Saturday, April 30, 2011

KEATON & HANKS: Cinematic Soul Mates

One thing you may not have noticed is the striking resemblance between the careers of Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks, at least up to a certain point. It may not be obvious at first, but by the time you’ve finished reading this article you’ll wonder how you missed it all this time. Right off the bat most people will try to argue that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are cinematic soul mates, but this isn’t a romantic, Hollywrong fair tale. This is reality, folks.

For starters, they both entered the rat race around the same time, the late 1970s/early 1980s, but it was Keaton, who is Hanks’ five-year senior, that arrived first. Their gateway was television, via the situation comedy (sitcom). Although Keaton had made several guest appearances on television, beginning his career on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968), it was his co-starring role alongside James Belushi in the short-lived series Working Stiffs (1979) that gave him comedic recognition. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks was cutting his teeth in the theater, but like Keaton, he also landed a co-starring role along side Peter Scolari in the more enduring series, Bosom Buddies (1980).

"Love Brokers!"
Michael Keaton & Henry Winkler
Night Shift (1982)
It was no doubt through their connections in television that they both wound up on the radar of TV star veteran turned film director, Ron “Don’t call me Opie or Richie” Howard. Being older, and having more experience and exposure, Keaton landed the co-starring role of Bill “Billy Blaze” Blazejowski in Night Shift (1982). Directed by Ron Howard and starring Henry “The Fonz” Winkler and Shelly Long, the film follows the story of two NYC morgue attendants (Keaton & Winkler) turned pimps. Although there is subtle comedy throughout, it is Keaton’s eccentric antics that make the film truly memorable. After the success of Night Shift Keaton was offered the lead role in Howard’s next picture, Splash (1984), but turned it down. The co-incidental cancellation of Bosom Buddies led Howard to cast his next picture with the then unknown Tom Hanks.

Thanks to their association with Ron Howard both Keaton and Hanks were able to use their roles as a springboard for their respective film careers. They each starred in a slew of comedies through the early to mid 80s. Before Splash had even been released Keaton had followed up his performance in Night Shift with the starring role in Mr. Mom (1983). After that he landed the title role in the slapstick comedy Johnny Dangerously (1984) and then returned to work with Ron Howard again on the more dramatic, yet still comical, Gung Ho (1986). Hanks also wasted no time capitalizing on his newfound success. Not even six months after Splash was released Bachelor Party (1984) premiered. The film has gone on to become a comedic classic inspiring films such as Clerks II (2006) and The Hangover (2009). He followed this with several successful comedies including The Man With One Red Shoe (1985), co-starring Keaton’s old pal – James Belushi, The Money Pit (1986), co-starring Keaton’s other former colleague – Shelly Long, and Dragnet (1987), playing partner to Dan Aykroyd.

"I'm not riding Keaton's coattails!"

1988 proved to be the breakout year for both of them as well. Keaton kicked off the year with a stellar performance as “the ghost with the most” in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Hanks had his own success, both critically and financially, with his performance in the film Big (1988), for which he received his first of five Oscar nominations for Best Actor. Keaton followed all of this up with his first truly dramatic role as Daryl Poynter, a real estate agent battling cocaine and alcohol addiction in Clean and Sober (1988). This performance, combined with Beetlejuice, earned Keaton the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor in 1988. Keaton had succeeded in breaking out of the comedy typecast and followed up the year with a dark, dynamic performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the commercial blockbuster, Batman (1989). Hanks on the other hand closed out the 80s with a mix of comedies, such as The ‘Burbs (1989) that attempted to further showcase his dramatic skills.

During the early 1990s Keaton and Hanks both began to professionally transition into dramatic leading men. Building off of his achievements with Clean and Sober and Batman, Keaton continued to develop his skills by tackling an array of roles in films such as Pacific Heights (1990) where he played a sociopath conman and One Good Cop (1991) where he plays a desperate family man. These roles showed sharp contrasts in Keaton’s dramatic range. After reprising his role as the famed Dark Knight in Batman Returns (1992), Keaton again turned to high drama with My Life (1993). Hanks’ transition was a little more gradual, beginning the decade with the modern day fairytale, Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). The film marked not only the first time Hanks would work with Steven Spielberg, who was an executive producer on the film, but also the beginning of his cinematic love affair with Meg Ryan. His first success of the decade came when Penny Marshal, who directed Hanks in Big, cast him as the bitter, drunken, broken down has been coach, Jimmy Dugan, in A League of Their Own (1992). Hanks also added romantic leading man to his repertoire by re-teaming with Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle (1993). That same year Hanks won his first of two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993). The following year he earned his second golden statue for his performance in Forrest Gump (1994), which skyrocketed his career and kept him on top of the Hollywrong A-List for the next ten years.

In 1995 Hanks re-teamed with Ron Howard, who had directed Keaton the previous year in The Paper (1994), for Apollo 13 (1995). Among the cast of Apollo 13 was Gary Sinise, who played Lieutenant Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump. It is interesting to think about what would have happened if Keaton had been cast in the role of Lt. Dan, a part for which he could have easily made his own, or if Howard had asked him back for Apollo 13, as he did going from Night Shift to Splash a decade earlier. The thing there is Hanks had already won the Oscar for Philadelphia and was working on Forrest Gump by the time Apollo 13 was being put together, so there was no question who would have been asked to star in the film. Ultimately they both returned to their comedic roots, Keaton with Multiplicity (1996) and Hanks with That Thing You Do (1996), which he also wrote and directed.

Hanks as Chuck Nolan
Cast Away (2000)
The success Hanks received in 1993 and 1994 split the parallel track that he and Keaton were sharing and led to a divergence in their professional development. Over the next fifteen years Keaton gravitated more towards independent films with artistic flare such as Jackie Brown (1997), Game 6 (2005), and The Merry Gentleman (2009), which he also directed. Hanks focused primarily on award hungry dramas such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Green Mile (1999), Cast Away (2000), and Road to Perdition (2002). Surprisingly it took thirty years for their professional paths to finally cross and even then it was only voice-to-voice.

In 2010 the two comedic geniuses of the 1980s came full circle and met on the big screen as little toys in Toy Story 3 (2010). Hanks, who had been a member of the Pixar camp since the original Toy Story (1995), was joined by Keaton, who made his Pixar debute with Cars (2006), as Ken, the suave, stylish, debonair counterpart to Barbie. Coincidently their characters don’t share much screen time, or even many scenes together. In fact there are even parallels between their two characters with Woody being the leader of his group of toys and Ken taking charge of the toys in daycare. Hmm, maybe those guys at Pixar are even smarter than originally anticipated.

Hanks & Keaton - Together at last.

Keaton is currently lined up to re-team with Tim Burton for his stop motion feature adaptation of his short film, Frankenweenie (2012). After a fifteen-year hiatus Hanks returns as a writer and director with his new film, Larry Crowne (2011), due out this summer. It seems that despite all the Hollywrong clout things have a way of evening out. 


  1. Are you the same person who wrote a similar article for Whatever-Dude ten years ago? I always liked that piece. It's a shame you stopped updating that site.

  2. Sorry, not the same person. Thanks for sharing the link though. It's cool to see that there are like minded people out there.