The World According to Tom Hanks

The Life, the Obsessions, the Good Deeds of America's Most Decent Guy


By Gavin Edwards

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An entertaining and insightful homage to Tom Hanks, America’s favorite movie star, from the New York Times bestselling author of the cult sensation The Tao of Bill Murray.

Niceness gets a bad rap these days. Our culture rewards those who troll the hardest and who snark the most. At times it seems like there’s no place anymore for optimism, integrity, and good old-fashioned respect. Enter “America’s Dad”: Tom Hanks. Whether he’s buying espresso machines for the White House Press Corps, rewarding a jovial cab driver with a night out on Broadway, or extolling the virtues of using a typewriter, Hanks lives a passionate, joyful life and pays it forward to others. Gavin Edwards, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tao of Bill Murray, takes readers on a tour behind the scenes of Hanks’s life: from his less-than-idyllic childhood, rocky first marriage, and career wipeouts to the pinnacle of his acting career and domestic bliss with the love of his life, Rita Wilson.

As he did for Bill Murray, Edwards distills Hanks’s life story into ten “commandments” that beautifully encapsulate his All-American philosophy. Contemplating the life, the achievements, and the obsessions of Mr. Tom Hanks may or may not give you the road map you need to find your way. But at the very least, it’ll show you how niceness can be a worthy destination.



The Nice Manifesto

TOM HANKS IS A REALLY NICE GUY. Hey, wait! Where are you going?

Since “Tom Hanks is a really nice guy” is the sum total of the knowledge many people have about the actor, let’s go deeper—and let’s start with “nice.” It’s hardly ever a compliment, except in the hands of grandmothers who put a high value on politeness. It’s almost a term of contempt—“nice” is what you say about an edible but forgettable meal, or about a blind date whom you won’t be seeing again. Modern society, however, values feuds, celebrities who subtweet sassy insults at their exes, and reality show contestants who declare “I didn’t come here to make friends.”

I get it—bad behavior can be incredibly entertaining. The mass media has thrived for decades on the hypocritical game of “I am going to express my disapproval of something immoral and sexy, and I will do it in great detail so we can all get a vicarious thrill.” But in recent years, all that invective migrated from the TV dating shows, gossip magazines, and the free throw line into the center of our culture, so now everything from the pop charts to the American presidency feels like a perpetual mashup of a rose ceremony, basketball trash talk, and “Who Wore It Best?”

Nice means dull. Nice means bland. Nice means vanilla. But if everyone wants to be the rebel who embodies the counterculture, then there’s no central culture left for bad girls and boys to flip off—life just becomes a race to the bottom in a counterclockwise spiral of petty bickering.

I’m not here to tell you that you should be nice because it’ll make the world a better place. But I am here to tell you that a more virtuous worldview—one where you consider other people and place basic human decency in higher regard than petty bickering and side-eye sniping—is a richer and more rewarding mental landscape to pitch your tent in. Vanilla isn’t the absence of flavor—it has a delicious taste of its own. (When Thomas Jefferson first encountered vanilla ice cream in Paris, in the 1780s, he was so delighted by the new culinary sensation, he wrote down a copy of the recipe, now preserved in the Library of Congress.)

Niceness—let’s define it broadly as “deferring immediate self-gratification in favor of the common good”—is a road to building happy families, to making great works of art, to sending human beings to the moon. Niceness can be tough and bloody—the good guys don’t win World War II if not for the sacrifices of millions of people. It doesn’t matter whether you get your ethical code from religious texts, your grandparents, or Parks and Recreation reruns; you’re going to find a way forward into your own version of niceness. Maybe you’ll call it something else, like “self-sacrifice” or “human decency.”

