Icons: Tom Hanks
EmptyWhen Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David McCullough agreed to meet Tom Hanks at a small cafe in Sun Valley, Idaho, the author of "John Adams" was skeptical. After all, the other Hollywood types looking to adapt his work hadn't exactly impressed him.
"People wanted to option (my books over the years)," McCullough says. "And very often the conversation would start with how (the producer) loved the book. I would thank him. Then it would become evident he hadn't read the book."
Hanks had also said he loved "John Adams."
"Oh yeah, here we go," McCullough thought. "And then he proceeded to reach down to pick up a copy of my book. It was all out of leaf display, full of Post-its sticking out of the sides. He opened it to various pages and not only had he read it, he had underlined and made margin notes. And he wanted to go through it and ask me if various scenes were important."
Hanks' deep understanding of the material and the American Revolution won McCullough over. The author agreed to give Playtone Prods., Hanks' company with partner Gary Goetzman, an option on "John Adams" before they left the diner.
Playtone later sold the miniseries to HBO, where it earned strong ratings and won top honors at the Golden Globes and Emmys. It was the third HBO miniseries executive produced by Hanks, and the third to win both Globe and Emmy attention, a remarkable track record for a man who isn't primarily known as a producer.
Indeed, while Hanks is often celebrated as one of the most deadicated and accomplished actors of our time, he is equally passionate about his producing career, and the results have been remarkable. That is part of the reason why he is being honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center as a premier performer and one of Hollywood's busiest producers.
"We like to crystallize something in the audience's brain that makes them say, 'Hey I really want to watch that, I'm really interested in it,' " Goetzman says. "Nowadays a lot of people think if Tom's really interested in some subject matter and he's going to contribute his talent to it for a couple years, it's probably worthwhile to see."
Indeed, Hanks' reputation as an actor who makes smart choices with his movies has led audiences to follow his producing efforts.
"Tom's persona is actually a reality. The good guy image we have of him is actually very real," says Nia Vardalos, who wrote and starred in 2002's "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which she produced with Playtone after her play was discovered by Hanks' wife, actress Rita Wilson. "His suggestions for edits were exactly right and yet at the same time he would very clearly say 'These are my suggestions, it's your script, Nia,' " Vardalos recalls. "I was stunned. He was so respectful of the creative process."
Since "Wedding," Vardalos worked with Playtone again as an actress and screenwriter, most recently penning an unnamed script based on an idea by Hanks, and as an actress in Playtone's romantic comedy "My Life in Ruins," which bows in June.
She says there's a unique atmosphere at Playtone of cooperation and civility. "I come from Second City where you're supposed to always listen to the idea and 'yes' it on," Vardalos says. "So someone says, 'Here comes a pink elephant,' you say, 'Yes, and it's wearing a tutu.' That's what Tom does. He doesn't negate the idea. He says yes and forwards it. He adds to it."
Hanks is able to have a busy career as an actor and still run an active production company because of his partnership with Goetzman, who oversees day-to-day activities and shares creative duties. A producer on "Philadelphia" (1993) when they met, Goetzman shared Hanks' love of music and together they produced their first hit, "That Thing You Do!" in 1996. They've never looked back and at one point last year had 10 projects in production at once. Their partnership has achieved a remarkable record for quality and (usually) commercial success.
"When you work with somebody, either the puzzle piece fits or it doesn't," Goetzman says. "We have a very easy working relationship. We both care about just doing the best, most creative thing we can do."
Their partnership has allowed Hanks, an ardent history buff, to bring his favorite stories -- primarily nonfiction -- to life. After "Apollo 13," Goetzman says Hanks wanted a bigger canvas to tell that story, which led to the miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," for which Hanks also wrote and directed.
His agents at CAA set "Earth" up at HBO, where Playtone has now produced three miniseries, each of which won Golden Globe and Emmy awards -- with a fourth, "Pacific," due early next year. Playtone has its feature deal at Universal. In a business known for change, those relationships -- CAA, HBO and Universal -- have remained steadfast for more than a decade.
Michael Lombardo, president of the programming group and West Coast operations for HBO, recalls how impressed they were after "Moon."
"Tom was a hands-on, incredibly talented producer," Lombardo says. "At the end of that experience, we stopped looking at Tom as just a movie star. It became clear to us we wanted to be in business with him and Gary. He's a passionate filmmaker with a clear point of view. He totally delivers in terms of showing up, doing the work and delivering the product."
While he's visiting on set, Hanks uses a laptop and BlackBerry to read Playtone script changes and give notes. His role is part cheerleader, even as he's making sure the visuals being created match what was on the scripted page.
When it comes to acting, Hanks can be just as focused, Universal production president Donna Langley says. "Once he's on the set in the hands of a consummate professional (director) ... he's there as an actor," she adds. "He's not there to produce or to tell them what to do. He shows up and embodies his part."
Hanks only produces or acts in projects that he has strong feelings about, which informs his choices. "He's passionate about the subject matter, thoughtful about it," says Kary Antholis, HBO's miniseries president. "He dives in from the beginning. He's involved in crafting the stories with the writers. He's involved in all the major choices of key crew members. He's present during production and very much present during postproduction."
Even from their first collaboration, Goetzman says Hanks plunged in not only as a producer and actor, but also as a writer and director.
"The taking of ideas, giving them a form, presentation, are very strong areas for Tom," says Goetzman, describing his partner as "a very literate, studious guy."
"Adams" screenwriter Kirk Ellis, now working with Playtone on another McCullough book, "1776," calls Hanks "the smoothest salesman I've ever seen." He recalls that near the end of the pitch meeting for "Adams," an HBO executive asked why it was to be 13 episodes. "Without missing a beat, Tom replied, '13 colonies. 13 episodes,' " Ellis recalls. "Never occurred to me that had been the reason. Turned out he just improvised, but the question never got asked again."
Hanks and Goetzman spent several years working to win the rights to do "Mamma Mia!" because the show's producers were concerned about the effect of a film on the play's ticket sales. Instead, the movie became a global hit last summer, boosting the play's boxoffice.
People who have worked with Playtone once tend to return. "Tom calls it the Playtone Galaxy of Stars," Goetzman says. "Anybody who has been in anything we've ever done is a Playtoner. We're not opposed to going outside but we do have loyalty to people who have been there with us before whether we won or lost."
At the Playtone offices in Santa Monica, where Hanks keeps part of his antique typewriter collection, there's a friendly, open atmosphere, lots of common space and offices. Everybody eats together upstairs and during meetings anyone can contribute ideas and be heard.
"He doesn't have to produce," Goetzman says. "He does it because he wants to see stories that he feels are interesting come to the screen. He's basically a guy who likes to read and when he sees something that he thinks would be a great movie or TV event, and if he thinks other people have a shot of liking it, we do it and do it right."