It’s possible that there has never been a bigger oxymoron than “overnight success.” Even though a personality may suddenly erupt into public consciousness, they’ve already been on a long road. Such was the case with Tom Cruise. He was acting long before 1983, but a string of four films that year firmly planted him as a star to watch. Here’s how the business of being Tom got decidedly less risky.
Born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV in 1962, the future star experienced a childhood of constant movement. He switched schools frequently as his parents moved him and his three sisters around; they spent several years in Canada, where he developed an interest in both sports and drama. While he was in middle school, his mother left his father and moved with the children back to the U.S. By 18, he left home to pursue acting, first in New York, and then in Los Angeles.
Dropping Mapother for the screen, Tom Cruise signed with Creative Artists Agency soon after arriving in L.A. In 1981, he made his film debut in Endless Love alongside attention magnet Brooke Shields. It was a small role, but the film was a minor hit and generated controversy for both its frank sexuality and reputation as a terrible adaptation of a well-liked novel. The upside for Cruise is that he was visible in a widely-seen film.
At the end of the year, Cruise appeared in another controversial film, Taps. Based on the novel Father Sky, Taps was about military students who rally to take over their school as a protest of its closure, eventually leading to violent confrontation with authorities and the National Guard. The film received a lot of initial attention due to the cast, which included George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, who was following up his Oscar win for Ordinary People, and Sean Penn in his movie debut. Even among those talents, Cruise was a stand-out as David Shawn, particularly near the film’s climax as he becomes completely unhinged.
That increased visibility set Cruise up for a 1983 that featured him in four films: The Outsiders (March), Losin’ It (April), Risky Business (August), and All the Right Moves (October). The Outsiders, based on S.E. Hinton’s young adult classic, was helmed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola had assembled an ensemble cast of young actors who were all on the verge of stardom, including Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane. (Throughout the rest of the decade, many of the actors continued to work together in various combinations, forming the nucleus of what the press called “The Brat Pack.”) The Outsiders was a success with generally positive reviews, and has received a sort of classroom immortality as a movie often shown in English classes as a companion to the book.
April’s Losin’ It was the least distinguished of the four. An outright box office failure, it was a teen sex comedy set in the 1960s (shades of the more successful Porky’s franchise, which had its second movie out the same year). Cruise led the film, playing opposite Shelley Long, who by that time was already starring in the first season of Cheers. Also appearing in the film was Rick Rossovich, who would later join Cruise in Top Gun as Iceman’s Radio Intercept Officer, Slider. Losin’ It barely earned back 14 percent of its budget, but the actors were largely unaffected. Director Curtis Hanson would go to direct a number well-reviewed movies like Wonder Boys and two outright modern classics in L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile.
Cruise’s third film of the year would be his biggest, and certainly the movie that made him a household name. The hit comedy Risky Business was written and directed by Paul Brickman; it was his directorial debut and, though he would continue to write and direct through 2012, it would be his greatest success. Brickman cast Cruise in the leading role of Joel Goodsen, a Chicago high school student with Ivy League aspirations. While his parents are out of town, Joel gets involved with a young prostitute, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), and the situation escalates beyond Joel’s control.
Brickman surrounded Cruise and De Mornay with a number of other young actors would go on to steady careers. Those included Curtis Armstrong (Moonlighting, Better Off Dead, Booger from the Revenge of the Nerds franchise), Bronson Pinchot (Perfect Strangers), and perennially employed character actors Raphael Sbarge, Kevin Anderson, and Bruce A. Young. Brickman also buoyed the music of the film with then-current and up-and-coming artists that included Bruce Springsteen, Prince, The Police, Talking Heads, Phil Collins, and Journey. Much of the score was supplied by German electronic music legends Tangerine Dream. But all of those paled in comparison to the impact of one song.
Early in the film, Brickman shoots a montage of Joel, his parents having left, meandering about the empty house. And then, Joel, clad in a dress shirt, underwear, and socks, lip-syncs and dances to 1979’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band. It’s a legitimate “Movie Moment,” one that supported trailers for the film, figured heavily in Seger’s subsequent music video, and generated a lot of word of mouth among Cruise’s fanbase. It was, in many respects, Cruise’s star-making moment.
Risky Business turned out to be not so risky, as it was a legitimate hit, making over ten times its budget. Many critics, like Roger Ebert, were effusive in their praise. Ebert wrote, “It is one of the smartest, funniest, most perceptive satires in a long time. It not only invites comparison with The Graduate, it earns it.” Over the years, various lists from the likes of AMC and Film.com have called Risky Business one of the best movies of 1983.
That major success was followed by All the Right Moves. The film again positions Cruise as a high school student with aspirations; this time he wants to get out of his small town on the back of a football scholarship. The role required more dramatic heft, and Cruise delivered, notably in scenes opposite his combative coach (a post-Poltergeist, pre-Coach Craig T. Nelson). Behind the scenes, Cruise gave an early demonstration of wielding his nascent star-power on behalf of a co-worker. Producers wanted Lea Thompson to have two nude scenes; according to a 2018 interview, Thompson recalled that Cruise advocated on her behalf, convincing the filmmakers to drop one scene and agreeing to appear nude with her himself in the other in solidarity. Thompson said that she’d “always been grateful” to him for that.
Moves did all right at the box office, but paled in comparison to Risky Business. The movie got mixed reviews, but Cruise got good notices (including praise from, once again, Roger Ebert). After four consecutive films where he played a teen in high school, Cruise would never play that kind of role again. His next film, 1985’s Legend, was a dark fantasy helmed by the great Ridley Scott. Though it wasn’t a financial success, it attracted awards for cinematography and make-up. Cruise next appeared in a 1986 film directed by Ridley’s brother, Tony; it was called Top Gun.
Since Cruise first pulled on Maverick’s helmet, he’s essentially been the biggest movie star on Earth. From The Color of Money to Rain Man to Born on the Fourth of July, he used the rest of the 1980s to build his dramatic cred. After 1992’s A Few Good Men, he never looked back. While he’s remained a tabloid fixture for his marriages and relationships and has earned criticism over his association with Scientology, he has nevertheless managed to remain vital and important presence in movies. In recent years, primarily though the Mission: Impossible franchise, he’s developed a reputation for performing insanely complicated stunts himself, occasionally almost killing himself (or at least, breaking bones) to entertain audiences.
At this point, with an eighth Mission: Impossible film on the horizon (though delayed due to the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes), Cruise shows no signs of letting up after decades in the spotlight. 1983 may have been the year that made him, but there’s no telling when he’ll actually slow down. On the 2023 press tour for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Cruise indicated that he’d happily play Ethan Hunt into his 80s. One wonders if he’ll continue to do his own stunts, but he is, after all, the guy that made his reputation on risky business.
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