How Scientology almost ruined Tom Cruise’s career and 'Mission: Impossible' saved it

Jason Guerrasio

In August 2006, it seemed like Tom Cruise was finished.

In an announcement unprecedented by the head of a major conglomerate, the chairman of Viacom, Sumner Redstone, publicly ripped into the star, who at the time was one of the most profitable at Viacom's movie studio, Paramount Pictures.

“We don't think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot,” Redstone told The Wall Street Journal. “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”

Nine years ago was certainly the toughest and strangest time of Cruise’s career. The then 43-year-old actor had a lifetime box-office gross of over $1.5 billion, but his flawless transition from young heartthrob to respected dramatic actor to gargantuan action star had seemed to self-destruct as quickly as one of the messages his character, Ethan Hunt, receives in the “Mission: Impossible” movies.

The studio he'd called home for 14 years was parting ways with him.

His strange downfall and subsequent rebirth as one of the most bankable movie stars all began with an innocent act of love.

When Cruise agreed to go on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in May 2005 to promote his next blockbuster film, “War of the Worlds,” it was a big deal. Not only did most women believe he was one of the sexiest men alive, but Cruise rarely did interviews, especially on daytime TV.

As Cruise walked onto Oprah's stage, the crowd went wild. Oprah playfully tousled Cruise's hair, and the actor was clearly in a great mood.

After the couch jumping, Oprah even got Cruise to chase down Holmes and get her to come on stage.

It seemed harmless at the time, but thanks to a very young internet video-posting site called YouTube, the image of Cruise on top of Oprah’s couch would become a pop-culture phenomenon.

Here’s an excerpt of Cruise and Lauer's uncomfortable exchange:

Cruise: “Do you know what Adderall is? Do you know Ritalin? Do you now Ritalin is a street drug? Do you understand that?”

Lauer: “The difference is — ”

Cruise: “No, Matt, I’m asking you a question.”

Lauer: “I understand there’s abuse of all of these things.”

Cruise: “No, you see here’s the problem: You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”

Lauer: “Do you examine the possibility that these things do work for some people? That yes, there are abuses, and yes, maybe they’ve gone too far in certain areas, maybe there are too many kids on Ritalin, maybe electric shock — ”

Cruise: “Too many kids on Ritalin?”

Lauer: “I’m just saying — but aren’t there examples where it works?”

Cruise: “Matt, Matt, Matt, you’re glib. You don’t even know what Ritalin is. If you start talking about chemical imbalance, you have to evaluate and read the research papers on how they came up with these theories, Matt. OK? That’s what I’ve done. You go and you say, ‘Where’s the medical tests? Where’s the blood test that says how much Ritalin you’re supposed to get?’”

Lauer: “It’s very impressive to listen to you, because clearly you’ve done the homework and you know the subject.”

Cruise: “And you should. And you should do that also, because just knowing people who are on Ritalin isn’t enough. You should be a little bit more responsible … ”

Within minutes, the exchange was on loop all over the world.

Within a few weeks, Cruise had gone wild on Oprah and lashed out at Matt Lauer, and by then the tabloids had gone overtime on the Cruise-Holmes relationship, which they called “TomKat.”

It was time for Cruise to get off the grid, but he couldn't.

Now in a typhoon of backlash that Cruise had never experienced before, his team may have been too inexperienced to protect him.

Despite all the negative attention, “War of the Worlds” still went to No.1 at the box office during its opening weekend ($65 million), and ended up with a worldwide take of $592 million. It would be the last time a film starring Cruise would make over $500 million worldwide for the next six years.

The episode originally aired in November 2005 and revealed what Scientologists believe is the origin of life, but it also depicted Cruise as an insecure person and played on rumors of his sexuality.

In the episode, one of the main characters on the show, Stan, is thought by Scientology to be the second coming of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. This leads Scientologists, including Cruise, to flock to Stan’s house to pay their respects. But when Stan insults his acting ability, Cruise hides in Stan’s closet, leading to Stan saying, “Dad, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet.”

Cruise’s reps denied he ever threatened not to promote the film.

The controversy made headlines all over the world and led "South Park" fans to declare they would boycott “Mission: Impossible 3” until Comedy Central aired the episode.

The episode finally re-aired in July of that year.

“Closetgate,” in what it would become known, was the last straw.

The constant tabloid coverage of TomKat, plus rumors of Cruise’s involvement with Scientology — like that Cruise and Holmes’ relationship was allegedly arranged by the church — had turned people off. (Cruise and Holmes married in November 2006 and divorced six years later.)

The bad press soon began to affect Cruise's career. “Mission: Impossible 3” opened in theaters in May 2006 and Cruise's Q score — the appeal of a celebrity, brand, or company on the public — was down 40%.

“Mission: Impossible 3” is the lowest grossing film in the franchise to date with a $400 million worldwide gross.

It was at this point that Viacom chair Sumner Redstone gave Cruise his wake-up call: “We don't think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot. His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”

After being kicked off the Paramount lot, Cruise hired a publicist with more experience and buckled down for a comeback. He brought his production company over to MGM and took partial ownership of the iconic United Artists studio.

Cruise also became less vocal about Scientology in public, though he was apparently involved internally. In 2008, a Scientology-produced YouTube video of the actor explaining what the religion means to him went viral.

Cruise hit the pause button on doing action movies, turning to dramas like “Lions for Lambs” and “Valkyrie."

In between those films he agreed to star in pal Ben Stiller’s 2008 comedy “Tropic Thunder” as the overweight, bigger-than-life movie exec Les Grossman. It was the best movie Cruise had done in years. In doing something so out of character, he began to win back fans.

Being a hit in “Tropic Thunder,” the biggest comedy of the year for Paramount, was a good starting point. Director J.J. Abrams, who directed Cruise in "Mission: Impossible 3" and was in Paramount's good graces after directing the studio's hit "Star Trek Into Darkness," was also working to get Cruise back in the franchise.

In the summer of 2010, news broke that Cruise would be starring in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” with Abrams as producer. But this installment in the franchise would not be titled “Mission: Impossible 4,” because the idea was that the film would be a refresh on the franchise, with Cruise stepping aside as the lead and giving way to rising star Jeremy Renner.

Cruise didn’t really get the message.

Cruise is not back to his pre-Oprah couch-jumping glory, as evidenced by disappointments like "Knight and Day" and "Jack Reacher," but he's trying. Following “Ghost Protocol,” Cruise came out with “Edge of Tomorrow” and though it had a slow start when it opened in the spring of 2014, it ended up passing the domestic $100 million mark. That makes it the first time in nine years a non-“Mission: Impossible” Cruise film hit that landmark number.

Now, with the excitement for “Rogue Nation,” Cruise's mission of returning as a top action star is likely possible. That is, if his fans are willing to forgive HBO's explosive new Scientology documentary, "Going Clear," in which Cruise is criticized for remaining the face of the controversial religion.

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