Tom Cruise: Winging It

This leading man made the teen flick 'Risky Business'; now the ace is wild in 'Top Gun'

Tom Cruise 1986 cover
Herb Ritts
Tom Cruise on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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On this day, his parents sit their four children down – Marian, Lee Anne, Tom and Cass – and tell them what Tom has suspected all along: their marriage is breaking up. Around the room, the flow of tears is uncontrollable. It was, Tom would remember, like someone had died.

Later Tom's father takes him outside to hit a few baseballs. But how can he forget what's just taken place? Tom cries so hard that he can't even breathe. His father is leaving – this time for good – and one great fear echoes through his mind: What's going to happen to us now? What next?

An Ashen Jerry Lee Lewis, looking like he's just back from a stop at the embalmer's, is belting a surprisingly vital "Great Balls of Fire" onstage at the Lone Star Cafe in New York – while Tom Cruise, who does his own yelping version of the tune in his new movie, Top Gun, bobs appreciatively to the beat in the packed balcony. Once the set's over, Cruise quickly retreats to an out-of-the-way table and nurses a Diet Coke. Though he's unfailingly genial and polite, he's not much for crowds. Besides, it's eleven, and he's got a big day tomorrow – Good Morning America, a photo session, that sort of thing – so maybe he'd best be moseying along . . . 

"Hey, Tom," interjects a club official. "You're looking pretty inconspicuous back here. Wanna see the iguana?" (The roof of the club is dominated by a sculpture of an iguana.)

"Let's do it," Tom says, leaping up from the table and bounding up the stairs. He's three inches shy of six feet but prodigiously muscular, thanks to a rugged training program and more than the usual quotient of self-discipline. His crisp good looks – jet-black hair and bushy eyebrows cutting across a wide, open face – are accentuated by his everyday attire: bomber jacket, T-shirt, black jeans and boots, which take the stairs three at a time. A small crowd dribbles out of the dressing rooms that open onto the roof and starts to flock around Cruise. He accepts a host of how-are-yas and then is asked, Would you pose for a picture with the iguana? Well, sure. Coke glass still in hand, he climbs up the struts that support the iguana, jumps onto a small ledge, turns and – omigod! – falls face forward onto the roof, about five feet down, landing with a gruesomely vivid thud.

Suddenly, a dozen hands are on him, pulling him back up to his feet, asking him how he is. He's shaken, but intact – "I'm all right, I'm all right" – but you sense that what he mostly needs is to be outta here, so it's down the stairs and out on the street and . . . "Hey, Tom, willya sign this, please?"

Well, sure, he will.

"Thanks. My daughter really loved you dancing to that Bob Seger thing."

Right, the Bob Seger thing. Ron Reagan Jr. parodied it on Saturday Night Live. Campbell's soup ripped it off for a commercial. It started as one line in Paul Brickman's Risky Business script: "Joel dances in underwear through the house." But when Cruise's Joel Goodsen cranked up the stereo and slid out in a button-down shirt and B.V.D.'s to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll," he kicked off a memorable one-minute sequence of sexy air-guitar strutting and mock-macho hilarity that endeared Cruise to film audiences.

An uncommonly stylish loss-of-virginity movie, Risky Business made $65 million in the theaters. It was equally popular on cable, and its witty takes on entrepreneurship and getting into Princeton made it the Easy Rider of the MTV generation. After his next starring role, in All the Right Moves, Cruise was that much more able to write his own ticket in the movies – at an estimated price of $1 million per picture. Instead, he disappeared in '84 and '85. What happened?

In a word: Legend. Director Ridley Scott's rococo fairy tale kept Cruise in London for what turned out to be more than a year, playing – yuck – Jack of the Green, a long-haired agent of goodness possessing all the emotional depth of Luke Skywalker; Cruise himself characterized his role as "another color in a Ridley Scott painting." The film's considerable production difficulties were dramatically augmented midway through when its set was destroyed by fire, but it was finally given a U.S. release in April. It took a year out of Cruise's life, and eighty-nine minutes out of its audience's.

So it was clear enough, right? Legend was just one of those mistakes that an actor can make – "I'll never want to do another picture like that again," says Tom – and Top Gun was just the thing to put him on track again: a high-flying saga of elite navy fighter pilots. It might not be a movie for the critics – who are likely to be troubled by the film's go-get-'em attitude toward foreign aircraft – but provided Sly Stallone's Cobra doesn't bazooka it out of the box office, Top Gun is poised to make itself a fair piece of change this summer. Simple, right?

