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How Tom Hanks Went From Lonely Kid To Oscar Winner

While everyone has their own opinion about every actor, it would be pretty tough to find somebody who doesn't like Tom Hanks, or who at least can't name a movie starring the guy that they didn't like. He's as charming, talented, and likable as they come, and yet he completely disappears into his roles, an especially impressive feat considering the man's versatility. He can (and has) done it all, from genre-defining romantic comedies (Sleepless in Seattle) to heartbreaking war epics (Saving Private Ryan), harrowing character studies (Cast Away), whimsical fantasies (Big), true stories (Apollo 13), and '60s pop musicals (That Thing You Do!).

Yes, Tom Hanks is Hollywood's can-do golden boy, and a perennial awards contender for his all-in performances. But he wasn't always the movie industry's favorite go-to A-lister. Here's how he went from the devoutly religious child of a broken home to blockbuster-fronting Academy Award winner.

Tom Hanks' lonely childhood led to artistic pursuits

While a California native, Tom Hanks didn't grow up in the Hollywood lifestyle. Born in the Bay Area town of Concord, California, Hanks saw his family life shaken up when he was still young — his parents divorced when he was only five. On the BBC Radio program Desert Island DiscsHanks said that the divorce "was more about complexity than crossfire" and that he and his siblings "were confused because no one explained anything to us. No one said, 'Hey listen, you guys are great. You haven't done anything wrong.'"

After the divorce, Tom lived with his father, Amos, a professional chef who rarely stayed in one place. The itinerant lifestyle — which found young Hanks in ten homes in only five years — gave him a supreme sense of loneliness that plagued his childhood. As a teenager, Hanks realized he needed to express the emotions generated by his unique childhood. "I started asking myself: 'How do I find the vocabulary for what's rattling around in my head?'" he explained on Desert Island Discs. "Not long after I started going to the American Conservatory theatre by myself to see plays I had no idea even existed." Watching live acting made Hanks realize he also wanted to be an actor, because scripts helped him discover what he called "the vocabulary of loneliness."

Tom Hanks was a very religious teenager

In addition to family difficulties, loneliness, and theatre, religion was also quite impactful in the early life of Tom Hanks. As a teen, he was exposed to (and benefited from) many religions. While originally raised Catholic, his stepmother was a Mormon, his aunt was a strict Nazarene, and he had many observant Jewish friends. "I had this peripatetic overview of various faiths, and the one thing I got from that was the intellectual pursuit involved," he told George (via The Independent). "There was a lot of great stuff to think about."

Despite the variety of spiritual influence, Hanks made his choice, telling Rolling Stone (via The Independent) that he was a "bible-toting evangelical teenager" and "a real good kid and pretty responsible," but also "the guy who'd yelled out funny captions during filmstrips." Trying to understand human nature and also wanting to entertain? It sure sounds like Tom Hanks was on the road to being an actor.

He had some kids, moved to New York, and made a horror movie

In 1978, Tom Hanks married Samantha Lewes, his college sweetheart. Around that same time, 21-year-old Hanks became a father with the birth of his son Colin, who went on to be an actor too. Hanks never regretted having children so young — it actually suited him quite nicely. "I didn't smoke pot. I didn't do drugs, I was not a party boy. I didn't drink too much, I went to bed at 10 minutes after 10 p.m.," he told Desert Island Discs. "The rules were in place. I'm not a cheater. I like to play by the rules."

While Hanks was happy to have a family, it wasn't always easy to balance his personal life with his desire to be an actor. At age 22, Hanks moved himself and his brood to Manhattan to pursue professional opportunities. Eventually, he started to land small roles in things like the forgettable slasher movie He Knows When You're Alone. Hanks' appearance consists primarily of him tripping a girl on purpose so he can introduce himself to her, telling a kid about people living out their fears of death through roller coasters, then explaining to a stranger why her fears of a stalker are just hallucinations. It might be his least likable Tom Hanks character of all time... but hey, it's only about four minutes of screen time.

