How Tom Hanks Learned to Play a 12-Year-Old Boy in ‘Big’

Since the 1990s, Tom Hanks has been America’s everyman. And more recently, the 65-year-old actor has evolved into “America’s dad.” Granted, Hanks’ string of hit movies — ranging from the graphic war violence of Saving Private Ryan to the sweet, poignant Toy Story series — has made the world feel like it knows the actor well. Yet, ironically, “America’s dad” landed a breakthrough role playing a 12-year-old boy. Here’s how he did it.

Tom Hanks sitting at a dining table as a birthday cake is being delivered in 'Big'
Tom Hanks in ‘Big’ | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Tom Hanks almost lost ‘Big’ to another Oscar winner

In the early 1980s, Hanks was best known for TV’s Bosom Buddies. Early movie roles such as Splash, Bachelor Party, and The Money Pit proved he could carry himself on the big screen. And audiences discovered just how funny and charismatic he could be. But Hanks didn’t really find the right platform to get his career to the next level until 1988’s Big came around.

That film from director Penny Marshall follows young Josh Baskin (David Moscow), a 12-year-old who emerges as an adult man after a wish comes true. Before Hanks committed, Robert De Niro was briefly attached to star in Big. When negotiations fell through, Hanks signed on. And the movie was on its way to an impressive $152 million worldwide haul, according to Box Office Mojo.

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The actor found a specific way to get into character

Big became Hanks’ calling card, earning him his first Oscar nomination. And the actor took his role in the comedy seriously. According to the New York Post, Marshall filmed Moscow performing all of Hanks’ scenes. This allowed the older actor to use this footage for reference when trying to capture the mannerisms of a 12-year-old boy. But Hanks even asked Moscow how he and his friends would act in given situations.

“Tom said, ‘All right, you’re running after each other on this handball court. How would you keep the ball away from each other?’” Moscow told the Post. “As childhood friends do, we probably had that issue come up a billion times at that point. And that’s exactly what we would do — switch the ball quickly from one hand to the other.”

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Tom Hanks has remained ageless in the ‘Toy Story’ films

More than 30 years have passed since Big, but Hanks’ star power remains strong. The actor ultimately went on to win two Academy Awards and starred in dozens of more films. He even became a filmmaker in his own right, directing That Thing You Do! in 1996. But perhaps his most famous role keeps him just as young as his Big character.

In 1995, Hanks made his debut as Sheriff Woody in Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story. At the time, the film might have felt like a gamble. After all, it was the first full-length computer-animated feature. But instead, it changed Hollywood forever. And Hanks — along with co-star Tim Allen — have remained integral parts of the franchise, which has now endured for more than two decades.