Born: 9 July 1956
Where: Concord, California USA
Awards: 2 Oscars, 3 Emmys, 4 Golden Globes
The most likeable star of his generation, Tom Hanks is a throwback to the days when James Stewart and Gary Cooper lorded it over Hollywood. Whether he’s playing a 35-year-old kid, a simpleton from Alabama, a sullen soldier, a mobster hitman or even a lawyer suffering from AIDS, people react well to him — he possesses an all-too-rare nice-guy charm. He’s willing to put that charm to the test, too. In Cast Away, for well over an hour, we saw nothing but Hanks — no pretty love interest, no wisecracking sidekick, not even a comedy dog. And, such is the weight Hanks carries with a worldwide audience, such is the skill he has developed over two decades plying his trade, he pulled it off. Cast Away was another huge hit, his 11th in nine years. And more was to come. Only Tom Cruise can match him as the biggest box-office draw of them all.
Thomas J. Hanks was born on July 9th, 1956, in Concord, California, a direct descendant of an uncle of Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln. His parents split when he was young, the details of their divorce making them "pioneers in the development of marriage dissolution in California". Tom and his two older siblings, Sandra and Larry, went with their father, Amos, a chef. A younger brother, Jim, stayed with mother Janet (Jim would later appear in several of Tom’s productions, including acting as his running double in Forrest Gump). Dad’s work enforced a nomadic existence upon them, with the kids shifted from school to school, never able to form lasting friendships, making Hanks painfully shy. It didn’t help that Amos was married twice after Janet, Tom explaining that, by the age of 10, he’d had "three mothers, five grammar schools and ten houses".
Eventually, in 1966, Amos settled in Oakland, where Tom had to get used to a new mother and new siblings. Here he attended both junior high and Skyline High School, where he indulged his early interests in space and baseball, excelled at soccer and on the track and "became the loud one" — a trick he’d learned when trying to get attention in a succession of new schools.
It was at Skyline that he became interested in acting. Impressed by a buddy in a school production of Dracula, he joined the Thespian Club and forced his way in by sheer weight of enthusiasm. First he was stage manager on My Fair Lady, then won roles in Night Of The Iguana, Twelfth Night and South Pacific, the last of these winning him Skyline’s Best Actor of 1974 award.
On graduation, he enrolled at Chabot College, close by in Hayward, working as a sideline as a bellboy at the local Hilton. Doing the occasional drama class, he was required at one point to attend a Berkeley Repertory Company performance of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. It proved a formative experience, with young Tom wholly taken by the performance of Joe Spano who’d recently appeared in American Graffiti (he’d later show up in Hanks’ own Apollo 13 and From The Earth To The Moon). Tom decided there and then that he wanted to be as good as Spano.
After two years at Chabot, he transferred to California State University in Sacramento. Here he made two vital connections. First was with Susan Dillingham, who’d later take Samantha Lewes as her stage name and become Tom’s first wife. Then there was Vincent Dowling. Tom had been trying to get into university stage productions to no avail, being forced to content himself with set-building. Frustrated, he auditioned for a local theatre production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, winning the role of Yasha. Dowling, the director, was so impressed he invited Hanks to join him at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, of which he was artistic director.
So, in the summer of 1977, off Tom went for his first taste of professional acting, earning $210 a week as Gremio in The Taming Of The Shrew. Samantha would join him, the pair moving in together. With the company touring into December, Tom went AWOL from Cal State — he never returned. Instead, he took work at the Civic Theatre in Sacramento, learning all the backstage mechanics of the trade. Then, in the summer of ’78, he returned to Cleveland, playing Proteus in Two Gentlemen Of Verona and winning a Best Actor award from the Cleveland Critics Circle.
Aged just 22 and picking up major awards already — how could he fail? Tom took off for New York City and the bright lights of Broadway, taking an apartment with Samantha in Hell’s Kitchen. But there was no work — just extra pressure as Samantha gave birth to their first child, Colin (now an actor in his own right, starring in Orange County). Keen for employment, Hanks returned to the Great Lakes Festival for the summer of 1979, to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His former director, Dowling, would later claim "He was the best Shakespearian clown I ever knew, because he was seriously real and seriously funny at the same time". It was this "realness" and humour that would eventually turn Hanks into a megastar.
