Hanks goes to prison for new pic

GOOD MORNING: Tom Hanks was back in uniform Tuesday when I met up with him on Stage 3 at Warner Hollywood Studios. This time it’s the uniform of a prison guard in Castle Rock’s’ “The Green Mile” for WB. Hanks is in charge of prisoners who’ll head down the “green mile” to the electric chair in the 1935 Southern prison. And, yes, we will see three prisoners executed in this Frank Darabont-scripted/directed pic. Producer David Valdes escorted me through the set, which winds through a death-row cell block, around the office of guard Hanks to a musty room containing the electric chair. Oscar-winning designer Terence Marsh has done such an effective job that the smell of death emanates, even though it is just a movie set. My arrival on the set was perfectly timed with the arrival of one of the new prisoners on the row — “Wild Bill,” a serial killer played by Sam Rockwell. Wild Bill was strangling a guard, played by Barry Pepper, who was “Private Jackson,” the sharpshooter in “Saving Private Ryan.” In the prison melee, guards Hanks, Jeffrey De Munn and David Morse come to the aid of Pepper … This is a helluva switch in roles for two-time Oscar winner Hanks (“Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia”) and I wondered why he is doing the period prison pic. He explains Darabont’s script, from the Stephen King serialized (six books) novel, “has so many twists and turns” he was unable to put it down. Plus he liked the nuances of the characters — even the tiny mouse, “Jingles,” “who has a major role,” Hanks adds … Darabont hasn’t helmed a film since “The Shawshank Redemption” five years ago. Howcum? “Making movies is such a pain in the ass,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t take a directing job just for the sake of directing. It took those five years to find a project I really like.” He then wrote the script. He turned down many directing jobs, including one of the segs of Hanks’ “From the Earth to the Moon”(which eventually was nominated for 17 Emmys), in order to continue writing the “Green” script. He was involved in a way with Hanks prior to this film: he did a rewrite on “Saving Private Ryan.” And in non-directing mode, he pro-duced and wrote HBO’s “Black Cat Run.” “The Green Mile” heads to the old Nashville State Penitentiary for exteriors. It was at one time first choice for the location of “Shawshank.”

AMONG THE BIG QUESTIONS on “The Green Mile” are the opening/closing sequences, in which Hanks is to be 90 years old in the present-day scenes. Producer Valdes tells me they have conducted several makeup tests with Hanks, but Tom says he is not certain whether he should do it himself or whether another actor should play him at 90. And if another actor plays him, should he be unidentifiable as himself as well? After all, in “Saving Private Ryan,” the “Old Man” shown in the opening and closing modern-day sequences is played (excellently!) by Harrison Young, while a different thesp plays the character during the WWII scenes. Hanks was in a pensive mood when we talked about “Private Ryan.” He said he visited those beaches after the film was completed. He walked those sands alone and discovered, among the many small identifying plaques, one dedicated to the company (Second Battalion, C Company of the Rangers) that he led in the movie. “I looked up in disbelief at those bunkers, some of which are still there — I walked where they died, where some put on dry socks for the last time.” Alone on that beach, Hanks was overcome with emotion, he admitted. He lay down and went to sleep for a spell … Hanks has been working on “Mile” despite an ear infection that had at one time swollen the left side of his face. (He looks fine now). When asked how he would lose a necessary enormous amount of weight for the island-stranded sequences in “Castaway,” he admitted the double-skedded movie with Bob Zemeckis is a “bodacious” project and still in iffy state. He also dieted dramatically, you recall, for his AIDS-patient role in “Philadelphia.” On the happy side of his movie ledger, “You’ve Got Mail,” which he competed with Meg Ryan, is Nora Ephron at her best, Hanks says. And he laughingly insists it is not a remake of “The Shop Around the Corner”: “It is a remake of the remake of the remake of ‘The Shop Around the Corner.’ ” When Nora asked him to read the script, he says, “She warned me, ‘We have to make it in five minutes,’ it is so timely!” The “Mail” is e-mail … About his succession of successful films and a plethora of remarkably different roles (all of which he played magnificently), Hanks would only say, “I was lucky.” Conversation, of course, on this set — as everywhere Tuesday morning — was about Monday’s speech by President Clinton. Hanks had been at the White House for the D.C. preem of “From the Earth to the Moon” and the visit included warm, friendly and lengthy conversations with Clinton, for whom Hanks had campaigned. At one celeb-studded fundraiser for the Clinton second term, Hanks emceed (with his usual charm and savoir faire) an event at Green Acres. The President had thanked him profusely from the stage for his support. Hanks’ feeling about the Monday night speech and the Monica Lewinsky affair: “It’s over, let’s move on.” Producer Valdes agreed.

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