Well, surely not. It was hard for Cruise to explain, but the year he spent in London making Legend was really important to him. The isolation of the set, the disruption of his personal life, even the profound innocence of the character he played – each of these seemed to rekindle some of the pain and fear of his childhood and enabled him to develop new strength. He learned to be patient: not to worry if something didn't get done that day, or that month, or this year. He found out how to ask the same questions that he asked when his father left – What's going to happen to us now? What next? – and be filled not with horror but with hope. He now had the ability to say goodbye to something precious – a romance, a career opportunity, even a parent – and come out of it stronger.

It was all a little hard to convey, you know? So maybe it wasn't time to go home after all. Maybe it was time to take a long walk uptown and talk it through.

Tom Cruise: Photo Gallery

Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producers of Beverly Hills Cop, were first drawn to the Top Gun project after they saw a story in California magazine on the elite flying school at San Diego's Miramar Naval Air Station. "These guys were rock & rollers in the sky," says Bruckheimer. "They looked like American Stings: these guys with these shocks of blond and black hair, with nicknames like Yogi and Possum and Radar. And it was all real." And casting the lead was a cinch, according to Bruckheimer. "From the first time we went down to Miramar – even before the script was written – we said, 'These guys are Tom Cruises.'"

The pair went to the Pentagon and obtained the full cooperation of the navy. A script was commissioned and sent to Cruise, still hanging in there with Legend.

"I liked it," Cruise recalls, "but it needed a lot of work. I was worried." After a meeting with Simpson and Bruckheimer, though, he was more encouraged. "They seemed like they had that fighter-pilot spirit – the top gun, the best of the best."

Cruise made an unusual offer to the pair: he wanted to work on the script with them before deciding to commit to the project. "I said, 'After two months, if I don't want to do it, the script's gonna be in good enough shape, and you'll have more of a sense of what you want to do. And there are other actors.' I think they were kind of taken aback at first, [but] after coming off Legend, I just wanted to make sure that everything was gonna go the way we talked about it."

Simpson and Bruckheimer agreed to the deal, and today Simpson has nothing but raves for Cruise. "He was terrific," says Simpson. "Tom would show up at my house, grab a beer, and we'd work five or six hours on the script. Sometimes we'd act scenes out. The guy doesn't see things from just a couple perspectives – he can really wrap his arms around something and see it from all angles. We had a lot of fun."

Cruise headed off to Miramar to study and fly with the pilots – "These guys took one look at me and they said, 'We are going to kick your ass'" – and spent a lot of time working on the script. One of the problems was Cruise's love interest, played by Kelly McGillis. Originally, the character was to be a gymnast, but everyone agreed that she should be more integral to the pilots' world – hence she became an instructor at the school.

But the key problem was Cruise's character: Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, a spiky-haired rogue whose antics are too reckless for his fellow flying aces. From the beginning, the role showcased Cruise's ineluctable energy and, at least occasionally, his handsome face (the flyers wear masks for much of the film). The chief worry was the asshole factor – how could Maverick be ultracompetitive and still be likable? Toward that end, Cruise and company created scenes in which Maverick reveals his self-doubts to his flying buddy. And a subtext for Maverick's actions was established – his need to prove himself and to discover something about his father, lost mysteriously on a mission over Southeast Asia in the Sixties.

A guy who's lost his father? Yes, Tom Cruise could portray that.

What Tom Cruise wants right now is some ice cream, only it's not so easy to find at this late hour, even in Greenwich Village. He walks up to one stand that's just closed, waving a dollar bill at the people cleaning up inside. "Look!" he yells to them, a big smile on his face. "I have money." But it's no-go.

Finally, he tracks down a Haagen-Dazs, gets a coffee-chip cone, and we start to trek toward his uptown hotel.

Though it's been months since filming wrapped on Top Gun, he's still charged up over the experience. "I felt total support from Simpson and Bruckheimer that whatever wasn't right, we were going to make right," says Cruise. "No matter if they had to lie, cheat and steal Paramount out of the money, it was going to get done."

And what of his involvement with the structure of the film's story – specifically of the details about the family? Cruise pauses for a moment. "Well, obviously, my father wasn't a fighter pilot and he didn't die a hero, but I think a lot of the gut-level, emotional stuff – the love of the father and the conflict in that – is in there. And the love of my mother, also."

His father, Thomas Cruise Mapother III, was an electrical engineer, something of an inventor, born in Kentucky and a graduate of the University of Louisville. His mother, Mary Lee, was a vivacious, outgoing, religious woman who was a talented actress. "I was always interested in theater, but I never did anything with it," she recalls. "When I was growing up, if you went to Hollywood, that was really risque. I would have lost my religion, my morals, all those things that young girls thought of back then."

