Tom Cruise has played many iconic roles over the course of his career - from the still-active Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible films, to Frank T.J. Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, to Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July - but ranking right up towards the top is his supporting turn as studio executive Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. It's ridiculous, crude, and unlike anything we've seen from the movie star before - but what may surprise you is that the character was actually Cruise's idea to include.
Diving into the making of Tropic Thunder, Grantland has published an oral history of how the Les Grossman role came to exist - and while there are no quotes from Cruise, the story does feature input from Ben Stiller, screenwriter Etan Cohen, co-star Bill Hader, and many more. As the story goes, the film was in development for a number of years in a form similar to what's available on Blu-ray and DVD today, but it was after Tom Cruise had a chance to read it that the entire game was changed. The star was being considered for the lead role in the movie - Tugg Speedman -as this was how Stiller got the screenplay into Cruise's hands. As it existed at the time, the movie only had one real villain - the 12-year-old drug king. After reading the script, it was Cruise who, according to producer Stuart Cornfield, came up with the idea of a "greedy pig studio executive who really represents the gross part of Hollywood."
As it turns out, the idea for this character was a total revelation for Ben Stiller. He notes in the article that the idea actually turned out to be the perfect piece that allowed the rest of Tropic Thunder's dominoes to fall. Said the actor/director,
His idea to show the studio head actually fixed a problem we had for a long time. We never cut back to the real world for any of the previous drafts. All the Grossman scenes totally fixed the plot holes.
But while Tom Cruise may have added significant creative contributions to the Tropic Thunder script, apparently it still wasn't a slam dunk getting him to sign on as Les Grossman. According to the article, conversations slowed down after Ben Stiller first gave Tom Cruise a copy of the revised draft, as the Mission: Impossible actor started to get busier. Eventually Stiller decided that he wanted to play the lead for himself, but it was at this time that Cruise finally got in contact with him. Said Cornfield,
[Ben Stiller] got a phone call from Tom, who said he just couldn’t get the script out of his mind. Tom asked, 'What else is open?' And Ben said, 'Well, we haven’t cast the Les Grossman role yet.' Tom was like, 'I’d play that.'
Of course, the rest is cinema history. Though he was nearly unrecognizable under all of his makeup, Tom Cruise wound up stealing every Tropic Thunder scene he was in, and only made the movie that much better.