Tom Hanks’ First Movie Was Cringey Anti-D&D Propaganda
We all love Tom Hanks, he’s basically America’s dad—which makes Chet Hanks America’s brother, who'll presumably one day need to crash on America’s futon for a while after hitting America up for bail money. We know Tom Hanks for his iconic leading roles in acclaimed movies like Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away, and The ‘Burbs (well, at least we gave it some acclaim). He’s also, famously, the voice of Woody in Toy Story, not to mention the undisputed number one cinematic urinator of all time. But while Hanks has unquestionably become a keystone of modern pop culture, everybody has to start somewhere. So … what was Tom Hanks’ first movie?
Technically his feature film debut came in the 1980 slasher movie He Knows You’re Alone, about a serial killer who targets soon-to-be-married young women. Weirdly, this instantly forgettable schlock-fest somewhat anticipated the meta horror movie trend later popularized by Scream; it originally had the Scream-like title Shriek, opens with a murder in a theater playing a horror movie (like Scream 2 does), and Hanks’ minuscule part is that of a psych undergrad who opines about horror movies and the “emotion of fear.”
He Knows You’re Alone wasn’t exactly a huge hit. Siskel & Ebert called it a “depraved” film that “borders on being evil.” The Los Angeles Times blasted it as a “by-the-numbers piece of sickening trash.” It’s pretty much one of the worst things Tom Hanks ever made other than Chet. But, to be fair, it was just his first job acting in a movie. His first legit leading role though, the first real Tom Hanks–centric film, was Mazes and Monsters, a 1982 TV movie that, if you were to guess based purely on the recent DVD cover art, looks like a Da Vinci Code sequel in which Robert Langdon’s baby brother gets kidnapped by David Bowie.
But the actual movie is decidedly less epic than what’s being promised here. It’s more like a cringey, feature-length PSA about the acute psychological dangers of college kids partaking in fantasy role-playing games. The movie was based on a novel by Rona Jaffe, a “thinly veiled retelling” of the real-life story of James Egbert, a college student whose 1979 disappearance was attributed by the media at the time to his penchant for playing Dungeons & Dragons.
Publications wildly speculated that Egbert may have started to believe that he really was his D&D character, even though he left a suicide note behind. It turned out that Egbert was still alive and staying with a friend after attempting to take his own life using sleeping pills due to “academic and parental pressure” as well as drug use. It had absolutely nothing to do with occasionally pretending to be a wizard with his friends—something psychologists have since found to actually be therapeutic for those suffering from depression and social anxiety.
Despite the fact that the D&D explanation for Egbert’s disappearance was sensationalized bullshit, Jaffe turned the story into the book Mazes and Monsters, reportedly hammering out the novel in just three days. Jaffe eventually realized that the Egbert situation “had nothing to do with his gameplaying” but by then she had already “written a novel about the young people who are making the '80s the decade of the fantasy game.”
In the movie, Hanks plays a similarly troubled young man named Robbie who, ignoring his parents’ warnings, continues to play the titular RPG with his school chums, including his new girlfriend played by Canadian actress Wendy Crewson. In a Reefer Madness–like twist, this completely ruins his entire goddamn life. When the gang start dressing up in costumes and playing the game in nearby caverns seemingly borrowed from Fraggle Rock, Robbie starts hallucinating an actual monster, played by The Predator himself, Kevin Peter Hall. Then of course he disappears. And we get some heavy-handed moralizing from the cop in charge of the case, Detective Mayor from Jaws.
Meanwhile, Robbie is strung-out and aimlessly wandering the streets of New York, despite the fact that he was clearly in Toronto for the other 90% of the movie. When he gets jumped by two street thugs who presumably just ducked out of an off-broadway production of West Side Story, Robbie’s fantasy-addled brain thinks that one of the muggers is a Gorvil, a monster from the game. So he friggin’ stabs him with a switchblade! If you’ve ever wanted to see Academy Award winner Tom Hanks knife a dude who’s dressed like a Power Rangers villain, well here you go …
Then Robbie, mistaking it for the mythical Two Towers in the fictional realm from Mazes and Monsters, visits the World Trade Center. His friends eventually find him, poised to jump off the roof with the mistaken belief that he will magically fly and enter the “Great Hall.” When confronted by his fellow players, Robbie regains his memories then breaks down and starts crying in a scene so embarrassingly hokey that—well, let’s just say it’s a good thing they can’t take Oscars back.
Then in the closing scene, the gang visits Robbie at his parents’ house and discovers that he still thinks he’s inside of the game, kind of nullifying that whole cathartic climax that happened like literally a minute ago. And for all we know, his delusions eventually lead him to believe that he’s a sentient cowboy doll, or a World War II captain, or the conductor of a magical Christmas train with the eyes of a haunted mannequin.
Yeah it’s … not a good movie. But it’s not an inconsequential one, either, not just because it was the first to star Hanks but because of its contribution to the irrational backlash against Dungeons & Dragons and to the larger “Satanic Panic” of the '80s—you know, that crazy time when parents saw the devil’s influence in everything from heavy metal music to kindergarten classrooms to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toys. Which would be funny, except for the fact that it really wasn’t. Plus this shit never truly stopped, it just evolved into contemporary conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon.
The makers of Mazes and Monsters weren’t the only ones fearmongering about D&D, a game in which the only real threat involves choking on a mouthful of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, or perhaps spraining your wrist while casting a spell using twenty-sided dice. They weren’t even the only ones to fictionalize the story of James Egbert; there was a novel called Hobgoblin and even another movie, 1983’s Skullduggery, which weirdly enough also featured Wendy Crewson, and was also shot in Toronto, although it offered a more supernatural interpretation of events. More recently, Riverdale dedicated an entire season-long arc to a tabletop game called Gryphons and Gargoyles that, in a fashion not wholly dissimilar from Mazes and Monsters, weirdly kind of validated the hysteria of the '80s.
Making this all extra gross, a year after he was located, Egbert shot and killed himself. That was in 1980, a full year before the fraudulent interpretation of this actual person’s pain and suffering was used as the basis for a paperback thriller, and two years before it was turned into a CBS movie of the week.
The only reason why this specific movie is remembered at all is purely because of Hanks, whose celebrity in the '90s led to multiple home video releases of the forgotten film with increasingly misleading VHS covers. And despite the fact that the movie is a hot pile of flaming medical waste, Hanks’ charms still mostly shine through. This dumb movie, which crapped all over a real-life tragedy and helped fuel a toxic cultural movement, launched one of the most successful movie careers in Hollywood history. In other words, we might not have gotten Sleepless in Seattle or Apollo 13 if it weren’t for the Gorvil.
Top Image: Trinity Home Entertainment, CBS