By Kat Castagnoli, Editor, U.S. Veterans Magazine
When you think of blockbuster hits like Splash, Big, Apollo 13, Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan and Forest Gump, who immediately comes to mind?
None other than the incredibly talented Tom Hanks.
Arguably one of the greatest actors and filmmakers of our time, Hanks has a way of bringing characters to life that resonate with us long after the credits roll. From Forest Gump’s memorable, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” to Andy and Buzz Lightyear’s best friend, Woody, in the animated Toy Story, Hanks is a master storyteller.
But perhaps nowhere is this more prevalent than in his tales of World War II. Hanks’ latest film, Greyhound, spotlights the Battle of the Atlantic—a much-overlooked chapter in WWII naval history. Hanks, who stars as United States Navy Commander Ernest Krause, adapted the screenplay from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel, The Good Shepherd (not to be confused with the 2006 film, The Good Shepherd, about the founding of the CIA), according to Smithsonian Magazine.com.
Set in the winter of 1942, Greyhound—a nod to the nickname of the U.S.S. Keeling, a destroyer under Krause’s command—features Hanks as a newly promoted officer tasked with leading his first transatlantic convoy through a swath of water known as the “Black Pit.” Per the movie’s official description, Krause must protect his fleet from Nazi U-boats over a five-day period without air cover.
The 63-year-old actor’s penchant for war dramas has not only earned him an Academy Award— for his role as Army Capt. John Miller in the acclaimed 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan—he also received an honorary induction into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame for his unforgettable depiction. Hanks also helped write, direct and produce the famed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, a dramatization of actions in WWII by “Easy” Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. In addition, he worked behind-the-scenes on The Pacific, a companion series to Band of Brothers that focused on the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater during WWII.
In talking about Hollywood portrayals of veterans and service members in a Stripes.com interview, Hanks said, “I think in Hollywood, the best thing anyone can do is to tell the true story, to be authentic about it and not mythologize.
“I don’t think there’s any more stereotypical character than a twisted veteran who’s never going to be the same,” Hanks said. “The reality is, when you talk to people and hear these stories, people are just trying to get on with the rest of their lives.”
‘I’m All In’
While this two-time Oscar winner has most certainly shed light on
veterans and the military in his on-screen portrayals, he’s done even more off screen. In 2016, Hanks eagerly took on the role of chairman of the Hidden Heroes campaign—created by former Senator Elizabeth Dole to raise awareness of the many challenges military caregivers face.
In a Military.com interview, Dole recalls how quickly Hanks agreed to get involved. “He didn’t even wait for me to finish my pitch before he said, ‘Senator, I’m all in. I’m in it for the long haul. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
She added since then, Hanks has, “responded to every request, taken every phone call, and posed for every selfie.”
The Hidden Heroes campaign began after Dole’s foundation commissioned a study that found there are at least 5.5 million military caregivers in the United States providing an estimated $14 billion worth of uncompensated health care annually to loved ones. One-fifth of them are caring for someone who served after Sept. 11, 2001.
The foundation’s latest work for military caregivers is to map out where they live so it can customize help to address each person’s specific needs, such as mental and physical health; community support at home; and employment and workplace support.
Hanks says he first gained military perspective by growing up near the Alameda Naval Air Station during the Vietnam War and seeing how big a deal it was for his friends when their fathers returned home.
“I have received a vast education of the type of service that was never asked of me because I was too young and there was no draft,” he said. “So, this is a matter of giving back.”
A Challenging Childhood
Thomas Jeffrey Hanks was born in Concord, Calif., to mother Janet, a hospital worker; and father, Amos, an itinerant cook; on July 9, 1956. When his parents divorced in 1960, Tom, his sister Sandra (later Sandra Hanks Benoiton, a writer), and his brother Larry (an entomology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign), went to live with their father, while his youngest brother Jim (who also became an actor and filmmaker), stayed with their mother in Red Bluff, Calif.
Hanks spent much of his childhood moving and constantly changing schools. By the age of 10, he had lived in 10 different houses. Hanks said he was unpopular with students and teachers, later telling Rolling Stone Magazine, “I was a geek, a spaz. I was horribly, painfully, terribly shy. At the same time, I was the guy who’d yell out funny captions during filmstrips. But I didn’t get into trouble. I was always a real good kid and pretty responsible.”
After settling in Oakland, CA, he began performing in high-school plays. He continued acting while attending California State Sacramento University, and left to pursue his vocation full-time. In 1978, Hanks went to find work in New York; while there he married actress/producer Samantha Lewes, whom he later divorced 1987. They had one son, Colin, and one daughter, Elizabeth.
Hanks’ first onscreen debut was in the low-budget slasher movie, He Knows You’re Alone (1979). Shortly after, he moved to Los Angeles and landed a co-starring role in the TV sitcom, Bosom Buddies, where he met his current wife, actress Rita Wilson. Before marrying Wilson in 1988, Hanks converted to her Greek Orthodox faith and actively attends church to this day. The pair have two sons, Chester Marlon “Chet” and Truman Theodore.
Hanks and Wilson most recently made headlines by testing positive for COVID-19 while the actor was shooting in Australia during the pandemic. Hanks was filming Baz Luhrmann’s biopic on Elvis Presley as Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and production on the film shut down after his diagnosis.
According to CNN.com, Hanks says although he didn’t have symptoms as bad as Wilson, he, “was wiped after 12 minutes [of exercising]. I laid down in my hospital bed and just slept,” Hanks told the National Defense Radio Show.
Thankfully, by late March, both Hanks and his wife were released from the hospital and allowed to return to Los Angeles following their quarantine.
Back to the Barracks
Although Hanks is well-known for his comedic roles, he has earned
an even wider audience by playing dramatic roles, such as the AIDS-afflicted homosexual lawyer in the drama, Philadelphia (1993). Hanks won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actor in Philadelphia, as well as for his portrayal of the slow-witted but ever-lucky Forrest Gump. Hanks said in a USAToday.com interview that some of his favorite scenes were between Forrest and Lieutenant Dan, his commanding officer in the Vietnam War who later became his best friend, played by Gary Sinise—both a personal friend of Hanks and a devotee of veterans and military causes.
Hanks has been the recipient of numerous acting honors, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award, a Golden Globe for lifetime achievement. In addition, he received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2014 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
So, what’s next for Hanks? A return to his World War II roots with a follow up series to Band of Brothers called Masters of the Air, which will be executive produced by himself and Steven Spielberg. In the works for Apple TV+, the miniseries is expected to run north of eight hours, and will reportedly cost more than $200 million to make, according to Deadline.com
Based on Donald L. Miller’s book, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, it’s said to follow the true, deeply personal story of the American bomber boys in WWII who brought the war to Hitler’s doorstep. The first two installments in the Band of Brothers franchise, Band of Brothers and The Pacific, focused on the United States’ Army and Marine divisions.
Said Hanks, “When Saving Private Ryan was done, I had in my head oceans of information that came out of everything that I read, particularly the first-person histories, and I just thought, ‘This is rich and it’s different, and this more than the movie that we made,'” he said in an interview on ABCNews.com. “So out of that came Band of Brothers, which led to The Pacific, which could lead to any—even current things that go on, because I find out that there is nothing better than a true story well told, so we keep finding them.”