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The Many Tom Hankses Of Past And Present

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Jun 28, 2011 | 6:44am EDT

Tom HanksThere are few things that effectively bridge the gap between generations. Baseball. S’mores. And Tom Hanks.

President of the A-Listers, Tom Hanks started out on a wild ride through the Reagan era, making the speed-addicted young adults of the day laugh at things like cross-dressing roommates (Bosom Buddies) and interspecies dating (Splash). But then came a softer Hanks—a few softer Hankses, actually. The romantic. The dramatic. The wooden. No matter who you are or when you were born, there’s a Hanks that you know and love. And we’re taking a look at each of them as a tribute to the man who has brought us so many gems. And The ‘Burbs.

The Dawn of Hanks

Hanks’ feature film career began in 1984, with the release of Splash and Bachelor Party: both kooky comedies, albeit directed at different audiences. Little did Hanks know at the time (unless he is a clairvoyant genius) that this pair of movies would afford him two very dissimilar, but very dedicated fan-bases that would follow him beyond the next two decades.

The Funny Hanks

After Bachelor Party, Hanks performed in a slew of comedy films befitting of the ‘80s era, which favored sight gags over story and substance (that is, until John Hughes was elected the decade's President of Movies). Among Hanks’ films geared at '80s young adults were The Money Pit, Volunteers, DragnetPunchline and Turner and Hooch. Although not all of these were what you’d call critical or commercial hits, they still managed to cement Hanks as one of the nation’s increasingly beloved comedians.

The Romantic Hanks

Splash foreshadowed Hanks’ next image to the American public: a favorite among adults of the 1990s. In 1990, 1993 and 1998, Hanks teamed up with Meg Ryan to release a trio of bizarrely memorable romantic comedies. Together, the pair battled the threat of magmatic eruption (Joe Versus the Volcano), West Coast insomnia (Sleepless in Seattle), and dialup modems (You've Got Mail). Although in the six years between Splash and 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano, Hanks did not make any films matching the traditional “romantic comedy” format, this interim period was peppered with several more sentimental comedies, the most notable of which was, Big, which is impossible to resist watching whenever it’s on television. (“I’ll just keep it on until after they do the piano scene. Then I’ll start my research paper.”) It was this set of films that helped to pave the way for his softer path.

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"Tom Hanks is stuck on an island" in Joe Versus The Volcano circa 1990

The Dramatic Hanks

Early films like Nothing in Common hinted that Hanks was willing and able to take on more dramatic roles, but his transition was hardly gradual. His first major non-comedic role is pretty much the most serious, heart-twisting movie ever made: Philadelphia. Not only was the film a severe tearjerker, it was also extremely culturally-significant because of the groundbreaking stance it took on the AIDS crisis. All this came from the guy who dressed like a woman to trick his landlord into…well, that part was never especially clear.

Hanks continued his dramatic career throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, pumping out another piercingly intense film, Saving Private Ryan. The Hanks familiar to audiences of the time was becoming almost unrecognizable to those of the cinematic past.

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"Tom Hanks is stuck on an island" in Castaway circa 2000

The Wooden Hanks

Somewhere among his affable trysts with Meg Ryan and his less pleasant rescue of James Ryan, Hanks lent his voice to Sheriff Woody. If you are a kid, were a kid, have a kid, or are not legally prohibited from being in the vicinity of kids, you love Toy Story. But Toy Story is MY generation’s trilogy. Seriously. Back off, everyone else. When Andy was five, WE were five. When Andy was leaving for college, WE had just gotten back from college (close enough). But this isn’t about Andy. It’s about Woody: Tom Hanks’ most important role for everyone born in the late 1980s. March of 1988, to be specific. Seriously, I’m very territorial over this movie.

Sure. It’s a little strange that I just dubbed Tom Hanks’ most important role one that doesn't even show his face. Some people say that voice actors aren’t as crucial to the expression of a character as regular actors. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had this conversation, or heard of anyone else having it—but I’m pretty sure people would say make the argument. Well, hypothetical people, you are wrong. What if Harvey Fierstein was the voice of Woody? What if Wallace Shawn was the voice of Woody? Those are the only two options I want you to consider. But seriously, Hanks has the voice of a guy who you can trust. And he made Woody trustworthy. He made Woody a walking (sometimes) epitome of friendship and loyalty. Thus, the Hanks that has effected affected so many members of my generation the most takes the form of an animated toy cowboy.

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"Tom Hanks is stuck on an island" in Toy Story 2 circa 2010

The Contemporary Hanks

The new generation’s Hanks is somewhat of a grab bag. He took his comedic roots to a darker level with The Terminal and The Ladykillers, tried his hand at two biopics—playing second to Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can and taking the lead in Charlie Wilson’s War -- and brought Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon to the screen in the mystery-thriller films, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Hanks these days is somewhat indefinable—although it seems like he’s attempting to borrow from Hanks of past years. On this token, he is reviving his romantic side from the upcoming Larry Crowne, in theaters on July 1.

But of course, Hanks is not limited to his old habits. The actor proves, time and time again, that he is always willing to take on new pursuits…

The Hanksiest Hanks of All

Whatever your age, gender, ethnic background, social caste, dietary restrictions—I do believe that you will invariably come back to defining Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. No other actor can have a critically and commercially successful career spanning three-plus decades and still be pinpointed to one role. I guess Sean Connery can. Also, Marlon Brando. But no one else. Don’t keep thinking. The point is, Forrest Gump is one of the last modern classics. Few films made in my lifetime have earned such universal affection and memorability among American audiences. And that is owed in large part to the man who so affably portrayed the beloved character.

So, whether you were a supercharged Reagan-era twenty-something hungering for cheap laughs, a sentimental young adult in the '90s, a kid born just in time to appreciate the first swing of Pixar, or that one guy who saw The Great Buck Howard, what it all comes down to is that you love, admire and cherish Tom Hanks. So on behalf of all of us, Mr. Hanks, I'd like to thank you, and to ask that you please keep doing that thing you do.

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