Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks (born 1956) embraced his budding theater career as a high school student in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1984 he established a foothold in films, starring as the romantic interest of a mermaid in the movie Splash. Four years and seven films later he won a Golden Globe Award and by 2000 had won back-to-back Academy Awards as best actor.
Hanks was born Thomas Jeffrey Hanks on July 9, 1956, in Concord, California. His father, Amos, was a restaurant chef; his mother, Janet, was a waitress. Hanks, the third of the couple's four children and the second of three sons, was five years old in February 1962 when his parents separated. Leaving their younger brother behind with their mother, Hanks and his two older siblings went with their father to Reno, Nevada, where they lived in a basement flat at 529 Mills Street. By April their father had married Winfred Finley, the owner of the Mills Street residence. Finley was herself divorced and living with five of her eight children, and the large Finley brood merged to become step-siblings with the Hanks children.
In 1964 the 10-member household moved to Pleasant Hills, California. Soon afterward, Amos Hanks and Finley divorced. The Hanks children were shuffled continuously between the homes of various relatives while their father established a residence near his family in the San Francisco Bay area. For a time the three children stayed in Red Bluff with their mother, who was three-times remarried by then. After leaving Red Bluff they spent time with assorted relatives of their father in San Mateo and Oakland.
The living arrangement stabilized after Amos Hanks met and married Frances Wong who brought three daughters of her own into the marriage. Thus a large family was created anew, with six siblings in all. Hanks coped admirably with the unpredictability of his home life. He took judo lessons and participated in Little League, and the family enjoyed camping when circumstances allowed. He maintained above average grades at Oakland's Bret Harte junior high school and had by adolescence learned to be flexible above all else. Hanks, in fact, demonstrated a remarkable sense of resilience in the face of continuous upheaval. At home he and his siblings learned to fend for themselves by doing their own laundry and preparing meals as much as possible.
Found His Focus
When Hanks entered Oakland's Skyline High School in the early 1970s, he found an emotional anchor in a social group based at the First Covenant Church. Having been raised alternately as a Catholic and as a Mormon and later as a member of the Nazarene Church, he gravitated easily toward the group. In his senior year he left home and took up residence with a family from the church, supporting himself by working as a bellhop at the Oakland Hilton Hotel.
In high school, Hanks, with encouragement from a friend, joined the school's drama program. Beginning with a role in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Hanks appeared in a number of plays under the direction of the school's drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth. Many years later, Hanks—in accepting his first Academy Award in 1994—publicly thanked Farnsworth for his help and encouragement.
After high school graduation in 1974, Hanks enrolled at Chabot Community College in nearby Hayward. For the next two years, he began a metaphorical love affair with the theater, appearing on stage and working as a stagehand. He took acting classes and developed a sincere appreciation of live theater. By the time he enrolled at California State University at Sacramento (CSUS) in 1976, his fascination with the theater could no longer be contained.
Through an extracurricular involvement with the Sacramento Civic Theater, Hanks developed a fortuitous acquaintance with director Vincent Dowling. A visitor to the Sacramento area, Dowling was affiliated with the Great Lakes Shakespearean Festival (now Great Lakes Theater Festival) in Cleveland, Ohio. Hanks appeared as Yasha in the Sacramento community theater production of Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard and at Dowling's invitation spent the summer of 1977 at the Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland as a volunteer intern.
When Hanks returned to Sacramento in the fall of 1977 he became an assistant stage manager for the Civic Theater and quickly lost interest in academics. He returned to Cleveland in the summer of 1978, where he appeared in Two Gentlemen of Verona at the festival and received the Cleveland Drama Critics Award for his effort. Attracted by the smell of the greasepaint, he abandoned school altogether and opted to try his luck as a professional actor. At the end of the festival season, he moved to New York City to embark on a serious acting career.
After a disappointing first season in New York, spent largely in the unemployment office, Hanks summered at the Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland for a third time in 1979. After appearing in Do Me a Favor, he returned to New York where a small movie role materialized in a grade B horror film— He Knows You're Alone —about a deranged stalker of brides. He came to mainstream notoriety soon afterward in the unlikely television role of Kip Wilson—also known as Buffy—in Bosom Buddies, co-starring Peter Scolari. A weekly comedy series, Bosom Buddies was based on an outlandish situation wherein Hanks and Scolari portrayed two advertising men who dressed up regularly as women in order to rent rooms in a women's hotel. The series ran from 1980 to 1982, and Hanks emerged from the experience secure in his name and face recognition before the viewing public.
