Tom Hanks of Forrest Gump/Saving Private Ryan fame was on campus, and excitement was at a fever pitch.
Nearly 2,000 students, faculty, and staff had amassed outside Wright State University’s Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures on April 19 to catch a glimpse of the acclaimed actor, producer, and director. Some had waited for up to three hours.
Hanks was inside the newly renovated building, getting a tour of the center in preparation for the outside dedication ceremony. When he emerged, he was greeted by a roar from the crowd, a chorus of trumpet-playing music students, and a forest of television cameras.
“Is this an incredible day in the history of our university or not?” said President David R. Hopkins. “We get to be the first and the only university to name a building housing a world-class program after Tom Hanks. That’s pretty special.”
For Hanks, it was part of a two-day, whirlwind tour of Wright State and historic aviation sites in the Dayton area.
Hanks was able to put his hands on the original 1905 Wright Flyer, the world’s first practical airplane. He stood on the historic prairie where the Wright brothers perfected the aircraft. At Wright State, he dazzled hundreds of performing arts students with a personal sharing of his life and experience. And he charmed a campus with his warmth and humor.
Hanks is the genuine article. His motor never stops running. His creative furnace never stops roaring. He has an infectious enthusiasm. And he doesn’t mail it in. He touches people.
From the moment his sleek, white charter plane touched down at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, there were the jokes—Tom Hanks–size jokes.
Hanks starts to walk out of the plane and then jokingly turned around as if changing his mind.
When he does emerge, the two-time Academy Award–winning actor, producer, and director looks larger than life. Dressed in jeans, a dark sport coat, and black square-toed boots, he sports sunglasses and has a travel bag slung over his shoulder.
The greeting party includes Hopkins, Wright brothers descendants Amanda Wright Lane and Stephen Wright, and Stuart McDowell, artistic director of the Wright State Department of Theatre, Dance, and Motion Pictures and a longtime friend of Hanks.
Just down the taxiway is the Wright “B” Flyer, a replica of the Wright brothers’ first production airplane—the Model B.
Hanks tells his wife, actress and singer Rita Wilson, that her baggage won’t fit on the Flyer, that it will require some bungee cords. And he suggests to Hopkins that he fly the plane and land it on Wright State’s campus.
Volunteers fire up the plane and do a brief takeoff and landing. Hanks takes it all in.
“Do you ever get a groundspeed of nil? You’re just hovering there?” he asks.
As the entourage leaves the airport gate in a two-vehicle caravan, an autograph seeker with a movie poster stands in the parking lot. Hanks stops and obliges.
The entourage arrives at Hawthorn Hill, the Oakwood mansion of Orville Wright, and pulls into the driveway for a slow-motion drive-by. Then it’s on to Carillon Historical Park.
The group is greeted at the gate by President and CEO Brady Kress, who escorts the vehicles onto the site in a 1911 Model T. Hanks asks Kress to blow the horn and then later gets a lesson on the handcrank starter.
“I thought it would be kind of fun for Tom to see the car and for the production crew to see what kind of assets are in town,” says Kress.
Hanks’ film production company, Playtone, is collaborating with two-time Pulitizer Prize–winning author David McCullough to transform his 2015 New York Times No. 1 bestseller The Wright Brothers into an HBO miniseries. Local officials hope some of it will be filmed in the Dayton area.
The entourage enters the Wright Brothers Aviation Center, which houses the original 1905 Wright Flyer III, the world’s first practical airplane. But the first stop is a replica of the Wrights’ bicycle shop.
“I just love the leather belt drives,” Hanks says. “Boy, you could get your hair caught in a lot of things.”
In another room there is the propeller of the Wright aircraft used in the 1908 flight at LeMans, France, and the sewing machine the Wright brothers used to sew the fabric for the wings.
“And it’s just sitting here? Shouldn’t it be behind some security guards?” Hanks says.
Hanks is then permitted to step down into a pit and inspect the 1905 Wright Flyer. He is told that the Wrights painted the plane’s wooden spars silver to confuse competing inventors trying to copy the design into thinking the spars were metal and would thus design planes too heavy to fly.
“So once again, they were diabolical geniuses,” he says. “Very smart. That’s brilliant.”
