There are A-List actors, and then there’s Tom Cruise. The guy transcends every defined rule of Hollywood and is an even bigger name at 57 than he was in what people would call his prime age. Tom’s penchant for choosing roles that carry impactful moments and stories has made these characters stand out even decades after their portrayals.
Now, with Tom’s legacy set long ago, we’ve already experienced those characters we can claim definitively are his most memorable. In this list, while we believe all these 10 characters were awesome, we do want to stress on “memorable” rather than them being the most popular or the best ones.
10 Ray Ferrier - War Of The Worlds (2005)
In a strange occurrence, this character is memorable for us because of Tom’s personal life at the time. Back then, he had made his romance with Katie Holmes public, which had the effect of placing War of the Worlds in great interest.
In-universe, the character of Ray was memorable due to him being an everyman. He had problems like every other dad would: his kids weren’t too fond of him and his ex-wife was giving him a hard time, among other things. By placing a normal protagonist in the center of an alien invasion, we had a very relatable character to have as an audience surrogate.
9 John Anderton - Minority Report (2002)
At the time, there had probably never been a film that could have so many tropes wrapped into one, making Minority Report an anomaly. In the story, Cruise’s character was chased by authorities due to a prediction that he would take the life of a man in the near future.
The science-fiction elements in place were great, but Tom made this character someone we felt genuinely sorry for, thereby handing the film its key factor of making the protagonist a person we wanted to root for. He’s featured in great action sequences as well, although it is Tom’s ability to make John so easy to feel for that we were on board with the character from the start.
8 Barry Seal - American Made (2017)
We’re talking memorable, not popular, which makes American Made a splendid Tom Cruise film where the protagonist isn’t one you’ll forget once you’ve watched the movie. It’s not completely clear whether we’re supposed to feel bad or feel as if his character deserved to suffer in this story, as he was definitely a conman.
Still, it was a departure from the new normal of Tom, who has been starring in big-budget action features for the last decade. This made his turn in American Made the stuff that award pushes are made of. It’s a shame he didn’t get recognized on a big level for this performance.
7 Maverick - Top Gun (1985 & 2020)
If you happen to have forgotten who Maverick was, then you’ll be in for a reminder by next year where we’ll have Top Gun: Maverick to entertain us in this generation. The original film was resoundingly popular and would have grossed almost $1 billion according to inflation-adjusted dollars.
Making Maverick so darn cool was firstly his occupation as a high-flyer, a quality greatly augmented by the fact that Tom himself is a real-life pilot. The main reason for this character’s longevity, though, is his penchant for one-liners and his boyish attitude. Now, let's see where he stands in life in the sequel.
6 Frank Mackey - Magnolia (2000)
Magnolia is a film you watch when you want to feel sad for no particular reason. Every character was depressed about one thing or another, and Tom’s supporting part was wonderful in driving home this point.
Featured as a motivational speaker with a checkered past, Tom brought out a vulnerability behind the steely-eyed persona that Frank put up. The finale, where Frank bared out how much his father had hurt him by abandoning him in his youth, was a masterclass in showing unbridled and pent-up sorrow. The Oscar nomination for this role was well-deserved.
5 William Cage - Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
We all love Tom Cruise and admire him for being a stand-up guy in general who’s modest and has a lion’s heart. And yet, he seems to play quite a lot of spineless jerks who have to go through traumatic experiences to gain a name for themselves.
Edge of Tomorrow’s William Cage was one who started out as a complete joke but went through an awesome tale of time loop travel where he had to live out his life unless he could change the future for the better. The character has way more comedy than most Tom Cruise roles, and the fact that he’s less cool and more joke-y here makes it a very memorable character.
4 Vincent - Collateral (2004)
Sooner or later, an actor needs to play against type in order to show off their range. Tom had his time in the sun for that as he took a turn as a villain in Collateral. It didn’t deter Tom whether he was a good or bad guy, though, as Vincent was effortlessly charming and deadly as many other Tom Cruise roles have been.
Having him in the backdrop of a single night setting also helped in keeping Vincent’s character firmly in our minds, as he managed to accomplish having many cool moments within the limited timeline. Plus, this was the first time we saw a villainous Tom Cruise do his iconic running stance.
3 Jerry Maguire (1996)
People call this the romantic comedy made for men, and those people had it bang on the money over this terminology because Jerry Maguire is a film that all guys will find heartwarming.
At the center of Tom’s performance as Jerry was his back-against-the-wall scenario, where he did something about his life and managed a career of his own without the backing of any agency. More than that, it was his bromance with Rodney that had us laughing and then crying when the two embraced near the end of the movie after their struggles bore fruit. More importantly, who can forget Jerry’s “You complete me” scene?
2 Les Grossman - Tropic Thunder (2008)
A few roles on this list were different than Tom’s usual formula, but none can ever reach the levels Les Grossman achieved, whose portrayal by Tom isn’t even common knowledge anymore. Tom was unrecognizable as this character, as his mannerisms completely changed and his foul-mouthed antics were gloriously inappropriate.
You can find dozens of videos on YouTube dedicated solely to the number of insults Grossman threw out during Tropic Thunder, and his final dance number is something nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever imagined Tom doing. Just talking about Les Grossman makes us want to watch the film all over again, what with all his lines being instantly quotable.
1 Ethan Hunt - Mission: Impossible Series (1996-Present)
You must have known this role was inevitable to take the top spot, as Ethan Hunt has allowed Tom to become an everlasting legend in the world. Despite pushing 60 by this point, the Mission: Impossible series runs on the star power brought by Tom, with Ethan Hunt being a staple of the action genre.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout became the highest-grossing film of the series last year, and Ethan Hunt’s constant stunts and death-defying tricks are the reason for this golden run. We’ve seen Tom complete authentic action in climbing skyscrapers, holding onto airbound planes, jumping freefall through the air, and holding his breath underwater for several minutes. There’s no way a character like this can be termed as anything other than legendary.