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If there ever was a Mount Rushmore of actors that are loved by the entire world, one of the first names to be submitted for approval would have to be Tom Hanks. Starting out as a star of TV, through roles in shows like Happy Days, Family Ties, and most notably, Bosom Buddies, Hanks eventually became an actor that would take the world of movies by storm. Launching the greatest charm offensive known to humanity, this legendary performer would traverse the spectrum of human behavior, with the ability to draw a crowd no matter where he landed.
In that career are hallmark roles that everyone knows and loves, but on top of those fan favorites are some roles that should be talked about with the same reverent tones that are used for all the popular picks. Which is why today, we’re going run down not only the best and most popular Tom Hanks movies that everyone can name by heart, but also talk about those films that need a friend. And buddy, these films have a friend in us.
Let's kick things off by delving into the 'popular' portion of his filmography.
His first big Hollywood credit, Splash not only was a gamble at the newly born Touchstone Pictures label, it was also Tom Hanks’ first shot as a romantic comedy lead. While he would cash in on more bawdy and outrageous films for a little while longer, this story about a man who falls in love with a mermaid, played by Daryl Hannah, already laid down the foundation that would carry his career into a new phase in the next decade. Even in this early film, the chemistry between the leads only showed that Hanks and Hannah had the chops to play heart and humor, and it showed that director Ron Howard was a talent to keep watching out for as well. And to think, Tom Hanks originally auditioned for the supporting role that John Candy would eventually play.
14. A League Of Their Own
Tom Hanks has been known as a man that straddles the lines of comedy and drama with great style, and a knowledge of knowing when to play which side of the coin. A League of Their Own is the first calling card that Hanks picked up in that respect, as the role of crass alcoholic Jimmy Dugan gave him the chance to play both an arrogant baseball coach and a supportive teammate to the women he’s coaching. Mixing it up with Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna, Tom Hanks keeps up with everyone he’s playing to in each scene, and he taught us the greatest lesson of all: there’s no crying in baseball.
It’s not easy to play a kid on screen, whether you’re a child performer or an adult that has to pretend that they’re of that same mindset. Big was the moment that Tom Hanks learned that lesson, and it was the first great success that really showed how strong his acting game was. His first collaboration with director Penny Marshall, before their famous re-teaming on A League of Their Own, Hanks’ role of Josh Baskin was mostly a vehicle for the laughs involved with a kid physically growing up overnight. Though it’s not the total package, as Josh’s story also delves into the pressures of adult life and the yearning to go back to the simplicity of childhood. You’ll laugh, cry and smile when Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia play piano at F.A.O. Schwartz.
12. Sleepless In Seattle
There are great shifts in Tom Hanks’ career that allowed him to play various roles, and Sleepless In Seattle is definitely one of them. Portraying a widower whose son casts a wide net to find him a new love, Hanks is teamed for the first time with Meg Ryan, who plays a reporter that’s interested in meeting his lonely character, all in the name of love. Wry wit sets the scene and heartfelt emotion takes the cake, as everything from riffing on romantic movies to a fateful meeting at the Empire State Building, find a way into everyone’s hearts. Naturally, with Tom Hanks as a leading man, it’s not that hard of a job, but it sure doesn’t downplay the results. Even if the man himself admits that during production, he might have been a bit cranky.
11. Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks is a combination that has gone down in history as one of those peanut butter/chocolate mashups that usually brings something beautiful to the table. Their first teaming was in the 1998 World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, and thinking back to how that film played out, one could see why they decided to stay together. Seeing Hanks’ Captain John Miller lead a platoon of men into occupied Germany, with the task of saving the last remaining survivor of a family of brothers fighting the war, invokes shades of the classic wartime epics that came before it. Of course, differentiating this film from its inspirations is the fact that Tom Hanks and his co-stars get to show the brutalities of war, in addition to its camaraderie. One of his most heartbreaking performances, and undoubtedly one of Spielberg’s greatest films, Hanks gave his director a lead to remember, and it helped keep them working together for some time into the future.
10. Toy Story
In the modern era of animation, taking a voice-over role in an animated film feels like a logical step, as well as a big cash-in. But back in the days of Pixar’s Toy Story, that practice was still getting its legs underneath it, even in the camp of Disney’s dream factory. In fact, it’s probably because of Tom Hanks’ iconic role as Sheriff Woody that the phenomenon of big stars in animated films kicked into overdrive by the late ‘90s. Co-starring Tim Allen and a cast of notables, Toy Story broke all sorts of ground for a genre that was merely seen as kids’ entertainment, and a lot of that effort came from the heart that Hanks and his co-stars put into the toy box. And from the looks of what’s been going on with Toy Story 4, it’s something that none of them have ever forgotten.
9. Apollo 13
In his earlier career, Tom Hanks thrived on roles that showed him as a person who would antagonize and even shirk off the yolk of authority. But eventually, this era of his career ended, and in its place was an air of authority that is undoubtedly present in most of his performances. And Apollo 13 is one of the films you should thank for it, as previous collaborator Ron Howard directed Hanks in this film about an infamous disaster during the American space race, and the efforts of all involved to save those caught in the aftermath. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon are the astronauts at the heart of the story, all sharing the burden of portraying real life figures, while keeping in mind that they’re more humans than gods. The results are unforgettable, and to this day, Apollo 13 is still one of the best movies about early space flight.
