May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

The new millennium wasn’t even a minute old when Tom Cruise proved himself Y2K compatible. He and his wife, Nicole Kidman, were celebrating New Year’s Eve aboard a refurbished maritime training ship, the Wyuna, anchored off a naval base in Sydney. Among the 350 revelers on deck were a man who breathed fire and a woman wrapped in a snake, but just after midnight Cruise stole the show—and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s move from Titanic—when he leaned over the Wyuna’s bow and made like the king of the world, or at least the life of the party. “It was funny as hell,” says Rob Stirling, the Sydney entrepreneur who hosted the shindig. “And when he did it, the crowd on the ship went crazy.”

Cruise rang in 2000 right where he belongs—front and center again. Behind him now is the most trying period of his nearly two-decade career, a stretch in which he all but slipped off the Hollywood radar while filming Eyes Wide Shut in London for 19 months (a shoot so grueling he developed an ulcer). Cruise also lost a friend and mentor when the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, died last year. Then Eyes was panned by critics and baffled Cruise’s fans. By winter of ’99, he wasn’t even the most talented actor in his own family, with his wife appearing nude in the much-buzzed-about Broadway play The Blue Room.

But now, at a vigorous 37, Cruise is back with a vengeance. Earlier this year he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his ferocious turn as Frank T.J. Mackey, the misogynist infomercial guru in the quirky character drama Magnolia. He lost the Oscar to The Cider House Rules‘s Michael Caine, but his shockingly visceral performance—which ironically took about a week and a half to film—washed away the aftertaste of his gloomy and stilted role in Eyes Wide Shut. What’s more, Cruise, whose upfront fee of more than $20 million per movie makes him one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors (and 20th on Forbes magazine’s Celebrity 100 list), has a consolation prize to help him forget all about Oscar: On May 24 he’ll be back onscreen as superspy Ethan Hunt in the much anticipated Mission: Impossible 2, a license to print money (its predecessor, 1996’s Mission: Impossible, grossed $189 million, with Cruise himself raking in $70 million). “Tom is at the top of his game,” says Sydney Pollack, who directed him in 1993’s The Firm and costarred in Eyes. “There isn’t a studio in the world that wouldn’t burn half its soundstages to get a Tom Cruise movie. He has his pick of any role, and he’s stretching and reaching as an actor.”

And his personal life? Thriving as well. This year he marks 10 years of marriage to the luminous Australian beauty Kidman, 32. Remarkably, in that time “we’ve never been separated for more than 12 days” at a stretch, Cruise told PEOPLE last year. “It’s all just going so fast, and it’s so great.” The couple have made an adventure of parenting their two children, Isabella, 7, and Connor, 5, taking them along on movie shoots and jetting them back and forth from their career postings in London, New York City and Australia. “Tom is the greatest dad, and he finds time to be that guy,” says Cameron Crowe, who directed Cruise in 1996’s Jerry Maguire. “I see how attentive he is to his kids without a huge deal being made.”

Cruise has even played the role of real-life action hero, executing several recent rescues: He lifted two boys over a barricade to prevent them from being crushed by a mob at a movie premiere; he helped save seafarers from a burning boat in the Mediterranean; he rushed to the aid of a woman being mugged in London. “It’s just an impulse,” he sheepishly explained. “I was never a Boy Scout, so maybe I’m making up for it now.” Seriously, is there anything this cocksure, all-American icon can’t do? “I’m not a good cook,” Cruise admitted. Seems he can’t tell a lie either: “I’m being modest. I can cook some pretty decent Italian food.” Okay, let’s rephrase the question: How is it that, 17 years after air-guitaring his way to stardom as a brief-wearing teenager in Risky Business, Cruise has lost none of his A-list luster? “He is an ambassador for the industry,” says John Burman of the Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Star Power survey, which has ranked Cruise in the top three for the past two years. “He’s never been involved in a scandal. He’s up there with Tom Hanks—everybody likes him.”

