MANY critics cite Tom Hanks as a throwback to the Golden Era of Hollywood’s brand of leading man, and, in particular, to the light comedic talents of Cary Grant or James Stewart, and to the quiet magnetism of quintessential Everymen Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. Whether he’s played a ping-pong-playing half-wit, a lovelorn widower, a cool-under-pressure astronaut, a gay lawyer trying to find justice and dignity as he dies of AIDS, or the voice of an animated toy sheriff named Woody, Hanks has woven his hopelessly likable, American-dreaming screen persona into one of the most gravity-defying careers in Hollywood history. He seems to have accepted his public countenance of likability: “That’s the bed I’ve made, and it’s very comfortable.” Most actors would kill to get into that kind of bed: not only did Hanks win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, but two of his films alone, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, racked up $500 million at the box office — a healthy bottom line that certainly disproves the old adage about where nice guys always finish.
Hanks isn’t the typical child of a broken home, but he suffered some of the typical stresses. His parents split up when he was five, and the three oldest kids (Hanks was third) went with their father, Amos, a chef by trade, who uprooted the family about every six months chasing after a job. Bouncing around to half a dozen grammar schools rendered Hanks at times painfully shy — sometimes he responded by playing the class cut-up — but his nomadic upbringing was perfect for fostering the chameleon-like skills of an actor. In high school, Hanks learned to channel his “nervous energy” into student drama productions. After graduation, he attended Chabot College, where he took a class that literally changed the course of his life: after seeing a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh for the course, he stumbled out of the theatre with his resolve firmly set to become an actor. Towards achieving that goal, he subsequently transferred to the drama program at California State University in Sacramento. An impressive performance in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard led to Hanks’ recruitment by the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Ohio, where he made his first professional bow, as Grumio, in a 1977 production of The Taming of the Shrew. With three full seasons of classical training with the festival to his credit (he had dropped out of school) and an equity card in hand, Hanks departed for New York City, ready to submit himself to the caprices of a struggling actor’s life. Making the rounds on countless auditions, he hit a relative career high point when he landed a role in a slasher flick called He Knows You’re Alone (1980).
A more promising assignment landed in his lap when an ABC talent scout tapped him for Bosom Buddies, a sex farce about two ad guys who dress in drag a la Some Like It Hot in order to live in an all-women’s residence. The show held on for two seasons, after which Hanks made his living with guest stopovers on such TV series as Taxi, The Love Boat, Family Ties, and Happy Days. Ron Howard remembered Hanks’ fair piece of work on the latter show and invited him to read for a supporting role — one that eventually went to John Candy — in his film Splash. Howard wound up entrusting Hanks with the lead, and though more people commented on Daryl Hannah’s mermaid portrayal in the surprise romantic hit, Hanks’ comic timing and charm earned him critical strokes, and yes, more work.
His performances in the less-than-stellar Bachelor Party, The Man With One Red Shoe, Volunteers, The Money Pit, and Dragnet were the only things to recommend the otherwise innocuous films. It seemed he was Teflon-coated, as he continually managed to shrug off clunkers without being tainted. Moderate box-office receipts proved that he had secured a foothold, and he finally gained quite a bit more leverage in Penny Marshall’s 1988 hit Big — the guileless, rubbery-faced charm he brought to his characterization of a boy trapped in a man’s body earned him his first Academy Award nomination. That same year, he manifested his talent for portraying a darker side in the critically maligned Punchline, which tells the story of a self-destructive and vitriolic stand-up comic.
Hanks was back gasping for air in 1989’s The ‘burbs and Turner and Hooch, and he was all the way down for the count in 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities. But in 1993, the boyish star bounced back in a big way, with a romantic and funny turn in Sleepless in Seattle, and a brave and tragic performance in Philadelphia. As the first Hollywood leading man to play a victim of AIDS in a major studio production, Hanks won an Academy Award, and delivered what was arguably the most emotional and poetic acceptance speech in the annals of the ceremony. The following year, Hanks played to a tee the title role of Forrest Gump, the Alabama simpleton who becomes the unlikeliest of heroes. Once again, the Academy slapped him with the Best Actor Oscar.
It was during filming on Philadelphia that director Jonathan Demme urged Hanks to try his own hand at directing, and furthermore pledged his support when it came time to produce the resulting film. Two years later, after turning in a commanding portrayal of astronaut Jim Lovell in Ron Howard’s smash film Apollo l3, Hanks completed his first-ever screenplay for the buoyant That Thing You Do!, a film which chronicles the make-it-big story of a small-town Pennsylvania rock-n-roll band called the Wonders. Anything but an act of hubris, the film proved that his golden touch extends behind the camera.
Occupation: Actor, Director, Producer, Screenwriter
Date of Birth: July 9, 1956
Place of Birth: Concord, Calif., USA
Sign: Sun in Cancer, Moon in Leo
Relations: Wife: Rita Wilson (actress); ex-wife: Samantha Lewes; children: Colin and Elizabeth (with Lewes); Chester and Truman (with Wilson)
Education: Chabot College; California State University at Sacramento