8. Forrest Gump
You knew this was coming. You cannot have a list of Tom Hanks’ most popular roles without mentioning his Academy Award winning role in director Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. Whether you love the film, or absolutely hate its guts, there’s no denying that without Hanks in the center of that story’s universe, it all falls apart. Playing a man of less than average intelligence, Hanks doesn’t play the desperate cards that some might resort to for sympathy. Rather, he roots his decisions for the character in a humanity that links the entire world together. It’s because of this that anyone can identify with Forrest Gump, and in turn, anyone can laugh, cry or stare at the world as it’s shown through his particular viewpoint. Life may be like a box of chocolates, but Tom Hanks’ performance is that one piece you always run to in that box when you need an extra pick-me-up.
Now that we've covered Tom Hanks' popular movies, let's look at the underrated ones, i.e. the movies that don't get as much love as they should.
Right out of the gates holding back the underrated portion of this rundown is Dragnet, a movie that, by conventional wisdom and its place in time, should not have worked. It was a movie adaptation of a show that the '80s nostalgia machine was ready to play ball with, and you can see it in Dan Aykroyd’s Sgt. Joe Friday. That character is an almost note-for-note adaptation of the original TV character of the same name, and if the film had stuck solely on that track, it might have had problems. But adding in a younger comic relief character in Tom Hanks’ rookie Pep Strebeck not only gave Aykroyd’s schtick something to bounce off of, it allowed Dragnet to mash up its past history with a more modern beat. The result is something that’s so wonderfully right, it’s a shame it never spawned at least one sequel.
6. Road To Perdition
Sam Mendes had a blank creative check to do anything as a follow up to American Beauty, and it didn’t take long for the director to cash it. Paid out to the order of the comic adaptation Road To Perdition, Tom Hanks plays way against type as Michael Sullivan, a hitman working for the Chicago mob who has to run for his life. Protecting his son, who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, Hanks’ character gets to show a lethal edge that the actor didn’t get to show off too often before that point, and sadly hasn’t had too much of a chance to do again. The film, much like its lead performance, is a balance of emotional truth and raw survival in a world of organized crime.
5. The Terminal
We previously discussed the beautiful pairing that is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, as the two collaborators have made legendary hits like Saving Private Ryan. But sitting in the darker corners of their collective canon is The Terminal, a Frank Capra-esque tale of Viktor Navorski, a man literally without a country. As a victim of a horribly timed coup in his home nation, Hanks’ Navorski plays through a fictionalized version of a similar event that happened in real life. Dealing with both threatening bureaucracy, as well as his own awkwardly funny lessons in acting more like an American, he melts into the central role in a tale of heartbreak and hilarity.
4. The 'Burbs
How the hell does a film between Gremlins’ Joe Dante and Tom Hanks fall into obscurity? It’s a question that comes out of thinking back on The ‘Burbs, a movie that took full advantage of the actor’s zany comic energy while it was still his stock in trade. Hanks’ protagonist, Ray Peterson, starts to believe that his neighbors are murderers, and the entire film is a sliding descent into madness that takes Ray and his friends by storm, as they become increasingly desperate to prove to the neighborhood that they aren’t crazy. Playing like a cross between Rear Window and The Little Rascals, this dark comedy only rises in value as it teams Tom Hanks with co-stars Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, and Corey Feldman to revel in the madness.
3. Charlie Wilson’s War
History isn’t always a stuffy, simple affair that gets told time and time again. Sometimes, like in director Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War, it’s about colorful characters who take matters into their own hands. Senator Charlie Wilson was definitely one of those figures, and the film recounting his efforts has Tom Hanks starring as the drug-using, womanizing senator who, despite his wild reputation, tried to do some good in the war between Afghanistan and Russia. Writer Aaron Sorkin gives Hanks the sharp dialogue he thrives on, while Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman further fuel his performance as the titular senator, which makes for something both informative and incredibly hysterical.
2. Cloud Atlas
If you’re an actor at the top of your craft, you probably have a list of directors and creative talent that you’re dying to work with. That feels like the reasoning behind directors The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer teaming up with an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks in the severely underrated mind-bender Cloud Atlas. Playing everything from a villainous doctor to a morally conflicted survivor of a future apocalypse, Hanks is given a laundry list of challenges and tropes to work into this collection of six narratives that run together with one common thread. Whether he be menacing, charming or anywhere in between, this is a film that gave one of American’s most treasured actors one hell of a performance exercise, and it deserves to be talked about so much more than it already is.
1. Bridge Of Spies
Honestly, at this point, history and Tom Hanks are inseparable, as it’s more likely that he’ll play every historical figure of note before his career is over. And yet, Bridge of Spies manages to take this, and the fact that it’s another Spielberg/Hanks collaboration, and use both aspects to their full effect. The film tells the real life story of lawyer James B. Donovan, who was drafted by the United States government to not only defend an outed Russian spy at trial, but also to exchange him for a U.S. hostage captured by the Russian government, and it does so in an interesting manner. Intrigue is mixed with sharp witted repartee in Donavan’s quest to make the best deal possible, and putting dialogue co-written by the Coen Brothers should be all you need to convince you to watch Bridge of Spies.
Whether the performance is popular or underrated, Tom Hanks always shows up to play like a champion. The man is a hard worker, and he’s also one of last remaining nice guys in a world that feels colder and more bitter than ever. But, of course, everyone has their favorite Hanks roles, and we may not have covered some of your A-List picks. So tell us in the comments below which popular or underrated roles of the man’s career you favor! There’s no wrong answers, as the answer always ties back to Tom Hanks.