Which is where Tom Hanks and this book come in. When you interview Tom Hanks’ friends, here’s something that almost all of them say: “How are you going to write about this guy?” They understand the difficulty of selling “nice” as well as anybody. But when they’re assured that you’ll figure something out, they’re happy to tell you how much knowing the man has affected them. Consider a few testimonials:

“I suppose it’s the sheer bloody Tom Hankness of Tom Hanks that takes the breath away. He is the national treasure of America that you expect him to be, but he is not bland or smooth-edged and round-cornered, he’s witty, funny, feisty, and fully human… not a mannequin of overniceness.”

—Stephen Fry (national treasure of England)

“He is the most accomplished actor ever. He has this enormous box office, but he also has enormous critical accomplishments. He knows what the truth is, both in work and life, and has the confidence as an actor to believe that the truth will have dramatic power. More often than not, movies have moments that are jacked up or have a heightened sense of drama; he will not allow that, and that’s what really distinguishes him. I always view him as a role model in terms of character, ethics and morality, and I will often try to project how he would handle a given situation. He is a moral compass.”

—Brian Grazer (producer of Splash, Apollo 13, and The Da Vinci Code)

“The guy could be, should have been, a professional soldier. He has the mind, the motivation, the spirit and the body to make a good officer. He’s inquisitive and highly intelligent. Strip away the Hollywood crap and he’s like Captain Miller: a common man in uncommon circumstances who rises to uncommon levels.”

—Captain Dale Dye (USMC [retired], senior military advisor on Saving Private Ryan)

“Sometimes the mind-set of actors is fueled by neuroses or intense need. He is different—the way he lives his life, it’s touching to me. He’s a tender soul. I don’t mean to make him sound like a saint, but he is good. His goodness, it could make me start to cry. He is possibly the nicest human being, and the kindest, and the most soulful. Everything you read is all true, and I would double it.”

—Holly Fulger (friend for four decades)

The point is not that Tom Hanks is an angel who walks among us in human form. Hanks will be the first to tell you that he’s a regular guy with human foibles—although, when pressed to name a bad habit, he sometimes has difficulty coming up with anything worse than being slack about returning phone calls. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks has become the modern avatar of “nice guy,” taking over the mantle from Mr. Fred Rogers, which is why people got so excited when it was announced that Hanks would be starring as Rogers in the movie You Are My Friend. It wasn’t that Hanks is the spitting image of Rogers, but that it felt like he belonged in his neighborhood.

When the horrendous cascade of sexual-harassment scandals rolled over 2017, people clung to Hanks’ reputation like it was a pop-culture life preserver. “Another Actress Steps Forward Accusing Tom Hanks of Being Nice,” read one widely circulated parody news headline. The darkly ironic version of that headline was also popular: “World Doesn’t Even Know Who to Admire Anymore After Tom Hanks Murders 5.”

Hang on, let’s allow the man to speak for himself.

“Here’s the deal. I’m much more complex than this, okay? And I try to communicate this if we’re having an honest-to-god, one-on-one type of conversation. I’ll answer, really, anything—unless it’s stuff that’s nobody’s business. How I do my job. What I think my place in the zeitgeist is. I’ll talk about this ad infinitum. And I think it’s much more compelling than ‘Well, he’s just the nicest guy’ and ‘You know what? Nice guys do finish first sometimes.’ It doesn’t make me mad. It’s just boring.”

—Tom Hanks (nice guy)

Contemplating the life, the achievements, and the obsessions of Mr. Tom Hanks may or may not give you the road map you need to find your way forward. But at the very least, I hope it’ll confirm that “niceness” is a worthy destination, not a land bleached of color with child-protective plugs in all the electrical sockets. You don’t have to live there if you don’t want to, but I encourage you to get your passport stamped and visit whenever you can.

When we mock niceness, that disdain comes out of fear—the apprehension that being nice is volunteering to be a sucker, to be the patsy in life’s cosmic joke. But the existence of Tom Hanks puts the lie to that fear. He’s an amazingly successful actor, whether you’re measuring by box office, Q rating, or Oscar nominations (he’s got five, for movies that sum up his career reasonably well: Big, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away). He’s insanely wealthy and ridiculously content in his family life. And he gets the joke.

