Surely a divine authority scripted 1996 for Hollywood's golden boy. Tom Cruise
began the year fine-tuning Mission: Impossible, which is fast becoming his most successful movie to date, so far netting him at least $30 million as both star and first-time producer. But if some fans failed to decode the spy vs. spy machinations of that thriller's complicated plot, nobody had trouble identifying Cruise, 34, as the hero of his offscreen travels. In March, he came to the aid of a Los Angeles pedestrian who had been struck by a hit-and-run driver, then paid her $7,000 emergency room bill. At Mission's London premiere in July, the actor saw two young boys being crushed by the crowd and pulled them to safety. And in August, while sailing off the isle of Capri with wife Nicole Kidman
, 29, and their children Isabella, 3, and Connor, 1, Cruise dispatched a skiff to rescue five passengers after their nearby yacht caught fire.
Still, Cruise didn't court danger until December, when he played the unthinkable—a loser—in the quirky romantic comedy Jerry Maguire. "I wanted to reinvent this guy," Maguire writer and director Cameron Crowe says of his star. "What he does in the movie is really subtle and funny, and there's no hardware attached. He's disarming and approachable." As a high-powered sports agent on the skids, Cruise snapped up the year's best actor award from the National Board of Review and rocketed—for the second time this year—to the No. 1 box office spot. The vulnerability he displays as Maguire, the film's costar Cuba Gooding Jr. believes, is a shocking revelation—finally—of the man behind the famous shades. Says Gooding: "He's human." With some superhuman talents, to be sure.