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The movie is over almost before it starts. Through a hazy cloud of dust, Tom Cruise roars onto the screen astride an outsize Harley, wheels spinning, smoke flying and a look of determination burning on his brow. Right away you know how Days of Thunder will end. Before Cruise even slides off the bike, you know this cocky stock-car driver will eventually become plagued by crippling self-doubt. When he takes his first swaggering step, you know that he will fight back, fortified by the love of a beautiful girl. By the time he coolly removes his sunglasses, you know he will win and that even his enemies will cheer.

You know this because Cruise's movies routinely unfold this way. But who cares? Though his formula maybe familiar (think Top Gun, Cocktail, Risky Business, All the Right Moves), his blockbuster portrayals of red-blooded, all-American youths struggling for glory have made him Hollywood's hotrod du jour. Emerging onscreen in the early '80s alongside other comely young studs (Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze et al.), Cruise, 28, has left that pack in the dust. His vehicle: a boyish but pulsating intensity that, no matter what the activity—shooting pool, piloting a fighter jet, speed-pouring drinks, seducing a woman—edges him further and further into the danger zone. And each brush with movie peril has chiseled another notch of experience into Cruise's clean-cut sensuality, so that he has become darker, handsomer and sexier in spades. He's the boy next door as daredevil.

"That smile, those eyes—and he's muscular in all the right places." says Playgirl editor Nancie S. Martin, who has put forward a standing offer to feature Cruise in a nude pictorial. (Yeah, right.) "We'd take off from whatever his last movie was," she says. "He'd look pretty good in a race car, or maybe the cockpit of a plane. He'd look good on top of a white sheet. He'd look good in anything. Or, better yet, out of anything."

Playgirl, Cosmo, Popular Mechanics—chances are slim that Serious Actor Cruise will strip down or anyone with a flashbulb and lens. He did consent to a brief pass of frontal flesh in his 1983 football flick, All the Right Moves, but has since made it known that buffing it is not his style. Filming a shower scene for Thunder, he insisted on staying in his briefs. No matter. Even with his pants on, Cruise always manages to pump the screen with heat. Riding the El with Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business, he generates enough electricity to keep the trains live all night. And in 1986's Top Gun, he makes Kelly McGillis go limp by simply informing her, "I'm going to take a shower," and walking out the door.

And Cruise does this without the benefit of GQ-model looks. "His smile is a little off, nose a little off," says Rain Man producer Mark Johnson. "But it's the sum total." Only 5'9", Cruise manages to appear "larger than life," as McGillis gushes in Top Gun, using only his acting ability—no special effects. "It's not like dealing with Alan Ladd, where they had to stand him on apple boxes," says Top Gun and Thunder producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "We don't even toy with camera techniques."

Valeria Golino, Cruise's co-star in 1988's Rain Man, explains that his allure arises from personality rather than physicality. "He's protective and strong and still innocent," she says. His most attractive feature, she adds, is "his eyes. Not their color. His regard—the way he looks with them. They're very alive."

Cruise's penetrating gaze is also a sign of great concentration. "If he's shaking your hand, he looks you in the eye, and that's the only thing he's doing," notes Thunder cinematographer Ward Russell. "He's very focused."

Which serves Cruise well as he chases his hotdogging pursuits. Before filming 1986's The Color of Money, he spent seven weeks perfecting poolroom stunts. To portray Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in last year's Born on the Fourth of July, he spent entire days in a wheelchair and agreed to ingest a serum that would paralyze him for two days—until the movie's insurers balked. At Florida's Daytona Speedway to shoot Thunder (a film idea Cruise developed after picking up the racing bug from Color co-star Paul Newman), Cruise stunned the pros by turning several laps at 182 mph. "He could quit acting today and make a lot of money driving stock cars," claims H.A. Wheeler, president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, another film location.

It's as if Cruise still chants the mantra of Maverick, his gung ho Top Gun ace: "I feel the need, the need for speed." His latest sport of the moment is skydiving, which he took up near Daytona Beach, making dozens of jumps behind the backs of Thunder's insurers. (Cruise can knock years off a film insurer's life.) "He's a natural," says Bob Hallett, owner of Skydive DeLand, where Cruise pulled his first chute.

Despite the he-man games and his constant search for new thrills, Cruise is no love-'em-and-leave-'em womanizer. Though reportedly linked at one time or another with Cher, Melissa Gilbert, Patti Scialfa and Heather Locklear, he has been a party to only three known serious romances, about which he remains stubbornly private.

