2002 Tom Hanks Tribute
By Rochelle L. Levy
The trustees of the American Film Institute selected Tom Hanks to
receive AFI's 30th Life Achievement Award.
Although just 45 years old, actor/director/writer/producer Tom Hanks has
proven himself an extraordinarily versatile and talented artist. Be it comedy
or drama, Hanks' performances are masterful, refined portraits of men
intimately recognizable to audiences. While Hanks' complex exploration of each
of his characters appears effortless, he consistently creates a
three-dimensional personality, devoid of artifice or self-indulgence.
Significantly, many of the roles to which Hanks gravitates embody an aching
loneliness. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, PHILADELPHIA, APOLLO 13, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN,
THE GREEN MILE, CAST AWAY — they're all about ordinary men dealing with agonizing pain, both physical and emotional. The gracefulness of a Tom Hanks performance lies in how delicately — yet profoundly — he reveals the inner core of a fully realized human being, complete with warmth, empathy and, invariably, humor.
Both a cerebral and physical actor, Hanks inhabits his characters without
overpowering them. Chameleon-like, he literally reshapes himself to fit each
singular identity; the results are startlingly believable. In 1989, his
astonishing portrayal of a mischievous 12-year-old boy fascinated by his
30-year-old body in BIG earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Five
years later, his physical deterioration as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS was
agonizingly depicted in PHILADELPHIA. He received the Oscar for Best Actor, a
feat repeated just one year later, when he again transformed himself for
FORREST GUMP, playing a slow-witted, awkward man who finds himself in
extraordinary situations. And, his most dramatic metamorphosis occurred in CAST
AWAY, as he whittled his physique down to depict a man shipwrecked for four
Because his work is so honest, and because he is incessantly characterized
as "nice," we think we know Tom Hanks. Which is a facile presumption.
The fact is he's actually full of contradictions: He's a movie star, yet never
seems larger than life. He's the quintessential romantic leading man, yet lacks
typical leading man looks. He's charming and forthcoming in interviews, yet
never reveals any personal details.
But Hanks does tell us who he is — through his work. He tells us by the
characters he takes on, as well as by the specific, intelligent choices he
makes in playing them. They're all innately decent men, yet remarkably human.
Which means they're all tested by their frailties. So, as AIDS-ravaged lawyer
Andrew Beckett in PHILADELPHIA, Hanks sits in the witness chair — in front of
family, friends, colleagues and his lover — and quietly, yet unflinchingly,
answers humiliating questions about a past sexual indiscretion that is now
costing him his life. The powerful restraint Hanks brings to the scene is
nothing short of heartbreaking.
These quiet moments, wherein Hanks most intimately connects with another
character, is where his artistic integrity shines most brilliantly. Eschewing
grandiosity, he's confident in his ability to communicate emotions with a
minimum of noise. Hanks' composed yet tormented prison guard in THE GREEN MILE
walks slowly up to the electric chair where Michael Clarke Duncan's innocent
convict is strapped in, awaiting execution. After firmly shaking the condemned
man's massive hand and looking him in the eye, Hanks steps back, steels himself
and finally — in a voice barely above a whisper — gives the death order. The moment
is painfully exquisite — it's all there on his face, particularly in the piercing
eyes that have seen almost more than they can bear.
As accomplished as he is at playing dramatic roles, Hanks made his mark in
comedies. Whether dressing as a woman in BOSOM BUDDIES, falling in love with a
mermaid in SPLASH, portraying a washed-up, overweight baseball coach in A
LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN or discovering love via the Internet in YOU'VE GOT MAIL, Hanks
is always delightful as he finds the perfect balance between piquancy and
For his feature directorial debut, Hanks worked from his own script about
the rapid rise and inevitable fall of an early 1960s rock band, The Wonders.
THAT THING YOU DO! showcased Hanks' light touch with the material, as well as
his obvious ease with actors. He later directed one episode each of HBO's
12-part mini-series FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON and of HBO's 10-part mini-series
BAND OF BROTHERS, along with serving as executive producer and writer on both
projects. These mini-series reflect two of his lifelong passions — the space
program and World War II.
Tom Hanks is a man who finds refuge in his family — wife Rita Wilson and
children Colin, Elizabeth, Chester and Truman are the ones who keep him
grounded in the realities of day-to-day life. His family is sacrosanct, and
he's acutely aware and appreciative of the sacrifices they make to ensure that
he continues working in the profession he loves. In accepting his second Best
Actor Oscar, for FORREST GUMP, Hanks said of Wilson: "I'm standing here
because the woman I share my life with has taught me, and demonstrates for me
every day, just what love is."
Through Hanks' ability to render recognizable the most disparate of characters,
along with his inventiveness as a writer, producer and director, he has
established himself as one of the great talents of American cinema. Because of
his uncommon commitment to his craft, his artistic excellence, and the profound
way he captivates us with his passion for storytelling, the American Film
Institute is honored to present Tom Hanks with AFI's 30th Life Achievement
NOTE: Due to licensing restrictions, the telecasts of the AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute are currently not available for distribution or purchase.