Returning to New York in late ’79, Tom found work at the Riverside Shakespeare Theatre, as Callimaco in The Mandrake. More importantly, he got a manager, and this led to his first screen role, amazingly in the infamous slasher flick He Knows You’re Alone, where a psycho’s menacing a bridal party. Well, it was a start.
January, 1980, brought the first really big break. The ABC network had launched a talent development programme in the hope of finding some hot young kids to pep up their ratings. Tom went for it, enduring a gruelling series of auditions before landing one of the two leads in the sit-com Bosom Buddies. Here Peter Scolari and Tom played two ad execs, Henry Desmond and Kip Wilson, who can’t find an apartment. Then, when they do, it’s in a women-only building, meaning they must continually cross-dress and call themselves Hildegard and Buffy (that’s right, Tom Hanks played a girl called Buffy YEARS before Sarah Michelle Gellar). It was a cute idea, but not one that would run and run. Bosom Buddies lasted for two seasons, Scolari later turning up in Tom’s That Thing You Do! And From The Earth To The Moon.
In the meantime, Tom had moved the family to the San Fernando Valley, Samantha giving birth to daughter Elizabeth. With Bosom Buddies over, Tom had to look elsewhere, and nabbed brief spots on Michael J. Fox’s Family Ties, The Love Boat and, vitally, Happy Days. There he met Richie Cunningham, or rather Ron Howard, then launching as career as a director. When Howard was casting for his next film, Splash, about a sweet guy’s love affair with a mermaid, he called up Hanks to test for a supporting role. So good was he that he got the lead instead, the lesser role going to John Candy.
Splash, which saw Hanks hankering after Daryl Hannah, made Tom a minor star, and kept him employed throughout the mid-Eighties. The roustabout Bachelor Party was a commercial success, then came Volunteers, where he played a debt-ridden playboy joining the Peace Corps in Thailand. This saw him alongside Candy once more, and also one Rita Wilson, who he’d earlier met when she popped up as Peter Scolari’s Satan-worshipping girlfriend in Bosom Buddies. Next came The Man With One Red Shoe, where Tom was a dopey violinist caught up in intra-CIA shenanigans, and the hilarious The Money Pit, where he and Shelley Long have their house renovated, only to see it gradually collapse around their ears. There’d also be Nothing In Common, where he looked after his sick father (a bit close to the bone, this one, as Amos by this time suffered from the kidney failure that would kill him), and Every Time We Say Goodbye, set in Jerusalem, 1942, where he fell for a girl whose parents disapprove of him. The last of these proved that Tom could manage a romantic lead in a "serious" movie. It also earned him his first $1 million paycheck.
But, though Tom’s career was on the up and up, his marriage was falling apart. Not wanting his kids to suffer as he had done, he took a break from film-making in 1985 to produce, direct AND build sets for a production of The Passing Game at the Gene Dynarski Theatre, with his wife Samantha co-producing and starring. It didn’t work. By the end of the year, Tom and Samantha were separated.
Despite the break, Tom was getting ever hotter. Dragnet, a semi-spoof of the old TV cop show, was fairly lame but a financial success. Then came Punchline, where he played Stephen Gold, a bitter and angry comedian who first abuses then helps housewife Sally Field as she attempts to learn the comic craft. For research, Hanks wrote his own material and tried it out live at various LA comedy clubs.
And then came the first big one, appropriately titled Big, directed by another sitcom star turned director, Penny Marshall (Laverne from Laverne and Shirley). As Josh Baskin, a kid trapped in a man’s body, working for a toy company and winning the heart of cold exec Elizabeth Perkins, Hanks was hyperactive, endlessly curious, near-perfect, and Oscar-nominated for the first time. Incredible, given he was third choice, behind Harrison Ford and Robert De Niro. Big would be his first $100 million hit. Many more would follow.
Hanks’ profile rose steadily as a suspicious suburbanite in The ‘Burbs, as a cop with a doggy partner in Turner And Hooch, and Joe Versus The Volcano, where he played a goofy guy who, with a short while to live, gets a rich man to pay him to jump into an active volcano. This last movie paired him for the first time with Meg Ryan, later co-star in two of his biggest hits. But then Hanks’ ability to survive poor movies unscathed was sorely challenged when he played Sherman McCoy, the "master of the universe" and stock-trader drawn into a racial controversy after a hit-and-run accident in Brian De Palma’s expensive, gaudy Bonfire Of The Vanities. The movie was considered one of the worst flops in history, threatening to finish him for good.
