Known as the guy who dressed up in drag for the primetime sitcom Bosom Buddies, Hanks made a real career splash with his first leading-man role in this above-average romantic comedy directed by Ron Howard as a man who falls for a real-life mermaid, played by Darryl Hannah. Full of pitch-perfect comic timing, this literal "fish-out-of-water" comedy paved the way for a slew of comedies to come for Hanks before he changed the game and surprised everyone with his dramatic turn in Philadelphia.
As a young boy who wakes up in a man's body, Hanks captures the wonder and joy of childhood with his boyish grin, physical comedy and earnest performance in this sleeper hit from director Penny Marshall. The role landed him his first-ever Oscar nomination, and paired with his more serious performance opposite screen legend Jackie Gleason two years earlier in Nothing in Common, Hollywood took notice that Hanks was a comic actor with serious range.
As a gay man with AIDS who goes up against his conservative law firm that fired him because of his condition (who hires a homophobic lawyer played by Denzel Washington), Hanks' breakthrough performance as a dramatic actor challenged people's perceptions and earned him a well-deserved Best Actor Academy Award, his first of two. Hanks' transition from funnyman to serious actor created a template that many other stars tried to emulate, from Michael Keaton and Jim Carrey to Steve Carell.
Forrest Gump (1994) Life is like a box of chocolates… As a special man whose perceived lack of intelligence is surpassed by his integrity and uncanny ability to historically be in the right place at the right time, Hanks cemented his Philadelphia Oscar win with a nuanced, bravura performance and a second Academy Award. His movie also spawned a restaurant chain that thrives to this day. Anyone hungry for a bite at Bubba Gump's?
Toy Story Trilogy (1995, 1999, 2010) There's a snake in my boot! Can you imagine a Toy Story movie without Woody? The toy cowboy's persona is synonymous with Hanks and vice versa, and it's sometimes easy to forget that behind each Toy Story movie there's a top-notch performance by Hanks that vividly brings his CGI-animated to character to life every time -- with moments in every film that bring tears to the eyes of the audience.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg's harrowing World War II saga drops Hanks right in the middle of the Normandy invasion, with a stomach-tightening opening sequence that makes you wonder how anyone could have survived such a nightmare at all. Amid an all-star cast that includes Matt Damon, Vin Diesel, Jeremy Davies, Barry Pepper and Paul Giamatti, Hanks' performance as a cool captain with a trembling hand who's really a school teacher earned him his fourth Oscar nomination.
Cast Away (2000)
The story of an A-type Fed Ex exec who survives a plane crash into the ocean, only to have to survive for years by himself on a deserted island, Hanks pulls off quite a feat in this Robert Zemeckis film, gaining weight for the first half, then starving himself rail-thin for the subsequent shoot in Fiji. Anyone who can make a film compulsively watchable without saying a word for half of it deserves serious credit, not to mention imbuing so much life into an inanimate object that when he loses Wilson the volleyball at sea, we feel like we've lost our own best friend. Hanks' performance as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe earned him his fifth Oscar nomination.