alan: 14:01 Because now here’s the thing. When I read your book of short stories, I think one of your obsessions crept out.
Tom: 14:12 My typewriters?
Alan: 14:13 Your typewriters. Yeah. I mean the chapters begin with a picture of a different typewriter. How did you develop this obsession with typewriters? How many typewriters do you have at home?
Tom: 14:27 At home, I probably have 15 scattered about the house, but down at the office I have like 120 or something like that.
Alan: 14:34 I rest my case. So what is this?
Tom: 14:37 I got to start getting rid of them because my kids have said we’re not going to bury you with these things, dad. You better start giving them away. There is a story that is in that collection that is literally how I got my first typewriter. A friend of mine was a year ahead of me in school and when he went off to college he gave me his high school typewriter, which was a piece of junk. It was a knockoff 1970s version of a very, very, very cheaply made, horribly constructed typewriter that you could type on. And I had it for a couple of years and when I was working in Cleveland as an actor and I needed to get it fixed.
Alan: 15:15 Where were you in Cleveland?
Tom: 15:15 I was at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival.
Alan: 15:17 I was at the Cleveland Playhouse.
Tom: 15:19 Legendarily so at the Cleveland Playhouse. The Cleveland Playhouse was the bitter rival of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and vice versa I think. And it was falling apart and the carriage was sliding and when I returned it, it would not line up properly. There was all sorts of problems with it. So I took it to this old German guy at Detroit Avenue Business Machines on the West side of Cleveland and he had a shop that was just jammed with every kind of 1,000 key adding machines and what have you and he was also servicing. By that time, printers and copy machines and whatnot.
And he said, “What can I do for you young man?” I said, “I need to have this typewriter serviced.” And he said, “Let me see the machine.” And it had a leather case and I opened it up and he threw his hands up and says, “I will not touch it.” he said. Well, I said, “Why? Isn’t it your job to repair business machines?” He says, “Yes. I work on machines not on toys and this is a toy.” And he lectured me for the better part of 20 minutes about what a true typewriter is. And I walked out of there with a Hermes 2000 typewriter that he gave me $5 off for a trade in for my junk typewriter. And he told me, “I’m just going to throw this away.” I said, “Okay, fine.” But that Hermes 2000 typewriter, which that particular typewriter got lost over the course about 10 years in 10 moves has since been replaced by, well, 119 machines.
Alan: 16:46 I understand the story leading to owning a typewriter.
Tom: 16:50 So you’re asking why. You’re probing deeper Allen.
Alan: 16:53 I mean I understand owning a typewriter because the guy gets you turned on to it, but how did you wind up with, you have an obsession with typewriters.
Tom: 17:01 I do.
Alan: 17:01 How did you get that?
Tom: 17:04 You can change the world with a typewriter. Now you can change the world too with a pen and paper if your handwriting is legible enough. Mine is not. There is something about the order that a good typewriter puts the words in. The margins are equal. The type face is crisp. You can make mistakes but go back over it. And what you come out of at the end of a piece of paper is as unique a creation as is any oil painting, any water color, any photograph, negative.
Alan: 17:39 Did you write your book of short stories on a typewriter?
Tom: 17:44 I wrote about the first five pages of one draft of the story on a typewriter because I didn’t have my laptop with me at the time. I know it’d be madness in order to do it on a typewriter, but I type every day. I send a letter to somebody. I leave a memo. I put out notes. I send a lot of letters on typewriters because there is something about the purity of the words in your head and the sound of the percussion of the keys hitting the paper. And I can’t go back enough again to say the uniqueness of it.
