My father retired in 1997, a few months after reaching the age of 62. During the last dozen or so years of his career in education he worked as the director of purchasing for a school district in Arizona. He told me once that this final job was not nearly as stressful as the last two jobs he’d held in Wisconsin, superintendent for the small district of Potosi (1968-77) and business manager for the much larger district of Hudson (1978-84). In fact, this Arizona gig was almost “a rocking chair job,” he said. Did that mean he just relaxed and took it easy every day? “Oh, no,” he told me, “you have to get after it every day, no matter what you do.”
That was advice he’d given me early in my own career as well. The day after my high school graduation from Potosi, I drove my dad’s car to Platteville and got a job at a supermarket. I’ve been working ever since. During my college days at UW-Platteville I worked one or two jobs, sometimes going months at a time without a day off, considering classes and work shifts. I started my first full-time job during my final semester of college, and it’s a point of pride to me that I have never been unemployed for even a day. Forty-three years is a long time to be working, but my dad still has me beat on that score: from the time he graduated high school to his retirement was 45 years, which included a stint in uniform. Even when he finished up college after his Army discharge, he was working evenings and weekends, not to mention full-time in the summers. I don’t plan to break that record, but I don’t plan to spend my final months on the job on cruise control, either.
My two brothers, both younger, followed in our dad’s footsteps as well. Alan got his undergrad and master’s degrees, worked in private business for a few years, then went to law school. He’s helmed his own practice out in Washington state for more than a quarter-century, and told me recently he plans to work till he’s 70. Brian became a teacher, which was Dad’s original job in education, but unlike our father he remained in the classroom, teaching American history at a high school in the Phoenix metro. The school year about to begin will be his 33rd, if I am counting correctly, and quite possibly his last. Although he’s younger than I am, he’s fully vested for retirement if he makes it through the first semester and told me he’s tired of having colleagues ask him why he’s still working.
As a result of all this, I’ve always admired people who work hard, no matter what their profession. One of the main streets in the town of Rice Lake, where my wife and I both currently work our day jobs, is being torn up and redesigned this summer. An adjoining street went through a similar renovation a couple years ago, and since it’s a street I frequently take to town, I always noticed one of the workers on that construction crew. This was a guy of average size but who appeared to be in great shape, always wearing a wide-brimmed hat against the summer sun, and he was always hustling. Road crews tend to work pretty hard, but this guy was the champ. I haven’t seen him on the current crew, but maybe he’ll show up when the surveyors finish and the real tough work begins.
Speaking of hard workers, nobody can hold a candle to my wife, who has owned and operated her own business since before I met her and has turned it into a showcase of the travel industry. Work weeks of 50 hours plus are not unusual for her at all, and many’s the night she’s been roused by a client who’s in a jam overseas and needs her help to get home. And when she’s home, she doesn’t often relax; with nine gardens to oversee, not to mention an immaculate house, she’s always busy. (And yes, I help out.)
So, with both of us being people who work hard ourselves, and admirers of like-minded folks, we are looking forward to going up to Hayward this coming Saturday to see the hardest-working actor in show business.
The man who has his own version of cruise control.
Tom Cruise was born 56 years ago this past July 3rd in Syracuse, N.Y., as Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, a descendant of Irish immigrants. His father was an electrical engineer, his mother a special education teacher. The family moved around a lot, and it was during a stint in Canada that young Tom, then in fourth grade, first performed on stage. When his parents broke up a few years later, his mother took Tom and his three sisters back to the States, and for a time he attended a Franciscan seminary in Cincinnati and aspired to become a priest. He played football while at the seminary but was kicked off the team for drinking. All told, he attended 15 schools in 14 years.
The acting bug had bitten him, and he was 19 when his first films, Endless Love and Taps, were released. Two years later, he really broke through in two highly-regarded films, All the Right Moves and Risky Business. In the first, Cruise plays a high school football star living in a roughneck Pennsylvania town. He was 21 at the time but was convincing as a high school senior, Stef Djordjevic, who is dealing with the usual pressures faced by high school kids, especially male athletes: he wants to get out of the town but his family doesn’t have money for college; his coach (played by Craig T. Nelson) is a hard-ass who doesn’t seem all that interested in helping young Stef get a scholarship; and his girlfriend (Lea Thompson) doesn’t want him to leave after graduation, going so far as to give him her virginity (a scene in which both stars go full frontal). In Risky Business, Cruise plays another high school kid but this time from a wealthy family. Joel Goodson is bound for Princeton, but while his parents are away, trouble comes calling. It starts innocently enough, with Joel getting into his parents’ liquor cabinet and then dancing in his underwear to the classic sound of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Pretty soon, though, Joel is trashing his father’s Porsche and running up a large tab with a gorgeous prostitute (Rebecca de Mornay). To pay the repair bill for the car, not to mention what he owes for “entertainment,” Cruise and his buddies, who had been working on an entrepreneurial scheme for a class project, turn his home into a bordello for a night, with all their boys cashing in their college funds to join in.
