Tom Cruise photos by ross hawkins

Tom Cruise

In true rags-to-riches fashion, Tom Cruise's stunning climb to the top of the Hollywood food chain began in the most humbling of circumstances. Moving often and facing a double whammy of dyslexia and a difficult relationship with his strict father, Tom Cruise (then known as Thomas Cruise Mapother) came to find outlets for his struggles in athletics and drama. During a stint at Henry Munro Middle School in Ottawa, Ontario, he became a seasoned floor hockey player and performed in stage plays like IT, which was picked up for filming by a local TV network. In the wake of his parents' separation, Cruise returned to the U.S. where he was enrolled in three high schools -- and briefly considered a future as a Catholic priest -- before finding a second home in the drama department of a New Jersey high school and realizing that acting was his calling.

Fueled by a stronger desire to act than to finish high school, Tom Cruise bailed out of class in his senior year, and hightailed it to the Big Apple in search of stardom. Early on, he had the typical working actor experience of dreaming big while waiting tables, but thanks to Creative Arts Agency agent Paula Wagner, he found his way into the business. It came via 1981's Endless Love with Brooke Shields, which is now widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made.

With nowhere else to go but up, Tom Cruise had better luck in Taps, where his bit part was upgraded to a supporting role, and The Outsiders, where he perfected his art under the watchful eye of Francis Ford Coppola and shared the screen with future stars Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, and Diane Lane. If these films represented a warm-up for Tom Cruise, his first true break would be his Golden Globe-nominated performance in 1983's Risky Business, where his high-watt charisma kicked into full gear as Joel Goodson, the young Chicago man who learns a few lessons in life from the savvy and sexy Rebecca De Mornay.

tom cruise stars in top gun and mission: impossible

Now at a stage in his career where he could headline his own movie, Tom Cruise went from bright new talent to top-shelf movie star with a little 1986 effort called Top Gun. Besides recharging the flyboy genre and imprinting the likes of Val Kilmer and the movie's signature anthem into pop culture immortality, Top Gun was the perfect vehicle to brand Tom Cruise as the cocky, sure-minded movie star for his generation. Even if he could have coasted along strictly on the foundation of his new career swagger, Cruise chose not to. Instead, he surrounded himself with great talent in front of and behind the camera. Films like Rain Man, The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, and The Firm put the actor alongside greats like Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, and with directors such as Martin Scorsese, Rob Reiner and Oliver Stone keeping watch.

The success of all of these films -- and the Oscar nomination that accompanied his portrayal of real-life Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in July -- made Tom Cruise the most bankable star in Hollywood. Even projected disasters like Interview with the Vampire with Brad Pitt became profitable hits, ultimately giving him the power to create his own lucrative production company with Paula Wagner. Their first effort was a 1996 cinematic update of the classic TV series, Mission: Impossible. In ringleader Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise found a confident modern update of Top Gun's Maverick and an ultra-successful franchise that continued with the $ 400-million-grossing sequel in 2000. In between, he earned his second and third Oscar nominations as a sports agent facing a new reality in Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire and a hotheaded motivational speaker in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. Along with his wife at the time, Nicole Kidman, he starred as a doctor coping badly with his wife's thoughts of infidelity in the sexual odyssey Eyes Wide Shut, the final film in the oeuvre of the legendary Stanley Kubrick.

tom cruise stars in tropic thunder and knight and day

With more hits on the way like Vanilla Sky, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report and 2004's Collateral, it seemed like Tom Cruise would maintain his impossible hold over Hollywood until retirement. Things changed in a hurry in 2005 during his promotional tour for his second collaboration with Steven Spielberg, War of the Worlds. The new relationship between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, as well as the actor's outspoken pro-Scientology stance against anti-depressants and conventional psychiatry, began to rub many of his fans the wrong way. This culminated in a manic couch-jumping appearance on Oprah that made Tom Cruise into an ideal target for South Park and general pop culture ridicule instead of encouraging people to see his movie. While War of the Worlds still finished as the biggest worldwide box office earner in the actor's career, more media appearances -- like an ill-fated interview with Matt Lauer -- didn't help him any and Paramount Pictures dissolved its 14-year partnership with him after the release of Mission: Impossible III in 2006.

With a celebrity approval rating to match that of outgoing President George W. Bush, Tom Cruise tried to rehabilitate his image, with disappointing results early on. He and Paula Wagner jumped studios to United Artists, where they made the 2007 political dud, Lions for Lambs, a film ignored at the box office despite the presence of Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. The following year, Tom Cruise buried himself under heavy makeup to play the supporting role of foul-mouthed studio big shot Les Grossman in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. The role represented a little-seen comedic side of Tom Cruise and won back some of his disillusioned fans. His next film for United Artists, the historical thriller Valkyrie, earned over $ 200 million worldwide and did more to add some luster to his fading reputation. After bringing back Les Grossman as a recurring character at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards, Cruise made amends with Paramount and both have signed on to develop Mission: Impossible IV.

For now, what happens next with the career of Tom Cruise will be a direct result of the success or failure of Knight and Day, his pricey reunion with his Vanilla Sky costar, Cameron Diaz. It could give him a much-needed professional resuscitation or give his detractors more reasons to dismiss him.

Early box office numbers were disappointing, however; Knight and Day didn't break $ 30 million domestically during its first weekend.

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