In 1984 Hanks teamed with actor-turned-director Ron Howard in Splash. A whimsical romantic comedy about a man who meets a mermaid, Splash was a perfect vehicle to movie stardom for Hanks whose boy-next-door image had survived the quirky sitcom role of Buffy. Secure in his appeal as a comedic actor, he was cast in the spoof film Bachelor Party that same year. His 1985 film offerings— Man with One Red Shoe and Volunteers —were less than successful, although he did attract some attention that year in portraying an attorney named Walter Fielding, opposite Shelley Long, in The Money Pit. He appeared in three films in 1986; and in 1987 provided the comedy relief as detective Pep Streebek in Dragnet. The film, a reprise of an old detective series from the early days of television, was a mild success.
Hanks, who subscribes to a classic style of method acting, immerses himself in the experiences and feelings of each character that he portrays. In 1988 he captivated the movie-going public with in a charming movie, called Big, in which he depicts a 12-year-old boy in a 30-something body. To prepare for the role Hanks spent much of his time in observing and learning to mimic the mannerisms of his 13-year-old co-star in that movie. Hanks prepared for a subsequent role as a stand-up comic in Punchline by performing several times on-stage at a comedy club in order to comprehend the daily life of a comic.
After two lighter-side films, The 'Burbs and Turner & Hooch in 1989, and two box office duds in 1990 ( Joe Versus the Volcano and Bonfire of the Vanities ), Hanks took an overdue sabbatical to spend time with his family. He made a comeback in 1992 with a cameo role in Radio Flyer.
With his professional battery re-charged, he ramped up his output and gained 30 pounds for his next film. In the movie he played a middle-aged alcoholic baseball coach, opposite Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O'Donnell, cast as lady baseball players. The film, called A League of Their Own, was a box office hit. He followed in 1993 with a highly controversial role, as an attorney who becomes stricken with AIDs. For his role as the homosexual Andrew Beckett, Hanks did a great deal of research, talking openly with AIDs patients and with gay men. Under careful medical supervision he lost a large amount of weight so as to appear gaunt and dying. The movie, called Philadelphia, earned widespread critical acclaim.
Early in 1994 Hanks won an academy award as best actor for his role as Beckett, and that same year he delivered a second successive Oscar-winning performance, as the mentally challenged hero of Forrest Gump. The movie depicts the serendipitous adventures of a simple-minded man named Forrest Gump, who in spite of the mental handicap lives a life that proved to be more eventful and more fulfilling than the lives of many folks with twice his IQ. Hanks successfully brought the fictional character of Gump to life on the silver screen and turned the controversial character into a beloved folk hero.
Behind the Scenes
Hanks by 1995 was earning eight-figure salaries for his films, augmented by a percentage of the box office receipts. That year he starred as the Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, a true-life astronaut who steered an aborted moon mission safely back to earth. The film, called Apollo 13, was directed by Howard.
Among the most powerful films of his career was the critical favorite, Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1998. Hanks and seven other actors underwent rigorous boot camp conditions for many days in preparation for their roles as a company of soldiers in World War II. The movie grossed $190 million at the box office, and Hanks was recognized with an Oscar nomination for the effort. Equally compelling that year was Hanks's portrayal of a uniquely compassionate prison guard in The Green Mile, based on a Stephen King series about a supernaturally endowed inmate on Louisiana's death row in the 1930s.
Behind the scenes, Hanks contributed his voice to the character of the cowboy Sheriff Woody in a computer animated film called Toy Story in 1995, and to the 1999 sequel, Toy Story 2. He also experimented with production work. He wrote and directed That Thing You Do! and served as executive producer of a 12-part Emmy-winning miniseries for Home Box Office (HBO), called From the Earth to the Moon, in 1998.
Hanks directed the war drama Road to Perdition in 2001 with David Frankel and was involved in several projects in 2002 and 2003. Among them, Lady Killers and Polar Express were scheduled for release in 2004.
In 1977 while a student at CSUS Hanks became close friends with a classmate, Susan Dillingham. An aspiring actress herself, Dillingham went by the stage name of Samantha Lewes. The two were married in 1978. Their son Colin was born in 1978 and a daughter Elizabeth was born in 1981. Sadly the marriage was fragile and the couple divorced in the mid 1980s.
Hanks, fearful of entering into a succession of unstable relationships, went into therapy before encouraging a close relationship with a colleague, Rita Wilson, who had appeared with him in several films. They were married on April 30, 1988. Their first child, Chester, was a born in 1990; a second son, Truman Theodore, was born in 1995. Hanks, who spends virtually all of his free time with his family, maintains homes in Los Angeles, Malibu, and New York City.
The family name of Hanks might stimulate interest among history buffs because Hanks, through his father's family tree, shares a common ancestor with Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln.
Gardner, David, Tom Hanks, Blake Publishing Ltd., 1999.
Kramer, Barbara, Tom Hanks Superstar, Enslow Publishers Inc., 2001.
McAvoy, Jim, Tom Hanks, Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.