That’s when, as People noted, his mom, Mary Lee South, suggested he try out for his Glen Ridge, N.J., high school’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” Heeding his mother’s wisdom, he auditioned and was cast as Nathan Detroit, one of the musical’s major characters.
Weeks later, he had just finished bowing after his first, exhilarating performance. Still warm from bathing in the spotlight, the teenager rushed to his mom and stepfather.
“After the show,” South told Rolling Stone in 1986, “Tom came home and said he wanted to have a talk with my husband and me. He asked for ten years to give show business a try. … And we both wholeheartedly agreed, because we both felt it was a God-given talent, and he should explore it because he was so enthused about it. So to make a long story short, we gave him our blessing — and the rest is history.”
That history, of course, consisted of Mapother’s move to Hollywood, where he shortened his name to Tom Cruise and became one of the silver screen’s most famous stars. Through all that, he remained close to his mother. He often brought her to movie premieres, and in 2001 The Washington Post’s Reliable Source noted that the two were seen dining at Old Ebbit Grill.
“My mother is a very warm, charismatic woman. Very kind, very generous,” Cruise once told interviewer James Lipton.
South died in her sleep last week, People reported Monday. She was 80 years old.
While that first production was important in Cruise’s development as an actor, perhaps the most important thing he gained from his mother was his tireless work ethic and the virtue of patience. He was 11 years old when his parents divorced, and he wouldn’t see his father again for 10 years, as he told Lipton. Cruise, not yet a teenager, began working to support his mom and three sisters.
“No job was too dirty or difficult for Tommy, as long as it paid money to help his mom out,” neighbor Bill Lewis told Andrew Morton, the author of Cruise’s unauthorized biography.
Meanwhile, his mother took on three part-time jobs, eventually slipping a disk in her back from the stress. “My mom could have sat there every morning and cried and cried,” Cruise said, according to Lewis. “She didn’t. My mom was very proud. She had dignity. She’s going to work hard.”
The family still required federal food stamps to ensure everyone remained fed, certainly a far cry from the dreams of a younger South.
“I was always interested in theater, but I never did anything with it,” South told Rolling Stone. “When I was growing up, if you went to Hollywood, that was really risque. I would have lost my religion, my morals, all those things that young girls thought of back then.”
Cruise seemed to reflect his mother’s interests. “He used to create skits and imitate Donald Duck and Woody Woodpecker and W.C. Fields when he was just a tiny tot. I guess I was his greatest audience,” she said. But he mostly lacked the time to pursue them. He spent the time not dedicated to work and sports with his mother.
“Every night I’d come home, bathe my feet and sit in the family room, and Tom would massage my feet for a half-hour,” South told Rolling Stone. “This went on for six weeks, then Easter came and went, and the Monday after Easter I came home from work expecting the same treatment. And he said, ‘Hey Mom — Lent’s over.'”
Since skyrocketing to fame, Cruise paid his mother back in spades for her sacrifices. As inTouch reported in 2008, he often housed South, his sister Cass and her two children. “He’s very close with his sisters and his mother and he always welcomes his family into his house,” an unnamed source told the magazine.
As for South, she clearly loved seeing her son shine. Thinking back to that first performance, she told Rolling Stone, “I can’t describe the feeling that was there. It was just an incredible experience to see what we felt was a lot of talent coming forth all of a sudden. It had been dormant for so many years — not thought of or talked about or discussed in any way.”
A service, attended by Cruise and his three sisters, was held for South this weekend at her local Church of Scientology.