He has been described as "the modern James Stewart.” He has been ranked among the top 20 movie stars of all time. He has been the first actor since Spencer Tracy to win consecutive Oscars for lead roles. He is Tom Hanks.
Hanks was born in Concord, Calif., on July 9, 1956. His parents were divorced when he was 5, and Hanks – along with his older brother and sister – was raised by his chef father, Amos. After frequent moves, the family settled in Oakland, Calif., where Hanks graduated from high school in 1974. He decided to become an actor after reading and watching a performance of Eugene O'Neill's “The Iceman Cometh” and transferred from a junior college in Hayward, Calif., into the theater program at California State University in Sacramento.
In 1977, Hanks was recruited to participate in the summer session of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Lakewood, Ohio. He spent the summers of the next 3 years acting in various productions of Shakespeare's plays and the winters working backstage at a community theater company in Sacramento. Hanks’ portrayal of Proteus in “The Two Gentleman of Verona” earned him the Cleveland Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in 1978.
Following his third year with the festival, Hanks – who had dropped out of college – moved to New York City. His early days there were a struggle. “I lived around the corner from Broadway, but I couldn’t even get arrested,” he told the New York Times. “I didn’t know how to dance, I hadn’t taken a voice lesson and I wasn’t feeling confident.” Lacking an agent, he found just landing auditions difficult.
Hanks’ first break came in 1980 when he was cast in the ABC sitcom “Bosom Buddies” as one of two advertising executives who pose as women in order to rent an apartment in an all-female building. The exposure he received from the show enabled Hanks to land guest roles on such popular shows as “Happy Days,” “Taxi,” “The Love Boat” and “Family Ties.” In 1982, “Happy Days” co-star Ron Howard remembered Hanks and called him to read for a supporting part in a movie he was directing. Ultimately, John Candy received the supporting role and Hanks was cast in the lead in “Splash,” playing a man who falls in love with a mermaid. “Splash” was 1984’s 10th highest grossing movie, and Hanks was a newly minted star.
However, his new stardom didn’t immediately propel Hanks onto the A-list. Instead, Hanks spent the next few years appearing in a series of critically panned movies. He made a triumphant comeback with “Big,” 1988’s fourth highest grossing movie. His role as Josh Baskin, a 13-year-old in a grown man’s body, earned him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination and was ranked 15th on Premiere magazine’s “100 Greatest Performances of All Time” list in 2006.
Unfortunately, this success was followed by another career downturn. Although 1989’s comedy “Turner & Hooch” was a hit, most of Hanks’ films during the next few years were disappointments. Perhaps the lowest point was 1990’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” an adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel of the same name. The casting of Hanks as Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street millionaire whose life unravels in a very public manner, was widely criticized. Budgeted at $47 million, the movie grossed less than $16 million.
1992’s “A League of Their Own” was the one of the year’s most popular films and the beginning of a long period of success for Hanks. He gained 30 pounds to prepare for the role of Jimmy Dugan, a washed-up player who reluctantly manages a women’s baseball team. The following year, Hanks reunited with Meg Ryan – his co-star in the 1990 flop “Joe Versus the Volcano” – for the smash hit “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Hanks enjoyed an even bigger triumph later in 1993 when he starred in “Philadelphia,” Hollywood’s first big-budget movie about AIDS. Despite its touchy subject matter (Roger Ebert noted that “Philadelphia” arrived more than a decade after AIDS was identified as a disease), the movie was a hit. Hanks’ role as Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer dying of AIDS who sues his former law firm for discrimination, earned him his first Best Actor Oscar. Hanks repeated as Best Actor by playing the title role in 1994’s “Forrest Gump.” The movie won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and was a huge box office success, needing only 66 days to gross more than $250 million. Adjusted for inflation, “Gump” is the 24th most popular movie of all time. Rather than being paid for the movie, Hanks chose to take percentage points, a decision that earned him approximately $40 million.
1995 was another banner year for Hanks. After starring as real-life astronaut Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13” – the year’s third highest grossing movie – Hanks lent his vocal talents to “Toy Story,” the first fully computer-generated full-length feature film. “Toy Story” was the year’s highest grossing movie. Hanks returned for two extremely successful “Toy Story” sequels in 1999 and 2010.
1996’s “That Thing You Do!” marked Hanks’ directorial and screenwriting debut. He also had a supporting role in the story of a 1960s rock group, which was a commercial disappointment (a similar fate would meet Hanks’ next writing-directing effort, 2011’s “Larry Crowne”). Hanks teamed with legendary director Steven Speilberg for 1998’s World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan.” It was yet another Hanks movie to be the most popular of its year. Hanks was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and received the Distinguished Public Service Award, the U. S. Navy's highest civilian honor, on Veterans Day 1999 for his work in the movie. In December 1998, Hanks once again teamed with Meg Ryan for “You’ve Got Mail,” another box office smash.
Hanks closed the 20th century with another hit, “The Green Mile.” In order to play Chuck Noland, a FedEx man who spends years stranded at sea, in 2000’s “Cast Away,” Hanks gained and later lost 50 pounds. His performance earned him a fifth Best Actor Oscar nomination and was ranked 46th on Premiere’s “100 Greatest Performances of All Time” list. "Cast Away" was the second highest grossing movie of its year.
In June 2002, Hanks became the youngest ever to receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. His “Saving Private Ryan” director, Steven Spielberg, presented him with the award. Spielberg and Hanks reunited for “Catch Me If You Can,” which was released six months after the award presentation and was a smash hit. They would work together again on 2004’s “The Terminal,” which grossed $77 million. While its grosses covered the movie’s budget, the total was disappointing by the standards of its director and star.
Nine years after “Toy Story,” Hanks starred in another groundbreaking animated feature, “The Polar Express.” The Guiness Book of World Records 2006 listed the adaptation of the classic children’s novel as the "first all-digital capture" film, where all acted parts were done in digital capture. “The Polar Express” was also the first mainstream film to be simultaneously released as a 3D IMAX presentation.
His most recent film, 2012’s “Cloud Atlas,” was a dismal failure, but Hanks enjoyed success in his Broadway debut. In “Lucky Guy,” he played Mike McAlary, a real-life New York City tabloid columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his columns about police brutality against Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and died of colon cancer that same year at age 41. Nora Ephron – the writer-director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” – had sent Hanks a film screenplay of “Lucky Guy” years earlier, but Hanks hadn’t been interested. After running into Ephron – who by then had turned “Lucky Guy” into a play – while promoting “Larry Crowne,” Hanks reconsidered and asked to see the script. It convinced him to sign on.
While working on the play at a hectic pace, Ephron was also secretly battling leukemia, which claimed her life in June 2012 at age 71. “After she died, we were even more determined to do the play,” the play’s director, George C. Wolfe, said. “Lucky Guy” debuted on Broadway in March 2013 and broke records for highest weekly ticket sales by a play, according to the Broadway League. Due to the strong ticket sales, 16 performances were added.