But it was Cruise’s turn as a Navy fighter pilot in Top Gun (1986) that really sent his career into the stratosphere. It has yet to come down. Cruise has made more than 50 movies, which have grossed several billion dollars worldwide. Besides playing a pilot, he’s been a race car driver (Days of Thunder), a Civil War soldier (The Last Samurai), a World War II German officer (Valkyrie), even an elf (Legend). He has appeared alongside celebrated actors like Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep and many more. He’s been nominated for three Academy Awards, although he has yet to win one. He has twice played Jack Reacher in film versions of Lee Child’s novels about the former Army military cop turned drifter, a role which earned him the ire of many Reacher fans because Cruise, at 5-7, is much shorter than the Reacher of the books. He’s done comedy and drama and thrillers and action films. And it’s the latter category that has really brought him into orbit, with many industry observers calling him the most powerful actor working in Hollywood over the past decade-plus.
It was back in 1995 that Cruise, by then working as a producer as well as an actor, decided to do a film version of the old TV series Mission: Impossible. When the show aired from 1966-73, it was a series known for its twisting plots, dynamite theme music and ensemble casting. Each episode found the Impossible Missions Force tasked with a mission that at first seemed, well, impossible, but they managed to pull it off every time, almost always without the gunplay and explosions that other espionage-themed series had to fall back on. There was also very little sexuality, even considering the times; there was always at least one female member on the team, and unlike many such shows today, she was rarely given the task of seducing someone to help her teammates complete the mission.
Cruise knew that to make the movie work, he’d have to make it an even better version of the TV show. He hired two members of the rock band U2 to update the theme song, and it was nominated for a Grammy award. Celebrated director Brian de Palma was brought in to helm the film. Cruise had admired the series as a kid and wanted to make the movie even better, a “big, showy action piece.” It would be the first production for his new company, and he convinced Paramount Pictures, which owned the TV show, to give him a big budget to work with. The result was a film that transcended the series, bringing it into the ’90s with sharp dialogue, a twisting plot and great location cinematography, beginning in Prague, a city that just a few years before had been behind the Iron Curtain and thus was not yet too familiar to Western audiences.
Although real espionage work rarely involves the type of action that we see in the movies, Cruise wanted M:I to stand out from the pack by putting its characters, led by himself, in harrowing, yet plausible, situations. He wanted to film a fight scene on the roof of a speeding train, but the train owners didn’t want to cooperate. Cruise took them out to dinner and talked them into it. And, more importantly, Cruise decided that he would do his own stunts.
The success of the first Mission: Impossible film led to a series, and the latest, Fallout, is the sixth. It’s difficult to sustain quality in a movie franchise; since it takes at least two years, more likely three, to produce the next one in the series, you have to keep your fans engaged over the lull between films, to the point where they’ll want to come out for the next one. The James Bond franchise, of course, is the gold standard. Ian Fleming’s master spy has been appearing regularly in cinema since the first film, Dr. No, premiered in 1962. The most recent, Spectre (2015), was the 24th in the franchise, and was Daniel Craig’s fourth turn in the lead role. But it’s been three years since then, and it’ll be another year or more before Bond appears again. The next film, with the working title of Bond 25, is tentatively scheduled for a November 2019 release. Craig will be making his fifth (and supposedly final) appearance, reportedly for an even bigger boatload of money than he received for the previous film.
With the release of Fallout, though, critics are now saying that Cruise and the M:I series have eclipsed Craig and James Bond in the pantheon of spy flicks. Although Craig has been great as Bond in his four films so far–even featuring a train-top fight scene in Skyfall (2012)–nothing can top Cruise clinging to the side of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, in M:I–Ghost Protocol (2011). Nothing, that is, except what we are going to see in Fallout.
Critics are hailing the new film as a jaw-dropping action extravaganza that nevertheless doesn’t stint on character development. What makes Cruise’s character, IMF super-spy Ethan Hunt, tick? We find out more in the new film, we’re told, including what happened to Hunt’s wife. It’s the stunt work, though, that everybody is anxious to see, and critics are not immune to the thrills: Why Tom Cruise’s Stunt Work…
I read recently that Cruise’s net worth is in excess of half a billion dollars. It’s hard to imagine having that kind of money, and it’s even harder to imagine someone with that kind of money not just kicking back and enjoying it. Why work at all? Professional athletes retire at a lot younger age than Cruise’s, and many of them hardly work at all the rest of their lives, certainly not in jobs that might put them in great physical danger. How many baseball players retire from the game in their mid-30s and then spend the next 20 years or so doing things like driving race cars or jumping out of perfectly good airplanes? Not too many. Most retired athletes who continue to work will go into business or coaching, which can be stressful, to be sure, but don’t carry a lot of physical danger. There are very few actors, for that matter, who are willing to take the risks Cruise does. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson comes to mind, and at least Johnson has a background as a college football player and professional wrestler.
