Acclaimed actor, producer and director Tom Hanks, who charmed students, faculty, staff, alumni and others during a visit to Wright State in 2016, continues to enjoy his memories of those moments and his strong relationship with the university.
So says Stuart McDowell, who paid a visit to Hanks in Los Angeles in June.
McDowell, artistic director of Wright State’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures, is an old friend of Hanks and was largely responsible for Hanks’ visit to Wright State to dedicate the Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures.
“I wanted to keep that memory fresh and continue to nurture the relationship between Tom and Wright State,” said McDowell, a Frederick A. White Distinguished Professor of Professional Service.
So McDowell flew to Los Angeles on June 12 and met with Hanks in a studio at Playtone, Hanks’ production company in Santa Monica.
McDowell presented Hanks with a professional album that included 15 to 20 photos of the time Hanks was at Wright State, including a selfie with students. The album also included a photo of the three current Tom Hanks Scholars and personal notes from them. Lastly, McDowell presented Hanks with an enormous kite of the Wright Flyer airplane McDowell had purchased at Carillon Park.
“I basically said, ‘Hello from Wright State,’” said McDowell. “He remembered fondly the time he was there. He had a good time.”
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 City and, after about six months of being unemployed, auditioned for the Riverside Shakespeare Company of New York, which was founded in 1977 by McDowell and his now-wife, Gloria Skurski.
“Hanks was cast by our director 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 distinctive stage presence. He performed in a mask that he’d sometimes take off and improvise patter with our audience.”
As a result of his role in the play in 1979, Hanks was able to secure an agent, who took him and his blossoming career to Hollywood. Hanks would land a part in the ABC sitcom “Bosom Buddies,” followed by his breakthrough comic role in “Splash,” directed by Ron Howard.
It was during the filming of “Inferno,” directed by Howard in Budapest, that McDowell approached Hanks to come to Wright State in the spring of 2016 and dedicate the Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures. The center features posters of Hanks in several of his screen triumphs, including “Apollo 13” and “Saving Private Ryan,” as well as his Oscar-winning roles in “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump.”
The Wright State Motion Pictures Program features nationally recognized faculty and alumni who have won Emmys and other high honors. Students in the program receive hands-on experience in all aspects of filmmaking and 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.
Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures features a production studio, editing suites, a multipurpose classroom, a digital animation lab and a “green room” that serves as a lounge as well as a think-tank for students to develop future film projects.
During McDowell’s visit in Los Angeles, he spent nearly an hour interviewing Hanks about his memories of the Riverside Shakespeare Company. McDowell is writing a book about the first 10 years of the company. He has interviewed about a dozen people for the book, which is tentatively titled “Then Came Each Actor,” a line from “Hamlet.”
“For his audition for ‘The Mandrake’ back in 1979, Tom chose an unusual audition piece because he was trying to compete with 500 other Shakespearean actors. It was hilarious,” said McDowell, adding that it featured a Monty Python spoof of Shakespeare.
Hanks told McDowell during the interview that he credits “The Mandrake” with giving him the freedom to talk directly to the audience and demonstrate his improvisational skills.
“Tom reminisced about everything from cast parties to performance in front of audiences to improvisation,” said McDowell. “Actors have better memories than most because they have to memorize large amounts of text. Hanks has that kind of memory; he gave me terrific material for the book I’m writing.”
McDowell met Hanks two days later following an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part I and II,” in which Hanks played Falstaff, a whiskery swag-bellied cornucopia of appetites. The play was performed for the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles in an outdoor theater built and staffed by military veterans.
Following the show, which Hanks did as a fundraiser for the center, McDowell and a number of people from the old Riverside Shakespeare Company met with him backstage.
“He could not have been more generous with his time,” said McDowell.
McDowell said Hanks loves Shakespeare and throws himself into it. In Hanks’ studio, Falstaff’s lines are written on two giant blackboards, and Hanks rehearses them every day.
“He’s obviously having the time of his life acting, so why does he go back and do Shakespeare?” said McDowell. “Tom said, ‘In movies you shoot these little tiny pieces, but when you do a play you do the full arc of a character. And that’s so rich and so rewarding.’”