Kress was impressed with Hanks’ grasp of aviation history.
“Not only did he have a good knowledge of the story to begin with, his follow-up questions were really great,” Kress said. “He was very genuine and very interested.”
The entourage arrives at the Wright Cycle Shop in Wright-Dunbar Village. Hanks gets a lesson in the Wrights’ bicycle-building history from a park ranger.
Hanks eyeballs the display of a Draisin highwheel, whose monster-sized front wheel and tiny back wheel would sometimes lead to riders being hurtled over the handlebars.
“This would kill you,” he quips.
The autograph seeker who stopped Hanks at the airport is waiting with his son outside the cycle shop when the entourage emerges. Hanks graciously agrees to pose with the boy for photos and jokes with him.
“Don’t drink and drive. Stay in school,” Hanks says.
The entourage arrives at the Wright Company Factory Site. The factory is the birthplace of America’s aerospace industry—the first American factory built for the purpose of manufacturing airplanes.
The Hanks entourage later arrives at the National Museum of the United States Air Force for a reception and dinner. In the lobby, Hanks jokes about making a movie in which the plot would be about stealing one of the museum’s planes.
The reception and dinner is held in a hangar right next to Bockscar, the B-29 bomber that dropped a nuclear bomb over the Japanese city of Nagasaki during World War II in the second—and last—nuclear attack in history.
Hanks is very knowledgeable about Bockscar and many of the planes in the museum. He readily shares that information with anyone within earshot.
“This is the stuff that fills my head,” he says.
At Hanks’ table are Lt. Gen. Jack Hudson, museum director; Jack Hampshire, a 90-year-old military veteran and museum volunteer; and five Wright State students who are military veterans.
After dinner, Hanks, who has an extensive private collection of manual typewriters, is shown a display featuring several manual typewriters used by the military over the years. There is also a robin’s egg blue electric typewriter used by President Kennedy on Air Force One to make changes to speeches.
Arms linked behind his back, Hanks then strolls through the museum with Hudson. They walked past the B-17 Shoo Shoo Baby, the silver goblets that commemorate the 80 men who flew the Doolittle Raid against Japan in 1942, and the balloon gondola from which Joseph Kittinger jumped from a then-record height of more than 102,000 feet.
“I think that would have been a blast,” Hanks says. “Go up as high as you can and then jump out.”
Then comes a very special moment.
Hanks steps inside the Air Force One that carried the body of President John F. Kennedy home from the 1963 assassination in Dallas.
Here is where they removed two rows of seats to get the casket into the cabin, Hanks is told. Here is where Jackie was sitting. Here is where Lyndon Johnson was sworn in.
The plane is thick with world-changing history, a history that has a spectral, ghost-like presence. And Hanks is visibly moved.
“Man oh man,” he exhales after emerging from the aircraft. “That is an important time capsule.”
The next day, Hanks leaves his hotel for Huffman Prairie, the historic site where the Wright brothers created a dependable, fully controllable airplane and trained themselves to be pilots. Hanks is dressed in a dark suit and black shirt, looking every bit the Robert Langdon character in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.
During the ride over, Hanks talks movies.
“Nothing is more fun for everybody at the office than to sit around in pre-production and just talk story,” he says. “It’s people who have read everything and are excited about everything, and we sit around for months and say, ‘What if we do this? What if we try this?’”
Hanks says making a movie is always a “grand adventure.” The movie Cloud Atlas was all of that.
“Every day on that movie was a labor of love. We worked hard,” he says. “On our last day—I worked with Halle Berry—we all burst into tears because the movie was over and we didn’t want it to end.”
A League of Their Own was filmed in a small Indiana town, with Hanks and his family living in a big house surrounded by lush, green fields.
“My kids swam in a wading pool and we ate Dairy Queen every night. It was a beautiful, idyllic summer,” he says. “And if you ask my kids what was the best summer they ever had, they say that time we made A League of Their Own.”
After arriving at Huffman Prairie, Hanks takes in the vista. White flags mark the perimeter of the field where the Wrights flew.
Hanks then talks with the park rangers about their job, tells them he would have come to Huffman Prairie as a tourist, and then has a suggestion.
