The Hollywood superstar we know as Tom Cruise was born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV on July 3, 1962 in Syracuse, New York. He has three sisters: Lee Anne, Marian and Cass. Cruise’s mother Mary Lee taught creative drama, while his father, Thomas Cruise Mapother III, was an electrical engineer. Yet though the actor has always spoken warmly of the women of his family, his relationship with his father has always been a sore subject.

Described by Cruise as “a bully and a coward”, and also an alleged alcoholic, Thomas Mapother III was, according to Cruise, manipulative and physically abusive. The actor said of his father in 2006: “He was the kind of person where, if something goes wrong, they kick you. It was a great lesson in my life – how he’d lull you in, make you feel safe and then, bang!”

“A merchant of chaos”

Thomas Cruise Mapother III, left, and a young Tom Cruise, right

Tom Cruise spent much of his childhood wondering why his father acted as he did. “He was lost,” Cruise would later reflect in an Esquire interview. “I can’t speak specifically in terms of why and how he got to where he was – that was his journey. All I can tell you is, he was overwhelmed by life.”

Cruise’s father was certainly under pressure. Though Cruise has since said his mother “basically did all the work” at home, his father was the family’s main breadwinner. The Mapothers faced poverty and moved frequently for Thomas Sr’s work, including a stint in Ottawa, Canada.

Cruise attended 15 schools during his education, and they provided no relief from the stress of home life. Small for his age, Cruise was also placed in remedial classes due to his dyslexia, which Cruise admits led to intense bullying: “So many times the big bully comes up, pushes me. Your heart’s pounding, you sweat, and you feel like you’re going to vomit… I don’t like bullies.”

Tom Cruise with mother Mary, 1991, and sister Lee Anne, 2004 (Credit: Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

What Cruise faced at home, however, was even worse. He has described his father as a “merchant of chaos”: “For me, it was like, ‘There’s something wrong with this guy. Don’t trust him. Be careful around him.’ There’s that anxiety.”

This anxiety and mistrust would last well into Cruise’s career as the world’s biggest movie star, as he noted: “You realize that there are [industry] people you can’t trust. I knew from being around my father, who hurt people, that not everyone really means me well.”

One morning in 1974, when Tom was just 11, his mother woke him at 4:30am and packed him and his siblings into a Station Wagon, leaving their father behind. Cruise’s parents subsequently divorced, and Mary Lee took full custody of the children and moved the family back to the USA. “It was painful,” Cruise recalled. “My mother finally had the courage to stand up to my dad and go, ‘No more! I’m not taking it. So long.’… [She] made it possible for us to survive. My mother was the one who rose to the occasion.”

In the following years, says Cruise, his father “didn’t try to help the family financially or spiritually”, and Mary Lee was forced to hold up to three jobs at a time just to make ends meet: “There was always food on the table. But there was no money.”

“My values…came from my stepfather”

Cruise’s teenage home in New Jersey, c. 1980. Credit: Getty Images

Cruise’s father would only visit him one time during the rest of his childhood, to take him to the drive-in. In his father’s absence, he grew closer than ever with his mother and three sisters. “The closest people around me were my family,” he has said. “I think they felt a little nervous about me because I had a lot of energy and I couldn’t stick to one thing… I was always quitting or getting fired, because I was bored.”

In 1978, Cruise’s mother remarried. “In the beginning, I felt threatened by my stepfather,” the star said in 1986. “There’s a part of you that’s in love with your mother. But John [South] is such a wise, smart man. He loved my mother so much that he took us all in, four young people.”

Cruise’s stepfather John South became a new inspiration for him, although the memory of his birth father still loomed large. “[Mapother] was a person who did not have a huge influence on me in my teens; the values and motivation really came from my stepfather,” he said. “But [Mapother] was important. Really important. It’s all sort of complex. There wasn’t [just] one thing I felt.”

A young Cruise at prom

South also stepped in to lend Cruise money as he followed his acting dreams to New York City. Early on, Cruise continued to use his full birth name professionally until an agent persuaded him to drop the Mapother and use the middle name he shared with his father as his surname. (It is unclear whether Cruise has legally changed his name, although his children Connor, Isabella and Suri all use Cruise as their surname.)

By the 80s, Cruise was starring in blockbusters – and critics and fans have noticed that many of his movies involved antagonistic father figures. “In the earliest stages of his career, Cruise’s choice of roles could be interpreted as an expression of antipathy towards fathers,” wrote one critic. In fact, Cruise’s own views on parenthood have reshaped many of his roles, with critic Amy Nicholson noting: “Father issues haunt his films – additions he’s had written into scripts. In Cruise’s films, fathers disappear but leave a legacy that strangles their sons.”

