His commitment to the school, he said, “was based in part on the people that have already come out of Wright State.”
He spoke of working with alumni and said, “They are among the most talented professionals in this business.”
He called The Last Truck, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the last vehicle rolling off the assembly line at the GM Moraine plant, “dazzling.” The film was directed by Julia Reichert, a former professor of theatre arts and motion pictures at Wright State, and alumnus Steven Bognar.
“It is one of the most perfect pieces of non-fiction entertainment I have ever seen because it is the simple art of people telling their stories. And that’s film.”
The mission of Wright State — to focus on student success — is critical, he said.
“I’ve heard Dave Hopkins talk about our university. And well, he’s helped me understand why it is so important to level the playing field for our students, and help them get to the finish line.”
Early career in Cleveland
To understand Hanks’ dedication to Wright State requires going back to the roots of his career and understanding some key relationships, said university officials.
During the earliest days of his career, Hanks worked at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, said W. Stuart McDowell, chair and artistic director of the department of Theatre, Dance & Motion Pictures at Wright State University.
A California native, Hanks was working in Sacramento when the future artistic director of the Cleveland festival suggested he join the company, McDowell said. He moved to Cleveland, became a Cleveland Indians fan and came to Wright State for the first time as part of a festival performance, McDowell said.
After his stint in Cleveland, Hanks moved to New York.
While Hanks was working in Cleveland, McDowell was in New York building the Riverside Shakespeare Company with his then business partner, now wife, Gloria Skurski. Skurski was the executive director and McDowell was the company’s artistic director.
The company produced works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries and toured throughout New York initially and then settled into a performance space.
In 1979, the company was holding auditions for The Mandrake, one of their Commedia dell’Arte productions, when a young man with dark hair came in “off the street” and landed the role of Callimaco, the romantic lead in the production.
It was the first time McDowell and Skurski met him and was a pivotal moment in Hanks’ career.
“He came in and saw these huge canisters over in the corner of the room…and just immediately started using them as his audience — embracing them and talking to them as if they were real people like he was marshalling the troops,” McDowell said. “Tom’s style was very improvisational, it was in the moment, it was very funny. Endearing. He was handsome as the day is long but also very goofy. That combination of handsome and goofy was magic.”
Hanks had been in New York for six months and had been struggling for work, McDowell said. But during his run as Callimaco, he met an agent.
“It was a showcase, meaning he wasn’t paid money,” McDowell said. “He got subway tokens at most. But he got an agent from this. It was a showcase meaning agents and directors would come and see this.”
After getting his agent, Hanks moved to Hollywood and within a year landed a lead role in an ABC sitcom, Bosom Buddies, which got him even more exposure and ultimately led to projects with director Ron Howard such as the movie Splash.
As Hanks’ star was rising, McDowell and Skurski left the company and moved to California. McDowell, who had started his PhD at Berkeley years earlier decided to finish it. While finishing it, he interviewed at Wright State.
“I canceled my other interviews after I came here,” he said. “It was the people, it was the facilities, the administration was very supportive. The department at Wright State, which I have now been at for 21 years … is second to none.”
Wright State performing arts students go to Broadway, go on cruise lines, on tours, run theaters and programs, McDowell said. It was one of those students that led to Hanks’ next connection with Wright State.
Wright State alumni Erik Bork, a Beavercreek native, met Hanks in 1993 in Los Angeles and started working with him at Hanks’ production company, Playtone, as an assistant.
“Eventually, he gave me an amazing promotion which led to me helping him to write and produce the mini-series called ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ for HBO and later ‘Band of Brothers,’” Bork said.
Both mini-series won Emmy Awards and Bork worked with Hanks on several other projects.
McDowell had corresponded a bit with Hanks over the years but had not kept in close contact but as chair of Wright State’s theatre department, he got to know Bork and mentioned his connection to Hanks.
In 2002, Bork received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Wright State’s Department of Theatre Arts. Before the event celebrating the award, McDowell asked Bork to deliver a letter to Hanks. The letter, it turned out, was a request from McDowell to Hanks to record a congratulatory message for Bork to be played during the ceremony.
“I do remember passing that envelope on to Tom and saying, “Do you remember Stuart McDowell?” He said, “Of course I remember Stuart McDowell!”
Since then, McDowell has stayed in touch with Hanks and has seen him on multiple occasions including visiting with Hanks in California, New York and Rome, sometimes on Hanks’ film sets.
Hanks has donated items for Wright State’s annual ArtsGala fundraiser, including allowing auctioning off a trip to be on the set of “Angels and Demons” in Rome. In 2005, the Tom Hanks Scholarship Fund was established and awards four scholarships a year.
It was during one of those trips to California where Wright State President Hopkins met Hanks for the first time.
“We love Tom Hanks and he loves Wright State,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins has spent time with Hanks throughout the years and has the opportunity to share Wright State’s story. “He wanted to hear about Wright State beyond just the theater and the arts,” Hopkins said. “I had a chance to visit with him about veterans and he’s a major supporter of veterans and military personnel. I talked to him about our mission and how much it matters in this 21st century.”
Hopkins and McDowell characterized Hanks as a gentleman, generous, humble and an advocate for the school’s mission. “We help people rise from whatever their situation may be or their circumstances and then we want them to shine as our alumni,” Hopkins said. “He gets that.”
Hanks pays homage to his roots and is grateful for the people who helped him achieve success, added McDowell, who was with Hanks two weeks ago while filming the video for Wright State’s fundraising campaign. During that trip, McDowell went on set and met Spielberg, who talked about Hanks’ gratitude and acknowledgement of people who have helped him.
“It’s like that quote from Brutus in Caesar, climb up a ladder and most people don’t even look over at the rungs you have stepped on to get where you are. You sort of forsake your roots. Hanks is not that guy. Hanks is a guy who gives back,” McDowell said.