On the Hunt for the Exact Moment When Tom Hanks Became a National Treasure

Tom Hanks Feature

Shutterstock; Getty Images/E! Illustration

Tom Hanks has had nothing short of an illustrious film career, one that’s going to be heartily celebrated with kind words from famous friends and movie clips galore at the 2020 Golden Globes on Sunday when he’s presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Really, the Hollywood Foreign Press is playing catch-up—the 63-year-old actor has already received the AFI Life Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And to think, it all started with He Knows You’re Alone.

Hanks only has about four minutes of screen time in the low-budget 1980 horror flick that served as his movie debut that summer. But even a national treasure has to start with a small deposit in the bank, right?

Because at some point between playing Elliot the psych major who is pretentiously interested in “the emotion of fear” and yachting with the Obamas and zipping up as Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks became not only a full-on movie star, but also a symbol of… 

Something great, frankly. Or even beyond that. Something better.

Or as his Punchline and Forrest Gump co-star Sally Field described him to The New York Times recently: “Once in a lifetime Tom.”

But that wasn’t always the case. Not that he was ever perceived as less than good—that’s been Hanks’ biggest selling point, that he’s the genuinely nice guy he seems to be and is inordinately scandal-free for a man who’s enjoyed a four-decade career—but at one point he was just a nice, funny guy in movies. Not slapstick funny or wisecrack funny, but sweet funny.

“There isn’t any great mystery about me,” Hanks told Oprah Winfrey for the September 2001 issue of magazine. “What I do is glamorous and has an awful lot of white-hot attention placed on it. But the actual work requires the same discipline and passion as any job you love doing, be it as a very good pipe fitter or a highly creative artist.”

Tom Hanks, Peter Scolari, Bosom Buddies

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Let’s say Hanks started out as a very good pipe fitter, making a go of Bosom Buddies (the short-lived sitcom in which he and Peter Scolari spent half the time dressed as women in order to live in a ladies-only apartment building); stealing scenes from Michael J. Fox as alcoholic Uncle Ned in Family Ties; playing a solid romantic lead in the man-meets-mermaid comedy Splash; and then stealing hearts as a literal big kid in Big, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 1989. 

The string of quirky comedies he made in the late ’80s also included The ‘BurbsTurner & Hooch and Joe Versus the Volcano, and it’s testament to all the good will he’d built up so far that his career didn’t end when the widely maligned Bonfire of the Vanities came out in 1990.

But critical and box office setbacks happen to the best of them, and Hanks entered the 1990s as one of the best.

In his scene-stealing supporting turn as the manager of an all-girls baseball team in 1992’s A League of Their Own, he memorably bellowed, among other things, “There’s no crying in baseball!” And then Nora Ephron directed him and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, a rom-com that checked off all the boxes, from the script and acting that overcome a fairly screwy premise to the pitch-perfect soundtrack that introduced a new generation to Jimmy Durante.

So far, Hanks had made astute choices, give or take a few (asked if he regretted doing Bonfire of the Vanities, Hanks quipped to Oprah, “Only because it’s one of the crappiest movies ever made!”), while also establishing and re-establishing himself as an honest-to-goodness good guy. 

But Sleepless in Seattle, which made $228 million worldwide, turned out to be the end of a certain leg of Hanks’ career. It wasn’t an age thing—he was only 37—or a foray into grittier roles, or a purposeful shift from heroics to villainy. (He’s still to this day never played a stone-cold villain, even as a Depression-era hitman in Road to Perdition. “I recognized in myself a long time ago that I don’t instill fear in anybody,” Hanks told The New York Times recently. “Now, that’s different than being nice, you know? I think I have a cache of mystery. But it’s not one of malevolence.”) 

But the run of goofy, endearing, usually-pretty-evolved nice guy movie roles was over.

“Somewhere in the middle of my career, there came a moment when I said, ‘I’m not going to play pussies anymore,'” Hanks told Winfrey. “Up until then, I’d made a career out of playing ordinary guys who couldn’t figure out how things work. After I did A League of Their Own, I took a year off from making any artistic decisions. At that time, my career was an express train. I was continually being asked to make movies, so I felt I had won an actor’s lottery.

“If people were asking, how could I say no? That would be insane. But I finally had to ask myself, ‘What kind of creative entity am I? And when do I start to control some of my artistic destiny?'”

So, after Sleepless in Seattle, he grabbed his artistic destiny with both hands and held on tight.

Next up, Hanks played a gay man dying of AIDS who sues the law firm where he was previously a promising associate for wrongful termination in 1993’s Philadelphia, the first big studio movie to explore the AIDS epidemic, let alone have a main character with the disease.