Thomas and Mary Lee had four children: Tom, their third, was born in Syracuse, New York, on July 3rd, 1962. The family moved to a handful of cities, wherever Dad's job took him. Once settled in, Mary Lee would find a way to get involved with a local theater group. And according to her, young Tom showed an early theatrical aptitude. "He used to create skits and imitate Donald Duck and Woody Woodpecker and W.C. Fields when he was just a tiny tot. I guess I was his greatest audience. He had it in him then. But as he got older, he was more into sports, and it stopped completely."

For Tom, sports provided an outlet for his natural aggressiveness, gave him a good way to make friends quickly in a new town and lent him some self-esteem – esteem he didn't usually get in the classroom because of his dyslexia. He began at an early age with baseball, and when the family moved to Canada, his father noticed that, by golly, Tom could skate backward as well as those Canadian boys who'd been doing it all their lives. Here, also, Mary Lee – with a little help from Thomas III – helped to found an amateur theater group in an Ottawa neighborhood.

But their family bliss was short-lived; Mary Lee refers to the divorce today only as "a time of growing, a time of conflict." It was also a time of poverty. With precious little income, she and the children returned to Louisville and tried to start their lives again. "You know, women have dreams of having careers and being whatever," Mary Lee says. "I had a dream of raising children and enjoying them and having a good family life."

Mary Lee worked a series of jobs to keep the family afloat: hosting electrical conventions, selling appliances, anything. One Christmas there was no money to buy gifts, so the family wrote poems to one another and read them out loud.

Tom's involvement in athletics continued. He played hockey over the Kentucky border in Indiana, with kids older and bigger than he. "He was so fast they couldn't keep up with him," remembers Mary Lee. "One guy finally got so exasperated that he picked Tom up by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and moved him outside the boundary. I laughed!"

Tom pitched in financially with his paper route – occasionally swiping Mom's car for the purpose – and helped out in other ways, too. 'Every night I'd come home, bathe my feet and sit in the family room, and Tom would massage my feet for a half-hour," recalls Mary Lee. "This went on for six weeks, then Easter came and went, and the Monday after Easter I came home from work expecting the same treatment. And he said, 'Hey Mom – Lent's over.'"

"After a divorce, you feel so vulnerable," says Tom, tossing his icec ream cone away as he crosses Fourteenth Street. "And traveling the way I did, you're closed off a lot from people. I didn't express a lot to people where I moved. They didn't have the childhood I had, and I didn't feel like they'd understand me. I was always warming up, getting acquainted with everyone. I went through a period, after the divorce, of really wanting to be accepted, wanting love and attention from people. But I never really seemed to fit in anywhere."

School became a horror show of close-minded teachers and rigid cliques, a place to do time as painlessly as possible. "I remember walking to school one time with my sisters and saying, 'Let's just get through this. If we can just get through this somehow . . . '

"I look back upon high school and grade school and I would never want to go back there. Not in a million years."

Mary Lee met Jack at an electronics convention; Jack worked in plastics. They got married when Tom was sixteen. "In the beginning, I felt threatened by my stepfather," Tom remembers. "There's a part of you that's in love with your mother. But he is such a wise, smart man. He loved my mother so much that he took us all in, four young people. We'd bet on football games, and he was a terrible bettor, so I'd make lots of money."

The family settled down in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. By senior year, though, Tom was still unfocused; after graduation, he planned to travel for a few years before entertaining any thoughts of college. When a knee injury terminated his varsity wrestling career in the winter, there seemed little to look forward to.

He'd never been great at anything, not even athletics: he was hyperenergetic to compensate for his lack of skill and tended to flit from sport to sport. He would tell himself, "If I could just focus in and do something, I know I've got the energy and creativity to be great." Then, on the advice of his glee-club instructor, Tom decided to audition for his high school's production of the musical Guys and Dolls and nabbed the leading role of Nathan Detroit.

Mary Lee still remembers opening night. "I can't describe the feeling that was there. It was just an incredible experience to see what we felt was a lot of talent coming forth all of a sudden. It had been dormant for so many years – not thought of or talked about or discussed in any way. Then to see him on that stage . . . "

But the bigger surprise was yet to come. "After the show," says Mary Lee, "Tom came home and said he wanted to have a talk with my husband and me. He asked for ten years to give show business a try. Meanwhile, my husband's thinking, 'What's this gonna cost me? Ten years of what?'" She howls with laughter. "It's kind of a joke in the family. Sort of a joke and not a joke. At any rate, Tom said, 'Let me see. I really feel that this is what I want to do.' And we both wholeheartedly agreed, because we both felt it was a God-given talent, and he should explore it because he was so enthused about it. So to make a long story short, we gave him our blessing – and the rest is history."

