Culture

From Set to Stet: Tom Hanks and 12 Lit-bitten Actors

Tom Hanks/Photo © JaguarPS/Shutterstock

If you're not a New Yorker subscriber (or you are, but you're a few weeks behind), then you probably missed a short story in the magazine's October 27 issue by a hot new writer. The tale, "Alan Bean Plus Four," is about a group of Millennials that build their own rocket to fly to the moon. Within days of its publication, word was out that the author had already signed a book deal for a full collection of short fiction. Oh, and the writer is Tom Hanks. Yes, two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks.

Hanks, who credits his famed collection of typewriters as the inspiration for his writing, joins a surprising long list of movie stars with literary ambition. Actors and actresses writing books is nothing new - William Shatner has made something of a second career co-writing pulpy sci-fi novels, Pamela Anderson penned a couple obviously autobiographical beach reads, and Crispin Glover has put out whatever these are. And then, of course, there's the well-tread industry of the Hollywood memoir.

But literature? Written works with artistic merit? That's something different. Below are a dozen screen stars that have attempted to create the sublime through print. Whether any of them succeeded is the reader's opinion.

James Franco
"Writer" is just one of the many jobs on Franco's resume (there's also dramatic/comedic actor, model, musician, student, artist, director, etc). At point, he was simultaneously enrolled in three different graduate writing programs, but eventually received his MFA in Fiction from Columbia in 2010. In 2011, Franco published his first book, Palo Alto, a collection of short stories centered on a group of teens in his hometown. Actors Anonymous, a novel about a group of actors in Los Angeles, followed in 2013. There've also been a couple art books (A California Childhood and Hollywood Dreaming), which mixed pictures, poems, and prose; as well as a chapbook. And in March, Franco published Directing Herbert White, his first full collection of poems.

Carrie Fisher
Although you and everyone else will always remember her as Princes Leia, Carrie Fisher's second career as a writer is pretty impressive in its own right. Her debut novel, Postcards from the Edge, which mined Fisher's own struggles with addiction to tell the story of a Hollywood actress's ordeal following an overdose, was a bestseller. The novel's use of shifting narrative techniques made it stand out from the usual Hollywood autobiographically fueled fiction. Fisher went on to write a couple more novels: 1990's Surrender the Pink and 1993's Delusions of Grandma, along with a Postcards sequel, The Best Awful There Is, in 2004. Her latest works, starting with the 2008 prose adaptation of her one woman show "Wishful Drinking" and continuing on with 2011's Shockaholic, have been darkly funny and intensely intimate memoirs.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin actually started out as a writer. He penned jokes and sketches for the classic "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (even sharing in the show's 1969 Emmy win for comedy writing) and then gained rock-star-like fame through his standup. In 1979 he published his first book, Cruel Shoes, a tome of humor essays and short stories, before moving on to a film career spanning more than forty years (with various screenwriting credits along the way). In the 1990s, Martin returned to prose writing, contributing humor pieces to a slew of publications, like The New Yorker, which were eventually published in a collection, Pure Drivel in 1998. In 2000, he published the novella Shopgirl to a respectable critical reaction; he followed up with the 2003 novel Pleasure of My Company, and then his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up and another novel, An Object of Beauty, in 2010. In 2012, Martin published The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten, a collection of his most memorable tweets and exchanges on Twitter.

Sylvester Stallone
Despite his status as a pillar of the mindless action film genre, Sylvester Stallone has a bit of a literary streak. He's notorious as an Edgar Allan Poe aficionado/expert and his big breakthrough came when he wrote the script for 1976's "Rocky," earning him Oscar nominations for both best actor and best screenplay. Following the success of "Rocky," Stallone gained enough clout to get funding for his long dormant passion project, the pro-wrestling period piece "Paradise Alley." Sly published it first as a novel and then directed the film version, which was released in 1978. Critics and audiences were unimpressed and the Italian Stallion has stuck to writing screenplays, mostly for his Rocky, Rambo, and Expendables franchises (although there was the "Saturday Night Fever" sequel, "Staying Alive") ever since.

Hugh Laurie
Before he was Doctor House (but after he'd launched his career as a name in British television comedy), Hugh Laurie wrote a book reportedly submitted to publishers under a pseudonym. Publishing in 1996, The Gun Seller is a humorous take on the spy thriller genre, about a former soldier turned bodyguard embroiled in an international conspiracy and filled with caustic wit. The book enjoyed a resurgence in readership over a decade later when Laurie became a household name thanks to "House," and even became a bestseller in France. A sequel novel, The Paper Soldier, has long been in the works and was even twice scheduled for publication, but it's yet to see the light of day.

