Tom Cruise sits splay-legged in an overstuffed chair smiling at the ceiling, rubbing his chin: "God, the last movie I saw on a date?" he says, repeating the question. He smiles harder. "Casablanca!" Then he sets off that artillery-fire laugh of his. Whatís so funny? "Iím remembering the date," he says, catching his breath. "It was a great date. Fun date. Really fun. Adventurous." Now weíre getting somewhere. If the movie was Casablanca, the date must have been at his house. "No, it wasnít," Cruise says, shaking his head. "No more! No more! I was a good sport. I wonít tell you where I watched it . . ." Then it must have been . . . his plane. He put the plane on autopilot. "Youíre bad!" the actor says, suddenly springing like a jack-in-the-box from his chair onto mine, bouncing my shoulders against the cushy back. He retreats, grinning. "I didnít put it on autopilot." Sitting back down, he swears, "Iím not saying another word."

Three days later Tom Cruise flies to Rome and broadcasts his romance with actress Katie Holmes to the universe, issuing a formal dating announcement, lip-locking for photographers, and granting audiences to Extra and Access Hollywood. The response is a collective caterwaul of disbelief from media and fans alike—speculation that since both stars are opening big summer movies (Holmes in Batman Begins and Cruise in War of the Worlds), this was just about boosting their box office.

It brings to mind the famous line from Jerry Maguire, "Help me, help you." A line Cruise actually ad-libbed. And when you spend a little time in the starís ever more Scientology-centered orbit, you begin to realize that maybe he wasnít just improvising. Maybe he was setting forth his mission statement.

"Iíll have you know you are christening the back of this bike," Cruise says, picking me up on his new Honda Valkyrie Rune. Decalíd with War of the Worlds creeping red alien vines, the motorcycle was a wrap gift from Steven Spielberg, who in turn received a black 1966 Shelby GT in mint condition. Before arriving, Cruise unexpectedly and thoughtfully sent an assistant to the hotel with a choice of helmets, jackets, gloves, and boots. But even without the gear, the overriding feeling in the company of Cruise is one of safety. Physically he is solid. Emotionally he is clear. Intellectually he is certain. Universally he is known. He so projects the warmth and enthusiasm of a long-lost high-school friend you begin to wonder why you havenít kept in touch over the years.

A sanitation truck blocks the back-alley entrance to the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.). Cruise leaves his bike in the middle of the alley and walks around the truck, where heís instantly recognized by the garbagemen, who offer to move. "No, please, you guys are doing a job," Cruise says, passing around presidential handshakes. "I appreciate that."