These included a clueless, vacationing dad in Risky Business, a father killed in the Vietnam War in Top Gun, a possessive and controlling father in Cocktail, and an estranged deceased father in Rain Man. Cruise’s character is usually pitted against these authority figures.

“How can I not be that guy?”

In late 1983, after four years of total estrangement, Cruise learned that his father, who was then in his forties, was in hospital recovering from a cancer operation. Cruise joined his siblings at his father’s bedside. After the visit, Mapother told the press that in the years leading up to this reconciliation, “[I] made a personal decision to respect my son’s wishes, which was for me to stay the hell out of everything.”

To another journalist, Mapother said, “I can’t take any credit for [Cruise’s] success. I’m the last person who’ll ever criticize him. Maybe that’s one favor I’ve done for him.” Mapother attributed their estrangement to the messy divorce. “All four of my children showed up at the hospital, and all I could do was cry,” he added. “That’s how bad the strain has been because of the divorce situation.”

“I couldn’t believe it when [Cruise] walked into the room,” he said tearfully. “I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t see my son, because I’d seen a lot of the pictures in the paper and the publicity shots. And that wasn’t my son. He walked into the room…and I knew who he was. What those kids did for me, I could never explain…”

Cruise, however, gave a conflicting account of his and Thomas Sr’s estrangement and reconciliation. According to the star, it was his father, not him, blocking communication for all those years. He said his father never watched any of his movies. “He tried going out to see Risky Business, but he was in too much pain,” Cruise commented on his father’s behaviour. “He left and didn’t want to be contacted for years. I think he was tired of inflicting so much pain on other people that he just had to get away.”

On their reunion, Cruise found his father to be a broken man. “I think he made so many mistakes that it ate him alive,” Cruise said. “Even when I went to see him, he didn’t want to discuss what had occurred in the past. I said, ‘Whatever you want, Dad.’ But I held his hand. And I told him I loved him, and that I was going to miss him. He said when he got out of the hospital we’d go have a steak and a beer and talk about it then.”

Cruise became self-reflective at the sight of his father. “I think he was torturing himself,” he commented on their final meeting. “I looked at my father there dying and thought, How can I not be that guy?” The next year, Cruise received a phone call to say Mapother had died, before they were able to meet beyond the hospital walls.

In 1992, Cruise struck a reconciliatory tone in a rare press conversation about his father. “When people can’t forgive someone, my question always is, ‘What have you done in your life that you can’t forgive this other person?'” he said. “The things you’ve got to take responsibility for in your life, it makes forgiveness quite easy. And it also brought me a lot of understanding about [my father] and the pain he was in.”

Cruise later starred in Magnolia (1999), a drama in which his character meets his father on his deathbed and begins to curse and cry. Upon reading this scene for the first time, Cruise was overwhelmed. “I even asked Paul [Thomas Anderson, Magnolia’s writer-director], ‘Come on, man – did you know this about my father and I?’,” Cruise has recalled. “And he said, ‘No, no, no. I didn’t know.'”

Cruise’s performance in Magnolia earned him some of the most positive reviews of his career. It also earned him the Best Supporting Actor award at the Golden Globes, and a nomination in that same category at the Oscars. (He lost out to Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules.)

“You can never give a child too much love”

Tom Cruise with then-wife Katie Holmes and children Suri, Isabella and Conner, 2008 (Credit: Toby Canham/Getty Images)

Years later, Cruise would start to take on father roles in his movies – and his own experiences continued to shape his portrayal of father-son dynamics. In 2005’s War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg, Cruise plays an estranged father. Screenwriter David Koepp said of Cruise: “Tom takes being a dad very seriously. So do I. So does Steven [Spielberg].”

Cruise’s relationship with his dad never put him off fatherhood, as the actor has said, “My whole life I always wanted to be a father.” He had no children with first wife Mimi Rogers, but has two adoptive children from his marriage to Nicole Kidman – Isabella (born 1992) and Connor (born 1995) – as well as one biological daughter, Suri (born 2006) with third wife Katie Holmes.

(Since his divorce from Holmes in 2012, Cruise has not spoken publicly about any relationships, although he is believed to have dated his Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning co-star Hayley Atwell.)

Cruise as a toddler with his father, left, and his father’s grave, right

Cruise decided that his parenting style would be vastly different from his father’s. “I always said to myself that my children would be able to depend on me and I would always be there for them and love them – that I’d never make a promise to my kids that I couldn’t keep.” He adds, “I’m not one of those people who believe you can spoil a child with too much love. You can never give a child too much love. There’s just no way.”