Let me tell you a story. I was at Nora Ephron’s house. We were good friends. We worked together and Nora was one of the great inspirations. And she had up on the wall of just in the hallway, she had a letter and I leaned in, it was a framed letter. I said, “Oh, did Nora get a letter from somebody?” And the letterhead was Noel Coward and it was a typewritten letter from Goldeneye, his place down in Ghana, Jamaica, right? His winter home in Jamaica. And all it was, was a letter to somebody thanking them for a very witty lunch, a lovely afternoon at their house. And there was a little kind of like joke at it that was obviously shared between Noel Coward and the hostess and it was signed Noel. And I looked at that and I thought, Noel Coward typed that at his house in Jamaica named Goldeneye and now 60 years later it’s hanging on a friend of mine’s wall. Nobody throws away a typewritten letter.
Alan: 19:20 So a typewritten letter kind of has its own signature and you can picture that person’s hands hitting the keys. Is that the idea?
Tom: 19:30 The force of your finger on the keys impacts the depth of it. Here’s the thing. When you type with a typewriter, you are not applying ink onto paper. You’re stamping it into the fiber of the papers. If I was to type out Dear Alan Alda, which by the way I will. I’ll go home and I’ll send you a letter.
Alan: 19:52 I can’t wait.
Tom: 19:53 Those are the DEAR space, ALAN space, ALDA space are not on the surface of the paper, they are inside the fabric of the paper. And that alone, to me, it turns it into a form of a graphic art. And nevermind what idea might be communicated in there physically. If you put it in a drawer it’ll last a thousand years.
So, I guess it was natural for a person with so many interests to go from loving what an old typewriter does to the fibers of paper—to creating an app that mimics the very sound of a typewriter. More on that when we come back, … right after this.
This is Clear + Vivid, and now back to my conversation with Tom Hanks.
Alan: 20:18 All right. Listen to this.
Tom: 20:20 I think you got to turn it up.
Alan: 20:24 There it is.
Tom: 20:27 Oh, that’s the typewriter app.
Alan: 20:32 That’s your app.
Tom: 20:33 That’s Hanx Writer.
Alan: 20:34 Yeah. You produced an app that does this typing thing and as you type, you hear the sound of it. What is so seductive about the sound of the typing?
Tom: 20:45 I will tell you.
Alan: 20:46 Thank you. I dropped my phone on the floor.
Tom: 20:47 That’s right. That’s Hanx Writer. That’s available on the app store. H. A. N. X. W. R. I. T. E. R. Knowing that so many people compose on a laptop or really an iPad or an iPhone. What’s missing there is the percussiveness, the sound. It’s not tap, tap, tap. I think there’s a choice now of five or six typewriters. Each one has a different sound. Each one has a different type face as though you have a collection of six typewriters of your own.
Alan: 21:22 Can you type with all 10 fingers?
Tom: 21:24 Oh yeah.
Alan: 21:25 Without looking?
Tom: 21:26 Oh yeah. Sometimes you have to make sure you’re not looking at it so it comes out. Of course, if you’re not above the home keys then you’re screwed. Do you remember taking typing class?
Alan: 21:38 I never took it. I wish I did. I’ve written all my life with two fingers.
Tom: 21:42 Oh, that’s the worst way to type that there is because number one, it’s slow.
Alan: 21:48 I’ve fallen down in your estimation.
Tom: 21:50 Yeah. Sorry kid. Can we wrap this up? I need to go. It made you have to look at the keys as you’re doing it and you’re going back and forth between what you’re typing. When you can touch type, which I learned how to do in high school to music, to records.
Alan: 22:03 Why? To make you go more rhythmic?
Tom: 22:05 Yeah. Because you were only supposed to look at the paper, not the keys. The records got faster and faster every week.
Alan: 22:15 Oh, that’s interesting.
Tom: 22:16 Music would start. Okay, and ready, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump. AAA space, SSS space, DDD space.
Alan: 22:27 I’m beginning to not understand why I never took that class.
Tom: 22:29 It would drive you nuts. But you’re in it for five or six weeks and next thing you know you’re dah, dah, dah, dah and go AAWKS space, WKS space, LME space. You had to go like that.
Alan: 22:42 The problem is when they put on a Spike Jones record.
Tom: 22:45 Then you’ve got an acid trip. It was like gibberish down there, but man could it sing.
