Tom Hanks: America’s Favorite Neighbor

Tom Hanks

America’s Favorite Neighbor

By Sondra Barr

After nearly four decades in the spotlight, Tom Hanks still exudes a youthful affability. It’s a rare quality, especially for a longtime actor with such an illustrious Hollywood resume.

It was his boyish charm that helped Hanks land his first role in the early 1980s television comedy series Bosom Buddies. The breakout movies Splash and Big followed, endearing Hanks to a worldwide audience. Hanks’ amiable boy-next-door persona has endured despite his growing influence as one of America’s most beloved actors. Tackling movies as varied as Sleepless in Seattle, Toy Story, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away, The Da Vinci Code, Captain Phillips, and The Post, the 62-year old has been nominated for the best actor Oscar five times. Two Academy Awards––for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia––are among his impressive list of accolades. Meanwhile, Hanks’ films have grossed billions worldwide, squarely placing him among the top five highest-grossing actors ever.

Adept at playing seemingly common men in uncommon circumstances, it’s no surprise that Hanks will soon slip into the famous red cardigan of one of America’s most beloved neighbors––Fred Rogers. The creator, composer, producer, head writer, and host of the preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers’ Emmy-nominated PBS series influenced generations of children. Aired from 1968 to 2001, it was one of the longest-running children’s shows of all time.

It’s an ideal role for Hanks, who’s played the good guy in most of his beloved roles. When asked why he doesn’t play the villain more often in movies, Hanks explained to The Talks website, “I sometimes have a problem with the logic of bad guys. I’m not interested in playing some evil guy for the sake of evil. This is one of the standard movie formats: You have the incredibly good protagonist and the incredibly evil antagonist. They do battle and guess what? The protagonist always wins. I am not intrigued by that. I want to understand the motivation.”

What motivates Hanks is a passion for story telling and an adherence to basic human decency. He credits attention to courtesy and discipline for his success. “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,” Hanks explained to Oprah when the two celebrated personalities sat down during an interview for O Magazine.

“I try to do what I call the three E’s––educate, entertain, and enlighten. If you don’t entertain, no one will show up. But you also have to educate, because people want to discover specific things about a world unlike their own––whether it’s how hard it is to go to the moon or how scary it is to be on Omaha Beach,” he explained to Oprah. “A story also has the opportunity to enlighten us, because as we connect the extraordinary moments on film with the ordinary moments of our lives, we ask ourselves, ‘What am I going to do the next time I’m scared? What would it be like to say goodbye to my family for the last time?’ 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.”

According to The Guardian, Hanks is famously uxorious, and his reliability as an actor is something that, from his first marriage at the age of 21, he has pegged to the stability of his home life. Hanks told the newspaper if he hadn’t married and had kids early, he might have had a tougher time handling his fame.

Married to actress Samantha Lewes from 1978 to 1987, the couple had a son and daughter before divorcing. He married actress Rita Wilson, with whom he has two children, in 1988.

“Other than moments of total terror, what it (marriage) provided me with was a nut that I had to provide: there’s three of us, now, and I need x numbers of dollars in order for us, literally, to survive,” said Hanks of his first union. “I need to make enough to be able to go to the dentist and fix my car, and as soon as I get on a decent dental plan, then the rest is the high country.”

Hanks shared with W Magazine’s Lynn Hirschbert the moment he knew he’d made it in Hollywood: “I didn’t feel as though I made it until I realized that I could make my house payments for two years, and if my car broke down I’d be able to get it fixed. And that wasn’t until, uh, going to say 1983.” 

While Hanks admits that he’s now rich, according to the aforementioned article, he is also extremely careful with money. “I read a long time ago that you can’t have debt. If you’re in debt, you can’t say no.” With that in mind, Hanks has stored away enough money so that if everything stops tomorrow, he won’t have to worry.

Life is never free from trials and tribulations, however––even for Tom Hanks. In 2013, Hanks revealed his type 2 diabetes diagnosis, telling then Late Show host David Letterman, “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! You’ve got type 2 diabetes, young man.’”

Although his doctor had previously warned him about his elevated blood sugar numbers, like many Americans, Hanks ignored his doctor’s medical advice. It’s something he regrets.

“I’m part of the lazy American generation that has blindly kept dancing through the party and now finds ourselves with a malady,” the actor said in an interview for Radio Times.

Speaking with another media outlet, Hanks shared: “There is an ocean of information out there and I am not an expert, but the truth is this is an epidemic in the U.S. because of our lifestyle and the food that we eat and the way we lead our lives. More people have diabetes than ever before.”

Sharing his diagnosis was a way for the star to take responsibility and encourage others to take action. Always the good neighbor, Hanks is vocal about the importance of quality healthcare and encourages fans to embrace a willingness to change habits––things he wishes he’d done sooner.

Of course, success to Hanks means more than taking care of his family, improving his health, and having money in the bank. He puts as much heart into philanthropic efforts as he does into his performances. His charitable range is impressive and encompasses efforts around conservation, children, and AIDS. Many of his most vocal efforts revolve around causes for veterans.

Hanks received an honorary induction into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame for his role in Saving Private Ryan. Not only has Hanks played the part of a soldier and veteran in several of his films, he supports real life heroes. Hanks was honored in 2018 by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for his work with Hidden Heroes, the foundation’s efforts to aid veteran caregivers, a campaign he helped launch in 2016. He’s also on the advisory committee for the memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and has helped raise funds for the national World War II Memorial.

Recently, Hanks also narrated a video aimed at combating the high rate of veteran suicides in the United States. “A handshake, a phone call, a simple gesture make a big difference to a veteran in crisis,” Tom Hanks says in the video.

Hanks has said about Hollywood portrayals of veterans and service members that the best thing anyone can do is be authentic, something he hopes to continue to do with another war drama he’s working on based on a C.S. Forester novel that follows a Navy destroyer during the Battle of the Atlantic.