How Tom Hanks got into the Peace Corps

Ken Levine is an Emmy winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer. I picked this story up from his blog.

This is a true “Hollywood” story of how my writing partner and I got Tom Hanks to star in our 1985 movie, Volunteers.

We wrote the first draft five years earlier (so far this is a typical Hollywood story). The movie centers around a preppy Yalie who ducks a gambling debt and winds up in the Peace Corps. Hilarity ensues (at least on the page). Sargent Shriver, then the head of the Peace Corps, read it and said it was like spitting on the flag. I knew we were onto something.

The producer asked whom we thought might be good to star and we suggested this guy who at the time was in Bosom Buddies on ABC – Tom Hanks. The producer scoffed. Tom Hanks couldn’t get a movie made.

We were at the same agency as Tom so for grins and giggles we sent him the script anyway. He loved it but reluctantly agreed the producer was right.

Flash forward a few years. Volunteers has gone through two studios, two directors, and nine drafts. HBO/Tristar greenlights it. Time to look for stars.

Tom had just done Splash. It was a huge hit. He was the Will Ferrell-of-the-month. Offered every project in town. He couldn’t find anything he liked (even Bachelor Party II). So he said to his agent he had read a project about the Peace Corps several years back. What about that one? The agent said he would try to track it down but without even knowing the title it would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

One hour later the agent gets a call from our producer. Would Tom be interested in a Peace Corps movie? The agent almost fell on the floor. He said to messenger it right away. We did. Tom skimmed it, recognized a Margaret Dumont joke we had in there, said “Yep, this is the one” and a half hour later the deal was closed.

Pretty cool, huh?

The person really responsible for making this deal happen was Cupid because it was on Volunteers that Tom met his wife, Rita Wilson.


Leave a comment
  • Except five years earlier than 1985 was 1980. Shriver was emphatically NOT the Director of the Peace Corps in 1980. He had left the agency in 1966.

  • Joey–I believe that Sarge’s son was working in Hollywood by the early ’80s and might have seen the script and given it to his father. While Sarge wasn’t the director of the agency then, he would still have an opinion of the script.

  • I agree with John…Sarge talks and we listen…even now! He is Peace Corps, all Director´s listen to him and love and respect him…and so do his Volunteers! A great and fun movie…thanks Tom!
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Paraguay 2010-2011

  • FlacoBob, There is a real sadness here. Shriver is a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease. I do not believe he has even appeared in public in years

  • John: Here’s an even wierder small world story re the movie “Volunteers”

    The story line of the movie is about:

    – a seventh generation WASP
    – from Darien, CN
    – who graduated from Yale in June, ’62
    – and immediately entered the Peace Corps with his Yale roommate.
    – traveled down the Merritt Parkway
    – to Idlewilde (now Kennedy) Airport
    – where he boarded a 707
    – that stopped in Rome
    – en route to a Peace Corps assignment in a two-man town
    -in which a revolution was in full sway
    – where his roommate was a six-foot tall redheaded guy named Tom
    – with whom he built a structure for the local community
    – that was blown up by the revolutionaries.

    Every one of those facts applies to my Peace
    Corps roommate, Tom Cutler. In some ways, Tom Cutler even resembles Tom Hanks.

    Time to play the theme from the Twilight Zone.

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