Fortunately, by now his personal life was coming together. With his first marriage over, Tom was free to date Rita Wilson, and the couple were wed, with son Chester being born in 1990, followed by another boy, Truman. Having learned from experience what a heavy workload can do to a relationship, he took a couple of years off, enjoying his new family and waiting for the right part to kick-start his career.
The right part came soon, alongside Geena Davis and Madonna, in Marshall’s A League Of Their Own — the first in an outrageous run of hits. Here he played Jimmy Dugan, a former baseball star who’s lost his career to injury and consoled himself with heavy drinking. Given a chance at redemption, he finds himself in charge of a women’s baseball side which, after much comic incompetence, he inspires to become one of the finest ever.
Next, paired with Ryan once again, came Sleepless In Seattle. Here he was a sweet and kind widower who cannot find a woman to match his dear departed. When his young son contacts a radio show, Tom talks of love on-air and attracts the attention of a romantically confused Ryan. And so, amidst a welter of coincidences and near-misses, the couple are drawn ever closer together. Funny, witty and not overly sentimental, as well as well-conceived and paced by writer/director Nora Ephron, it was a massive hit, and featured a natty cameo by Tom’s wife Rita.
And 1993 brought yet more success to Hanks. The often harrowing Philadelphia saw him as lawyer Andrew Beckett who, sacked when he contracts AIDS, sues for discrimination and takes on Denzel Washington as his lawyer. With Denzel’s character being a major homophobe, director Jonathan Demme was able to attack prejudice and promote justice in a mainstream fashion, rather than delving into the gay lifestyle. Some gay activists complained, but Hanks’ brilliant performance and a stirring storyline gave the fight against AIDS some of the best publicity it ever had. Tom was duly presented with an Oscar and, incredibly, his acceptance speech, where he thanked his old teacher at Skyline, Rawley T. Farnsworth, inspired another movie, Kevin Kline’s In And Out.
Then it got even better. 1994’s epic Forrest Gump had him as an idiot savant raising hearts and minds over a 40-year period, including the Vietnam war. Gary Sinise added grit as an embittered vet, damaged inside and out, while Sally Field reappeared, this time as Tom’s doting mum, the one who teaches him such world-altering pearls as "Life is like a box of chocolates". With its home-spun wisdom and relentless humanity, Forrest Gump was beyond feel-good. And it cleaned up, with Tom winning another Oscar, making him the first man in 55 years (since Spencer Tracy) to win consecutive Best Actor statues.
Normally when actors hit such peaks they fall away, at least for a while. Not Hanks. 1995 was another scorcher. First he provided the voice of Sheriff Woody in the brilliant Toy Story. Then he was back with Ron Howard as Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, intoning the immortal line "Houston, we have a problem" and presenting the emotional side of the struggle to bring the damaged spacecraft back to Earth. With Hanks still obsessed with space, it must have been a real joy. It’s a wonder that he hadn’t demanded the part of Buzz Lightyear.
Though Forrest Gump and Apollo 13 made $500 million between them, Tom now took his foot off the pedal and concentrated on his own thing. Turning down the part of Jerry Maguire, he turned to writing and directing with That Thing You Do!, about Sixties one-hit wonders The Wonders. It was nice and engaging — far away from the Oscar-winning extravaganzas that were now dominating his life.
But he couldn’t stay away for long. 1998 brought You’ve Got Mail, another rom-com, reuniting him with Ephron and Ryan. Then he starred in a real event movie, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Here he was Captain John Miller, leading a small band of brothers through Occupied France in search of Matt Damon’s Private Ryan, and this after having survived the terrifying mayhem of the D-Day landings. It was another triumph, with Tom Oscar-nominated once more. He’d also be given the Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest honour the US Navy can confer upon a civilian.
Such was Saving Private Ryan’s effect that Hanks and Spielberg felt the need to do it all over again, with the award-winning miniseries Band Of Brothers. Before this, though, Tom would score again with Toy Story 2 and Stephen King’s The Green Mile, wherein he played Paul Edgecomb, a kind-hearted guard of Death Row who realises that the condemned Michael Clarke Duncan might be some kind of mystic healer. A year later came Cast Away, reuniting him with Gump director Robert Zemeckis, when he played Fed Ex exec Chuck Noland, marooned on a desert island after a particularly frightening plane crash. As mentioned before, for much of the movie we see only Hanks, and we’re just watching his battle for survival as he seldom says anything (though he does talk to a volleyball called Wilson — as in Rita Wilson). It’s proof of Hanks ability and charm that we don’t care — he says it all without words, well deserving his fifth Oscar nomination.