His movies skewed more dramatic than comedic over the years, but Hanks remains a reliably entertaining presence on late-night talk shows, on Saturday Night Live, even on public radio’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Sure, he has excellent comic timing and can do impressions, but fundamentally, he seems like good company. Hanks has the smile of a man who’s lived long enough to understand how the world is put together. For Hanks, virtue has been not just its own reward but the foundation of a better life. He can’t explain his philosophy to everyone who approaches him for a selfie, but he can lead by example. He can reach out to the people around him and make the world a better place.

Tom Hanks came here to make friends.

Section One

A Brief History of Tom

TOM HANKS SEEMS LIKE ONE OF THE MOST CAPABLE ADULTS in the United States: a movie star with two Academy Awards, a happily married man with four children, an actor who’s earned hundreds of millions of dollars, a guy who’s so reasonable and well-balanced that he’s been nicknamed “America’s Dad.”

Like everybody else, he’s the product of his upbringing, and so he peppers his speech with the vocabulary of his childhood—an argot that blends California dude-speak, Bible-study wholesomeness, and many, many hours soaking up the cathode-ray wisdom of 1960s television. In conversation, Hanks routinely uses words like “bodacious,” “chucklehead,” “cockamamie,” and “high-falutin’.” They aren’t affectations—they’re just the split-second exposures when you can see the child behind the man.

Memories and beliefs and words spin around inside Tom Hanks’ skull, like electrons orbiting the radioactive nucleus of his Atomic Age U-238 brain, and periodically another isotopic phrase achieves escape velocity. That’s why Tom Hanks punctuates his conversations with old-fashioned interjections: “For crying out loud!” “Son of a gun!” “Holy smoke!” “Jeepers creepers!” “Oh landy!” Each one of them is a reminder: to understand Tom Hanks, you have to know where he came from.

Thomas Jeffrey Hanks was born on July 9, 1956, in Concord, California—a navy town about thirty miles east of San Francisco. Tom was the third of four children, preceded by his sister Sandra and his brother Larry, and followed five years later by his brother Jimmy. Their father, Amos “Bud” Hanks, grew up poor on a farm in Willows, California—but during World War II he was stationed in the South Pacific, working as a machinist for the U.S. Navy.

After the war, Bud dreamed of attending college, and then immigrating to Australia, where he would make a living as a writer. What actually happened was that while working in a restaurant in Berkeley, he fell for a waitress, Janet Frager. They got married in Reno in 1950; one year later, they started having kids.

Bud made his living as a chef: not the grease-stained guy working the grill at a local diner, but the man in charge of banquet halls and other large-scale catering operations. Tom said, “Basically, he ran the kitchen in union dinner houses. Places with a net-and-nautical theme, with bamboo barstools, and a dirty, disgusting kitchen.”

Bud and Janet split up in early 1962, when Sandra was ten, Larry was eight, Tom was five, and little Jimmy was not yet a year old. “My parents pioneered the marriage-dissolution laws for the state of California,” Tom said as an adult. “There really should be a whole wing on some justice building named after them.” That line has been a go-to joke for Tom over the years, letting him deflect questions about the stigma of divorce. But in fact, it was confusing and terrifying to be a preschooler given orders to pack his bags, told that he could bring only one or two toys from his closet.

“I was only five when we first started moving around. I just felt lonely; I felt abandoned, in the dark,” Tom said. “No one is telling you the why, just the what: Pack your bags, get the stuff you want, and put it in the back of the station wagon.”

Bud took the three older children, leaving Jimmy behind with Janet, and headed off to Reno, Nevada, where they moved in with Winifred Finley, herself a mother of eight (although her three oldest children had already left home). Two months after the Hanks clan arrived in Nevada, Bud and Janet were officially divorced; four days later, he married Finley.

“We were total strangers, all thrust together,” Tom said. “I remember in school we had to draw a picture of our house and family and I ran out of places to put people. I put them on the roof. I drew Dad in bed, sleeping, since he worked so hard in the restaurant.”

