December 30, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Face it. At this point Forrest Gump — like E.T., Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley, and the Big Mac — owns a permanent park bench on the American landscape. You can’t escape it. Years from now, your children will memorize his words: Life is like a box of chocolates and Stupid is as stupid does. Your grandchildren will read stories about the grand old days of Daniel Boone and Abe Lincoln and Forrest Gump. There is only one man in America who still doesn’t grasp the cultural magnitude of Forrest Gump. His name is Tom Hanks.

The fable of a dim-bulbed mama’s boy who stumbles through the decades searching for love and hope, Gump conquered 1994 — and won a place in the record books as the highest- grossing non-science-fiction film in history. But ask him why, and Tom Hanks rambles. He talks about the trailer. He talks about the script. He talks about the special effects. Finally, feigning exasperation, he says:

”I’m in the movie! How the hell do I know?”

Exactly. Hanks, 38, is too modest to admit it, but the main reason an unorthodox epic like Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump has managed to earn nearly ) $300 million at the box office is … Tom Hanks. ”I’ve been involved in Gump for nine years,” says producer Steve Tisch, ”and I can’t now think of any other actor who should’ve played Forrest Gump other than Tom.” The reason: In a Hollywood sea of muscleheads, vamps, caffeinated comics, brat-pack pretty boys, and aging rakes, Tom Hanks just might be the last man on the silver screen who conveys a sense of decency. He tires of the terms: Average Joe, Boy Next Door, Mr. Nice Guy. But Hanks, more than any actor of his day, has built a career on roles that vary in hue-a gay lawyer battling AIDS and bigotry in Philadelphia, a boozy dugout rat in A League of Their Own, a widower paralyzed by loss in Sleepless in Seattle — but spring from a common base of goodness. We trust these characters because we trust Tom Hanks. ”The man is as nice, as honest, as professional, as personal as he seems to be,” gushes Tisch. ”His life is not an act. He’s an extremely talented actor, and as a human being he is what we should all aspire to be.”

What we should all aspire to be? Hanks will have none of that. ”Lies, all lies!” he cracks. Entertainer of the Year? ”I’m shocked,” he quips. ”Are you sure it’s a wise move? There must be a breakdown in the poll-taking process for this to happen.” Like his good-guy archetype Jimmy Stewart, Hanks leavens his aw-shucks image with a healthy dose of sarcasm — equal parts grimace and grin — just to make sure you don’t mistake him for one of those ego-inflated movie stars. Unlike Nicholson or Brando or Dean, Tom Hanks wins a place in the pantheon for his very normality. He speaks as if he might just plummet back to earth if he accidentally opened his eyes and saw his place in the stratosphere.

Recalling a year that opened with talk of an Oscar for Philadelphia and closed with whispers of another one for Gump, he says: ”It’s an embarrassment of riches. I mean, you can’t plan on this, and you can’t desire it too much. You can only sort of let it wash over you and say, ‘Man, oh, man! How’d that happen? Who was that guy?”’

That Zen approach helped Hanks survive the ’80s, from the yuppies-in-drag laffs of the sitcom Bosom Buddies, to cute blockbusters like Big and Splash, to not-so-cute stinkers like Volunteers and The Money Pit and 1990’s dreaded The Bonfire of the Vanities. ”I never, ever thought that I’d get beyond doing Bosom Buddies, in all honesty. But that was okay,” Hanks says now. ”It’s not a matter of always yearning to be somewhere else — it’s just trying to remain inspired at the level that you’re working at.” He eventually grew into an actor of remarkable subtlety and depth, and 1994 gave him a ballast not likely to wash away with the ebb and flow of a Hollywood minute.

”I’m not sure exactly how I approach this stuff; I just sort of do,” he says. ”I’m not in it for power, I’m not in it for influence, I’m not in it to hold sway over anybody. I’m in it because I have a chance to do this kind of work.”

If the Oscar knocked him into the clouds, Gump hurled him into the ether. No wonder his next film is Apollo 13, the story of an aborted moon mission; Hanks now has nowhere else to go but outer space. Looking back on 1994, he hunts for a fine memory and lands on a morning in February. ”Paris, man,” he says. ”That was cool. I had been there before, but you know, I landed in Paris the day — the day — that I found out I had been nominated for the Academy Award.” For the first time in the conversation, he lets big gusts of laughter break free. ”I felt like Patton comin’ in from the airport, to tell you the truth,” he goes on. ”Checking into the hotel that night was a pretty heady experience. They put me up in the Ritz. Not bad there! In the Coco Chanel suite! How ’bout that?”

How about that. Tom Hanks at the Ritz. Imagine.

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