Tom Hanks' first major role? A total drag

A sitcom about two men who have to dress like women — bad wigs, dresses, makeup, fake breasts — in order to live in a no-men-allowed apartment building doesn't sound like a life-changing project, let alone a memorable sitcom or anything other than something cheesy and hopelessly dated. But for Tom Hanks, Bosom Buddies (get it?) was the turning point for a legendary career. The show, starring Hanks and Peter Scolari as Kip Wilson (and "Buffy") and Henry Desmond (or "Hildegard"), respectively, wasn't a huge hit with critics or audiences and ran for just 37 episodes from 1980 to 1982, but it demonstrated that Hanks was a special talent. "I called my mother after filming the pilot and said, 'There's a boy on this show that is freakishly talented,'" co-star Holland Taylor later told the Los Angeles Times.

Filming the show wasn't easy. Hanks was broke, had marriage troubles, and got to experience the fun of wearing pantyhose and lipstick every day. Though the show didn't last long, it provided valuable exposure for Hanks. During the early '80s, he also made the rounds on the sitcoms of the era, playing a guy who tried to fight Fonzie on Happy Days, an alcoholic uncle who gets drunk on vanilla extract on a very special episode of Family Ties, and a frat guy on The Love Boat. It was only a matter of time before he moved on to movies.

Tom Hanks made a big Splash

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have enjoyed one of the most successful director/actor collaborations in Hollywood history. The former Happy Days star has helmed five movies starring the former Bosom Buddies star, the first being Splash, the hit 1984 rom-com about a literal fish out of water (Hanks plays a man who falls in love with a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah). Hanks only auditioned for the role of Allen after Howard's assistant suggested he'd be good for the part. Howard wasn't convinced, as Hanks' resume to that point was quite meager. Still, Howard agreed to give Hanks a tryout, although he thought the actor had "no chance in hell," as he told Us Weekly, of getting approval from studio executives should Howard want to cast him. But then Hanks went in and gave such a great audition as to be undeniable.

Splash was the first big hit of Hanks' acting career and Howard's directing career. Critics nearly unanimously loved it, it topped the box office chart for two weeks, and its screenplay earned an Oscar nomination. Not bad for a movie about the guy from Bosom Buddies hanging around with mermaids.

Tom Hanks, movie star

Following the successful run of Splash, Tom Hanks quickly became the actor casting agents turned to when they needed a likable, grounded leading man for mid-range films. Hanks became the king of mid-'80s mainstream comedies, starring in Bachelor Party, The Money Pit, the big-screen version of Dragnet, The Man with One Red Shoe, and Volunteers. In 1986 Hanks proved he could handle tougher stuff with Nothing in Common, a dramedy in which he played the estranged son of a dying man played by TV comedy icon Jackie Gleason.

But the movie role that made the world realize that Hanks was one of the greatest actors of his generation ended up coming in Big. The 1988 movie arrived in the midst of a slew of slight "body-switch" films like Vice Versa and 18 Again, but this one was different, with Hanks elevating the material and giving a believable performance as Josh Baskin, a child magically stuck in the body of an adult man. A comedy with moments of drama and real emotion, it earned Hanks his first Academy Award nomination.

Even major movie stars have a few misfires, and Tom Hanks is no exception. He had a very bad 1990, starring in the back-to-back box office disappointments Joe Versus the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities. But he soon bounced back, with lead roles in still-beloved early '90s favorites A League of Their Own (as surly 1940s baseball coach Jimmy Dugan) and Sleepless in Seattle (as lovelorn widower Sam Baldwin).

How Tom Hanks went from Super Mario to Sleepless

Super Mario Bros., the surreal, critically panned, commercially unsuccessful big-screen version of the well-known Nintendo franchise, hit theaters in 1993, and certainly sidelined and diminished the careers of many people involved. Tom Hanks was almost among them.

