Film stars live out parallel lives in the roles they portray, and few have lived as large as Tom Cruise.
His trajectory from promising young heartthrob to box-office champ to wobbling superstar has careened across the nation’s screens like a meteor.
The antic teen famous for dancing in his underpants has morphed into a middle-aged enigma notorious for jumping on Oprah’s couch.
At age 47, Cruise is launching another comeback bid with “Knight and Day,” his first film since 2008, which opened Wednesday.
His co-star is the likable Cameron Diaz, one of the few actresses who can launch a project with her participation. The film looks unambitious, like a remake of “Killers,” the Ashton Kutcher-Katherine Heigl guns-and-giggles toss-off everyone has already forgotten, but with bigger stunts and more star wattage.
Here’s a look back at Cruise’s career in four acts:
The contender (1981-86)
Cruise has never been a great actor. Like the Cheshire Cat, his grin is his most distinctive characteristic.
But he’s always had the makings of a good movie star: charisma, a strong work ethic and a nose for the kind of thrill-ride adventures, courtroom thrillers and paint-by-numbers redemption dramas audiences love.
His early roles were extraordinarily handsome ordinary guys. After minor parts in “Taps” and “The Outsiders,” he boogied to stardom in his BVDs with the edgy loss-of-innocence comedy “Risky Business,” a surprise hit. He became the name above the title in the standard-issue high school football drama “All the Right Moves.”
But in Ridley Scott’s outlandish “Legend” (a perfume-commercial version of “Lord of the Rings”), as the leader of an army of fairies, Cruise looked lost amid the showering rose petals, unicorns and sprites; Scott called the film “a bloody disaster.”
Cruise returned to his comfort zone of Joe Cool all-American guy-ism in “Top Gun,” a sugar-rush armed forces recruiting poster that became the biggest hit of his early career.
Tom Terrific (1988-93)
Johnny Depp is indelible in every role. Cruise is generally interchangeable from one part to another (“it’s Tom Cruise in a bomber jacket … a business suit … a Civil War uniform!”).
To his credit, he seemed to realize this and spent the next few years in a pseudo-apprenticeship, partnering with wise mentor-actors (Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman) and directors (Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack).
As a pool shark (“The Color of Money”), juggling bartender (“Cocktail”), auto dealer (“Rain Man”) and racing champ (“Days of Thunder”), his range extended from brash to cocky and back again.
But he got the best reviews of his career as a bitter paraplegic Vietnam vet in “Born on the Fourth of July,” beginning a fascination with playing physically and psychically damaged characters.
With fame came notoriety. Mimi Rogers, his wife from 1987 to 1990, said she divorced the guy People magazine named the Sexiest Man on Earth because he “thought he had to be celibate to maintain the purity of his instrument. My instrument needed tuning.”
Extending himself in the period romance “Far and Away,” he adopted a leprechaun Irish accent so appalling the film’s trailer contained no dialogue whatsoever. It was his first all-out love story, co-starring his new bride, Nicole Kidman, and it tanked.
He scampered back to safety with surefire legal dramas (“A Few Good Men” and “The Firm”). And then things started to get weird.
Jumping the couch (1994-2007)
Cruise chased the part of the foppish bloodsucker Lestat in the screen version of Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire,” triggering a public feud with the novelist. She recanted when she saw his performance, but mainstream audiences were disturbed to see the heretofore clean-cut star in lace, ruffles and long blond wig, sinking his teeth lustily into a rat – or the neck of pretty young Brad Pitt.
Cruise quickly returned to his day job, this time with the formula superspy actioner “Mission: Impossible,” where his character, Ethan Hunt, wears a bewildering variety of latex masks. (Cruise has a major false-face fetish, donning facial prosthetics or disfiguring makeup in all three “Mission” films, “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Minority Report,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Valkyrie.”)
As he began to age out of the ’80s young-blood roles that were his bread and butter, Cruise made “Jerry Maguire,” playing a hotshot sports agent who gets the corporate guillotine when he loses his earning power.
After a three-year hiatus, Cruise and Kidman starred in “Eyes Wide Shut,” playing a sad, bored rich couple with a dysfunctional sex life. Cruise spent much of the film at a swanky costume-ball orgy, his face hidden behind a Venetian mask.
His real-life marriage to Kidman often was derided as a camera-ready show-business arrangement, and the pair divorced shortly after “Eyes” opened.
Cruise entered a phase of career rehab. He took a small, showy role in an art-house ensemble piece (“Magnolia”) playing a woman-hating sex guru. The film cratered.
He performed crowd-pleasing motorcycle-kung fu stunts in “Mission: Impossible 2” (a massive hit). He entered a showy, paparazzi-friendly dalliance with Penelope Cruz, his co-star in “Vanilla Sky” (another flop). He made a sci-fi movie with Spielberg, he donned Japanese imperial armor, he played a villain, he made another sci-fi movie with Spielberg.
But Colin Farrell acted him off the screen in “Minority Report,” “The Last Samurai” was “Dances With Kimonos,” “Collateral” was murky and depressing, and “War of the Worlds” starred the special-effects crew.
Then came a fall from grace unparalleled since Ben Affleck’s in his J-Lo period. Cruise entered a streak of weird self-destruction – not the kind of mug-shot misbehavior associated with Mel Gibson, Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr., but an avalanche of tone-deaf P.R. gaffes.
It began with his ostentatious courtship of Katie Holmes, his gyrations on Oprah’s sofa, the implosion of Holmes’ promising acting career and the perception that Cruise is bat-squeak crazy.
His tense “Today Show” turn as self-appointed Scientologist drug counselor to Brooke Shields, who shared her experiences taking postpartum antidepressants, further cemented his image as a spooky megalomaniac.
In 2006 Paramount owner Sumner Redstone severed the increasingly embarrassing Cruise’s 14-year relationship with the studio, calling his eruptions “creative suicide” that cost Paramount $150 million in lost ticket sales for the underperforming “Mission: Impossible 3.”
In a move that looked like sweet revenge, Cruise and his agent, Paula Wagner, promptly took over United Artists – and steered it into an iceberg. After two years in their hands UA released just two films, both starring Cruise: “Lions for Lambs” and “Valkyrie.”
Wagner was sent packing, and UA’s future is in doubt.
The rebuilding years (2008-??)
Cruise rediscovered his sense of fun playing fat, bald, profane film mogul Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder.” Something about hiding behind extensive makeup and tinted shades freed him up; his loose, silly performance became his most animated screen appearance in years.
He energetically showcased the pudgy tycoon’s club-dancing antics on the MTV Movie Awards, and now the character will be the centerpiece of his own film.
Cruise also is moving ahead with “Mission: Impossible 4.” The feud over, both those films will be Paramount productions.