When Tom Hanks played a caustic, unlovable stand-up comic in the movie "Punchline," some fans worried that the actor might hurt his good-guy image and, in the process, kill his career.
Of course, they said the same thing after "The Bonfire of the Vanities," but that's another story.
Well, here he goes again in "Philadelphia." This is his most courageous and challenging movie role, and fans and critics are divided on how he will fare.
People are not sure whether the role will ruin his career or win him an Oscar. Mr. Hanks, as usual, is oblivious to any controversy surrounding his choice of roles.
"It's not like I'm Kirk Douglas in 1955 and worried about what Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons is going to write about me because I played a gay man," says Mr. Hanks, who portrays a top Philadelphia attorney with AIDS who sues his own law firm after he is fired.
Denzel Washington plays his homophobic attorney during the ensuing court battle.
"I took the part because I'm a very selfish actor," Mr. Hanks says. "I want to work on good material and tell good stories with good people. This was a very select club to be allowed into.
"I'm probably the least politically motivated guy around, and I just saw a good, timely story that, if we did it accurately and correctly, would capture what it's like to live in America in 1993."
The reason for the close scrutiny of Mr. Hanks and the film is because "Philadelphia" -- which opened nationally last week and will open in Baltimore this month -- has been ballyhooed as Hollywood's first major studio movie about AIDS and gays. Never mind that Al Pacino played a gay man in "Dog Day Afternoon" and William Hurt won an Oscar as a homosexual in "Kiss of the Spider Woman."
This is a $25 million movie put out by Tri-Star, and most industry observers believe that if it does poorly at the box office, no studio will touch the subject again.
"I suppose it is a big gamble," Mr. Hanks says. "It's a movie about gays that doesn't include a scene where a father is saying, 'No son of mine is going to be a homosexual.' "
Director Jonathan Demme says Mr. Hanks was the perfect choice for the role. With a downbeat subject such as AIDS, the studio wanted a likable actor in the lead. And Mr. Hanks is as likable as it gets in Hollywood.
"We had to have an All-American boy in that role," the director says, "and Tom has that extraordinary combination of All-American boy persona and laser intelligence. One of the cornerstones of the movie is that audiences must believe that Tom is a brilliant lawyer."
Mr. Hanks, 37, says he worked out with personal trainers and lost 35 pounds for the role. He also did extensive personal research that included numerous conversations with AIDS patients.
"I felt a little mercenary at first, asking them questions about their illness for the sake of a movie role, but it seemed as if they wanted to talk to me," he says.
"I told them I was going to ask some blatantly stupid questions, and I did. I asked them everything, from what they thought when they looked out the window to what the disease did to them physically.
"They answered every question," he says, "because they wanted me to know more than I knew. They wanted me to have more than the inside track."
As for Oscar talk, Mr. Hanks, who wowed audiences this year in a more audience-friendly role in "Sleepless in Seattle," says he would rather not get into it.
"It's very sweet to hear that talk," he says. "The first time I heard that, it was very exciting. After that, it just got embarrassing.
"But I'll go to the Oscars and do anything they want me to do. If they want to give me seats near the stage in front of the cameras, I'll be happy to oblige them."