Alan: 22:50 But this is so interesting. I mean you must have some… When, people collect things, they get an intimate relationship with the things they collect. Now, for instance, when people have a collection of Stradivarius violins have to play them every once in a while to keep them in shape. Do you have to type on your typewriters?
Tom: 23:09 Yes I do.
Alan: 23:11 You do. What happens if…
Tom: 23:12 I have some typewriters that are simply objects of art. They sit on a shelf and they’re never used, but the vast majority of my collection are working manual typewriters that I rotate into use so that they all get used in the course of…
Alan: 23:26 Are they special typewriters?
Tom: 23:28 Nothing special about them at all.
Alan: 23:31 No first edition kind of thing?
Tom: 23:33 I think the most valuable typewriter I have is oddly enough, an IBM Selectric that Leo DiCaprio used in the movie Catch Me If You Can. And it’s funny, I went to the prop master after we were done shooting the scene and I said, “I will give you $25 for that IBM Selectric.” And they said, “Okay.” And he took $25 and he said, “You could have had it for free. I’m going to give this to the prop guy.” But it’s not about who typed it. I have one typewriter, I think that was… Oh, I’m blanking on the name. I am a jury. I the jury. Mickey Spillane. I have a typewriter that was owned by Mickey Spillane. I can’t prove that he wrote anything on it, but there’s a providence that says Mickey Spillane on the typewriter. All my typewriters are worth about $60 tops. And if I sign them they’re worth about $62 tops.
Alan: 24:35 It’s a fascinating obsession to me. When you talk about the keys getting into the texture of the paper, there’s something about that that’s not mechanical. There’s a human element to these machines that I think you see.
Tom: 24:55 I now think faster on a typewriter than I do with a pen in my hand or even on my laptop.
Alan: 25:00 That’s interesting. Your nervous system on the keyboard is helping you.
Tom: 25:05 I’d rather get going and stick with it than pause and go back and edit and delete what have you.
Alan: 25:11 Now, let’s talk about thinking better. I saw you saying in an interview, this movie that’s coming out now that I’m so interested in seeing, I haven’t had a chance to see it. Mr. Rogers.
Tom: 25:21 Beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Alan: 25:22 Right. So I saw you say… Is this true that you felt you learned to listen better playing Fred Rogers?
Tom: 25:31 Mari Heller, who is the director.
Alan: 25:32 A wonderful director.
Tom: 25:35 She’s the boss. We were talking about this very thing about the great power he had and also a defense mechanism to was to listen and not talk. Let who you’re talking to reveal themselves in the silence as well as from a single question because we have a tendency for example, for kids. To meet a kid for the first time. How old are you? Do you go to school? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite subject?
Do you have a lot of friends at school? Do you like baseball? We don’t even give them a chance to answer the question we just ask them and Fred particularly with children, he did this thing and it’s kind of like that. He wouldn’t even ask them a question. He would say things like, “Well, that’s a very impressive belt buckle you’re wearing there.”
Alan: 26:27 And then wait.
Tom: 26:28 And then wait for the kid to talk about either the belt buckle or the contest that he wore the belt buckle with. And with my own kids I went back and said I think every parent would be a little bit better by listening to their kids talk as opposed to waiting for them to answer it.
Alan: 26:47 That’s an error that I made when my kids were small.
Tom: 26:50 Did you ever pick them up from school and say, “Hey, how was school today? What happened?” And they would never tell you. You got to wait them out.
Alan: 26:57 Oh, the answer that serves every purpose is fine. We had our first kid probably I was a year older than you are when you had your first. I was about 22.
Tom: 27:11 I was 20, 21.
Alan: 27:15 And we were kids ourselves. I grew up with my kids learning from him. You learn a lot about who you are from your children, especially when they do things you do and you don’t like the look of it.
Tom: 27:30 I remember at one point I had a jacket that I couldn’t get unzipped. The zipper was stuck and I got really frustrated and I just pulled it off and broke the zipper and threw the thing. Well, what did my son do the next day?