If there was ever a lock for the Best Actor Oscar, it was Hanks in 1994—in large part because of his mastery of the role and the physical commitment, but also because of the red-hot topicality of the film, which was reflected in Hanks’ speech on Oscar night (which subsequently was spliced into Bruce Springsteen‘s Oscar-winning song from the film, “Streets of Philadelphia,” when it played on the radio).

After a slew of thank yous, starting as always with wife Rita Wilson (here unnamed, but “a lover that is so close to fine we should all be able to experience such heaven right here on earth”), an emotional Hanks delved into the heart of the matter.

“I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels,” he said. “We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight.

“They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all—a healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common-sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia 200 years ago. God bless you all, God have mercy on us all and God bless America.”

Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks, Running

Paramount Pictures

In case anyone was wondering why people joke(ish) to this day about wanting Tom Hanks to be president, we’d say it started right there on that stage, before there was even any Facebook or Twitter to amplify his speech ten-thousandfold.

Of course, that was 25 years ago, so the desire for him to run for public office nowadays may stem more from the fact that he remains just so darn lovely, but the clamor for more Tom Hanks has yet to abate.

The Academy, for instance, wanted an encore.

In 1995, Hanks was right back on that stage in the same place, accepting his second straight Best Actor Oscar for the epic crowd pleaser (and Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Visual Effects winner) Forrest Gump—a more maudlin pick for some in hindsight, but in the moment—of course. Beating out Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, it was also another film bursting with quotable lines, from the ubiquitous “Life is like a box of chocolates…” to “so I went to the White House to meet the president of the United States, again” to “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” (How many times have you seen Forrest Gump? It’s either once or a lot.)

Hanks was in another Best Picture nominee the following year, too, Apollo 13, playing real-life astronaut Jim Lovell—one on the list of real (or based on real) historical figures Hanks has played since, including Texas politician Charlie Wilson, Walt Disney, sea captain Richard Phillips, airline pilot “Sully” Sullenberger, OSS agent and diplomat James B. Donovan, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and, most recently, children’s TV icon Fred Rogers.

Also in 1995, when Apollo 13 hit theaters, came Hanks’ first go-round as Woody in Toy Story—which ensured that, by then, there was a Tom Hanks movie for basically everyone.

With all that award-season cachet under his belt, Hanks directed his first feature film—That Thing You Do!, an enjoyable nugget with an earworm of a title song—and dove into producing, with a focus on space and history, particularly World War II. The Emmy-winning miniseries From the Earth to the MoonBand of Brothers and The Pacific all count Hanks as an executive producer.

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks

Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images

He earned his fourth Oscar nomination in 1999 for his turn as Army Rangers Captain in Saving Private Ryan, one of five movies he’s starred in for director Steven Spielberg.

Talking about the film’s legacy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day this past June, Hanks told NBC News, “I think the danger is that it enters into some sort of mythological place. If we ever forget that it was a bunch of individuals that went over, and they all had names like Ernie, and Buck and Robert—that’s when we’ve done a bad job of being citizens of the world, I think.”

In a way, Hanks’ involvement with so much World War II-era storytelling has linked him to no less than the most defining event of the 20th century, similar to the way Ken Burns will forever be linked to the Civil War because of his masterful docu-series on the topic. That’s certainly a way to establish yourself in the very firmament of American filmmaking.

Hanks has also never been in a movie that primarily took place before 1900, but has loaned his presence to almost every decade of the 20th century onscreen, four decades in Forrest Gump alone, in addition to starring in contemporary films (and, incidentally, he’s a producer on CNN’s The SixtiesThe Seventies, etc., through to The 2000s). Perhaps that ability to slip seamlessly into any era is another reason why he has become America’s Everyman—if Everyman had the integrity of Way Better Man.

Asked in 2001 what he looked for in a script, Hanks told Oprah, “I’m not looking for anything. If you start looking for something specific, then you take providence right out of it. You can’t completely control it. Otherwise you’d make the same kind of movie over and over again, which some people say I’ve done. I have faith that a script is going to hit me like a ton of bricks, and when that happens, it’s undeniable that I should choose the role.”

Tom Hanks, Woody, Toy Story, Best Roles

Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

He tried to abide by the three E’s, he explained: “Entertain, educate and enlighten.”

“Despite the fact that these movies are big engines of commerce, the characters remind us that we’re part of a greater humanity and that we can actually affect the world by the choices we make once we leave the theater,” Hanks said.