Tom skipped his graduation, shortened his name and moved to New York City. Cruise tore into the struggling performer's life: busing tables by night, hustling to auditions by day, catching workshops at the Neighborhood Playhouse when time permitted.

He may have been raw, but he was handsome, and those who saw him then recall an urgency in his performing that was hard to dismiss. Within five months of moving to New York, Cruise bagged a small role in the film Endless Love. Before a year had passed, Cruise had fired his manager – "She had me doing errands for her" – and had been cast in a minor part in Taps.

Cruise was to play a sidekick of the hotheaded military cadet David Shawn. But the actor playing Shawn wasn't hitting on all cylinders. "Cruise was so strong that the other guy didn't have a chance," remembers Sean Penn, who costarred with Timothy Hutton in the film. "Very intense, 200 percent there. It was overpowering – and we'd all kind of laugh, because it was so sincere. Good acting, but so far in the intense direction that it was funny."

Director Harold Becker offered the role of Shawn to Cruise, who reacted with horror. "Tom told the producer, 'If this isn't all right with the other actor, I don't want to do it,'" says Penn. "To the end he was like that. He really was a total innocent. Talk to Hutton, he'll tell you the same thing." His naivete about the film business soon cost him, in the form of Losin' It, a first-time-in-Tijuana teen titillater that he starred in with an equally embarrassed Shelley Long. "That's an important film for me," says Tom. "I can look at it and say, Thank God I've grown.' I thought anyone could make a great movie, all you had to do was just knock yourself out. I didn't know anything about anything."

By this time, Cruise had met agent Paula Wagner and outlined his career plans to her: to grow as an artist, to work with the best people and not to care about money. She took him on – and he went on to do The Outsiders, with Francis Ford Coppola at the helm.

And that's where Cruise – who had already distinguished himself by mooning the camera during Losin' It and sawing up lawns in a jeep during Taps – made a real name for himself as a prankster. He scrawled "Helter Skelter" onto Diane Lane's hotel mirror and smeared honey on her toilet seat. For which he was rewarded with a bag of guess-what on his doorknob, courtesy of Emilio Estevez.

And then came Risky Business . . . and then came everything else. At twenty-one, Tom Cruise was a movie star.

Penn recalls a night out with Cruise at a New York club after Risky Business was released. "The group of people we were with was amazing, you know? De Niro, Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci. All these girls were coming over. And this really pretty girl came up to Tommy and started talking to him. And he realized that she wanted him for his body. And he screamed at her, 'I have a girlfriend I'm in love with!' And the girl said, 'You should have told me that five minutes ago!'"

That girlfriend was his Risky Business costar, Rebecca De Mornay. Despite their incendiary love scenes, they didn't start dating until after the film's release in late summer of 1983.

In the first months of their relationship, De Mornay, also twenty-one, noted that she and Cruise had a lot in common. "We have very similar backgrounds, with all the moving around and stuff, except that mine was through Europe and his was through the United States.

"He really is a pure person," she said at the time. "There's something earnest and virtuous about him that's quite rare. There's definitely something different about kids who come from broken homes. They have this sort of searching quality, because you're searching for love and affection, if you've been robbed of a substantial amount of time with your parents. I think that's true of Tom."

Tom's stardom and the intrigue of his relationship with De Mornay turned up the flame of public interest. People asked him and Rebecca to pose for a cover; paparazzi stalked them outside their New York hotel; Rona Barrett tracked Tom down for an interview. The public started discovering how wholesome, gracious and kind he could be. But there were still areas of his life he hadn't yet come to terms with.

The voice on the phone was hale sounding, robust with good humor, but it wasn't coming easily. It was late 1983 – when Risky Business was a hit and All the Right Moves had just been released – and Thomas C. Mapother III, Tom Cruise's father, was very ill. "I've just had a cancer operation," he told me. "It was pretty serious, and I've still got cancer other places, so it is still kind of a serious problem."

At first, he was extremely reluctant to speak about his son: "Tom and I are not in contact. I can't take any credit for his success. I'm the last person who'll ever criticize him. Maybe that's one favor I've done for him."

But there was something he wanted to say. "All four of my children showed up at the hospital, and all I could do was cry. That's how bad the strain has been because of the divorce situation. It had been about four or five years – a long time, at least to me."