Alan: 27:48 Same thing.
Tom: 27:49 He was putting on something and he ripped it apart and threw it down in the corner. I said, “Oh, look what I taught my son to do. Look at the impatience that he has now inherited.”
Alan: 28:00 So I get angry at objects like that. I get angry at coats, at coat hangers, door knobs that don’t open right. You and I both have this reputation as being Mr. nice guy, but…
Tom: 28:15 Look out.
Alan: 28:18 If you’re a coat hanger you better watch your step with me.
Tom: 28:21 Have you ever used this phrase, let me get this straight. When, I pull that out everybody knows they’re in trouble now.
Alan: 28:28 I have the equivalent to that, which is… I used to do it a lot when I was younger. If a producer would start to take advantage of me with money or something like that. I would get very quiet and I talk in this tone that was so quiet. It was sort of ominous. And then if somebody really wronged me, I would say, “I’ll tell you what, I can forgive or forget. Which would you like?”
Tom: 29:00 Everybody came out to your office or dressing room quivering after that. I have a thing that I say, “Just look, I think I’m a well-mannered guy. I think I’m a good natured guy, but woe to you who takes advantage of my good nature.”
Alan: 29:16 For years, I thought, boy, I love a good lawsuit because it would be a way to explain to them just because I’m not aggressive and clutching you by the throat, that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of me.
Tom: 29:30 And there are people there who will take advantage of you at the very first opportunity and shame on us for not recognizing it sometimes, but doubly shame on us if we allow them to do it once they’ve defined who they are.
Alan: 29:44 You have this thing on Twitter where you take pictures of things that people lost. Do you give them a hint about where it is? Talk about being cruel.
Tom: 29:59 I’ve done that once. A Fordham University student, an ID was in Central Park and I just picked it up and I covered their name and I posted it and said, “If this is yours and you need it back contact my publicist and I did, very quickly. It was astounding how fast it happened. I think that the girl had her ID back that afternoon.
Alan: 30:20 Wow. Well that’s a great story. But what about all these gloves you find?
Tom: 30:23 The gloves came about because I was in New York City and I was working during one of the springs and when the thaw came out, when the snow all melted, it’s like you’d see, okay, a cheap plastic glove. That’s one thing, a ski glove or something. But what you see, there it is, it’s fine Moroccan leather. It’s some rich guy, hedge funder have lost. I’m going to say if a pair of gloves costs $500 this is a $250 glove that’s laying there in the slush on Columbus Avenue in the low 60s and I just say, “Hey, that’s a lost glove man. There’s a story behind that lost glove.” That and baby pacifiers.
Alan: 31:06 I can understand that.
Tom: 31:09 A lot of baby pacifiers. Why is the baby complaining so much? I don’t know. I lost the pacifier.
Alan: 31:14 Was there an especially weird thing you found that you took a picture of?
Tom: 31:20 There was a spatula.
Alan: 31:24 Where did you find that?
Tom: 31:25 Down the middle of 45th street and Ninth Avenue.
Alan: 31:27 Oh, the spatular district.
Tom: 31:30 And here’s what I thought. Okay. Someone was, maybe they were moving and they had all their kitchen utensils in a box.
Alan: 31:37 In the back of the car.
Tom: 31:38 It rattled just enough so the vegetable strainer stayed. The colander stayed. A couple of the knives, but that plastic spatula went flying out the window and are they going to miss this spatula? It’s a lost item that yearns to be taken home.
Alan: 31:58 There’s so many things I want to talk to you about and we’re running out of time. I’ve seen you do a eulogy at a funeral and you’re so funny at funerals. You’re hilarious. Don’t you find that show business funerals are really good because people often do an impersonation of the dead guy.
Tom: 32:18 Yeah. There is a lot of joy. I find them, they’re oftentimes, they’re celebrations of the joy that person brought to everybody.
Alan: 32:25 And it’s a great relief to be able to laugh if you can do in the most loving way.
