How Tom Cruise and Sean Penn Got Their Big Breaks

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"The Hollywood Reporter's" review of "Taps" in 1981 showed prescient understatement when it said the supporting cast demonstrated a "potential for future assignments." That would include the unknown pair of Tom Cruise, then 19, and Sean Penn, 21.

The film, which grossed $35.9 million domestically and marks the 30th anniversary of its release Dec. 18, was about military academy students who initiate an armed occupation to save their school from real estate developers. The lead cadet role had gone to Timothy Hutton, 21, who'd won a supporting actor Oscar for "Ordinary People" just months earlier.

Producer Stanley Jaffe says Cruise originally had been set to play a background character but was shifted to a key role when he impressed director Harold Becker during the four weeks of rehearsal that resembled a boot camp.

"He was out-marching the other cadets on the parade field," said Becker in 2004.

Penn was chosen after being spotted starring as the timid son of an abusive father in the small Broadway play "Heartland."

The trio formed an incredibly potent cast. "It's that thing some people have," says Jaffe. "If you knew how to describe it, you'd bottle it."

Cruise's next role was in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Outsiders," Hutton's was in Sidney Lumet's "Daniel," and Penn got a major career boost when he played Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Although the Amy Heckerling comedy brought Penn much more attention, he told biographer Richard T. Kelly he looks back fondly on working with Cruise and Hutton because it "was like I'd gone to high school, and now 'Taps' was college for me. And it was Fraternity Row."

The Hollywood Reporter