In fact the secret to Cruise’s longevity is that there is no secret at all. His success is largely due to pure, old-fashioned hustle. Born in Syracuse, Cruise lived all over Canada and the U.S. before settling in Glen Ridge, N.J. His father, Thomas Cruise Ma-pother III, an electrical engineer, left the family when Cruise was 12, and his mother, Mary Lee South, now 63, held as many as four jobs to support Tom and his sisters Lee Anne, Marian and Cass. Cruise “has this real work ethic,” says Raymond Barry, who played his father in 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. “No drugs, no booze, no running around at night and coming in bleary-eyed. He comes from New Jersey and he just works hard.”

Case in point: the Mission: Impossible sequel, a sleek thriller expected to be the biggest hit of the summer. Cruise spent 160 days in Australia filming the movie and this time served as a producer on the taxing, cold, rain-plagued shoot, even while squeezing in long weekends away doing publicity for Eyes last summer. “I like the excitement, the pressure of it,” said Cruise, a Scientologist, of his willingness to take on multiple tasks. “When the clock is going down, give me the ball.” Known for promoting his movies as tirelessly as he prepares for them, he even finds time to exercise regularly in the mornings before shoots, sculpting the ripped physique he unveiled in his racy underwear scene in Magnolia—and imperiled while shooting many of M:I-2‘s action scenes. “He’s better than a lot of stunt guys,” says M:I-2 executive producer Terence Chang, who says he had to look away in fear as Cruise dangled off a Utah cliff during one stunt. “He can jump up and kick someone in the face and then flip backwards. You’d be amazed!” All in a day’s work, explained Cruise: “I work hard, but I love to work hard. It’s not a matter of me trying to stay on top. [Making movies] is what I do, so I’m excited to get up and work every day.”

Sometimes too excited? There were rumblings that he was difficult to work with during M:I-2. “Rumors, just rumors,” says John Woo (Face/Off), the action maestro handpicked by Cruise to direct the film. “It was sometimes difficult for us to compromise. But Tom knows about filmmaking and has a great passion for it.” And what about those tabloid reports that extras weren’t allowed to make eye contact with him? “It couldn’t be less true,” says John Poison, a costar on M:I-2, who says his mother still talks about how Cruise shook her hand not once but twice when they were introduced on a Sydney beach. “We’re talking about a guy who usually spends the first 15 minutes on the set saying hello to 30 or 40 people.”

Anecdotal evidence from other sets confirms that Cruise is remarkably down-to-earth. “I never see Tom with an entourage,” says Sherry Lansing, the Paramount CEO who first worked with him on 1981’s Taps. “You don’t get the feeling you’re dealing with a movie star.” On Eyes, he offered actor Todd Field the chance to work on his lines while he sat in his place to help light a scene. “You’ve got the biggest star in the world as your stand-in,” marvels Field. “Nobody does that.” On the swelteringly hot set of Magnolia last year, actress April Grace found herself being fanned by Tom Terrific himself. “He was so available and generous,” says Grace. “He doesn’t have to do as much as he does.”

Ah, but he does. A serious film buff who used to sneak into theaters as a kid (“I certainly paid them back for all the movies I saw that way,” he joked), Cruise jumped at the chance to work with Kubrick, the methodical visionary behind Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eyes Wide Shut, scheduled for 18 weeks, kept Cruise in England for 52 weeks over 19 months in 1998 and 1999. The shoot was demanding in other ways for Cruise and his costar Kidman, who met while filming the stock-car drama Days of Thunder in 1989 and teamed up again in 1992 for Ron Howard’s Irish-immigrant epic Far and Away. Kubrick’s intimate exploration of marital longing and jealousy forced the couple to probe their own relationship, which Cruise has admitted “is not always perfect.” Their scenes together “were really profound and uncomfortable,” says costar Field. “The notes they were hitting were notes you can’t act; there was real stuff there.”