Tom: 32:32 And hey, we’re in the business of show. It’s essentially there’s the crowd, there’s the microphone.
Alan: 32:40 And there’s the dead guy.
Tom: 32:42 Yeah. John Candy when he passed away that was the first time I think in my life where a peer that I had loved and worked with was taken away from us.
Alan: 32:53 I worked with John too.
Tom: 32:56 And it was perplexing and it was sad. I said, Why does this happen?” I’m prepared to be 72 and start losing buddies but not here. And at his funeral, at St. Martin of Tours in Los Angeles, Danny Ackroyd, who knew John about as well as in a human being did, his eulogy had me laughing and in tears. It had me in awe of who John Candy was and desperately missing him all at the same time. And I actually thought that Danny Ackroyd just put on a clinic of how to say goodbye to somebody that we loved.
Alan: 33:35 Yeah. And I’ve seen you do the same. I did my father at his funeral and it was a nice thing to do. It made people laugh. And it brought him back to me for a minute.
Tom: 33:47 You had your dad on The Green Show.
Alan: 33:49 I thought you were talking about The Green Mile when you said that.
Tom: 33:55 I remember that came up and I did not realize that your dad was a recognizable man.
Alan: 34:00 Oh, he was a very famous actor in the ’40s.
Tom: 34:03 Yes he was.
Alan: 34:03 He did Guys and Dolls on Broadway. Two great successes.
Tom: 34:08 Not Cold Party. He did, I forget.
Alan: 34:10 The Gershwin story.
Tom: 34:12 Yeah. Check that out on Turner Classic Movies one of these days.
Alan: 34:16 That movie moves me all the time. So we got to go, but before we go, we always ask seven quick questions.
Tom: 34:22 Bring them on.
Alan: 34:22 They’re harmless.
Tom: 34:23 Okay, that’s what you say.
Alan: 34:26 They’re roughly to do with communication. What do you wish you really understood?
Tom: 34:38 I wish I understood the power of serendipity of that it is possible to be… Why is it possible to be in the right place at the right time and be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where’s the magic of that roll of the dice? I wish I understood the ability to have faith in that.
Alan: 35:00 These damn questions always invite a whole other podcast.
Tom: 35:03 I know. I’ll come back.
Alan: 35:06 That would be great. Okay, second question. How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Tom: 35:11 I say, “You have your facts wrong.” I’d say that great quote of Patrick Moynahan. Dude, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts and you got yours wrong.
Alan: 35:24 Number three, what’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Tom: 35:28 Oh, what’s it like doing blank, blank, blank. The idea of what’s it like? What’s it like? It’s like being a dog in a tree on Christmas in July. That’s what it’s like.
Alan: 35:41 I know exactly what you’re talking about. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Tom: 35:50 Oh, by not prolonging the conversation. I have a tendency to say, “Ah, Oh, that’s fascinating.”
Alan: 35:59 But you don’t do that.
Tom: 36:01 Stop doing that.
Alan: 36:02 You go into your Fred Rogers mode, just wait them out.
Tom: 36:06 Just wait them out. Exactly right. Let them talk themselves into a circle.
Alan: 36:10 How do you like to start up a real conversation with someone you don’t know at a dinner party sitting next to you?
Tom: 36:16 I approach it this way. Could I ask you a very specific question? And they usually say yes and then I have come up with a specific question. I was with somebody and they were in the trucking industry and I said, “Can I ask you a specific question?” “Yes.” Is there a particular personality that goes along with being a long haul trucker? This person talked for 20 minutes about the difference between the guy who makes deliveries and comes back and the personality that drives across the country three times a month.
Alan: 36:56 This is a great tool. Okay, next to last question. What gives you confidence?
Tom: 37:06 Outside of very, very little. I will say this, that I have confidence that I have figured worse things out over time.
Alan: 37:21 Yeah, I know that feeling.
Tom: 37:22 If I figured that out I can figure this.