“I’d bring some cows in,” he says, “even if they are cardboard cutouts.”
Then it’s on to Wright State.
Hanks’ first contact with Wright State came in 1978, when he was a young actor with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland. As part of a tour, Hanks performed at Wright State in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Then Hanks went to New York and—after about six months of being unemployed—auditioned for the Riverside Shakespeare Company of New York, which was founded by Wright State’s Stuart McDowell.
“We cast him right off the street in the lead of Machiavelli’s The Mandrake, playing the role of Callimaco,” McDowell recalled. “He was phenomenal. He had an incredible sense of improvisation and stage presence. He would come out during the opening of the show and riff with the audience, do an improv.”
As a result of his role in the play, Hanks was able to secure an agent, who took him and his blossoming career to Hollywood. Hanks would go on to star in blockbuster films such as Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Saving Private Ryan, and win several Academy Awards.
In 1998, Hanks gave Wright State money to launch a scholarship fund in his name. So far, the fund has provided scholarship money to more than 60 students in acting/musical theatre, dance, design technology, and theatre studies.
After the huge success of Hanks’ movie The Da Vinci Code, he agreed to have tea in Rome on the set of Angels and Demons with the winning bidders of a Wright State ArtsGala auction item. The Tea with Tom Hanks sessions yielded thousands of dollars for ArtsGala scholarships.
In 2011, Hanks in a taped video gave a glowing endorsement of Wright State’s arts programs during a news conference to announce that the university’s Collaborative Education, Leadership, and Innovation in the Arts (CELIA) center had been designated an Ohio Center of Excellence for the arts.
“Wright State is training the artists of tomorrow. I know because I’ve worked with some of Wright State’s alumni, and they’re among the best in their fields,” Hanks said. “Wright State not only has one of the most outstanding arts programs in Ohio, but one of the best in the entire nation.”
When Hanks arrives on campus April 19, he slips into a side stage door of the Creative Arts Center. Inside the Festival Playhouse are 300 performing-arts students eager to see and hear Hanks in a “Talk Back” session.
For the next 90 minutes, Hanks answers questions and throws his heart into it, dazzling the audience with anecdotes and taking them behind the scenes of Hollywood. He’s playful, honest, giving.
“Out of all the jobs in making movies, the one I like to do most is being the star of the movie. It’s a pretty good gig,” he says “…At the end of the day, it’s more fun than anything you can possibly imagine.”
On the making of Forrest Gump: Hanks modeled the way he talked in the film after the speech of the Mississippi boy who played the young Forrest. The first scene Hanks filmed in the movie was with actress Robin Wright, and he was so self-conscious that the director threw out the entire day’s shoot.
“Self-consciousness is the death of any sort of creative enterprise,” he says.
Hanks tells the students the importance of challenging themselves.
“I can’t sing. I can’t dance. But the best thing I could have ever done for myself was try to be in a musical and sing and dance,” he says. “I did it once or twice, and it scared the children.”
After a walk through the tunnel system, Hanks arrives at Dunbar Library and elevators up to Special Collections and Archives, which houses the largest collection of Wright brothers materials in the world.
“I was intrigued by the tunnels,” he says. “It’s like living in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.”
Along with Pulitizer Prize–winning author David McCullough, Amanda Wright Lane, and Dawne Dewey, head of the archives, Hanks goes through a collection of Wright brother photos, sketches, writings, medals, and newspaper clippings.
Then the group views rare home movies of Orville Wright. They also show the 1927 arrival at Wright Field in Dayton of Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. He is seen riding in a car with Orville.
After the movies there is a discussion of historical things, and McCullough mentions that he still writes on a manual typewriter. He says he marvels at Hanks’ extensive collection of manual typewriters.
“No one throws away a typewritten letter,” Hanks says. “I probably send a letter out—two or three every day. I sent a letter to a kid who wrote to Forrest Gump the other day. So Forrest answered him on the typewriter: ‘My friend Tom Hanks is typing this for me.’”
Hanks then has lunch at the library with six Tom Hanks scholars as well as Hopkins, his wife, Angelia, and Kristin Sobolik, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Hanks talks about the business and how it is to break in and reinvent oneself.
