Tom Hanks on His Success: 'I Owe It All to Community College'

by Antoinette Bueno 9:33 AM PST, January 14, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Forget the fancy ivy leagues -- in a New York Times Op-Ed, Oscar winner Tom Hanks says he owes all of his success to his two years spent at Chabot College, a community college in Hayward, Calif.

The beloved 58-year-old actor is recalling his undergrad experience in support of President Barack Obama's new proposal to make two years of free community college accessible to millions of Americans.

Hanks reveals that after graduating in 1974, he had "lousy SAT scores" and couldn't afford tuition for college, which led him to attend Chabot, "because it accepted everyone and was free." The experience turned out to be life-changing thanks to the school's offering of a variety of different courses, and the chance to meet people from all walks of life.

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"Classmates included veterans back from Vietnam, women of every marital and maternal status returning to school, middle-aged men wanting to improve their employment prospects and paychecks," he writes. "By some fluke of the punch-card computer era, I made Chabot's dean's list taking classes I loved (oral interpretation), classes I loathed (health, a requirement), classes I aced, and classes I dropped after the first hour (astronomy, because it was all math). I nearly failed zoology, killing my fruit flies by neglect, but got lucky in an English course, 'The College Reading Experience.'"

The education he got clearly carried on to his professional life.

"I produced the HBO mini-series John Adams with an outline format I learned from a pipe-smoking historian, James Coovelis, whose lectures were riveting," Hanks shares. "If Chabot's library still has its collection of vinyl records, you will find my name repeatedly on the takeout slip of Jason Robards’s performance of the monologues of Eugene O'Neill. ... When I worked with Mr. Robards on the 1993 film Philadelphia, he confessed to recording those monologues at 10 in the morning after lots and lots of coffee."

But of course, it wasn't just about higher learning. Hanks charmingly recalls having a crush on a fellow classmate, a flight attendant.

"A public speaking class was unforgettable for a couple of reasons," he explains. "First, the assignments forced us to get over our self-consciousness. Second, another student was a stewardess, as flight attendants called themselves in the '70s. She was studying communications and was gorgeous. ... Communicating with her one on one was the antithesis of public speaking."

"Of course, I goofed off between classes eating French fries and looking at girls; such are the pleasures, too, of schools that cost thousands of bucks a semester," he adds.

Hanks hopes that Congress will pass Obama's new plan, despite the $60 billion price tag.

"I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives," he writes. "Many lives will be changed."

And to this day, he's forever grateful for his community college experience, which led him to eventually graduate from the State University in Sacramento with a theater arts degree.

"I drove past the campus a few years ago with one of my kids and summed up my two years there this way: 'That place made me what I am today,'" he shares.

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ET caught up with Hanks in December, when he was among the five people toasted by Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center. Check out his thoughts on receiving the big honor in front of his entire family in the video below.