Kirk Douglas
One of the last living stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, Kirk Douglas began his literary career with his bestselling autobiography, The Ragman's Son, in the late 1980s. His first novel, 1990's Dance with the Devil, about a Hollywood director forced by a romance with an ex-prostitute to face his Jewish past, earned a consensus of "passable" from critics. The fiction following was mostly of the romantic melodrama sort: 1992's The Gift, about an orphaned billionaire's trials and tribulations; 1994's Last Tango in Brooklyn, which centered on a romance in a hospital; and the 1997 novella The Broken Mirror, the story of a child concentration camp survivor. Since the early 2000s, Douglas has focused on writing reflective memoirs, detailing his spiritual journey and recovery from a debilitating stroke. The soon-to-be-ninety-eight-year-old "Spartacus" star isn't done writing yet; he has a book scheduled to publish early next month, entitled Life Could be Verse, which mixes personal photos, poems, and prose.

Ethan Hawke
Before James Franco, there was Ethan Hawke. Hawke obviously cut a pop culture path that Franco followed: making both indie and major Hollywood fare, trying his hand at directing, and publishing fiction while still a box office draw - all a generation before Franco. Critics were split on the quality of Hawke's literary debut, 1996's The Hottest State, a novel about a doomed relationship between an actor and a musician, but applauded his openness and the book's emotional rawness. His follow-up, the 2002 novel Ash Wednesday, a road-trip tale about a young couple dealing with self-discovery, earned more critical appreciation and encouragement.

Janet Leigh
Best remembered as Marion Crane (AKA the shower victim) in "Psycho," Janet Leigh's literary canon was launched in 1984 with a memoir, called There Really Was a Hollywood. Following in 1995 was a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of "Psycho." From there, Leigh turned to fiction with 1996's House of Destiny, a decades-spanning tale of small-town idealism in classic Hollywood. Her second novel, 2002's The Dream Factory, was a similarly set roman à clef following one woman's career as a Hollywood executive from the 1930s to the 1970s. The novels were received well enough, but not lauded with praise.

John Lithgow
There's a veritable sub-genre of children's books written by celebrities, but John Lithgow's work for kids is something completely different. Since 2000, the twice-Oscar-nominated actor has published nearly a dozen books with such titles as Remarkable Farkle Mcbride, I'm a Manatee, and I Got Two Dogs. Add to that his albums of music for kids and Lithgow's a full-blown children's entertainer - which makes his fantastic season-long arch as the Trinity Killer in the fourth season of "Dexter" all the more unsettling.

Gene Wilder
Although he's never officially said it, Gene Wilder is retired from acting. He hasn't been in a feature film in twenty-plus years and hasn't made a television appearance since 1999. But for the past decade, the "Blazing Saddles" star and "Young Frankenstein" author has had a pretty healthy writing career. Wilder's first book was a collaboration with oncologist M. Steven Piver, called Gilda's Disease: Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective on Ovarian Cancer, inspired by Wilder's late wife, Gilda Radner, who lost her life to ovarian cancer. It was his 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, that really marked Wilder a writer. In 2007, he published his first novel, My French Whore, a comedic, period romance set during World War I that impressed critics. The next year came The Woman Who Wouldn't, another period romance, this one set at the turn of the century, featuring Anton Chekhov as a minor character. The year 2010 saw the release of Wilder's first collection of short fiction, What Is This Thing Called Love?, and last year he released his third novel, another piece set in the past (this time during World War II) entitled Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance.

Gene Hackman
Like Gene Wilder, two-time Oscar winner Gene Hackman is retired from acting (although unlike Wilder, he officially announced it). Also like Wilder, Hackman is spending his golden years working a second career as an author. The "French Connection" star first began putting out books as co-author to Daniel Lenihan back in 1999 with Wake of the Perdido Star, a coming-of-age sea adventure set during the early nineteenthcentury. He and Lenihan returned five years later with Justice for None, a Depression-era western, and again in 2008 with the Civil War prison escape thriller Escape from Andersonville. Hackman finally struck out on his own in 2011 with the western Payback at Morning Peak, and followed it up with 2013's police procedural thriller Pursuit.

Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Mortensen had a vast film career well before the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Revisit "Carlito's Way" or "G.I. Jane" and there he is, not as an ensemble player, but as a scene-stealing in-your-face cast member. It's possible though you just never noticed him before. Mortensen's poetry and art are like that as well. He published his first book of poetry, Ten Last Night, in 1993 and hasn't really stopped since, adding a variety of volumes featuring different media. Some were created to correspond to a specific exhibit or showing of his artwork, and others to stand on their own. It's actually a bit daunting to grasp once you comprehend it's there. Mortensen even launched his own publishing company, Perceval Press, to give voice to writers and artists who would have trouble finding a home at more traditional publishing companies.