His voice thickened with emotion. "I couldn't believe it when he walked into the room. I was a little concerned that I wouldn't see my son, because I'd seen a lot of the pictures in the paper and the publicity shots. And that wasn't my son. He walked into the room . . . and I knew who he was." He began to weep. "What those kids did for me, I could never explain . . . "

Tom was in Los Angeles, about to go to London for Legend, when the phone rang. "You know how sometimes the phone rings and – ping! – you just know?" He knew. His father was dead.

"It cleared up a lot of kind of fog that I had about the man," says Tom of his final meetings with his father, as he walks along Fifth Avenue. "I think that he felt remorse for a lot that had happened. He was a person who did not have a huge influence on me in my teens; the values and motivation really came from my stepfather. But he was important. Really important. It's all sort of complex. There wasn't one thing I felt."

Cruise had decided to do Legend just before his father died. "After what I was going through emotionally, facing death and all of that," he says, "somehow it was important for me to try to get back to the innocence within my own soul." He sighs. "I'm just glad I had acting then. I don't know what I would have done without my work. It gave me a place to deal with all those emotions."

It is 1984, and Tom is in London, cut off from his support system: his family, Rebecca, the U.S. moviemaking community. To pass the time, he hangs out on the set for hours on end. He takes long walks by himself around Hyde Park.

Midway through filming, he throws his back out and walks around the following day bent over like Quasimodo. Paula Wagner and her husband are on their honeymoon and have come to have lunch with him. It is the first time she's visited Tom on the set of a movie. While they are eating, someone tells Tom that Legend's multimillion-dollar set – the fantasy world that is at the heart of director Ridley Scott's elaborate vision – is engulfed in flames. The destruction is almost total. Weeks of work have been rendered fruitless; many more will be needed to finish the movie. Tom turns to Paula. "I hope you'll understand," he says, "when I ask that you never visit a set of mine again."

"I really had to make a choice," he says, even more intensely than usual, as he recalls his reaction to the fire. "When the set burned down, it was like, 'What are we going to do now? Where does this take us?' I said, 'I can sit here and feel shitty and wallow in my frustration, or I can just come in every day.' Instead of getting frustrated and banging your head against the wall, you say, 'Okay, that happened, now what do we do? Let's go ahead.'"

He had learned how to do that the hard way. "I mean, I always had that ability to just deal with things. My whole life has been like that: 'Okay, what do I do now?'"

Of course, not every problem responds to determination and resolve. Sometimes, says Tom, you have to let go. He and Rebecca sustained their relationship through the months of Legend-enforced separation – only to break up for good upon his return to America to begin work on Top Gun.

"Relationships," he sighs as we round the final corner toward his hotel. "Relationships are hard. You have to know when you're going to be in a different place from someone else, you have to have the strength to separate. People are more prone to stay together for the security, which is something in my life that I have really not done, in relationships or even in business. If something's not working, you've got to face it and move on."

He isn't sure about what he wants to do emotionally with his life. "I don't know if I could get married. Right now, in my present state of mind, I don't believe so. I need a lot of space for myself and my work. You can't say, 'Okay, let's keep that thought – I'll be back to you in a couple of months when I finish this.' But I do enjoy being in a relationship."

He admits to "officially" dating actress Mimi Rogers. "I met her at a dinner party about a year ago, when I was developing Top Gun. She was dating a friend, and, uh, I thought she was extremely bright."

Alone or not, at work or at ease, the old questions – What's going to happen now? What next? – have a different ring; now Cruise asks them with a smile on his face.

"For a while there I felt like I had to do everything in a weekend," he says with a laugh. "Then, for the first time, someone died in my life. When someone close to you dies, it makes you face the fact that you are going to die one day. And then I started to realize – actually when I was living in London – it's okay. I can take my time, I can start trusting the fact that I'm gonna live a little longer. I've just grown a lot. I'm a little more relaxed."

The earlier part of this year finds Cruise in Chicago, filming The Color of Money – a sequel of sorts to The Hustler – with director Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman. Tom thinks he's one lucky guy. Lucky to get to do Top Gun, lucky to get to star opposite a truly major star. He says as much to Newman one day on the set: "Gee, I'm lucky."

"Funny you should say that," Newman replies. "I said the same thing once to George Roy Hill [director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid]. Know what he said to me? 'There's an art to being lucky.'"

On another day, Newman takes Cruise out to a nearby race track. After a few laps, the champion race-car driver asks Cruise if he wants to take the wheel for a high-speed spin. You bet, says Tom.

"Okay," Newman says, strapping himself into the passenger seat. "Just don't show me how brave you are, kid."

"Aw," replies Tom, "stop givin' me shit." And he floors it.

This story is from the June 19th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 476: June 19, 1986
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