''Mr. Farnsworth, this is Tom Hanks.''
That's how it all began, when Rawley Farnsworth, 69, a retired high school drama teacher, picked up his telephone in March 1994, three days before the Academy Awards ceremony. ''I hadn't heard from Tom in 17 years,'' says Farnsworth, who had taught Hanks in the early '70s at Skyline High School in Oakland. Now Hanks was calling because there was a strong chance he'd win the Best Actor award for playing a gay lawyer with AIDS in Philadelphia. If he did, he wanted permission to use Farnsworth's name in his acceptance speech.
Hanks, of course, did more than just mention his old coach when he was called to the podium. He praised Farnsworth as one of the ''finest gay Americans...that I had the good fortune to be associated with.'' Among the two billion witnesses was film and stage producer Scott Rudin, who was watching at home while on the phone with a theater-director friend, Lori Steinberg. ''There's Tom Hanks saying 'I want to thank a great gay teacher,''' recalls Rudin. ''And Lori Steinberg added, 'Whose job I just lost.' It made me cry, and I also thought it was hysterical.''
What's more, Rudin thought, This is a movie. In reality, Farnsworth had no job to lose, and though he had never actually told Hanks that he was gay, he didn't object to that fact being acknowledged once Hanks made the speech. But Rudin wondered, what if such a teacher were still employed when an actor outed him to the world? That's the sitcom situation that's been trumped up into the hit comedy In & Out. Starring Kevin Kline as the teacher in question, Joan Cusack as his beleaguered bride-to-be, Matt Dillon as the bigmouthed movie star, and Tom Selleck as a reporter hot for the story, the movie opened to a $15 million gross over the weekend of Sept. 19 the second largest September opening after last year's The First Wives Club. But In & Out's significance goes well beyond box office numbers. For the first time, a mainstream audience is embracing a film about a central gay character who isn't dying of AIDS (a disease mentioned nowhere in the script), nor is he a broadly drawn, drag-enamored stereotype (as Nathan Lane and Robin Williams were in The Birdcage). Most surprising of all, Kline gets kissed full on the mouth by Magnum, PI, himself, a moment that's drawing the loudest audience response both pro and con since Luke Skywalker re-decimated the Death Star last spring.
By the Monday morning after the opening weekend, Paramount was breathing a sigh of relief. The risky $35 million film hadn't inspired any great conservative backlash, even though the script may be the first Hollywood has ever produced that borders on the heterophobic. Heterosexual men ''do not dance,'' according to the ''Exploring Your Masculinity'' self-help tape that Kline's character turns to in his time of need. ''At all costs, [they] avoid rhythm, grace, and pleasure.... Be a man! Kick someone! Punch someone! Bite someone's ear!''