Tom Cruise: Winging It

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

June 19, 1986
Tom Cruise 1986 cover
Tom Cruise on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

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.

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