Winfrey asked him about the “uncommon common man” heroic image he already had—even back then, in 2001. Earlier that year he had received his fifth (and last to date) Oscar nomination, for Castaway, in which he’s alone most of the time, often talking to a volleyball, and Band of Brothers was about to premiere.

“I don’t know if that will have significance that lasts beyond the pages of the entertainment sections of newspapers,” Hanks said, not knowing how Twitter would change how it all worked by the end of the decade.

“But I would like to think I’ve reflected the audience’s lives somehow, though it’s in this big, false, glamorous arena of movies. I hope people see themselves somehow up on the screen. Shakespeare said it best: Hold the mirror up to nature. Human behavior is worthy of examination and celebration. The easiest thing to do is to rag on the media, because it isn’t doing a very good job right now. It is so much easier to profit from celebrating the worst aspects of ourselves. Acting strikes me as the antithesis of that. We can examine the worst aspects of ourselves, but we don’t have to celebrate them.

“That’s why The Sopranos is a work of art—it is authentic,” Hanks continued. “It communicates that there are people out there who think a certain way. And in a weird way, we can recognize ourselves in the characters. Even if we’re good Catholics who’ve never been to a strip bar, we can still say, ‘He’s going through the same thing I’m going through.’ And that is a magnificent thing.”

After he owned the ’90s, the 21st century has pretty much belonged to Hanks, too, all accomplished with no superhero movies (though you could make an argument for the Toy Story franchise); a look that has always been appealing but not distractingly handsome; no scandals; no divorces (Wilson is his second wife, but they’ve been married for 31 years); and with the ongoing ability to, despite his fame, disappear enough into a role—like Meryl Streep (and sometimes simultaneously, as they did playing Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee in The Post).

Asked why he cast such a familiar face, in fact, to play real-life diplomat James Donovan in Bridge of Spies, Spielberg told Time in 2015, “This part was crying out for one of the greatest living actors…I was able to snag one of the greatest living actors to represent the virtues and the principles that this character showed all of us in real life.”

So it isn’t just us moviegoers who sense that Hanks’ sheer presence represents something… not holy in a religious way, but sacrosanct all the same. A man of unimpeachable character, you could say.

But Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks now, not because of any role he played in the 1990s, but because of the character he has become in life—which may just be the man himself. 

“I try not to lie to people,” he told Oprah almost 19 years ago. “The only way to control the way you’re perceived is to tell the truth.”

Tom Hanks, Ellen Degeneres Show

Michael Rozman / Warner Bros

Whether it was coming up with Conan O’Brien‘s nickname out of thin air (Team Coco originated with Hanks randomly calling O’Brien “Coco Christopher” on his TBS show debut), or playing along when a random fellow bar patron pretended to be drunk in pursuit of a viral photograph, Hanks is that rare species of actor who you want in all the movies and on all the talk shows, to hear whatever anecdote he may have to share on any given day.

He also collects old typewriters, authored a short story collection called Uncommon Type and is sure that people are purposely leaving solitary gloves in public places where he’ll see them, because he likes posting pictures of solitary gloves online.

And, as you could already tell when that youngster was accepting his Oscar for Philadelphia, Hanks is an active citizen of the world, one who has deep respect for history, wants to make the present day better and is invested in what comes next. This past year he and Wilson teamed with former first lady Michelle Obamaand numerous other celebrities on the When We All Vote campaign to beef up voter registration ahead of the 2020 election, and perhaps we’ll be hearing more from him as campaign season heats up.

Ironically for someone whose sheer presence serves as a balm for so many, Hanks first got into acting so he—the son of divorced parents who was always on the move as a kid—wouldn’t be lonely.

Hanks remembered asking himself as a teenager, “How do I find the vocabulary for what’s rattling around inside my head?” 

What was rattling around inside his head, he said on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2016, “was the vocabulary of loneliness.” While rehearsing for a play, a director once told him that “‘all the great plays are about loneliness.’ And it was a lightning bolt. I said, ‘That’s why I’m here, that’s why I went to the theaters by myself.”

He didn’t know how to express how he was feeling on his own, so, Hanks reflected, “you join something.”

Like a teenage Tom Hanks, we can’t express in so many words exactly why we feel the way we do—but we feel a whole lot better when he’s busy acting.

Watch our Golden Globes: E!’s Inside Guide special this Thursday at 11 p.m. for a Globes preview. And don’t miss E!’s Live From the Red Carpet 2020 Golden Globes coverage Sunday, Jan. 5 starting at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT followed by the Globes ceremony on NBC at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT!

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