Alan: 37:26 Yeah. Good. Okay, last question. We sort of touched on this, but can I ask you a specific question?
Tom: 37:35 There’s my medicine coming back to hunt me.
Alan: 37:37 What book changed your life?
Tom: 37:42 My Name is Asher Lev. That’s written by a Jewish writer Chaim Potok, if I’m pronouncing his name correctly. He wrote a long string of books. I think the most popular would probably be called The Chosen, which is about, they turned it into a movie with Robby Benson about Orthodox kids playing baseball. Orthodox Jews playing with they pay us and the whole thing. And I read that and I thought, how did this Jewish guy that grew up as an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn or New York, how did he write about me? Because I felt as though I was going through it. Then he wrote a book called DaVita’s Harp and he wrote two books about an artist. One name is, My Name is Asher Lev and the other one is, It’s a Gift to Asher Lev. It’s about an artist, an Orthodox Jew. And I thought, I don’t know anything about Orthodox Jewry.
I never lived in New York City in my life. This was before I’d ever lived in New York City, and yet this guy has written my life story down on paper. And it was one of those kind of nonfiction books in which the world that it takes place in is so perfectly and accurately captured on paper that even though the characters are fictional, probably based on his own autobiographical material, but it was a novel. It wasn’t a history book. It wasn’t nonfiction. And I just saw the world and I saw myself in the body of this six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 13 teenage year old boy who grew up as an Orthodox Jew who had visions of art in his head. He was raised in an atmosphere that says, that’s not what good people do.
They don’t go off and become artists. That’s a long way of saying that I grew up in an atmosphere in which, what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to be a restaurant manager? Are you going to become a bookkeeper? Are you going to go to school? What are you going to do? When I was saying things like, “I don’t know. There’s this thing called the theater you might make your living at.” And it was like, “No, you can’t make your life in a theater.” So it was a little bit like that. So I would say, My Name is Asher Lev, if I’m pronouncing those words correctly by Chaim Potok, if I’m pronouncing his name correctly. That was one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
Alan: 40:01 You and I were brought together for this podcast by a great writer, Ann Patchett who helped us set up this date. And that changed our lives a little bit.
Tom: 40:13 Well, when I was asked by our peers at the Screen Actors Guild, if I’d say a few words for your lifetime achievement award. Was that two years ago?
Alan: 40:23 It was last January.
Tom: 40:25 I thought, Oh, let me add it. I know exactly what I wanted to say about Alan Alda.
Alan: 40:31 You were so great. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Tom: 40:33 It’s wonderful talking to you.
As a two-time Oscar winner, Tom Hanks is an absolute legend – he’s a Hollywood icon, an immeasurable talent, and someone who I’m both fortunate enough to have worked with and to call my friend.
He’s got a youthful curiosity that inspires me – and if you haven’t seen him as Fred Rogers in his most recent film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, be sure to check it out – the film is now streaming on Amazon.
I’ve been having fun the HanxWriter typewriter app, which you can download by visiting Hanx (that’s Hanx spelled H A N X) Writer.com.
And, for to stay up to date with all of Tom’s latest, be sure to follow him on Twitter, I certainly do! – he’s @TomHanks
(Staff and series credits)
Next in our series of conversations I talk with the great Paul McCartney – Sir Paul McCartney – about his extraordinary career – and how it came to be
Paul: The song we did with the Beatles, she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. On the Anders. She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a big chord, and it’s actually a sixth chord.
Alan: Oh, you ended on a sixth?
Paul: Yeah, we did a sixth. We didn’t know it was a sixth. We just thought it sounded great. George Martin, our producer said, Oh no, you can’t do that. He said, that’s a sixth. Oh yeah? He said, it’s really corny. It was like, yah. And we said, we like it. So we kept it. So those kinds of things where… It was a great voyage of discovery because you were learning all these little things as you went along and you were keeping yourself excited, which I think is very important.
Paul McCartney shows me how he writes a song – next time on C+V