When Tom Hanks jogged onto screen in his feature film debut in the 1980 slasher pic “He Knows You’re Alone,” one probably couldn’t have predicted he would go on to become one of the most successful and beloved actors of all time. Playing a psychology student who postulates about the appeal of fear, Hanks makes manages to the most of his few minutes of screen time. And even though it’s brief, you can catch some of the hallmarks of what would later become a Tom Hanks performance — charismatic but a little goofy, handsome but non-threatening, and able to make any line sound like it has a handful of meanings.
It’s been a long journey from that low-budget horror movie to two-time Academy Award-winning actor, Emmy-award winning producer and Hollywood’s Nicest Guy™. On Jan. 5, the eight-time Golden Globe winner will receive the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s special honor, the Cecil B. deMille Award. Ever the overachiever, he also finds himself nominated that night for supporting actor in a film for his turn as Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Hanks’ career arc is a fascinating one that can be broken down into several phases. Perhaps the first could best be described as his charming goofball phase — comedies in which his timing and nice guy demeanor fit perfectly into a variety of shenanigans. There was of course his TV breakthrough, playing a man pretending to be a woman for cheap rent in the series “Bosom Buddies” (1980-1982). That was followed by his film breakthrough as a man who falls in love with a mermaid in 1984’s “Splash.” The Ron Howard comedy made Hanks a box-office draw and likely helped make his next film, the bawdy “Bachelor Party,” also released in 1984, a hit.
But even in those early years, Hanks was also dabbing in drama, be it the cult TV movie “Mazes and Monsters” or a multi-episode arc on “Family Ties” that proved surprisingly dark. On that TV hit, Hanks played the adored Uncle Ned to Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton and over three episodes audiences saw him steal money from his employers, grapple with a drinking problem and, in his final appearance, physically assault Alex. Seeing the beloved Hanks rough up the beloved Fox was a jarring sight in 1984, but even more so now that Hanks has become, as he himself said in a recent “Saturday Night Live” monologue, “America’s Dad.”
Over the next few years, Hanks’ likability would be used to good effect in movies didn’t make use of the actor’s full potential. “The Man With One Red Shoe” and “Volunteers” were forgettable (although he met his wife, Rita Wilson, on the latter). “The Money Pit” and “The ’Burbs” aren’t remarkable, but have proven to be cult favorites. He leaned more into drama in two 1986 films: “Nothing in Common” opposite Jackie Gleason, and the little-seen war drama “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” But it was clear audiences wanted comedic Hanks, and he quickly returned to such fare as 1987’s “Dragnet.”
It was a high-concept comedy, Penny Marshall’s 1988 film “Big,” that would kick-start the next phase of Hanks’ career: The respected Oscar nominee. No one could have predicted that Hanks, playing a 13-year-old boy who wakes up in the body of an adult man, would be an Academy Award contender, but he brought a humanity and realism to the comedy that landed him his first Oscar nomination. Now a serious actor in the eyes of Hollywood, he was cast in the starring role in the highly anticipated adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” but that film went on to become one of the most talked-about disasters of the decade.
It was another comedy with Marshall that put him back on track and landed him his second Oscar nomination, 1992’s “A League of Their Own.” From that hit, he entered his bona-fide Leading Man phase, winning over critics and audiences alike with films such as 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle” and gaining his first Academy Award for 1993’s drama “Philadelphia.” He followed that with another win the following year for “Forrest Gump.”
At this point, Hanks was in his full-fledged superstar phase; he could make smart movies for adults that were also box-office bonanzas, from “Apollo 13” to “Saving Private Ryan” to “Cast Away.” He endeared himself to a younger audience by voicing Woody in 1995’s “Toy Story”; this year, he voiced the last film in that beloved franchise, “Toy Story 4.” He began to work more behind the camera, writing and directing his feature debut “That Thing You Do!” and producing such miniseries as “From the Earth to the Moon” and “The Pacific.” His production company had theatrical hits including “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Mamma Mia!”
But Hanks wasn’t coasting; this was his freestyle phase, in which he did what he wanted, critics and box office seeming not a concern. For most of the 2000s, he made a wide range of choices, from the Coen brothers’ flop “The Ladykillers” to his first live-action franchise in “The Da Vinci Code” to the strange and unclassifiable “Cloud Atlas.”
This led to a strange occurrence, where Hanks — who everyone knew was one of the best — seemed to move into an Underrated phase. Going into 2013, the question wasn’t if he’d be Oscar-nominated that year; rather it was how many times. Yet both his turn as Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” and his stellar work in “Captain Phillips” came up short on nominations day — the latter most surprising as he’d earned all the precursor noms from Globes, SAG and BAFTA awards. He collaborated twice more with Steven Spielberg — in 2015’s “Bridge of Spies” and in 2017’s “The Post” — and while the films and his co-stars were nominated, Hanks was not.
Not that he was complaining. The actor seemed to be having the time of his life, embracing the weird and wonderful David S. Pumpkins character he created on a Halloween episode of “Saturday Night Live” in an animated special. It was on that same episode in which he introduced his persona of “America’s Dad,” slipping into a sweater for a kind talk with the audience.
The role and the sweater fit so well, it seems inevitable he would go on to play Mr. Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Hanks now appears to be in his Icon phase; in additional to Mr. Rogers, he embodied the hero pilot in “Sully” for director Clint Eastwood and is set to play Col. Tom Parker in an untitled Elvis Presley biopic for Baz Luhrmann.
His production company obtained the rights to remake the Swedish film “A Man Called Ove” with Hanks set to play the cranky but loveable lead.
It’s been a journey from that charming goofball of the 1980s to playing stately older men, and Hanks has maintained his profile along with a highly regarded persona. He’ll deliver at least one speech, perhaps two, on Golden Globes night, but with him as the honoree, everyone knows it will be funny, charming and heartfelt — much like the man himself.