The first girlfriend of note was Rebecca De Mornay, whom, following the opening of their steamy Risky Business, he saw steadily from 1983 to 1985. (De Mornay recently married screenwriter Bruce Wagner.) Then, after a 1½-year relationship, he wed actress Mimi Rogers, now 35, in 1987. Although rumors of trouble in the marriage rarely made the tabloids, the couple separated late last year. The split wasn't announced until mid-January, but Wanda Edwards, catering director at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, says that by the time Cruise threw a big New Year's bash at the track, it was clear there had been a parting of the ways. "Nobody actually knew about the separation," says Edwards, "but just having it so conspicuous that she was not here the night of his party or any other night during his stay made it obvious something wasn't right."

It was toward the end of filming, say members of the Thunder crew, that Cruise hooked up with his Aussie co-star, Nicole (Dead Calm) Kidman, 22. In Daytona Beach they dined occasionally at the Olive Garden, part of an Italian restaurant chain, and shopped at the Publix market for burgers and other cookout fare. Cruise also turned Kidman on to skydiving. Proof of their blossoming affair came during their first simultaneous jump: As they hurtled earthward at 110 mph (with instructors at their side), speed demon Cruise swooped in and planted a kiss on Kidman's mouth

Since then, Cruise has been keeping regular company with the 5'10" redhead from Down Under, showing her off in public at the Oscars in March. A kindred outdoor enthusiast (sailing across treacherous seas for the 1989 thriller Dead Calm "was frightening," she says, "but a beautiful feeling"), Kidman is presumably still leaping out of planes with Cruise. Before they left Florida Cruise bought four top-of-the-line skydiving rigs, two for himself and two for her (total retail value: $10,000 plus).

As an Easter present, Cruise also took his mother, Mary Lee, 50, for a jump, and planted a midair kiss on her too. It was his mother and three sisters, says Cruise, who nurtured him through a mostly fatherless adolescence (his parents divorced when he was 11) and taught him the sensitivity to women that his female acquaintances admire. "Women, to me, are not a mystery," Cruise has said. "I get along easily with them."

Nevertheless the Syracuse-born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV once toyed with the idea of becoming a priest and taking a vow of celibacy. Moving from town to town because of his parents' jobs (his father was an electrical engineer, his mother a teacher), Tom received a disjointed education, which was further impeded by his inherited dyslexia. At 14, he spent one relatively stable year at a Franciscan seminary in Cincinnati but then changed his mind about the priesthood. By the time he finished high school in Glen Ridge, N.J., he had discovered a new calling: acting.

If his star wasn't born precisely overnight, it didn't take much longer. Within months of moving to New York City, he landed a small part in the 1981 Brooke Shields vehicle Endless Love, impressing the film community enough to win a larger role that year as a fanatic military student in Taps. His next—regrettable—project was a teen-libido pic, Losin' It, with Shelley Long, but it was only a blip on his résumé of otherwise smart projects. As a greaser in Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film, The Outsiders, he displayed early signs of his feverish devotion to character preparation, having a cap from his tooth removed and skimping on showers for several weeks. By the end of that year, he was strumming up boffo box office in Risky Business as an enterprising young pimp-for-a-day.

Although he now reportedly commands a $9 million fee and could win most any poll as the screen's most bankable name, Cruise maintains a reputation as Mr. Nice Guy, greeting his elders as "Sir" and "Ma'am." Dave Garris, Cruise's chauffeur in Daytona Beach, recalls driving on the highway one day when the actor called out, "Dave, Dave, pull over," because he had spotted a down-and-out man at the roadside holding a sign that read, "I'll work for food." According to Garris, Cruise offered the man all the cash in his pocket—about $100—then reached for his hand and told him, "Take care."

His generosity extended to his Thunder co-workers as well. A teetotaler, Cruise footed the $13,000 bill-most of it for alcohol—for that New Year's Eve party in Charlotte (dubbed Cruisin' in the New Year) for 450 crew members and friends. "He was a very gracious host," remembers caterer Wanda Edwards. "I saw him walk over to people and see if they were having a good time. He shakes with both hands, a real warm handshake."

The crowd that night left him mostly alone, but when the actor went shopping at a department store in Charlotte one day, "The whole place was in an uproar," reports Edwards. "I went in there about 5 minutes after he left, and traffic had stopped moving, and all the girls working there were out in the middle of the floor screaming."

And that's the way it is for Sexiest Man Alive Tom Cruise, who tries his best to duck the limelight and the frenzy. "I do not exploit, and I will not exploit myself," he has said. "I'm an actor." So go on, Tom. Keep acting. Because each new film gives fans another chance to catch you in freeze-frame—and stare as long as they like.

—Jeannie Park, Jane Sanderson in Charlotte, Don Sider in Orlando and the Los Angeles bureau

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sanderson,
  • Don Sider.