Tom Hanks Didn't Want His Public Image To Taint His Characters In Saving Private Ryan And Forrest Gump

When an actor better known for good guys plays against type, I always look for the wink. Not a literal wink, of course, but that little moment that says: "Don't worry, guys! It's me, I'm only acting!"

Henry Fonda never winked when he gunned down a little kid in "Once Upon a Time in the West." Neither did James Stewart when he played a detective twisted into a controlling monster by his obsessions in "Vertigo," nor Denzel Washington as the dirty cop in "Training Day."

Then you have Tom Hanks, a true national treasure and the all-around nicest guy in movies. Just his presence in a darker role is enough to wink at the audience. For all his versatility, I'd argue he has yet to play a fully successful villainous role. He lacked the sinister edge Alec Guinness had as the loquacious criminal mastermind in the disastrous remake of "The Ladykillers," and the less said about his panto gangster in "Cloud Atlas" the better.

He fared better as a mob enforcer in "Road to Perdition," merely feeling miscast rather than actively winking. More recently he played the grasping, devious Colonel Tom Parker in "Elvis" with a suitably heightened performance that matched Baz Luhrmann's typical razzle-dazzle. But there, under the layers of prosthetics, was that Hanksian twinkle in the eye to remind us it's all in good jest.

I guess it's just we're not used to seeing Tom Hanks do naughty things. His aura is so powerfully PG-rated that we even tend to blank it out when his characters swear or have sex in movies. That squeaky-clean public persona is so strong that even two big-name directors felt a certain act was out of bounds for the actor.

Giant spiders

In a 2022 interview with the New York Times, Tom Hanks was asked about rumors that he and Aaron Sorkin decided that audiences wouldn't want to see him snorting coke in "Charlie Wilson's War." He responded by talking about giant spiders.

In the 1933 version of "King Kong," there is a scene where some adventurers are knocked off a log bridge by the big irate monkey. They fall into a ravine and that's the end of them. There were further horrors to come in the original cut. At the bottom of the ravine, they are attacked by giant spiders. The director decided to chop it, however, because audiences were no longer scared of Kong after seeing the ghastly creatures in the pit.

His theory is that there are certain things, like giant spiders in a movie about a huge gorilla or Tom Hanks taking Grade-A drugs, that can potentially upstage the story. Would his character indulging in a little nose candy have been that giant spider moment for "Charlie Wilson's War?" We'll never know, but the movie does have a scene with him sitting in a hot tub with topless women while another guy rubs cocaine on his gums. Even this all feels a little uncomfortable for a Tom Hanks character.

The interesting thing about the rumor is what it says about Hanks' public persona. No one felt scandalized by Uma Thurman doing a line in the bathroom in "Pulp Fiction," or Leonardo DiCaprio snapping himself out of a Quaalude stupor with a jolt of the white stuff in "The Wolf of Wall Street," or Al Pacino going face down in a mountain of coke in "Scarface." When it comes to an R-rated movie starring Hanks, however, just the mere idea of him taking the drug is enough to warrant questioning in an interview.

Some top directors didn't want Tom Hanks firing a gun

As part of the same discussion about what the public would and wouldn't accept from a Tom Hanks character, the actor got onto the subject of firearms. It is kind of shocking seeing Tom Hanks mowing down a bunch of gangsters with a Tommy Gun in "Road to Perdition," but surely it is totally justified for him to fire back in a wartime situation when an enemy is actively trying to kill him? Apparently, Steven Spielberg didn't think so at first (via New York Times):

"On 'Saving Private Ryan,' Steven Spielberg said, 'I don't think I want to see John Miller fire his gun and kill Germans.' I told him: 'I'm sorry, Steven. You're not going to get me all the way over here and turn me into some other guy just because you don't want Tom Hanks to kill soldiers.'"

Hanks also said that he had a similar situation while shooting the Vietnam scenes in "Forrest Gump." Robert Zemeckis was initially reluctant to show our hero firing a gun, wanting him to get confused and run away instead. Hanks used his clout to talk him around: "Bob, why am I playing a soldier who is really good at his basic training without then showing me slapping in my clip and firing a set of rounds?"

As it turned out, I don't recall any controversy about Hanks using guns in either movie, proving he was right to argue that his public persona shouldn't affect a movie. With the actor now approaching his 70s and a career spanning almost 40 years, it seems that we have yet to see his giant spider moment.