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An hour with Tom Hanks: Grey Cup driver Len Antonini has tales to tell from his years behind the wheel

Star Phoenix logo Star Phoenix 2022-11-20 Kevin Mitchell, Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Len Antonini (left), Tom Hanks and Kelly Hamilton pose for a photo at the 2013 Grey Cup in Regina. © Provided by Star Phoenix Len Antonini (left), Tom Hanks and Kelly Hamilton pose for a photo at the 2013 Grey Cup in Regina.
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Regina’s Len Antonini has a story about Tom Hanks, beer, and a photo that’s dear to him — a tale made possible by his annual stint as a driver at the Grey Cup.

Antonini’s spinning wheels have covered thousands of kilometres in the decades since he first started driving Grey Cup broadcast crews. Many celebrities have ended up in his back seat, heading here and there. And then in 2013, Hanks made a surprise visit to the Grey Cup in Regina and ended up getting a ride from Antonini’s buddy and fellow driver Kelly Hamilton.

“We don’t take pictures of celebrities we drive, but he was the one who suggested that he take a picture of us. So he took a selfie of the three of us, and that’s one I cherish,” Antonini said this week, in between rides.

The photo shows Hanks in the middle, clutching Hamilton’s cellphone, snapping the three of them against a Mosaic Stadium backdrop. Hamilton died of cancer this past summer at age 62.

“Of all the people I’ve worked with, he was one of the only guys I was in awe of, you know what I mean?” Antonini says, and then he talks about personally escorting Hanks from one end of the stadium to the other — a trek that took nearly an hour, because the actor kept stopping and chatting with people.

“We were coming down the stairs, and a drunk Saskatchewan guy comes walking up the stairs with two Pilsner in his hands,” Antonini relates. “Tom said something like ‘Hey, buddy — what’s with the two beers?’ The guy looked at him and said ‘It’s (bleeping) Saskatchewan.’ ”

They continued their journey, and Antonini finally got Hanks to the commissioner’s booth. He said goodbye, told Hanks that he’d appreciated meeting him, and mentioned that there was free beer at the bottom of the stairs, if the actor wanted one.

After visiting a few friends in another booth, Antonini bumped into Hanks.

“Tom Hanks was coming up the stairs with two Pilsner in his hands,” Antonini recalls. “I said ‘Hey, what’s the scam, Tom?’ He looked at me and said: ‘When in Rome, Lenny. When in Rome.’ ”

He laughed.

“That’s a true story. It’s outstanding that he saw a guy with two Pilsner, and he ended up with two Pilsner.”

 Regina’s Len Antonini is keeping busy as a driver at the Grey Cup. KAYLE NEIS / Regina Leader-Post © KAYLE NEIS Regina’s Len Antonini is keeping busy as a driver at the Grey Cup. KAYLE NEIS / Regina Leader-Post

Antonini has a pile of stories, of course, from the many years he’s driven. He’s worked at 30 Grey Cups in various capacities, and estimates that 25 of those were as a driver. He’s missed just two Grey Cups since he started in the mid-1990s.

He’s a retired firefighter, and is well known in Regina for his involvement with the football community. He’s executive director of Regina Minor Football, and was proud to take a TSN crew to refurbished Leibel Field this week — a place he’d poured a lot of energy into.

“If it wasn’t football, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I do,” he says. “But I enjoy doing it, because it’s football.”

Antonini is, by consensus, a very good driver. He’s driven at a G7 Summit, for example, and used to pilot a fire truck. He’s asked if there’s pressure with his Grey Cup duties, and he says yes — but it’s not the same.

“I’m pretty used to pressure, when you think about it,” he says. “I was a captain on the fire department. They’ll say ‘We’ve got an emergency; can you do this?’ An emergency to me is a little bit different than an emergency to them.

“When you think about it as captain of the fire department, you’ve got to show up on scene, figure out what the problem is, come up with a solution, implement the solution, and make sure the solution is working. If it’s not, you’d better come up with a second plan. And with the fire department, you’ve got 45 seconds or a minute and a half to make those decisions.

“The pressure here? It’s not that bad. But whatever I do, I try to do it right. There is a little bit of pressure, and there’s some hard driving, too — like (Wednesday) night, there was a pretty good snowstorm going on, and we were driving in that. But I don’t find it that bad.”

He takes care of the people he’s driving, and will play the bad guy if they’re in an uncomfortable situation with a bystander or fan — telling the passenger it’s time to go; they’ve got to get going; being insistent. Better him than the well-known person in question, he figures, and it’s all part of the day’s work.

“It’s very enjoyable, and I get to meet a lot of people,” he says — including Tom Hanks, one fine Regina day in 2013.

kemitchell@postmedia.com

twitter.com/kmitchsp

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