The Strange Weight of Tom Hanks’s Coronavirus Diagnosis

The actor’s announcement that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive brought the reality of the outbreak home for many Americans.

Jonathan Short / Invision / AP

Tom Hanks is currently more than 7,000 miles away from Hollywood, preparing to film Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley biopic in Australia. But last night’s news that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive for the coronavirus feels, in some ways, like the most seismic news the U.S. has received since the pandemic reached our shores.

In an Instagram post, Hanks explained that he and Wilson had been diagnosed after exhibiting symptoms such as slight fevers and chills. “What to do next? The Medical Officials have protocols that must be followed,” he wrote. “We Hanks’ will be tested, observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires. Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?”

“We’ll keep the world posted and updated. Take care of yourselves!” Hanks added, a sign-off typical of his online persona. Though he’s one of the most famous actors alive, his social-media accounts are mostly focused on reuniting people with their lost gloves. Hanks’s statement was shared just as President Donald Trump was giving an address about the U.S. coronavirus response from the Oval Office. Whether because of sheer star power or the straightforward, fact-based nature of the post, the actor’s words carried more weight and solemnity.

Hanks is known as “America’s Dad” for a reason. Since earning his first Oscar nomination for the 1988 film Big, Hanks has embodied a particular sort of everyman status for audiences, like Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper before him. As he’s grown older, he’s played real-life father figures such as Fred Rogers, Walt Disney, and Chesley Sullenberger. He has gravitated toward tales of ordinary men enduring extraordinary pressure in films including Bridge of Spies and Captain Phillips. His onscreen image is generational and unshakeable; if Hollywood movies are America’s biggest export, Hanks is one of its most enduring products.

America’s ongoing political divides have exacerbated debate over the severity of the pandemic; polling has shown that far more Democrats are worried about the coronavirus than Republicans. Between the president’s speech, the suspension of NBA games, and Hanks’s announcement, March 11 will probably be remembered as the day when any lingering senses of partisanship and complacency with regards to the outbreak began to dissolve. The coronavirus has no political motivation, no personal preferences, and it certainly does not care about Oscar nominations; perhaps that’s a fact more Americans will take to heart following the news of Hanks’s and Wilson’s infections.

The news brings to mind another celebrity moment from a different global pandemic—the basketball star Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he had tested positive for HIV. Though his statement came years into the spread of HIV and AIDS, the sheer scale of Johnson’s celebrity shocked many Americans and challenged embedded assumptions of who was at risk of contracting the virus. American culture has long orbited around its superstars, and now seems no different.

Hanks’s statement had the soothing cadence of a vacation email update from your parents. Like everyone on Earth, Hanks and Wilson will take the coming weeks one day at a time, apparently under close monitoring (and everyone who came in close contact with them will self-quarantine). Warner Bros., the studio behind Luhrmann’s film, put out a sober statement that didn’t name Hanks, saying, “We are taking precautions to protect everyone who works on our productions around the world … the individual who tested positive for COVID-19 is currently receiving treatment.” It’s worth noting that Hanks and Wilson were diagnosed in Australia, where getting tested is easy and free, unlike in the U.S.

The couple’s son Chet Hanks (also known as Chet Haze), a rapper with his own niche brand of notoriety, gave an even more casual update via Instagram, filming a video message for his fans. “Yeah, it’s true, my parents got coronavirus. Crazy,” he remarked, before emphasizing that neither was “tripping” and that they weren’t “even that sick,” but simply going through all the necessary precautions. “I think it’s all going to be all right. I appreciate it. Everybody stay safe out there. Much love,” Haze said, words that may offer some small comfort for the surreal times ahead.