'Volunteers' at 35: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson's memorable romance began with this forgettable '80s comedy

Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks in the 1985 comedy 'Volunteers' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks in the 1985 comedy 'Volunteers' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Released during the dog days of 1985’s summer movie season, the high-concept studio comedy, Volunteers, isn’t remembered all that fondly... if it’s remembered at all. Helmed by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director, Nicholas Meyer, and worked over by a trio of screenwriters, the movie is about the ne’er-do-well son of a wealthy American family who skips town to avoid violent debt collectors. Joining the Peace Corps, he flies to Thailand and gets mixed up in a nonsensical plot that pits the residents of a rural village against a small communist army.

Premiering in theaters 35 years ago this week, Volunteers received mixed-to-negative reviews and grossed less than $20 million — ahead of now-cult favorites like Ladyhawke and Starman, but well behind the year’s biggest comedy hits, including Fletch and Back to the Future. Seen today, the cringe-inducing Asian stereotypes and lead-balloon humor make it clear why the movie has resided in semi-obscurity since its August 16, 1985 release.

Even though Volunteers wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a lost classic, it did mark the beginning of a classic Hollywood romance, as the movie’s stars, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, lived out their onscreen romance in real life. Three years after the film’s release, the couple got married and have been the textbook definition of #RelationshipGoals ever since, supporting each other through career choices, child-rearing and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Hanks and Wilson were the first celebrities to disclose that they had tested positive for COVID-19, and provided regular updates on their recovery. In April, they said that they donated their blood to aid with medical research as attempts to develop a vaccine continue. Accepting his Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes, Hanks tearfully described Wilson as, “A wife who is fantastic in every way, who has taught me what love is.” And on their 32nd anniversary this past spring, Wilson posted a tribute to Hanks on Instagram, writing “32 years with this guy! Happy Anniversary, my love. Let’s got 32 more and then some!”

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Funnily enough, Hanks’s character in Volunteers isn’t a guy you’d want to be with for one year, let alone 32. Along with Uncle Ned on Family Ties, Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities and Professor G.H. Door in The Ladykillers, Lawerence Bourne III is one of the rare heels in Hanks’s nice guy-dominated filmography. Back in 1985, Hanks was coming off a box-office hot streak that included Splash and Bachelor Party and embraced the chance to be a jerk, adopting a faux-aristocratic accent and regarding everyone around him as a docile servant to his whims. That includes Wilson’s Beth Wexler, an idealistic Peace Corps volunteer who Lawrence would very much like to seduce and abandon like all of his past romantic conquests.

In their first scene together — which takes place on the long plane ride from New York to Thailand — Hanks plops himself down next to Wilson as she’s waking up from a mid-flight nap. “Good morning, darling,” Lawrence says, passing himself off as his friend, Kent Sutcliffe (Xander Berkeley), who he replaced on the Peace Corps roll call. “I gotta tell you: you’re completely different from the way I pictured you,” Beth tells “Kent,” whose name and biographical details she remembers from the list of people she’ll be stationed with in Thailand. “I just sort of pictured this sweet-natured doofus.” Cut to 10 hours later as the plane is descending, and Lawrence drops the “sweet-natured doofus” facade to reveal his real intentions. “You mean, you’ve just been trying to go to bed with me?” Beth says, shocked. “Well, I think I’ve put in the hours, don’t you?” Lawrence replies, before propositioning the airline stewardess instead.

Hanks, Wilson and John Candy in a scene from 'Volunteers' (Photo: TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Hanks, Wilson and John Candy in a scene from 'Volunteers' (Photo: TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

That inauspicious beginning is followed by other less-than-romantic moments. Once stationed at their remote Thai village, Lawrence immediately demonstrates his lack of interest in community service, and rolls his eyes at his fellow volunteers, from Beth — who he describes as a “sexually repressed, guilt-ridden Jewish maid” — to avuncular Pacific Northwesterner, Tom Tuttle (John Candy, who reliably provides the movie’s few genuine laughs). But as the story continues, he undergoes a modest change of heart, helping the village stand up to a local drug lord, as well as communist forces, and courting Beth with old-fashioned romantic gestures including a candlelit dinner and a cold bottle of Coke. (That scene was frequently called out in reviews for its in-your-face product placement.) By the time the credits roll, they’re a committed couple and ready to embark on an all-new adventure… opening an anything-goes casino in the middle of the Thai jungle.

As big-screen romances go, Lawerence and Beth aren’t exactly Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa — although Volunteers references that 1942 classic by playing “As Time Goes By,” during their big date. (Meyer pays homage to other, much better movies during the protracted 107-minute runtime, including The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.) They aren’t even Splash’s Allen and Madison. But off-screen, sparks were clearly flying between Hanks and Wilson.

