Producer Sherry Lansing once told Tom Cruise that he was too old to play Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise.
At 61 years old, Tom Cruise is doing more to defy the stigmas of aging than any cosmetic guru or exorbitantly expensive cream on the market. In Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Cruise makes being a sexagenarian look like a walk in the park. Always putting fans first, Cruise goes above and beyond to bring cutting-edge action to screens with death-defying feats of physical prowess and bravery in the face of danger. He would have it no other way, which is why it’s strange that, 20 years ago, Paramount thought he was getting too old to play Ethan Hunt.
As Hollywood continues to feel the fallout from the SAG-AFTRA strike, we’re digging into the archives for relevant stories that apply to today’s cinematic climate. While leafing through the pages of retired film studio executive Sherry Lansing’s authorized biography, Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker, a passage from the book says Cruise made Paramount wait 18 months for J.J. Abrams to direct Mission: Impossible III.
For the uninitiated, Lansing is widely considered one of the greatest film executives ever. Among her many contributions to the industry, she greenlit Braveheart and Forrest Gump back-to-back. At the time, no other studios wanted either film. Both went on to win consecutive Best Picture Oscars. Talk about reading the tea leaves!
“I said, ‘What about this big director who’s won two Academy Awards? What about the one who’s just been nominated?” Lansing insisted while speaking with Cruise about setting up Mission: Impossible III. “Tom listened, and said, ‘They’re good. But I don’t think they’re right.”
Frustrated by the stalemate, Lansing suggested one director after another while Cruise denied them all. Lansing recalls Cruise being “impeccably mannered” about the situation, but the clock was ticking.
“My whole year was resting on this picture, and it was meant to start shooting any week,” Lansing said. “But I couldn’t get him to budge. I went back to my office and called [Disney-ABC chairman] Michael Eisner to see if we could get J.J., and he said, ‘He isn’t available for eighteen months.’ I was relieved. Now I could get one of my choices. So I called Tom and said, ‘I’d yield, but he’s not free.’ And Tom said, ‘Then we’ll just have to wait.’”
Exasperated by the circumstances, Lansing felt her 2005 summer blockbuster slipping away. “Perhaps I should have thrown myself on his mercy and said, ‘I have nothing else,’ but I couldn’t get those words out of my mouth,” Lansing recalls. Afraid of making Cruise feel like he is just a cog in the Hollywood machine, Lansing said, “The franchise will grow old, and the audience will get tired of it.’ Tom said, ‘I don’t agree.’ Then I pleaded with him, ‘Meet some of the other directors.’ But Cruise wanted to wait.”
Looking to sway the discussion in her favor, Lansing said, “You’re going to be too old to do it in two years!” Not believing her own words, Lansing remembers the smile on Tom’s face when he heard her words, ‘You think so?,’ Cruise replied.
With the fallout from Cruise’s insistence looming like an oppressive shadow, Lansing scrambled for a solution. Days after the discussion with Tom, she got a call from Steven Spielberg, who suggested she read the script for 2005’s War of the Worlds. Lansing read the material in an evening, her mind buzzing with possible scenarios.
“My first thought was, ‘This movie will earn a fortune, and my second was, ‘It will take three years to complete.’” Spielberg then assured her the film would be ready for a Fourth of July release. The clouds had parted, revealing a godsend to bolster Paramount’s summer box office. Everything was going to work out.
“Tom must have known all along,” Lansing says in her novel. “He always denied it, but I was sure he’s been keeping it in his back pocket.”
Thankfully, this story has happy endings all around. In addition to Lansing getting her summer blockbuster and Cruise landing Abrams for Mission: Impossible III, Cruise and Lansing still have a great relationship. Hollywood can be a cutthroat business; sometimes, episodes like this can sour working relationships. With Cruise still running around as Ethan Hunt, making millions by the day for Paramount, I’d say everything worked out for the best.