For such a high-profile superstar, Cruise’s private life remains somewhat mysterious. There’s never been any sniff of scandal to speak of. He’s been married three times, all to actresses: Mimi Rogers (1987-90), Nicole Kidman (1990-2001) and Katie Holmes (2006-12). He and Kidman adopted two children, and with Holmes he fathered his first (and so far only) natural child, a daughter they named Suri. In between marriages he’s been linked to any number of glamorous women, some of them several years his senior, including Rebecca de Mornay, Patty Scialfa (future wife of Bruce Springsteen), Cher, and Penelope Cruz.
Cruise went through a bit of a rough patch in the mid-2000s after his divorce from Kidman. He began dating Holmes and famously announced his love for her during an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, jumping on her couch to emphasize it, an over-the-top performance that cemented his status as the constant subject of not-always-flattering tabloid stories. He also declared his belief in Scientology, the eclectic and somewhat unusual religious system created by the novelist L. Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s. Cruise made some controversial statements about curing his own dyslexia thanks to Scientology, and criticized other celebrities for not treating their own disorders through the same system. Supposedly as a result of the controversy, Paramount Pictures ended its association with Cruise’s production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions, in 2006, although some insiders claimed it was because Paramount was displeased with the lucrative deal Cruise/Wagner had negotiated for a big share of Mission: Impossible DVD sales.
Cruise isn’t shy about interacting with his fans, but he’s not afraid to take on people who cross the line. He’s been involved in several lawsuits against individuals or media outlets that implied or outright declared that he is gay, and he’s won every one of them. He gained a reputation early on as a man who would stand up for his female co-stars, too. When Lea Thompson got the role opposite Cruise in All the Right Moves, she was told she’d have two topless scenes. Cruise felt that was one too many, and to give support to Thompson, he told the producers that if they cut one of the scenes, he’d go buff with her in the other. They liked that arrangement, and to this day Thompson says that people don’t even remember her in the scene because Cruise was in it. Ever since, the women he works with have given him credit for respecting them and their contributions to the films.
When he made The Color of Money with Paul Newman in 1986, Cruise was 24 and the venerable Newman was 61 and would receive his first Academy Award (after seven previous nominations) for his role as pool hustler Eddie Felson. Newman advised Cruise to make his career about the work and not yield to all the distractions that would come his way. It’s advice Cruise undoubtedly took to heart.
The latest Cruise film…his best yet?
The critics have lauded Mission: Impossible–Fallout as perhaps the best in the franchise, and that’s saying something, as all the films have been well-received by critics and moviegoers. Sue and I saw the film Saturday in Hayward, choosing the 3D version, which I highly recommend. Since the stunt work was all done outdoors, the 3D depth enhances the cinematography and makes it even more vivid and thrilling. The plot kept everyone guessing and the performances were first-rate. We also got to see Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, more vulnerable than ever. The enemies he confronts are his equal and perhaps his superior physically, and his emotional strength is tested as well by his memories of his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), whom he had to allow to disappear in an earlier film to save her from being constantly threatened. He reunites with the only other woman who has ever challenged him in such a physical and emotional way, British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), but can she be trusted? And what about CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), whom Hunt has been ordered to allow to take part in the mission? Hunt can only really count on his two closest associates, tech expert Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and computer whiz Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), but he might need Faust and Walker to complete the mission. And the stakes are high: a terrorist group that was not fully eliminated in the preceding film (Rogue Nation) now has possession of two nuclear devices, which they plan to use in an ingenious and especially threatening way to create worldwide chaos.
This has been the film’s second week in worldwide release, and it’s already plowed under the competition to the tune of $330 million in box office. If you’re an action film fan, especially in the espionage vein, this one’s for you. (And here’s a bonus: It’s the only movie you’ll ever see which has actors who played Superman and the Shadow duking it out.)
Tom Cruise could retire anytime and spend the rest of his days enjoying his success and his fortune, but he’s not a guy who likes being on, well, cruise control. I certainly hope there are more M:I films out there. After every one, we leave the cinema saying, “How can he ever top this one?” And then we answer ourselves: “He will.”