The two weren’t exactly strangers when Volunteers started shooting in Mexico in late 1984. (Funnily enough, Mexico also stood in for Thailand in Rambo: First Blood Part II, which opened the same summer as Volunteers.) Hanks claims to have first noticed Wilson as a teenager when she made a guest appearance on a 1972 episode of The Brady Bunch at age 16. “I was actually at a friend of mine’s house when it aired and I remember thinking ‘that girl’s cute,’” the actor said on the My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 red carpet in 2016.

Their first face-to-face encounter occurred nearly a decade later when Wilson appeared on a 1981 episode of Bosom Buddies, the gender-switching sitcom that rocketed Hanks to fame. The actress plays a video dating service client who has a fling with Hanks’s co-star, Peter Scolari, but their fledgling romance is ruined when — in classic ‘80s sitcom tradition — she reveals she’s a Satanist. If they felt any attraction at the time, they didn’t act on it: Hanks was still with his first wife and fellow performer, Samantha Lewes, whom he met in college and married when he was 21. “I had kids very young. My son Colin was born when I was 21 and my daughter Elizabeth was born four and a half years later,” he remarked in a 2016 BBC interview. “By then I thought I was rolling along with the natural order of things… The rules were in place, and I'm not a cheater. I like to play by the rules. But later on, you're 27, you’re 28, you've actually learned what to say ‘Yes' to with some more judiciousness.”

Hanks and Lewes were still together when he reported for duty on the Volunteers set in November 1984. But Hanks later told reporters that he and Wilson hit it off as soon as shooting started. “Rita and I just looked at each other and — ka-boing — that was that,” he reportedly told GQ in an interview. “I asked Rita if it was the real thing for her, and it just couldn't be denied.” And speaking with Entertainment Tonight in 2015, he remembered: “When we first looked at each other there was definitely a kind of, ‘Hey, this is the place!’ I felt that anyway.” For her part, Wilson has said that the initial attraction was as much verbal as it was visual. “When we met, we got along instantly because I love a good storyteller,” she said on The Kelly Clarkson Show earlier this year. “Anybody who can tell a good story, I’m down with that. [Tom] makes me laugh all the time — he’s a great storyteller.”

Volunteers came and went from theaters the following August, and critics were largely unimpressed by the stars’ comic — or romantic — chemistry. “The movie's biggest problem is that Bourne never really relates to Beth — there's no sense of affection as a process,” Paul Attanasio complained in the Washington Post. “One minute they're at odds, the next in love, and it doesn't help that the elixir that effects this is Coca-Cola, of all things.” Meanwhile, Gene Siskel took aim at Hanks in his Chicago Tribune pan, writing: “He again turns us off with his smug attitude…. And Hanks’s routine smugness is aggravated in Volunteers by his foolish choice to play his rich boy character with a wildly inconsistent, imitation-Cary Grant voice. Believe me, you could do a better impression of Grant yourself.” On the other hand, Siskel did have kind words for the movie’s leading lady: “Leave it to Wilson to turn in the best performance in the least-important role.”

Maybe because of the toxic reviews, Hanks and Wilson have never played an onscreen couple since Volunteers. (They did appear together in Nora Ephron’s 1993 favorite, Sleepless in Seattle, where Wilson plays a female friend of Hanks and delivers one of the movie’s most memorable monologues.) And they took a little while to get together in real life as well. “The success of our relationship was a matter of timing, maturity, and our willingness to have an intimate connection,” he explained to Oprah Winfrey in a 2001 interview.

Leaving the Volunteers set as close friends, Hanks separated from Lewes in 1986, and made his first public appearance with Wilson at the premiere of the John Landis comedy, Three Amigos, in December of that year (Lewes and Hanks divorced in 1987; she passed away from bone cancer in 2002.) They officially tied the knot three years after the release of Volunteers on April 30, 1988. In his 2016 BBC interview, Hanks addressed the end of his first marriage and the beginning of his second, saying: “You end up meeting that other person — man, woman, older than you, younger than you — that’s like, ‘Oh, she gets it!’ ‘Oh, guess what? I don’t think I’m ever gonna be lonely anymore.’ That’s what I felt when I met my wife [Rita].”

35 years later, it’s safe to say that the Hanks/Wilson marriage is the most memorable thing to come out of Volunteers, which is streaming on HBO Max for those with a morbid curiosity for misconceived ‘80s comedies. While it’s highly likely that Lawrence and Beth’s romance collapsed as quickly has his casino plans, their real-life counterparts have enjoyed an actual happily ever after. “Our relationship isn't magic—the way it's shown in movies,” Hanks told Winfrey. “In real life, our connection is as concrete as me sitting here. Not that marriage doesn't come close to being hell in a hand-basket sometimes. But we both know that no matter what, we’ll be with each other — and we'll get through it.”

Volunteers is currently streaming on HBO Max

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