Then, three months before Eyes premiered last June, Kubrick died of a heart attack at age 70. “Devastation and horror don’t describe his reaction,” says Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s longtime assistant and the man who called Cruise at 3 a.m. to break the bad news. “This was the most established relationship I’ve seen in 30 years between Stanley and one of his stars. And the deeper they got into filming, the more relaxed and open it became.” Indeed, Cruise adopted Kubrick “as a surrogate father figure,” says the director’s close friend Julian Senior. “They spent a lot of mornings together, and Stanley spent a lot of time with their kids.” The movie earned $55 million in the U.S.—far less than the average Cruise haul—and was “clearly a setback to his career,” says film critic Andrew Sarris. “But he is a very talented performer, and he always seems to land on his feet.”

Cruise did precisely that in Magnolia, in which his angry, vengeful character is redeemed by the touching vulnerability he displays in a final scene with Jason Robards, who plays his embittered, cancer-ravaged father. The scene echoed Cruise’s own deathbed encounter with his estranged father, who died of cancer in 1983. “As a kid, I had a lot of hidden anger,” Cruise said of his father in Vanity Fair in 1994. “I’d get hit, and I didn’t understand it.” The emotional role earned Cruise a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor and his third Oscar nomination (after Born on the Fourth of July and Jerry Maguire). “Knowing Tom, he talked himself into not expecting to win,” says Sydney Pollack of Cruise’s loss to Michael Caine. “He’s smart enough to know that if he sets himself up for disappointment, that’s not the best way to go.”

The best way, instead, is as a group—more specifically a family of’ four. And that is no small task when your commute to work spans an ocean. Cruise is mindful that the demands of celebrity are not naturally compatible with raising kids. “There are hours of discussion in our household about what to do about it,” he said last year. “As long as we’re together, that’s the most important thing.” For the past year the children have attended school in Sydney, while the family has been based in the city’s Darling Point neighborhood, a trendy-waterside enclave. During his time there, Cruise has been spotted whacking golf balls with Kidman—who’s filming Moulin Rouge nearby—on the practice range at the Royal Sydney country club, playing pool with friends at the hip Soho Bar or Rollerblading (“Stay close, Connor!” he was heard to shout) along Rushcutter’s Bay. “I know he’s a big star,” says M:I-2‘s director Woo, “but when I met him, he was all of a sudden an ordinary family man to me.” In fact, Woo found himself babysitting Connor—who called him “uncle”—while Dad performed. “When we were watching Tom do stunts,” he confides, “I’d say, ‘Don’t do those things your father does.’ ”

Cruise himself is seriously protective of his children. In 1998 he sued the British newspaper The Express after it called his marriage to Kidman a sham and claimed he is gay. Cruise was less interested in defending his image, he said, than in sparing his kids ridicule at school. “I took no pleasure in the suit,” he says. “I had to be the angry bear.” When the case was decided in his favor, he donated his $330,000 in damages to charity. “Because he’s so good-looking, he could get away with a lot in life,” says April Grace. Instead, “Tom is conscious of trying to be a good person and doing good things.”

This may be the most endearing quality about Cruise—that he is a relentless striver, never happy unless he’s making every moment count. Even his attempts to unwind are typically adrenalized affairs. Lately, Cruise has taken to climbing aboard his tiny two-seater airplane Sweet Nic and soaring through the heavens with his wife by his side. “People think I’m crazy, but I find it relaxing,” Cruise explained. “You’re flying just over the mountains at 5,000 or 10,000 feet, and the sun is setting—I find it very romantic.” On a ship Down Under or in a plane high above, it may be that Tom Cruise really is king of his world.

Alex Tresniowski

Kelly Carter, Michelle Caruso, Tom Cunneff, Mark Dagostino, Alison Gee, Julie Jordan, Elizabeth Leonard and Danelle Morton in Los Angeles, Olivia Abel in New York City, Pete Norman in London and Dennis Passa and Shelli-Anne Couch in Sydney

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