Tom Hanks on 'A League of Their Own's Madonna Casting and Why People Love Baseball (Flashback)
By Joe Bergren
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One reason Tom Hanks signed up for A League of Their Own was that Penny Marshall’s historical comedy provided a rare opportunity to play against type. But he wasn’t the only entertainer stepping out of their wheelhouse for the movie’s fictional portrayal of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League amid the backdrop of WWII.
While chatting with ET in the lead up to the film’s premiere, the Big star reflected on the media frenzy surrounding the production once Madonna was added to the roster.
“No one knew what to expect from the world's most recognizable, popular cultural icon,” Hanks told ET in 1992. In reference to the Queen of Pop’s near-mythical level of fame, he joked that everyone on set wondered if Madonna would “show up in a helicopter and descend into left field.”
But there was no grand aerial entrance befitting one of her Blonde Ambition World Tour concerts. As Hanks remembered, Madonna “just kind of showed up” in an anticlimactic fashion.
“She had a distinct personality and that's kind of interesting to get used to after a while,” Hanks recalled. When asked to expand on “distinct personality,” he added, “one who has seen an awful lot” and “who has been through a substantial amount.”
“I did end up liking her. I thought she was neat. I thought she was cool,” Hanks said, adding that Madonna simply became “[part] of the ensemble” after “the brouhaha died down.”
And from beginning to end, it was a substantial brouhaha.
The first impact of Madonna’s casting was A League of Their Own’s lead star exiting the movie. Debra Winger was initially selected to play Dottie Hinson, the role that later went to Geena Davis, and had even undergone three months of training with the Chicago Cubs before dropping out. In an interview with The Telegraph last year, the Terms of Endearment star said Marshall's casting of Madonna as Mae Mordabito was an indication that the movie would become "an Elvis [Presley] film.”
Controversy followed Madonna well into production. In an interview with TV Guide in 1991, Madonna criticized Evansville, Indiana, where the movie filmed on location for a period. She told the mag, “I might as well have been in Prague,” much to the chagrin of the locals. “I think Madonna handled that very well,” Hanks said of the incident’s aftermath.
For Hanks, the role of Jimmy Dugan, the Rockford Peaches’ alcoholic and rough-around-the-edges coach, was a welcome departure from his usual roles at the time. “It's the kind of character they don't ever let me do,” he remarked with a laugh, referring to his string of high-concept comedies in the decade prior.
While Hanks currently enjoys critical acclaim for playing Colonel Parker, who counts as one of the few arguably villainous roles in his filmography, the actor didn’t always have this type of free rein. With A League of Their Own’s washed up ex-ball player, he was thankful to leave behind his cinematic trademark of being “likable and witty,” a trait he had nicknamed the “charm monster.”
“I got to be everything they never, ever let me do without it having to be the main thrust of the movie,” Hanks said, calling his moderate presence in the movie a “luxury” as he got to “show up and just be part of the ensemble.”
While admitting he "wasn't in the greatest shape" when cameras first started rolling, Hanks also revealed he was still trying to lose the weight he gained for the part by the time A League of Their Own premiered on July 1, 1992.
“I ate a lot of barbecue pork ribs and we made our trips to the Dairy Queen,” Hanks recalled. “You can do a lot by eating what’s called 'traditional, American cuisine.'”
As for which actors showed the most athletic chops on the set, a few names immediately came to mind. “Rosie O'Donnell is just a great baseball player. So is Freddie Simpson. And so was Robin Knight. Those are three very, very great baseball players,” he said, adding, “Lori Petty is a monster up on the mound. She'll take your head off.”
When it comes to the game itself, Hanks shared his rather simple theory for the sport’s longevity, which, according to him, can be traced back to the embedded chaos of baseball’s inherent design.
“It's a funny game. It's a goofy game to watch. It's goofy, because nothing can happen,” he explained. “It doesn't matter where the ball is. A guy scores a point. It doesn't matter what time it is. The game is still not gonna end for another four hours. A guy can hit a ball right to a guy and it should be a line drive out, but some stupid thing happens. And so that somebody scores and the pitcher ends up having his statistics blown way out of proportion because of it… It doesn't require human error to enter it constantly, but it just does. Human error is built into the dynamics of its end result.”
Thirty years after first sliding into theaters, A League of Their Own is celebrating an enduring legacy of, well, its own. Not only is the movie considered an iconic classic today, its cinematic vision is expanding into the TV series adaptation debuting on Prime Video later this year.
Starring Abbi Jacobson, D'Arcy Carden, Chanté Adams and Gbemisola Ikumelo, the reinterpretation promises to evoke the "joyful spirit of Penny Marshall's beloved classic, while widening the lens to tell the story of an entire generation of women who dreamed of playing professional baseball."
According to Hanks, the sport’s other major appeal is how it showcases just this type of diversity in everyone who hits the field.
“Baseball is a blend of ritual and personality. It's a blend of geometry and poetry… It's a game in which the individuals are not crunched into some kind of overall strategy [and] anonymous kind of placement,” Hanks surmised. “[Baseball] actually celebrates the individual quirks of all the people who play the game.”