At 45, Hanks is the youngest filmmaker ever to receive the AFI lifetime award. He joins a list of honorees that includes such screen legends as Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Clint Eastwood, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles and Barbra Streisand.
The AFI award is Hollywood's most prestigious honor for a career in film, presented each year to a filmmaker "whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art" and whose "work has stood the test of time."
Hanks will pick up the award on June 12 in ceremonies at the new Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, which will also be the new home of the Academy Awards beginning next March.
"Tom Hanks is American film's Everyman for a new generation," said Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI board of trustees. In making the announcement, the AFI compared Hanks' down-to-earth likeability to that of several previous winners, including Jack Lemmon, James Stewart and Henry Fonda.
Hanks has achieved both commercial and critical success in his career.
According to the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., his 24 movies have grossed $2.26 billion. Ten have grossed at least $100 million each, and five are among the top 50 U.S. box-office hits of all time.
"Forrest Gump," which grossed $329.7 in 1994 and won the Oscar for best picture, is No. 6 on the all-time list. "Toy Story 2" (1999) is No. 18. "Cast Away" (2000) is 23rd, followed by "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) at No. 28 and "Toy Story" (1995) at No. 39.
In addition to winning best-actors Oscars for "Forrest Gump" and "Philadelphia" -- both of which also won Oscars for best picture -- Hanks has been nominated for best actor for his performances in "Cast Away," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Big" (1988).
Hanks also won an Emmy as producer of the HBO miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon" in 1998. He collaborated with Steven Spielberg to executive produce "Band of Brothers," the miniseries based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose's book of the same name that is currently playing on HBO.
Hanks has often credited his success to the fact that he's just a regular guy.
On the promotional tour for "Saving Private Ryan," Hanks said: "I always play these ordinary guys in extraordinary circumstances. What's more extraordinary than being in a landing craft at Normandy on D-Day?"
Hanks' film debut was about as far from "Forrest Gump" and "Saving Private Ryan" as you can get. He appeared in 1981 in the slasher film, "He Knows You're Not Alone," also released as "Blood Wedding."
In his earliest TV appearances as a guest star on such comedies as "Family Ties" and "Happy Days," he began to define the persona that came to serve him so well later on. On "Happy Days," he made a connection with Ron Howard, who would later play a key role in Hanks' rise to movie stardom.
Following his breakthrough role -- with Peter Scolari in the TV comedy, "Bosom Buddies," from 1980-84 -- Hanks seemed to ease directly into big time movie work, snagging the starring role in Howard's hit comedy, "Splash" (1984).
Hanks followed that with a series of routine Hollywood movies -- "Volunteers," "Bachelor Party," "The Money Pit," "Nothing in Common," and "Dragnet" among them -- before earning his first Oscar nomination for "Big."
After that, his career remained in hit-or-miss mode, with pictures such as "Punchline," "The 'burbs," "Turner & Hooch," and a pair of box-office bombs -- "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Joe Versus the Volcano," which first paired him with Meg Ryan.
After a well-regarded turn as baseball manager Jimmy Dugan in "A League of Their Own," Hanks found box-office magic in his next collaboration with Ryan, the blockbuster romantic comedy, "Sleepless in Seattle."
Hanks played against type for his next movie, "Philadelphia," and earned his first Oscar as a homosexual lawyer who sues his law firm for firing him after learning that he has AIDS. He struck Oscar gold again on his next project, "Forrest Gump," as a slow-witted man who somehow manages to be present at a succession of historic moments, but seems not to understand the importance of any of them.
Hanks scored a third straight Oscar nomination for "Apollo 13," in which he reunited with Ron Howard to tell the story of the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission.
His hot streak included voiding the character of Woody in Disney's "Toy Story," and Hanks became one of the most influential players in Hollywood.
Promoting the movie 1996 "That Thing You Do" -- which he wrote, directed and acted in -- Hanks freely, and gleefully, conceded he got money for the project because nobody in Hollywood wanted to tell him "no."
The Hollywood Reporter's Star Power '99 survey documented Hanks' status as the most powerful actor in Hollywood, as he ranked first on the list of heavy hitters -- ahead of Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Travolta, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams and Brad Pitt.
The rankings were based on a survey of 135 entertainment industry executives, bankers, buyers and sales agents, who were asked to rate the actors on such factors as their ability to attract financing, ensure global distribution and open a film on the strength of their name.
Hanks used his clout to produce the miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon," and spearheaded a campaign to raise funds for a memorial in Washington, D.C. to World War II veterans.
Hanks next screen appearance, in "The Road to Perdition," is tentatively scheduled for a 2002 release. Directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"), Hanks plays a hitman bent on revenge after his wife and child are murdered.