Tom Cruise has played more than his share of iconic roles, from Maverick in Top Gun to Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia to Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise. But for every great part he’s played, he’s turned down many more — including the leads in some of the biggest hits of the last 30 years.
In a way, it makes sense. By the late 1980s, Cruise was (metaphorically, if not literally) one of the two or three biggest movie stars in the world. That made him producers’ first choice for almost every major film in Hollywood for a decade. If things had turned out slightly differently, Cruise could have made pottery with Demi Moore to the sounds of the Righteous Brothers, or escaped from Shawshank State Prison in a sewage pipe, or maybe even launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an arms manufacturer who suddenly sprouts a conscience.
Below, you’ll find ten examples of huge movies — including blockbusters, Oscar winners, and titles that routinely make lists of the greatest films of all time — that Tom Cruise almost appeared in. You’ll also see truly incredible Photoshop work that will give you a very accurate representation of what those titles would have looked like with Tom Cruise in the lead role. (Seriously, do they give a Pulitzer for Best Photoshop Work? Cause if so, I’m a lock for 2021.) And while Cruise didn’t make any of these movies, you will seem him soon in more Mission: Impossible and Top Gun sequels.
1. Tony Stark, Iron Man
About a decade before Marvel made their own Iron Man movie, Tom Cruise was attached to his own version of the property. This one would have been produced by Fox, and even had a story co-written by Marvel legend Stan Lee, which featured the Armored Avenger fighting MODOK, the evil, giant-headed leader of AIM. Despite years of rumors about Tom Cruise playing the Marvel hero, the film never came together, languishing in development hell at multiple studios before Marvel reacquired the rights to the character and began developing the version kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With his brash ego, and outlandish behavior (not to mention his love of running very fast) it’s easy to imagine Cruise as Tony Stark.
2. John Carter, John Carter
John Carter of Mars is another movie that took a very long, very circuitous route to the big-screen that at one point drew significant interest from Tom Cruise. He was interested in the project during his late 1980s heyday; according to producer Jim Morris, Cruise’s JCM would have been directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan with special effects from Industrial Light and Magic. As incredible as the combination sounds, in the pre-CGI days the special effects needed to convincingly create multiple alien races would have been way to complex, and thus way too expensive, and so that particular iteration of the Edgar Rice Burroughs hero fell apart.
3. Jack Traven, Speed
During the early ’90s, Tom Cruise was the top choice for just about every big action movie coming out of Hollywood. Before Jan de Bont and writer Graham Yost decided on Keanu Reeves, they first tried to get Tom Cruise to play relentless L.A. cop Jack Traven. Given the film’s title alone, and his love of doing wild stunts, it’s kind of shocking he turned the movie down. (Maybe they refused to let him personally drive the bus over the gap in the freeway?)
4. Edward Scissorhands, Edward Scissorhands
Tim Burton wanted Johnny Depp to play Edward Scissorhands, but the studio preferred a bigger, more bankable name: Tom Cruise. Burton did have a have a meeting with Cruise, which he later described as “interesting,” but Burton eventually got his way. To this day, Burton and Cruise have never made a film together.
5. Sam, Ghost
Though he’s focused almost exclusively on blockbuster action movies for the last decade, Tom Cruise’s first big run of hits included a ton of romances. Even Top Gun, for all its exciting aerial dogfights, emphasized Cruise’s heartthrob qualities through his relationship with a flight school instructor played by Kelly McGillis. So while it’s difficult to imagine Cruise in a romantic melodrama like Ghost now, it made perfect sense at the time. Eventually, the role went to Patrick Swayze instead.
6. Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption’s source material is a Stephen King novella from the collection Different Seasons, the same book that contained The Body, which became the movie Stand By Me. A few years after that became a hit, its director, Rob Reiner, decided he wanted to adapt Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, and felt his A Few Good Men star Tom Cruise was the perfect guy to play Andy Dufresne. But Frank Darabont was already attached to direct the project. So Reiner offered Darabont what the latter described to Vanity Fair as “a s—load of dough” to let Reiner direct the movie with Cruise as Andy. Darabont held firm, and Reiner relented. (Don’t feel bad for him; his company, Castle Rock Entertainment produced Darabont’s version, and made loads of money off it.)
7. John Nash, A Beautiful Mind
Tom Cruise as a paranoid schizophrenic math genius? I have to be honest: He wouldn’t have been my pick for the part, but Cruise came close to starring as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Instead, Russell Crowe eventually got the role, and received his third consecutive Best Actor nomination for his work in the film, which also won 2001’s Oscar for Best Picture.
8. Ren, Footloose
Tom Cruise’s famous dance in his underwear in Risky Business made him a top choice for the lead role in Footloose. Cruise eventually decided to make All the Right Moves instead, deferring his dreams of making a musical for more than 20 years, until he appeared in the adaptation of Rock of Ages.
9. Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Before Anthony Minghella saw Good Will Hunting and realized Matt Damon would make the perfect choice for the title role in The Talented Mr. Ripley, his preferred actor for the part was Tom Cruise. Cruise’s filmography doesn’t feature a lot of psychological thrillers, but his persona (and the material’s metatextual resonances to his personal life) would have made him a fascinating Ripley.
10. Edwin Salt, Salt
Salt stars Angelina Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn Salt. When the script was first written, though, it was titled The Far-Reaching Philosophy of Edwin A. Salt, and the protagonist was a man. At that time, Tom Cruise was interested in the part, and his agents peppered Sony with negotiations for about a year before he finally abandoned the film. At that point, Sony’s Amy Pascal suggested the idea of turning Edwin into Evelyn, and casting Angelina Jolie in the role. If we could only see Salt with Tom Cruise, that would really be something.
Gallery — Great Movies That Got Zero Oscar Nominations: