Tom Cruise's most memorable moments through the years

The cinema superstar has had no shortage of iconic appearances

Tom Cruise at the premiere of Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Tom Cruise at the premiere of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. (WireImage)

Tom Cruise is 61 and shows no signs of easing back on the throttle.

Flying high after Top Gun: Maverick not only topped the 2022 box-office but helped to restore and revive the theatrical movie experience in a post-pandemic age while giving him his biggest movie to date, the action superstar returns to screens in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.

To celebrate, let's look back at Cruise’s most memorable moments over the last six decades.

The Risky Business slide

Tom Cruise as Joel Goodson dancing around the house in shirt, socks and underwear in Risky Business. (Warner Bros.)
Tom Cruise as Joel Goodson dancing around the house in shirt, socks and underwear in Risky Business. (Warner Bros.)

The pre-Ferris Bueller tale of a young Chicago man getting his kicks, liquor and ladies when his parents are out of town was a massive sleeper hit in 1983.

It was also the first time a Cruise moment became part of pop culture. The scene of Tom’s Joel Goodsen knocking back whisky before slide-dancing to Bob Segar in his white Y-fronts changed the fortunes of the once lesser regarded cousin of male underwear. And the young man sporting them.

Becoming an icon in Top Gun

American actor Tom Cruise on the set of Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Tom Cruise on the set of Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott. (Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

If Risky Business (1983) was the film that got him noticed, then it was Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) that got him known.

By the time he took the Eighties' breath away with the pop-excess flight into the danger zone that is Top Gun, Cruise had already been directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Outsiders, 1983), Ridley Scott (Legend, 1984), and Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money, 1986).

Read more: The tragic life of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis

Not a bad early CV for a rising star still being idly dismissed as part of the now largely forgotten Brat Pack, an ensemble of early 1980s new actors such as Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe and C. Thomas Howell.

LOS ANGELES - MAY 16: The movie
Tom Cruise as Lt Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell riding a Kawasaki GPZ 900 R in Top Gun. (CBS via Getty Images)

For a film loaded with peak 1980s ad-like moments — the volleyball match, the motorbike ride along an airstrip, any one of the topless bromance moments — it is possibly just that simple beat of Cruise grinning with an upwards flick of his Ray-Ban sunglasses that is the defining moment of his defining film.

Movie stars do not sometimes need a movie to validate their star power. It is often just a moment.

Critical success

Rain Man Oscar winners backstage (L to R): Mark Johnson, Best Picture, Dustin Hoffman, Best Actor, movie co-star Tom Cruise and Best Director Barry Levinson, 1989. (Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.)

At the height of his first wave of stardom, his subsequent films after Top Gun saw Cruise effortlessly graduate to more serious work few pretty boy stars achieve.

The moment his younger brother Charlie realises who autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) was in the shower scene in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988) is the moment Cruise finally left the Brat Pack and teen mags.

He never got a chance in Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) — acted offscreen by former golden pin-up turned serious actor Paul Newman — who incidentally was the same age in that film as Cruise is now.

Oscar near-miss

Tom Cruise speaking out for the military veterans in a scene from the film 'Born On The Fourth Of July', 1989. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)
Tom Cruise speaking out for the military veterans in a scene from the film Born On The Fourth Of July, 1989. (Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

A teen spin of his cocktail shaker in Cocktail (1988) later and Tom took a role that is arguably his best work.

When cast as Vietnam activist Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Cruise deliberately took a non-pretty role and narrowly lost to Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot) for what could have been his first Academy Award.

Barely three years after the gung-ho stars and stripe man oeuvres of Top Gun, Cruise’s powerful fist-thumping work and the scenes of Kovic angrily storming a party rally remain formidable.

Reigning supreme

American actor Jack Nicholson playing the role of a colonel and American actor Tom Cruise playing the role of a lawyer acting in the film A Few Good Men. 1992 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in the film A Few Good Men. 1992 (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Cruise followed Born On the Fourth of July with the unofficial first sequel to Top Gun. Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder (1990) was a checkered flag to a popcorn run of titles such as Far and Away (1992), A Few Good Men (1992) and The Firm (1993).

All hits from solid directors and all confirming Cruise’s star-power supremacy for the 1990s, he did however almost lose that maverick streak amidst an All-American clean-cut poster-boy veneer.

Tom Cruise talks on a phone in a scene from the film 'Jerry Maguire', 1996. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)
Tom Cruise talks on a phone in a scene from the film Jerry Maguire, 1996. (TriStar/Getty Images)

Cue the second half of the 1990s, a foray into more indie-minded work and a self-steered reinvention that began with one fevered phone-call moment down the line to sports star Cuba Gooding Jr.

That ‘Show me the money!’ moment from Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996) buoyed up a rare studio hit in an era of indie movie dominance on that year’s award circuit.

Power couple

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the racetrack in a scene from the film 'Days of Thunder', 1990. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the racetrack in a scene from the film Days of Thunder, 1990. (Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

Cruise had already been married and divorced to Mimi Roger (his entrance to the world of Scientology) by the time he met Australian actor Nicole Kidman on the set of their 'Top Gun with cars' movie Days of Thunder in 1990.

They married that same year and later adopted two children — Isabella and Connor — before divorcing in 2001. In their time together they were the Hollywood it couple de jour, and made two more movies together (Far and Away in 1992, and Eyes Wide Shut in 1999), befriending Princess Diana along the way and later attending her funeral together in 1997.

Cruise went on to date Penelope Cruz between 2001-2004.

Franchise hits

American actor Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in a scene from the film 'Mission: Impossible', 1996. Here he steals the NOC list from the CIA headquarters in Langley. (Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images)
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in a scene from the film Mission: Impossible, 1996. (Murray Close/Getty Images)

More familiar fare, but no less risky was Cruise’s first foray into the world of Mission: Impossible. Brian De Palma’s 1996 original movie may have been riding a bit of GoldenEye’s retro spy charms, yet it was Cruise who owned the role of agent Ethan Hunt as soon as he was precariously horizontal on computer-hacking wires.

It is a wholly original moment that demarcated 1990s action cinema, and still defines the M:I franchise three decades later.

Auteur excursions

Tom Cruise kissing Nicole Kidman in a scene from the film 'Eyes Wide Shut', 1999. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Tom Cruise kissing Nicole Kidman in a scene from the film Eyes Wide Shut, 1999. (Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

With his Hollywood crown about to duel with Tom Hanks (and a sharing of ultimate star power the pair share until this day), Tom Cruise opted for more auteur stylings with Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire (1996) and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1998).

Following on from a notoriously prolonged and arduous shoot, the latter title afforded Cruise that beguiling moment he dons a Venetian mask to enter a wholly sinister and cultish swingers club.

Read more: Top Gun cast - then and now

Holding the tension behind a mask in what is a very elaborate Kubrick glory of a set-piece was no easy task. Only Cruise could have let wider audiences into the shadowy vices and unsettling adult odyssey of Kubrick’s final work.

Tom Cruise in Magnolia. (New Line Cinema)
Tom Cruise in Magnolia. (New Line Cinema)

That tone continues in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) which was arguably Cruise’s biggest departure to date. Always one to play up to the poster-boy fame in one film swiftly followed by something against type for the next, the unpleasant ‘respect’ and ‘tame’ dialogue moment from an equally nasty motivational speaker created quite the movie buzz for Cruise.

It was also a beat where the actor was not the lead, but whose sweaty long locks and cruel demeanour forever stole the film.

Blockbuster time

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 21: The movie
Tom Cruise as Chief John Anderton, at a pre-crime screen in Minority Report. (CBS via Getty Images)

Never one to shy from a legendary director, Cruise soon collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005). Notoriously known for his onscreen running, Spielberg’s modern-day take on HG Wells’ Victorian classic represented peak Tom-running-from-things glory.

However, some misfires also ran into his path. The Last Samurai (2003) could not quite lift its sword, Valkyrie (2008) felt like a rare mis-cast moment, and Mission: Impossible II (2000) played like a dated commercial for expensive cars.