First, Dustin Hoffman expressed interest in playing Mario, but Nintendo president Minoru Arakawa wouldn't allow it. The production pursued Danny DeVito, who turned them down, leading filmmakers to the next name on the list: Hanks. He said he'd do it, for $5 million. Then, after looking at Hanks' resume — which included goofy stuff like Turner and Hooch — Nintendo executives didn't think he had the dramatic chops to carry a Super Mario movie. Fortunately for Hanks, he rebounded nicely. Shortly after Super Mario Bros. (starring Bob Hoskins) flopped, Sleepless in Seattle ended up being one of the bigger hits of 1993.

And then came Philadelphia. The film represented Hanks' most dramatic and challenging role to date — perhaps ever. He portrayed Andrew Beckett, a corporate attorney who sues his law firm after he's fired for being diagnosed with AIDS. Hanks earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his powerful, heartbreaking performance in one of the first mainstream films to tackle the AIDS crisis. In a category stacked with heavy competition — including Liam Neeson in Schindler's List, Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day — Hanks took home the Oscar.

Tom Hanks is a rare kind of Oscar winner

The next year, Tom Hanks turned in another lead performance in a movie that seemed almost genetically engineered to win Academy Awards. He played the title role in Forrest Gump, playing a sweet, intellectually challenged, box-of-chocolates-loving man who somehow was always present for most every major event in 20th century American history. Forrest Gump won Best Picture at the Oscars, while Hanks nabbed the Best Actor trophy for the second consecutive year. That's an exceedingly rare feat — only five actors in Oscars history have won back-to-back awards. In addition to Hanks, these were absolute legends like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. And nobody has done it since Hanks did it.

His trophy for Forrest Gump marks the last time Hanks hoisted an Oscar, but he's certainly not been unrecognized for his work. Hanks has amassed three more Academy Award nominations: Best Actor for Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away, and Best Supporting Actor for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for his uncanny portrayal of TV's Mr. Rogers, the only real-life figure arguably more loved than Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks a box office draw and he's David S. Pumpkins

In addition to his awards-nominated roles in critically and commercially successful films, Tom Hanks' career (or status as America's most likable guy) hasn't changed much over the last couple of decades. Hanks has had several parallel career trajectories, any one of which would make him a star for the ages. He's a franchise guy, starring as Robert Langdon in a trilogy of movies based on Dan Brown's mystery novels. Hanks is also a voice actor, giving life to cowboy Woody in four Toy Story films and various side projects. He still headlines dramatic films, too, notably Captain Phillips, Sully, and The Post. He's also one of TV's top producers, getting highly-regarded fare to theaters and television, including Band of Brothers, John Adams, The Pacific, and Mamma Mia! And top of all that, Hanks is still an agile comedian. He's hosted Saturday Night Live nine times, most recently in 2016, when he originated one of the show's most memorable and delightfully twisted characters in years: would-be Halloween figure David S. Pumpkins.

Tom Hanks has had some health problems

Tom Hanks turned 60 years old in 2016, and as is often the case with advanced age, the actor has suffered from a few serious health scares. In 2013, he revealed that he was among the 30 million or so Americans with adult-onset or type 2 diabetes. It wasn't much of a surprise to Hanks, however. "I went to the doctor and he said, 'You know those high blood sugar numbers you've been dealing with since you were 36? Well, you've graduated,'" Hanks said on The Late Show with David Letterman (via CNN).

Diabetes, along with his age, places Hanks into the category of medically vulnerable, or immunosuppressed. Older people and those with underlying medical conditions are those most at risk of contracting Covid-19, the novel coronavirus that reached pandemic levels in 2020 and killed thousands around the globe. Frighteningly, on March 11, 2020, Hanks announced on Instagram that he had been diagnosed with Covid-19, as had his wife, Rita Wilson. Both were in Australia, where Hanks was working on a film about the life of Elvis Presley. A week later, after a period of self-isolation, Hanks reported that he was slowly recovering, with fever subsiding but not the incredible fatigue.