Chapter 01 - Childhood & Education
1956 - 1980
Thomas Jeffrey Hanks was born on July 9, 1956, in Concord, California, in John Muir Hospital (formerly Mt. Diablo Hospital). Tom Hanks was raised by Amos Mefford Hanks, a cook and restaurant manager, and Janet Hanks (her birth name was Janet Marilyn Frager), a hospital worker. Both his maternal grandparents, though born in California, had Portuguese ancestry.
His parents divorced when he was 4. Tom Hanks described that experience as “confusing” and “lonely”, although he added “but I must say I always seemed to land in a household of pretty decent and carrying people”. His father took him along with his three siblings, Sandra, Larry and Jim, to Reno, Nevada. Because his father was an itinerant cook, Tom Hanks had to move quite often in his childhood, “sometimes every six months”, from place to place : San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Reno.
“From a very early age, my parents never really communicated to me what was going on in the dynamic between them... My mother moved away from our home when I was 4 years old... My father, through all of his marriages, never, ever sat me down and told me how much he either loved or did not love the women he was married to, or shared with me the problems that he was going through. So I was just constantly attempting to cope before I really learned how to cope. I would go through some brand of self-medicating process : becoming very involved in doing something like going to church or making sure that my calendar was filled with something that I was doing every minute.” 1
The family eventually settled in Oakland, California, where Tom Hanks attended and graduated from Skyline High School in 1974. At 14, Tom Hanks had a part time job at the Oakland Coliseum selling peanuts and sodas and would later work as a bellman in an hotel, carrying the bags of some celebrities including Cher, Sidney Poitier, Slappy White and Bill Withers.
When asked about his lonely childhood, Tom Hanks answered “I discovered in a good way my preoccupation with, sort of, like, stories and art or whatever creativity you can call it when you're 8 or 9 or 10 years old was a good combat for loneliness. I developed a real great attachment for going to school. I liked school. Other kids will cut school, I thought school was kind of a great place. There was action there. I knew something was going down there that would generate some sort of a laugh or some sort of a routine or I would belong to something bigger than myself.” 2 Rawley Farnsworth, Tom Hanks’s first drama teacher, seemed to be right then when he explained : “I’ve always had the feeling that Tom wasn’t in any hurry ever to leave after school, after rehearsals. Not that he hated to go home, I don’t know that, but in a way he needed a place where he could make himself comfortable.” It’s at Skyline Highschool that Tom Hanks started theater, “because it just looked like it was so much fun”. Tom Hanks described M. Farnsworth as different from other drama teachers because he asked the students to go up on stage and act, instead of just reading plays. He offered six different theater courses and Tom Hanks took them all.
During his high school years, Tom Hanks liked to entertain his classmates with his comedic talents and acted in school plays. He also worked backstage, as stage manager, learning every aspect of the job. He then transferred to California State University in Sacramento as a theater major, but quit his studies to intern, in 1977, with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Lakewood, Ohio. Vincent Downling the artistic director of the Festival was a guest director. “I was walking across the stage just before the rehearsal and then Vincent said ‘Tom, come here... I think you could be an actor’. To have somebody say that to me was the best possible news, that I didn’t even know that I was running for.”
He offered Tom Hanks to join them explaining that he couldn’t pay him but would give him the chance to work with season professionals. “And that was the thing that was more valuable than cash. You were up on stage doing six plays a year with people who made their living out of it. It was everything he promised me it would be”. Over the next three years, he spent summers acting in numerous productions of Shakespeare’s plays and his winters participating backstage in the community theater company in Sacramento. He received his professional union card and from that moment “never even considered anything else”.
“That was my school. That was the place where I actually learn whatever technic that I have and also the work habits.” 3
He was acclaimed for his performance in The Taming of the Shrew and earned, in 1978, a Cleveland Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for his brilliant performance of Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tom Hanks then moved to New York City with Samantha Lewes (her birth name was Susan Jane Dillingham), a celebrated actress and producer he met in the theater company. They had started dating in 1975 and had gotten married three years later, on January 24, 1978. They had twi children together. Their son, Colin, was born on November 24, 1977 and Elizabeth was born on May 17, 1982.
1 : What's love got to do with it by John T. Chirban, 2006
2 : Sixty Minutes, May 2009
3 : Inside the Actors Studio, September 1999