Twenty years ago I started to work professionally as Forrest Gump. Here is that story.
“Perhaps it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.” – Orson Scott Card
Beginning 15 years prior to March of 1996, I was told, “You look like that guy from Bosom Buddies!” Thousands of people had asked, “Has anyone ever told you you look like Tom Hanks?” or “Do you know who you look like?”. So a foundation for believing that I had a resemblance to Tom Hanks was firmly established. But when I looked in the mirror I simply saw Steve Weber. I never really believed it myself.
A year and a half earlier, I was Forrest Gump for Halloween. Judy Jetson and Forrest won 1st Place in the Costume Contest. I had the suit, the blue shirt, and the suitcase. So I was almost ready. All that was needed was a fresh haircut and a new box of chocolates.
That first weekend (March 29-31, 1996), I sat on the bench and began the process of becoming Forrest.
But the reality was I felt like Steve dressing up as Forrest and impersonating. I didn’t believe I was Forrest Gump. I was simply Steve pretending to be Forrest Gump.
Over the next month, I went to school. I watched the movie 5 nights a week for a total of 22 or 23 times. I watched the movie while standing in front of the mirror. I practiced standing with my hand on my hip. Giving the little wave. Deadpanning while pretending to be listening. Walking with the gait that lifted my feet a little higher than normal and pushing off with my toes. Holding and clutching both the suitcase and chocolates box. Sitting with my feet turned inward or pigeon-toed.
I talked directly into the mirror learning the tempo and cadence of Gump-speak. I perfected idiosyncratic pronunciations of certain words: Gu-ump; butt-tocks; choc-co-lates; hel-lowww. I repeated memorable phrases so they became second-nature: Life is like a box of chocolates; stupid is as stupid does; and that’s all I’ve got to say about that, and so forth. I memorized and could repeat in order all 22 different styles of shrimp that Bubba recited in the movie. I learned that Forrest ran for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.
During that first month of studying, while watching the movie in the evenings, and practicing in real-time on weekends in front of hundreds of people – I was beginning the process of becoming Forrest. But I still felt mostly like Steve pretending to be Forrest.
The people at Bubba Gump Shrimp were great. They let me do my thing, my way, almost 100%. I was getting paid to sit on the bench and figure out how to be Forrest. The one thing they consistently coached me on was, “Never break character” … “You are Forrest” … “Don’t ever tell people your name” … “You’re not Steve when you’re sitting on the bench” … “Never break character” … NEVER BREAK CHARACTER!”
About a month after I first started, a gaggle of pre-teen girls came prancing up to me. The sassy leader asked me, “Are you the real Forrest Gump.” The others girls stood staring with their mouths agape waiting for my answer. I boldly proclaimed, “Yes, I’m the real Forrest Gump!”. They ohh’d and aah’d. The cheeky one continued, “Are you the one they made the movie about?” Again, I confidently stated, “Yes, I’m the real Forrest Gump. I’m the one they made the movie about!” Awe-inspired silence befell the girls – they were mesmerized! The brazen one then asked, “Are you the one that acted in movie? … Are you Tom Hanks?” I was at a cross-roads. I didn’t mind telling a little white lie about being the real Forrest and the one they made the movie about – that was done in the spirit of fun and jest. That was me just doing my job. But to claim that I was Tom Hanks the actor was a bridge too far. I told the girls, “No, I’m not.” … Their shoulders slumped in unison and they dejectedly turned away. As they walked off I heard mumbling, “That stinks” … “He’s a fake!” … “Let’s get out of here”!
I clearly needed a better line.
My new line became:
“I’m the real Forrest Gump. I’m the one they made the movie about. The other man that played me in the movie was just an actor. And do you know what? They only hired him because he looks like me!”
I had become Forrest. From that moment on, when I put on the suit and went before the public – I was Forrest … the real Forrest Gump … the one they made the movie about.
Next up. Part 3: Getting Good