Cyndi Stivers
April 28, 2009 AT 09:14 PM EDT

“Everybody f—in’ likes you,” fretted Julia Roberts, eighth speaker of the evening at the April 27 tribute to Tom Hanks. “What can I tell you that’s new? It’s late, and I’m paying my babysitter overtime, and I have to pee. Tom Hanks: What the f—?” The fancy-pants audience at the event, hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, roared with delight; the lavishly refurbished Alice Tully Hall is a venue not generally known for its F-bombs.

Next up was Mike Nichols, who directed Hanks (and Roberts) in Charlie Wilson’s War. “He’s funny, he’s generous, he’s kind,” Nichols intoned, as if wearily. “But that’s no reason to hate someone!”

Nichols did get serious, of course, describing the actor as “the one who is us, the guy we think we are — the one we are at our best.” Others sounded similar themes — Hanks is one truly beloved man — but those who paid tribute did their best to find something edgy to add about him. His You’ve Got Mail director, Nora Ephron, teased him about his typewriter collection and suggested he’d actually been born Pinchas Greenblatt in Middle Village, Queens.

Bruce Springsteen recalled meeting the honoree “in the men’s room of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where we were comparing the size of our…Oscars.” Citing Hanks’ pop music knowledge (“encyclopedic”) and guitar playing (“not bad”), Springsteen observed that Hanks is “single-handedly insisting on bringing the Twist into the new century.” He then performed an acoustic version of the theme from Philadelphia (the Jonathan Demme film for which Hanks won his first Academy Award) with Patti Scialfa — “my lovely wife” — singing backup.


Ron Howard, who cast Hanks in his breakthrough role in Splash (1984) and has worked with him three times since, recalled Hanks’ boyish glee upon receiving his per diem — “An envelope full of money!”– on location in the Bahamas, although now, Howard noted, that kind of excitement is sparked “by a little thing called ‘first-dollar gross participation.’ The way he lights up — it’s so cute!”

Charlize Theron told the crowd about seeing Splash on VHS tape as a 10-year-old in rural South Africa; years later, she became the first actor Hanks cast in his directorial debut, That Thing You Do. (Indeed, as Hanks said later, she was the first person ever to audition for him.) Though Hanks cut several of her big scenes in the movie, she recalled, her love for “my TH” survived: “I already have a restraining order against me.”

Wrapping up the accolades was Steven Spielberg, who extolled their long friendship and joked that he had produced “two of Tom’s biggest hits” (the less-than-stellar Joe vs. the Volcano and The Money Pit), before summing him up as “the legend next door.” Throughout the proceedings, Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, chortled and shouted comments from the audience.

When it was his turn, Hanks ditched the speech he’d prepared. “I took notes, you bastards!” he cried. He roasted his friends one by one, providing priceless imitations of his directors Howard, Demme, and Bob Zemeckis. He acknowledged his four children — Colin, currently appearing on Broadway in 33 Variations, and his daughter Liz, as well as his two kids with Wilson: “They are minors, so I will not mention their names; they are like George and Ringo of the Beatles.” His most affectionate tribute was to Wilson. For their 21st wedding anniversary on April 30, he said, “I’m going to let her start dressing me.”

Many speakers mentioned the Hanks and Wilson romance. “They are completely themselves and completely each other,” said Nichols. But the primary ardor was reserved for Hanks. As writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who directed him in Joe vs. the Volcano, concluded, in the vernacular of the evening: “I love that f—in’ guy.”

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