I didn’t meet Tom Hanks on a Hollywood studio lot or on location. Nor was it an awards ceremony, or anywhere glamorous, that brought us together. We met in an El Al airport terminal at JFK.
I was traveling with an entourage. Tom was traveling alone. We were all bound for Israel. The star of our group was Shlomo “Chich” Lahat, dashing Israel Defense Forces General (ret.) turned dynamic Mayor of Tel Aviv (charismatic). He made the actor look like a shlepper.
Tom had just witnessed a scene more appropriate to a movie than to real life. Then New York Mayor Ed Koch had given Chich and company a police escort to the airport. That we didn’t need one was irrelevant. We arrived sirens screaming and lights flashing. The airport guards responded in kind by drawing their guns and surrounding us in a semi-circle of heightened security. As I crawled out of the second of our two cars, I nudged a slumping associate and said, “Look important—this is embarrassing.”
I had chosen this trip to take my youngest of two daughters, Haley, age 11, with me to see Israel for her first time. As we entered the terminal and took our places in line, Tom walked over to me and asked who we were. He didn’t need an introduction, but volunteered that he was on his way to Israel to do a film.
I gestured toward the mayor, introduced my daughter, and tried to explain, as in “dispel,” the unnecessary fuss. With another gesture I said, “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
Tom Hanks is known in Hollywood as Mr. Nice Guy. For good reason. He’s easy to know, easy to chat with. I introduced him to Chich, all the while trying to discern from Chich’s reaction if he knew who Tom was—or even had a clue he was an actor. Israeli politicians support and appreciate the arts, but I have found that most of them think show business is nonsense.
First Class travel is for American film stars, not Israeli politicians. We were in Business Class, so—different lounges for different folks—we went our separate ways.
I emerged from using the Business Class men’s room to be told by Haley that “Tom was just here looking for you. He wants us to join him in the First Class lounge.”
The only occupant of the lounge other then Mr. Nice Guy was a Hasidic Jew, who ignored us as we lounged and chatted. At one point, Tom cited his credits and Haley, who was a child actress, cited hers. At boarding time, we went our separate ways again, Tom to the upstairs of the plane, Haley and I to join our group in the forward Business Class section.
The lights were out and I was dozing when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Tom, who’d come down to visit. We strolled the aisles of the plane as we spoke. At one point, I paid him the only compliment I had for him. I told him how much I admired how free his acting was on a TV series I’d caught him on several times. Mr. Nice Guy modestly fielded the compliment with, “You get into a lot of bad habits in TV.”
We were whispering in a Coach Class aisle when someone stirred—a young girl. She looked up and nudged the girl next to her and heads started bobbing up in the rows of teenage girls apparently traveling together. Tom said he’d better go and retreated upstairs.
He joined Haley and me for breakfast the next morning in our mutual Tel Aviv hotel. Once again, we went our separate ways, I to my work in the city and he to his on location.
The next time I saw Tom was at the Oscars as the 62nd Annual Academy Awards ceremony concluded. Five years had passed and Haley had changed the most. She was radiant that night. Before he even got to us, I heard him excitedly telling his wife, “Rita, these are the people I told you about from the Israel trip!” I had just failed to win the Oscar I was nominated for—for Best Short Subjects Documentary—but as one of only three nominees that evening, I felt I’d already won beyond anything I’d ever dreamed. Tom put his arm around my shoulder and said, “I know what it feels like to come here and go away empty-handed.” It was such a sweet, thoughtful gesture from a remarkably sweet, thoughtful man, I had to act more disappointed than I was.