Then he walks through the tunnels to the New Media Incubator, a partnership between the motion pictures center and the Department of Communication to teach storytelling. He sees a television and recording studio and a Veterans Voices project, a series of stories on local veterans’ experiences transitioning to civilian life.
Hanks starred in what some consider the best war movie ever made in Saving Private Ryan.
“What a great facility,” he says. “I could get some work done here myself.”
Then it’s on to the center itself, where Hanks visits four motion pictures classes and takes questions from students.
He encourages students in one class to watch a movie called The Earrings of Madam de…, a 1953 French film that follows a pair of earrings as they change hands during a series of betrayals and romances.
“It is the most modern film you will ever come across,” he says. “My eyes popped out of my head. I could not believe this movie. It’s the cinematic equal to Citizen Kane.”
“Go make movies, guys. Save the world.”
As Hanks walks through the lobby of the center, he is riveted by a wall-mounted monitor that flashes scenes from Hanks movies at a rapid-fire clip.
“Hey, look at this. I can name that tune. Bridge of Spies. Freezing cold. Freezing cold. The actual bridge.”
Then come clips from A League of Their Own and Forrest Gump, the scene in which Gump carries Bubba to safety from a battle in Vietnam.
“Actually did not carry him. It was a rig. …No crying in baseball. I actually thought I was fat when I made this movie.”
Tour over. Dedication ceremony looms. Hanks emerges from the building and bathes in the crowd’s warm embrace.
Hanks jokingly warns students against defacing the building, whose striking blue color sets it apart from other campus structures.
“It’s nice to have the building. It’s nice to have the crisp editing rooms. It’s nice to have the brand new equipment. It’s nice to have all of the gear that goes along with it,” he says. “But that’s not the measure of a school’s greatness, and it’s not the measure of the quality of the student body that Wright State is going to produce.”
Student Matt Cline, a junior who dressed as the famous Hanks character Forrest Gump for the dedication ceremony, calls Hanks one of the best actors ever.
“It makes me proud to be a student here and that Wright State gets national attention,” says Cline.
The motion pictures program is now entering its fifth decade and features nationally recognized faculty and alumni who have won Emmys and other high honors. Faculty have produced internationally acclaimed documentaries such as The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant, nominated for an Academy Award in 2010, and the Emmy Award–winning Lion in the House, about young cancer patients and their families.
“The Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures will become a new landmark on the Wright State University campus and symbolize our ongoing commitment to producing the filmmakers of tomorrow,” said Sobolik. “Our students and alumni will carry on Tom’s legacy of making movies that matter.”
In addition to getting hands-on experience in all aspects of filmmaking, students complete a curriculum that is deeply embedded in the liberal arts and strongly rooted in motion pictures history, theory, and criticism. The program also stresses the humanist values of movies—the potential for movies to make the world a better place by sharing the human experience, illustrating courage, and showing what people have overcome.
Film student Michaela Scholl thanks Hanks for allowing Wright State to name the center after him.
“We can now say we studied every day at the Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures,” says Scholl. “That’s a bragging right that only a Wright State student can claim.”
At 14,500 square feet, the new center is nearly triple the size of the previous space. In addition to a production studio, there are editing suites, a multipurpose classroom, a digital animation lab, and even a “green room” that will serve as a lounge as well as a think-tank for students to develop future film projects.
After the dedication ceremony, Hanks is off to a gala celebration at the Wright State Nutter Center to celebrate the success of the university’s Rise. Shine. campaign.
Hanks is national co-chair of Rise. Shine., the fundraising campaign that promises to further elevate Wright State’s prominence by expanding scholarships, attracting more top-flight faculty and supporting construction of state-of-the-art facilities. The campaign has raised more than $160 million.
What you have at Wright State is a “life-altering force for good,” Hanks tells the gathering at the gala, which alone raised $275,000 for scholarships and the Tom Hanks Visiting Artist Fund.
“Everybody who contributed to the Rise. Shine. campaign has already changed lives for the good,” says Hanks.
The contributors have “done something great, not just for Wright State, not just for Dayton, Ohio, but something magnificent for the world.”