Hollywood Flashback: Tom Hanks Got His Start in Splatter and 'D & D' Flicks

ONE TIME USE_Rona Jaffes Mazes and Monsters_BTS - Getty - H 2019
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While the actor may earn his fifth Oscar nom with 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,' it was the 1980 low-budget film 'He Knows You're Alone' that got him his SAG card.

While there's a chance that playing Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might bring Tom Hanks his fifth Oscar nomination, it was the 1980 low-budget film He Knows You're Alone that got him his SAG card and the 1982 TV movie Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters that gave him his first lead. (Jaffe wrote the novel on which the telefilm was based, and her contract stipulated that her name be above the title.)

Alone was not a film Mr. Rogers would approve of. It fit squarely in the horror genre that's been called "hack and stab" — involving dead teenagers and a lot of splatter. The Hollywood Reporter said MGM should be ashamed of itself because "rarely has such shoddy merchandise been offered by a major studio."

Not only was MGM not contrite, it was ebullient: The $200,000 production ($660,000 today) brought in $5 million ($16.5 million today). Hanks was paid $300 for what amounted to seven minutes of screen time. He has described his role as "some geek who appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared."

While the film didn't attract a lot of praise, director Armand Mastroianni (an American cousin of Italian star Marcello Mastroianni) says the best compliment he heard came from The Exorcist director William Friedkin, who said, "Your film scared the shit out of me."

THR was much more approving of Monsters. "A genuinely different, rewarding psychodrama telefeature," read the review.

The plot featured three college classmates playing a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy game with Hanks, then 26, as a guy named Robbie who takes his role a bit too far. The film aired on CBS amid national fear that role-playing games could lead players into self-induced insanity (by the end of the film, the game has become reality for Robbie).

Now 63, Hanks once described his character as a paranoid schizophrenic, someone nothing like himself: "I'm an actor, but I'm not that crazy."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.