When Tom was seven years old, he was stopped on his way to school by three teenage girls. He didn’t know them, but they accused him of having mistreated their little sister, and beat him up to teach him a lesson. “I don’t know if they actually drew blood,” Tom said. “But I remember, like, being hit in the face with a feminine knuckle sandwich.” It was apparently a case of mistaken identity—Tom was wearing a fuzzy gray coat, like the actual malefactor. After the violent encounter, he walked to school, crying all the way—not so much because of the pain, but more because of the sheer unfairness of it all. It was one more morning when Tom wasn’t in control of his own fate.

Bud was a restless man who was skeptical of his new wife’s conversion to the Mormon faith. His second marriage lasted less than two years before he packed up and left town. “When he and she split up, I never saw those people again,” Tom said of his former stepsiblings. “I’ve heard news of a few of them, but for the most part, I have no idea where they are.” By Tom’s count, the family moved seven times in eight years, to a variety of towns in Northern California—Redding, Sacramento, Pleasant Hill, San Mateo, Alameda, Oakland—or as Tom put it, “not much farther than half a tank of gas can get you, with a U-Haul trailer with a few things behind you.”

Tom is careful to say that he wasn’t traumatized by his itinerant childhood, and mostly regarded it as a way to experience different living situations. He joked, “If the house didn’t have something we wanted, like a closet, we’d move to another house that had the closet.”

He and his siblings visited their mom periodically, taking a Greyhound bus to her home in Red Bluff, California. “Here’s what never happened,” he said of those journeys. “We never sat down next to someone who was happy and who engaged us as children. We were either ignored or, a couple of times, sitting next to drunks.” Sometimes the bus rides were frightening, but sometimes they were magical.

“After a while, I’d read not just the comic books I’d brought but every ad in the comic books as well. Eventually, I’d just be looking out the window and dreaming. By and large, it was like a road trip, in the great way road trips can be, but without your mom and dad in the front seat. I had a certain amount of money in my pocket and a certain distance I had to go. It was like traveling along in a peaceful cocoon. It fueled the imagination.”

Tom’s younger brother, Jimmy, had stayed behind with their mother when their parents split: she couldn’t afford to keep more than one kid. Jimmy keenly felt the division from his older siblings—and trips where they came to visit Red Bluff and Tom tormented him didn’t help bring them together.

Back home, Tom took judo classes and played Little League baseball, but he liked being alone, and said he was never bored. He could imagine a can opener was a helicopter; a leather belt would transform into a high-speed train, and either object could occupy him for hours. “I could entertain myself for days on end without any need of distraction. I pondered Woody Allen–ish kind of stuff. ‘When is the sun going to burn out?’ ‘How come the world is so neat?’ ‘Why is James Bond cool?’” His youthful exuberance had not yet smacked into the limits that come with maturity. “Maybe at ten or eleven, I’d be wondering ‘Why do I feel lonely? Why do I feel disconnected?’” he said. “But I wasn’t sophisticated enough yet.”

Tom’s independence and self-reliance would grow even stronger: starting in 1965, the year Tom turned nine, Bud basically let the kids take care of themselves. “We never broke laws,” Tom said. “Just furniture.” The Hanks family was living in apartment #714 of a big complex in Alameda. Bud was working at the Castaway steakhouse in Oakland’s Jack London Square, a daily shift from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. When he was at work—i.e., all the time—the kids did what they wanted.

“We’d hang plastic models from the bunk beds, jam firecrackers into them, run out of the room while they exploded, then come back in to see them still aflame. We never got killed. I think my dad patted himself on the back for that fact: ‘Well, my kids didn’t get killed!’” Tom reflected, “Yeah, but, Dad, we came so close.”