But it wasn’t just Oscar nods that came his way. Back in ’98, Hanks had also returned to writing and directing, as well as producing, with From The Earth To The Moon. This, revisiting his old obsession with infinity and beyond, was one of the biggest miniseries ever made, a drama-documentary covering the NASA space programme of the Sixties and Seventies. It would win an Emmy as Outstanding Series, with Tom (who co-wrote 4 of the 12 episodes) being nominated for his directing of the first instalment. His old mucker Sally Field was also involved as co-director.
2002 was another monster year. First came Sam Mendes’ Road To Perdition. Here Hanks played Michael Sullivan, a hitman for mobster Paul Newman. Cold and utterly ruthless, he’s nevertheless forced to revise his attitudes when his young son witnesses one of his killings and, of course, must be eliminated. To prevent this, Sullivan takes the kid on the lam, pursued by Jude Law’s implacable assassin Maguire. After this came Catch Me If You Can, pairing Hanks with Spielberg yet again, with Tom as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, cooly tracking down Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale, a con man and master of disguise. It was another mighty hit, taking $164 million at the US box-office, on a budget of only $52 million.
Incredibly, this wasn’t all for 2002. Tom also co-produced the comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cost $5 million and, having spent 20 weeks slowly climbing the charts, made well over $50 million at the US box-office alone. AND there was a cameo in the long-awaited Rutles follow-up, Can’t Buy Me Lunch.
2004 would see his next assault on the box-office, but would also see an end to his remarkable dominance. The Ladykillers was a typically outlandish Coen Brothers remake of the old Alec Guinness hit, with Hanks starring as Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a bizarre Southerner claiming to be a classics professor and dressing somewhat like Colonel Sanders. Taking rooms in a little old lady’s house, he recruits an oddball crew and, pretending they are a musical ensemble, plots to rob a nearby casino. The movie wasn’t a success, it was too cliched and brash, but, though it dropped out of the Top 10 after only two weeks, it still slipped into profit and Hanks, managing to keep Dorr’s florid speech just this side of ridiculous, continued to push at his own boundaries.
Quickly after this came another reunion with Spielberg and another character guaranteed to capture the heart of the US audience. In The Terminal, he played an eastern European arriving at JFK airport to find that his country has fallen in a coup and his passport and visa are now worthless. Thus he cannot go home or step onto American soil and must stay in the International Departures lounge. Returning abandoned luggage trolleys for quarters, he soon learns how to survive, and becomes important to all the staff (including hostess Catherine Zeta-Jones), winning them over with his trusting, trustworthy, near-Gump-like manner. It was a fine comedy, delicate and brilliantly timed, particularly in Hanks’ dealings with frustrated customs officer Stanley Tucci, and held up well against a string of summer blockbusters.
After lending his voice to Robert Zemeckis’s animated Christmas parable The Polar Express, Hanks moved on to A Cold Case, directed by Mark Romanek who’d disappeared after 1987’s weird but fantastic Static but recently returned with Robin Williams’ One Hour Photo. Here he played an investigator who, for 27 years, has been haunted by the murder of his best friend. Now, on the verge of retirement, he decides he must solve the case to find any kind of personal contentment. Then would come Lawrence Kasdan’s The Risk Pool, based on Richard Russo’s novel, where he played a charming but thoroughly unreliable thief and gambler who’s forced to look after his son when his estranged wife suffers a breakdown. There’d also be the western Boone’s Lick, a Larry McMurtry piece with a similar feel to his Lonesome Dove, which would see Julianne Moore dragging her father and four kids from Missouri out to the Wyoming fort where her husband is based. Hanks would play her husband’s brother who escorts the family and, naturally, falls for Moore as he aids in some perilous adventures.
If his extraordinary run of hits isn’t proof enough of the respect he’s garnered from peers and public alike, consider this: when Steven Spielberg, the biggest director in the world, wants a hero, someone could can play a good guy in a bad position and somehow make it interesting, he calls Hanks. And when Sam Mendes, perhaps the hippest director out there, needed someone to pull off a cold-hearted murderer who also loves his son, he called Hanks too. We all know he can play a loving father with his brain disengaged, but he’s hardly known for his murderers. But what he IS known for is his acting. Of COURSE he can do a murderer. He’s TOM HANKS, for Christ’s sake.