A quick guide to all the early TV work of Tom Hanks

Before he was a star, he was Reverend Jim's burnout college buddy and Alex P. Keaton's uncle.

Image: The Everett Collection

Tom Hanks first appeared on a screen in the late summer of 1980, in a low-budget horror flick called He Knows You're Alone. A character literally trips over him in the woods. It felt as if he was discovered just as easily. Four years later, he was headlining Splash, the charming Ron Howard comedy that turned him into a Hollywood hitmaker overnight.

Of course, between those two movies, Hanks put in a lot of work, all of it on the small screen. His television resume is not expansive, but it is rather interesting. He played a few key guest roles in hit sitcoms, and of course briefly starred in his own vehicle.

Soon, the legendary actor will play children's television icon Mister Rogers in an upcoming biopic. With Hanks returning to the world of TV, in some way, we thought we'd highlight his overlooked early career.

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1. The Love Boat (1980)

Episode: "Sergeant Bull / Friends and Lovers / Miss Mother"

The sea-faring romance series was known for its cavalcade of stars. Each episode would begin with celebrities faces framed in lifebuoys, as Jack Jones crooned, "The looooooove boat!" Only, when the season four premiere aired, viewers were likely stumped to see one Tom Hanks in the opening credits. He was essentially an unknown. However, the ABC network wanted him in there to promote his upcoming sitcom Bosom Buddies, which premiered the following month. Hanks plays Gopher's rowdy former frat brother. Hanks was often cast in such party-hearty roles early on, as in Bachelor Party.

2. Bosom Buddies (1980–82)

Sitcom

The crossdressing comedy proved to be the actor's big break. Paired with Peter Scolari, Hanks turned a dicey premise into a beloved cult sitcom. The show was the product of Miller/Milkis/Boyett Productions, which was also responsible for Laverne & Shirley. Hanks reportedly earned a mere $2,500 per week for the show, but he did meet his wife, Rita Wilson, on set. Check out our 10 fascinating facts about Bosom Buddies.

3. Taxi (1982)

Episode: "The Road Not Taken: Part 1"

Today, Tom Hanks is Mr. Wholesome, having been cast as both Walt Disney and Fred Rogers. So, it's amusing to see how often he portrayed a miscreant in his younger days. Take this crucial, if minor role on Taxi. In a flashback scene, we see Hanks as a college stoner named Gordon, baked out of his mind while ogling a lava lamp. Enter James Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd)… a clean-cut jock? Yes, this is the origin story of Reverend Jim, and Hanks was the one who got the space cadet started down his road of, erm, experimental mind alteration.

4. Happy Days (1982)

Episode: "A Little Case of Revenge"

The ultimate battle: The Fonz vs. Hanks. Can the king of cool in a black leather jacket beat a black belt in karate? Hey, this is Happy Days, so you probably know the ending. Hanks plays a former third-grade classmate of Fonzie who has been harboring a grudge against the guy for years. Behind the scenes, Hanks also occassionally played on the Happy Days softball team, a rather series extracurricular concern which played in some MLB stadiums, as well as Germany and Japan.


5. Mazes and Monsters (1982)

Made-for-TV Movie

Perhaps the most forgotten movie in the Hanks library, Mazes and Monsters was a opportunistic adaptation of a bestselling book by Rona Jaffe, which had been published the prior year. It was a zeitgeisty book that seems rather ridiculous in hindsight, as it was a cautionary tale about the dangers of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, some feared that participating in role playing games could lead adolescents into underground tunnels, where they would disappear. That's the gist of the plot here.

Image: Warner Home Video

6. Family Ties (1983–84)

Episodes: "The Fugitive" Parts 1 & 2, "Say Uncle"

Finally, not long before his Splash-through, Hanks popped up a few times on Family Ties as Alex P. Keaton's uncle, the brother of Elyse, Ned Donnelly. Uncle Ned is on the run from the FBI, as he stole $4.5 million from the Symtram Corporation. However, he had noble intentions, as he wanted to channel the money to workers losing their jobs in a merger. The following year, in season two, Ned returned… with a drinking problem. This becomes clear to Alex when his uncle rummages through the pantry for some vanilla extract for a buzz. ("It may not be Miller Time, but it is vanilla time.") The Keatons convince him to seek help in the end. That was the last we saw of Ned — and Hanks, really — in a minor sitcom role. Looking back, it's delightful to see him working alongside Michael J. Fox.

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