The kids cooked for themselves—which meant they burned lots of tomato soup and tossed the frozen peas down the garbage disposal. “We didn’t know about sauces or butter or spices or things like that,” Tom said. “And Brussels sprouts—you know how they look like the brains of rats? Roll ’em over on their sides and they kinda look elongated, like you can almost see the skull encasing? I can’t eat that stuff, just because for about two and a half years, that was all there was.”

The only discipline in Tom’s life came at school—he loved it, so he never cut class. And he had a strict teacher, Mrs. Castle, whom he hugely respected. She told her students that they should be in bed by 7:30 p.m. and asleep by 8:00 p.m., so he did just that.

Tom was obsessed with baseball and the space program, but he spent most of his waking hours watching TV. “I knew what time it was by what was on television,” he said. His favorite show was Then Came Bronson (Michael Parks rides a motorcycle around the United States, getting into adventures and changing people’s lives), but he also loved Batman (the campy version starring Adam West), the original Star Trek (Jason and the Argonauts in outer space), Leave It to Beaver (a sunny domestic sitcom about a nuclear family), The Brady Bunch (an equally sunny domestic sitcom about a blended family), Fireball X-7 (action-adventure plots as performed by marionettes), and the true-life underwater adventures of Jacques Cousteau. But one day Tom caught Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai on the local public television station, and the Japanese epic blew his mind—as did another subtitled movie on the same station, Fellini’s mythological La Strada.

The unsupervised existence of the Hanks children ended abruptly when Tom was ten: his father got married for the third time. Bud’s new wife was Frances Wong, a waitress at a Chinese restaurant in Jack London Square. The Hanks family moved into a house in the Oakland foothills with Wong and her youngest daughter, age five. Tom’s new stepmother wanted to establish domestic order, but the three Hanks kids resisted.

Hanks said, “They tried to have rules, but the rules were unenforceable. Our first question was always ‘Why bother?’ You couldn’t take three kids—essentially feral wolf-boys who’d been raising themselves, for good or bad—and take that freedom away. We’d gone through very formative years where we’d say, ‘Oh, I can do this myself.’ It was like trying to take a nomadic tribe and put them in a house in the suburbs. Quite frankly, it fell apart very quickly.”

Meals transformed from pizza and burnt soup to traditional Chinese dishes. Rules and discipline were mapped onto what had once been an uncharted ocean of laissez-faire parenting. After some screaming matches, Tom’s sister Sandra, now a teenager, left the home and moved in with her mother. Tom and Larry took over the bottom half of the house. “We talked to the rest of the family at mealtimes,” Tom said, “and barely even then.”

Larry had always been the funniest member of the Hanks family—sometimes Tom had gotten laughs at school just by repeating Larry’s dinnertime quips the next day—but now Tom was finding his own voice. By the time he reached high school, he had his public persona figured out: he was the joker making wisecracks while the class was watching an educational slide show, with an excellent sense of just how far he could go to tweak authority without getting into trouble.

The school was Skyline High, in Oakland, California. “It was a big urban public school,” Tom said. “Two thousand kids. A big drug culture. Very well integrated. The rules were being completely redefined. As a matter of fact, I think everybody had given up by then. By the time I got there, the attitude was ‘Do whatever you want, just don’t burn the place down’—which, actually, some people still tried to do.”

Tom was skinny, all knees and elbows. He wasn’t a good baseball player, so he joined the track team: he could run 440 yards in 61 seconds. It was a sport where diligence and enthusiasm counted for more than physical grace. Tom was now paying attention to the opposite sex, but discovered that his interest wasn’t reciprocated. “I was death with women in high school,” he said. “Absolutely the strike-out king. I was a little too geeky, a little too gangly, and much too manic.”

Oakland was only a few miles and a few years past the San Francisco hippie revolution, but it might as well have been a different planet. “I’m not a child of the ’60s, I’m a child of the ’70s,” Tom said. “The establishment was already in shambles by the time I could have fought against it. I was already running around in the cracks. And the counterculture had already blossomed and rotted before my very eyes. I grew up in Oakland, between the time of the violent aspects of the Black Panthers versus the good societal aspects of the Black Panthers. You could see people enjoying drugs and stuff like that. But there was no Summer of Love left, man, it was fistfights and people ripping off your car by then. That’s what it was. It was a guy who would beat you up and steal your money more than it was ‘Hey, there’s a free concert at Golden Gate Park.’ By the time I became a conscious human being, it was already gone.”

