Correction appended March 11, 2010
To the young Tom Hanks, history was as dull as an algebra equation. For Hanks--a classic baby boomer, born in 1956--World War II was just a string of long-ago muzzle flashes in black-and-white. Yet he did have a more direct connection to the global cataclysm. His father had been a U.S. Naval mechanic (second class) in World War II. But Amos Hanks wasn't the type to tell his son tales of bravery and sacrifice. "Growing up, I always knew Dad was somewhere in the Pacific fixing things," Hanks says. "He had nothing nice to say about the Navy. He hated the Navy. He hated everybody in the Navy. He had no glorious stories about it."
Occasionally, Hanks enjoyed a war thriller like Battle of the Bulge, but he much preferred the Three Stooges, James Bond and any film with Sophia Loren. Like a lot of Americans, he found memorizing historical facts boring. Because his family was directly related to Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of the 16th U.S. President, he routinely recycled the same short paper he had written about her for easy classroom grades. "My idea of American history was just a course you were forced to take," Hanks says, laughing.
Yet over the past two decades--from his movies Saving Private Ryan and Charlie Wilson's War to the HBO miniseries he has produced, From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, John Adams and The Pacific, which begins March 14 at 9 p.m.--Hanks has become American history's highest-profile professor, bringing a nuanced view of the past into the homes and lives of countless millions. (HBO is owned by TIME's parent company, Time Warner.) His view of American history is a mixture of idealism and realism, both of which have characterized all the work he has produced; he's a Kennedy liberal with old-time values, the kind that embraces Main Street on the Fourth of July. The success of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers turned him into a Tom Brokaw--like spokesperson for the Greatest Generation. When he visits Johnson Space Center in Houston or Fort Bragg in North Carolina, he is feted as if Neil Armstrong had entered the room. He's the visual David McCullough of his generation, framing the heroic tales of explorers, astronauts and soldiers for a wide audience. (McCullough's John Adams has sold about 3 million copies; Hanks' John Adams brought in 5.5 million viewers per episode.) And in the history world, his branding on a nonfiction title carries something like the power of Oprah.