His second stint as Hunt did provide a trope that has now defined the actor in the latter half of his career, but it was a moment off-camera that defined him as a pop culture personality.

The sofa jump

During promotion for War of the Worlds, Cruise made the biggest PR faux pas of his career so far while being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.

Instead of sticking the script, talking up his latest Steven Spielberg sci-fi spectacular, and egged on by the talk show host, Cruise used his time to gush about his new girlfriend Katie Holmes.

"What has happened to you?" asked Winfrey as Cruise visibly failed to hide his excitement while expressing his 'love' for Holmes.

"We've never seen you behave like this," said the host, prompting Cruise to leap up onto the sofa, pumping his fists in the air. "Boy is gone," is all the host can manage while Cruise continues to leap around like a crazy person.

ROME, ITALY:  US actor Tom Cruise (R) smiles flanked by his girlfriend Katie Holmes as they arrive for the David di Donatello Italian film awards in central Rome 29 April 2005. AFP PHOTO/Tiziana FABI  (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)
Tom Cruise smiles flanked by his girlfriend Katie Holmes, 2005. (AFP via Getty Images)

The clip became a sensation on the recently-launched YouTube, becoming a much-parodied early celebrity internet meme. It changed the public perception of Cruise forever, and several media blunders followed including a public feud with Brooke Shields. It also soured his relationship with his regular film studio Paramount, although that has been repaired in recent years.

"His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount,” Viacom chairman Sumner M. Redstone told The Wall Street Journal in 2006.

Cruise and Holmes married in 2006 after the birth of their daughter Suri. They split in 2012.

Action man

Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.
Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. (Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions)

From the moment he himself climbed that precarious opening-scene rock in Mission: Impossible 2 — albeit on digitally removed wires — Cruise cleverly navigated a burgeoning CGI era with well-publicised doing-it-for-real stunts.

Read more: Tom Cruise's most dangerous stunts

What started as a PR, chat-show gimmick soon saw the actor step up the ownership of production. Under his eye, the M:I franchise has soared to ever-dangerous, yet totally successful and critically esteemed heights.

It may tip an action hat to James Bond more than once, but the Ethan Hunt series has been a successful benchmark for mainstream big movie adventure and — with 007 — been a rare counterpoint to the rise of Marvel.

The saviour of cinema

Cruise posed in front the Tenet poster. (Twitter/Tom Cruise)
Tom Cruise posed in front the Tenet poster. (Twitter/Tom Cruise)

Cruise’s philosophy of big cinema in big theatres for big audiences was once almost king-making. After the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it became wholly vital for the survival of an entire industry of sub-industries.

When British audiences finally returned to movie houses with Tenet (2020), Cruise was there at London’s IMAX – in a mask, and doing his bit to support the industry that has supported him.

Not a movie moment, but a telling one in his career. Using another Bond minded decision, he too held firm with delaying the release of Top Gun – Maverick. He too knew the value of live cinema playing to live audiences. It was never about his own fortunes. He is somewhat comfortable already.

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - MAY 24: Actor Tom Cruise and Producer Jerry Bruckheimer pose on the red carpet for the Japan Premiere of
Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer pose on the red carpet for the Japan Premiere of Top Gun: Maverick. (Getty Images For Paramount Pictures)

The subsequent fever and critical love for Maverick flew that film past the billion-dollar mark, earning it a Best Picture Oscar nomination in the process. And it has emboldened theatrical cinema distribution at a hazardous moment in its history.

With two more M:I films and their era-defining set pieces almost in the can — and a trip to space for a space station movie planned — Cruise still retains the energy he demonstrated when he first slid across the lounge floor in Risky Business.

A sofa-pounding Oprah Winfrey moment, a couple of Jack Reacher misfires and the over-bandaged The Mummy aside, the last forty years of mainstream US cinema has been dominated by Tom Cruise.

His The Color of Money co-star Paul Newman experienced a second wave of cinematic glory after hitting sixty. The point of Tom Cruise is his first run of success has not actually yet ended.

Watch: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One trailer