July 27, 1994
By LOU LUMENICK
Today is the 40th anniversary of "On the Waterfront," but at least one cast member isn't celebrating.
Thomas Hanley of North Arlington played the kid in the pigeon coop with Marlon Brando in the movie classic. He was Tommy, the handsome teenage member of the Golden Warriors gang, on the roof with Brando's Terry Molloy.
In the movie's most famous scene, Terry Molloy recalls how his dreams of becoming a boxing champion were dashed. He tells his brother he "coulda been a contender."
In real life, Tommy Hanley's dreams of becoming an actor met a similar fate.
He has spent decades working on the waterfront -- trying to live down his early brush with fame.
"I felt the movie wasn't worth the price of the aggravation that came after," he says today.
Hanley's life is nearly as dramatic as "On the Waterfront," which won eight Academy Awards after it was released July 27, 1954.
He had no acting experience when he was hired for the role -- by far the most prominent given to the 200 or so Hoboken residents who worked in the movie, mainly as extras.
Even at 14, Hanley was intimately familiar with the waterfront violence and corruption the film depicted.
"My father was murdered when I was 4 months old," he said. "We were living in Greenwich Village in 1939, and he just disappeared from the docks. They never found his body, but everybody knew he was killed."
Fourteen years later, Thomas was living with his widowed mother in Hoboken.
"We were pretty destitute, living on welfare and eating a lot of onion soup," he said. "Then we found out they were going to shoot this movie on the roof of our tenement."
Arthur "Brownie" Brown, a friend of his father's and a union reformer, was working on the film as a technical adviser.
"Brownie hired me to feed the pigeons they put on the roof for the movie. One day he said to me, `I'm going to get you in the movie.' I just humored him."
Soon after, young Thomas found himself at the Actors' Studio in Manhattan, auditioning for director Elia Kazan.
"They were looking for someone with a temper," he said. "I got the part."
Although he is bitter about the aftermath, Hanley has fond memories of the movie's making.
"Marlon Brando was a great guy, a lot of fun, just like a regular guy from the streets. It was freezing, and they had these big parkas that they passed around. I have pictures of me with those parkas, and a picture of me and Marlon Brando and my mother.
"I was a 14-year-old kid, and I was in awe of people who I had seen in the movies. Karl Malden was a real sweetheart of a guy. He would tutor me in what I should watch out for in people."
Suddenly life was better for the Hanleys. Thomas got $500 for the two-week shoot.
"We are able to pay our rent for a year or so and eat normally, buy some clothes. Later I learned that if I had joined the actors' union, I would have made more. I also would have received residuals for years.
But they discouraged me from joining the union."
Although his name is spelled wrong -- as Handley -- in the movie's credits, he got 21st billing, right behind another newcomer, Fred Gwynne.
But whereas Gwynne went on to become a well-known actor in the TV series "The Munsters," as well as in films and on Broadway, Hanley's acting career -- encouraged by Brando and others -- quickly proved a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
"My mother wasn't very knowledgeable about show business. She was snowed by a manager who promised to get me all kinds of roles. I appeared on the Red Buttons TV show, and there was a mixup about my being paid. After that I never got any acting work at all."
So at age 16 he went to work on the docks, as his father had done.
"Having to deal with longshoremen after having been in that movie was not fun," he said. "I had to put up with a lot of ridicule. They would call me `the movie star,' and people would remind me how I had blown my chance, how I could have gone to Hollywood.
"It was embarrassing. It made me very self-conscious.
"Even today people still bring it up. My `claim to fame.' But I've gotten sort of used to it."
Hanley expects to attend a 40th anniversary screening of the movie Friday night in Hoboken. But he declined an invitation to speak at the screening, sponsored by The Record and Projected Images of Hudson County, a film society.
"I'm not looking for any publicity for myself," he said. "I've already had enough attention."
He has two sons, 20 and 17, and a daughter, 15. His oldest son "looks a lot like me when I was in the movie. My kids got a better start in life than I did, though."