So with flower power having been depleted, young Tom had to find his own epiphanies. Three discoveries rewired his mind when he was a kid: One was J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, a traditional coming-of-age book for young literary souls that reads like a secret message from Salinger, peeling away a cynical façade to reveal a confused but tender heart. Tom felt just as alone as the narrator Holden Caulfield did—like many teenagers, he couldn’t believe how accurately the book described his innermost self. Also, he was amazed that it contained the forbidden word “crap.”

Another catalyst was Tom learning about the Holocaust: he saw the famous 1943 photo of a Jewish boy being removed from the Warsaw ghetto by Nazi soldiers, en route to a concentration camp. Tom read everything he could about the Holocaust, trying to understand how the systematic murder of six million Jewish people could have happened in his parents’ lifetimes. It’s a powerful thing for a young mind to grapple with the notion that not only is evil real, sometimes it’s implemented on an industrial scale.

The third and biggest discovery for Tom: Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The most influential film, movie, story, artistic package, whatever, that I ever saw,” Tom said. He marveled at the opening 40 minutes of great apes battling over a waterhole without dialogue; at how the acting was so real in the latter sections as to verge on boring; at the mind-boggling scope of the story. He was so overcome by awe that he saw all 142 minutes of the movie in theaters no fewer than 22 times. Each time he watched it he succumbed to its narrative logic, always noticing something new, one more brilliant Kubrickian flourish. Who could blame him for spending his free time at the local planetarium, or forever associating the scientific discoveries of the space program with the artistic innovations of a master filmmaker?

At home, Tom and his father had reached a stalemate of mutual incomprehension. “He was the polar opposite of me,” Tom said. “He was shy, not outgoing, didn’t communicate very well. He was a man who was really good with his hands. And I was good with my verbs.”

Having abandoned his writing dreams long ago to spend a lifetime in the restaurant business, Bud could not fathom why his son didn’t want to follow in his footsteps, putting aside any artistic ambitions in favor of a steady salary. He reminded Tom that there were jobs available down the street, at a local Jack in the Box burger joint. “Any knothead could be assistant manager in six months,” he told his son.

Tom’s reply: “Well, number one, thanks for the praise. And number two, I have never heard you talk about what you enjoy doing for a living.” But that response was just in Tom’s head—he knew better than to say it out loud.

Tom found a substitute family: the youth group at the nearby First Covenant Church. Perhaps because his father had no strong religious beliefs of his own, Tom had been exposed to a wide variety of faiths—he was raised Catholic in his early years, but his first stepmother was a devout Mormon, and he had spent a lot of time with his aunt (Bud’s sister Mary Brummet), who was Nazarene (or as Tom put it, “ultra-super-Methodist”), while most of his high school friends were Jewish.


  • "If there is a new Mr. Rogers in our culture, it's got to be Tom Hanks: honest, decent, trustworthy. Gavin Edwards's book taps into what makes Hanks someone we love and someone we should emulate."—Morgan Neville, director of Won't You Be My Neighbor?
  • "There have been greater, weightier testaments to the art of cinema published in 2016 . . . but for sheer dopamine release, [The Tao of Bill Murray is] hard to beat."—The New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Oct 23, 2018
Page Count
368 pages

Gavin Edwards

About the Author

Gavin Edwards is the New York Times bestselling author and editor of twelve books, including The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment, and Party Crashing and Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever. He has also written for numerous publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vogue, GQ, Details, and Rolling Stone. In the name of journalism, he has hiked the Great Wall of China, inhaled with Snoop Dogg, and participated in the world’s largest tomato fight. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife and two children.

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