Band of Brothers (2001) is one of the best miniseries ever released. Depicting the World War II-era service of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, it featured several well-known and upcoming actors. One, however, was fired before filming even began; Connor Ratliff was axed from Band of Brothers by Tom Hanks himself – and the reason is rather unusual.
Connor Ratliff successfully auditioned for Band of Brothers
When HBO was casting for Band of Brothers, Connor Ratliff was just starting out in the entertainment industry. He’d long forgone his studies at the University of Missouri and dedicated his life to acting, going so far as to train at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA). He saw the miniseries – based on the book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose and involving Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg – as his way of beginning to build a name for himself.
After a number of callbacks, Ratliff learned he’d scored the role of Pvt. John S. Zielinski Jr. While a minor part, it guaranteed a bit of screen time alongside Damian Lewis, who portrayed Maj. Richard Winters. However, while he did his auditions in front of many of the production’s executive crew, one individual was noticeably missing: Hanks.
Tom Hanks had his say… And the answer wasn’t good
Connor Ratliff was ecstatic to be hired for Band of Brothers, and his excitement only grew when he learned that Tom Hanks would be directing his episode. “I was very excited,” he told The Telegraph in 2022. “They cut my hair. I remember the experience of going to the airbase and getting a costume fitting, and it was just such a huge production. And then I found out great news, like, the best news of all: Tom Hanks is directing your episode.”
However, things soured just a day before filming was scheduled to begin.
“The day before I was supposed to film, I got a call from someone in my agent’s office, saying you need to get to London right now,” Ratliff recalled. “I said, I’m going later this afternoon, I have a train ticket. They were like, no, go to the train station. Now. Get on a train, get to London. Tom Hanks has seen your audition tape and he’s having second thoughts. He thinks you have dead eyes.”
Upon getting to London, Ratliff was made to re-audition for the role of Pvt. Zielinski, this time in front of Hanks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, and the burgeoning actor was told they’d decided to go in a different direction, one that was more military-esque.
The part ultimately went to Adam Sims.
Connor Ratliff takes a decade-long break from acting
Understandably, Connor Ratliff was devastated over his last-minute removal from Band of Brothers. In fact, the rejection – on top of his additional struggles as an actor – was so painful that he decided to take a break from acting. That’s not to say, however, that he stayed out of the spotlight. He soon discovered improv comedy, and the rest, as they say, is history!
He became one of the top performers at New York’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade and, while he initially told his fellow performers that he had no interest, began performing again, this time on The Chris Gethard Show, which ran from 2011-18.
This led to additional opportunities, including stints on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-23), The Blacklist (2013-23) and Search Party (2016-22). He’s even been given the opportunity to perform as Star Wars creator George Lucas on both The George Lucas Talk Show (2020-present) and the podcast series, Double Threat with Julie Klausner & Tom Scharpling.
Turning rejection into a hit podcast
Despite his success, Connor Ratliff has never forgotten about his Band of Brothers snub – and he’s since used it to develop a hit podcast. Aptly titled Dead Eyes, the show focuses on not only the impact the rejection had on his career, but also explores how such events can foster creative opportunities.
“My favourite thing that people will sometimes say on the podcast is, ‘I started listening to it, hoping that we’d get to an ending. And now, I hope it doesn’t. I hope you don’t get what you’re looking for.’ In a way, the mystery is the hook,” he explained to The Telegraph.
As it’s grown in popularity, Dead Eyes has afforded Ratliff the opportunity to speak with several high-profile guests, such as Elijah Wood, Jon Hamm, Zach Braff and Judd Apatow. He’s even spoken with Tom Hanks’ son, Colin, who reacted to the story by saying Ratliff’s experience was “the exact opposite” of the reputation Hanks has developed within Hollywood.
In reality, this is the reason why the incident has stuck with Ratliff. “If I’d been up for a James Cameron thing and he was like, ‘I don’t know, you have dead eyes,’ it would’ve hurt me, but I would’ve thought, like, Oh well, James Cameron is tough,” Ratliff told Vanity Fair. “If I had been up for, you know, a little role in Eyes Wide Shut and Stanley Kubrick said, ‘You have dead eyes,’ I would’ve been like, In his case, I don’t know if that means I’ve got the part! The classic Kubrick stare is dead eyes.”
Connor Ratliff finally got a response from Tom Hanks
It was only a matter of time before Connor Ratliff spoke to Tom Hanks himself, and that moment came in March 2022. The actor appeared on an episode of Dead Eyes, and what could have been an awkward moment turned out to be cathartic for Ratliff.
When confronted with the comedian’s story, Hanks commented that “not a single moment of this rings a bell.” However, that didn’t stop him from apologizing to Ratliff. What’s more, the apology shows just how much this incident weighed on the actor, despite his not remembering it.
“Let me first take full responsibility for doing this to you,” Hanks said. “This was without a doubt the act of the director, and that was me.” He added that it was “one of those very, very subtle sort of decisions that aims the story in the direction you want it to go.”
He further revealed that he was “aghast” when he heard how his actions had impacted Ratliff.
“I actually got chilled,” he explained. “My heart rate skyrocketed and I said, I did … I did what? I did what? In the inner sanctum of whatever this casting session was on Band of Brothers … I’m sure I said, ‘I don’t know man, that guy’s got dead eyes.’ I could’ve said, ‘He’s got too blond of hair; he’s too tall and I can’t have the aide be taller than Captain Winters.’ I could’ve said, ‘He’s too short and slight’.
“I could’ve said any of these things, and they would have been true and they would’ve been the opinion. Whoever communicated to you what was said, in the inner sanctum, with such authenticity, should have their kneecaps broken, because that is … That is not allowed,” Hanks added. “It’s not quotable there. It’s off the record.”
The interaction also saw Ratliff show Hanks his old headshot, to which the actor commented, “These are not dead eyes. Can I just say that right now from this 8×10 black and white.”