In a ceremony that was warm, funny, patriotic and sometimes even raucous, Tom Hanks received the American Film Institute's 30th annual Life Achievement Award on Wednesday evening at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
The two-time Oscar winner joins the ranks of such Hollywood luminaries as John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Steven Spielberg, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder who have previously received the AFI honor over the past three decades.
Hanks, a month shy of his 46th birthday, is the youngest recipient of the Life Achievement Award--a fact that caused Steve Martin to quip that Hanks was actually receiving the "The AFI Mid-Life Achievement Award."
"You folks are so swell," said a visibly moved Hanks to the crowd of 1,000 upon receiving the award from his good friend Spielberg, who directed him in the 1998 hit "Saving Private Ryan." "I have been blessed beyond the definition of good fortune for a very long, long while."
The evening was full of firsts. It was the first time that the AFI event was held at the Kodak Theatre--for the past 29 years the event took place at the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. And for the first time fans--most notably members of the armed services--were invited to sit in the balcony.
The day before the event, Hanks said in an interview he had to make his peace with receiving the accolade. "That took quite some time," he acknowledged. "It's overwhelming when the phone call comes in. You try to make some sense out of it, which is a fruitless undertaking for a while. Then you give yourself up to the idea that this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I will take it in the spirit in which it is offered and just try to survive the white-hot attention. It goes beyond calling it an honor. It's some other kind of thing."
What he likes about the evening is that "as mainstream and glamorous as it is, it is still a bit off the radar. It is essentially for moviephiles."
Despite his success, Hanks admitted that he still couldn't believe his good fortune. "It is a combination of being both giddy and incredulous at the same time," he said. "I must say like any actor, I started out just hoping I would be able to work at some level beyond the one I was already at. When I was first able to make the huge break into television with 'Bosom Buddies,' that is beating staggering odds just to get the job."
Hanks says the feelings he had at his career's start have never gone away. "Ron Howard and I were in the KC-135 aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico shooting the zero-gravity shots in 'Apollo 13' and we were just looking at each other and said, 'Can you believe we get to do this? How did we get here?' "
Whereas many of the AFI evenings have been reverential, this ceremony was accessible, friendly and intimate, reflecting Hanks' "Everyman" quality that was stressed by various speakers throughout the night.
"We love you, Tom," screamed a fan from the rafters as Hanks waved to the audience. During the dinner, Hanks visited with friends and colleagues handing out invites to the after-party. Hanks' wife, actress Rita Wilson, was snapping pictures of the evening.
And just before the ceremony started, the big screen on stage flashed the last minute of the Lakers-Nets playoff game. The audience started cheering at the Laker victory and Hanks gave the team a standing salute. In between tributes from such actors as Peter Scolari, who appeared with Hanks in the ABC series "Bosom Buddies," Meg Ryan, Elizabeth Perkins and Jon Lovitz, there were numerous excerpts from a recent interview with Hanks as well as clips from "Splash," "Big," "Punchline," "A League of Their Own," "Philadelphia," "Forrest Gump," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Apollo 13," "The Green Mile," "Cast Away" and "Saving Private Ryan." The AFI even dug up a clip from his first film, the 1980 horror flick "He Knows You're Alone."
Among those singing Hanks' praises was Rawley Farnsworth, Hanks' drama teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland, whom the actor had singled out when he received his first best actor Oscar for "Philadelphia." "He was one of the greatest kids," said Farnsworth, who added that even as a teen Hanks "had enormous stage presence."
Gary Sinise, who has worked with Hanks on three projects including "Forrest Gump," said he quickly realized on the set he was "working with an actor as gifted as they come." With "Forrest Gump," for which Hanks won his second Oscar, the actor was "just beginning to show the world what he was capable of. You found out your destiny was to share your talent with the world."
Last year, Hanks and Spielberg executive-produced the 10-hour HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," based on Stephen E. Ambrose's book about a battalion of young soldiers fighting in Europe during World War II. One of the evening's more emotional moments occurred when two veterans from the real "Band of Brothers" walked out and saluted Hanks, who, in turn, stood and saluted them back.
At the conclusion of the two-hour ceremony, Hanks told the audience about an area on the moon called the Lake of Dreams. "To have you all here tonight and to be placed up with the other honorees. I walked on the moon and experienced the Lake of Dreams.... God bless America!"
The Hanks tribute will be telecast June 24 on the USA Network.