Born on Dec. 12, 1946 in Youngstown, OH, her parents were Sue and Ned Kaufman; with her father being a World War II fighter pilot and steel industrialist. Drawn to acting from an early age, Wagner left the Midwest after high school to study drama at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. With her theater degree in hand, the future producer began her career as an actor, appearing in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway stage productions, including several as a member of the Yale Repertory Theater. Also a published playwright, she co-authored "Out of Our Father's House," a play based on the lives and struggles of six iconic women, with Gertrude Stein and Eliza Southgate among them. Later, a taped production starring Dianne Weist as Stein and Carol Kane as Southgate was aired as an installment of "Great Performances" (PBS, 1971- ). In 1977, she migrated to Los Angeles where she appeared in an episode of the Saturday morning live-action "Space Academy" (CBS, 1977) and in the miniseries "Loose Change" (NBC, 1978).
In 1978, after several months of going on dead-end auditions, Wagner's own agent approached her about switching gears and becoming one herself, citing that she had the right temperament, communication skills and patience for the job. Shortly thereafter Wagner joined CAA, a company then on the brink of becoming the most powerful talent agency in town. During the next 15 years, Wagner helped guide the careers of actors Demi Moore, Val Kilmer, Liam Neeson, and Kevin Bacon, as well as acclaimed filmmakers Oliver Stone and Robert Towne. Her most important client, by far, though, would be future superstar Tom Cruise, with whom Wagner would go on to form one of the most powerful alliances in Hollywood. Wagner, known for her nurturing of exceptional young talent, hit pay dirt when she put Cruise and Stone together for the film "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), a project that earned Cruise his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. Two years later, she linked Kilmer with Stone for the rock music biopic "The Doors" (1991) and was the agent-of-record on Stone's controversial hit docudrama, "JFK" (1991).
Never one to forget such loyalty and hard work - to say nothing of that Oscar nomination - Cruise convinced Wagner to join him in forming a production team in 1993. Cruise/Wagner Productions was methodical in its approach as a start-up shingle, rather than rushing to the theatres with an under-developed project that might flop. Three years later, the duo unveiled their inaugural production, Mission: Impossible (1996), an action-packed blockbuster adaptation of the TV espionage series from the 1960s. Directed by Brian De Palma, the hugely successful film featured Cruise's superspy Ethan Hunt in several breathtaking set pieces that made his survival, must less the mission, seem utterly impossible. The company's second production was Without Limits (1998), the story of the late track and field star Steve Prefontaine, directed by former Wagner client Robert Towne. Although the sports biopic failed to win the race at the box office, the team of Cruise/Wagner followed with the surefire sequel "Mission Impossible II" (2000), directed by Hong Kong action auteur John Woo. Despite being critically panned, Ethan Hunt's second adventure nonetheless went on to become the third highest grossing movie of the year.
In 2001, Wagner was honored by Premiere magazine with the Women in Hollywood Icon Award, and was featured the following year in "Women on Top" (Bravo, 2002), a made-for-cable documentary profiling influential women in entertainment. At the height of their game, she and Cruise went on to accumulate an impressive list of producer credits. These included the chilling supernatural thriller The Others (2001), a film starring Cruise's soon-to-be ex-wife Nichole Kidman, and the Cameron Crowe-directed Vanilla Sky (2001), on the set of which the megastar began an alleged relationship with co-star Penelope Cruz. Also on their slate were such projects as the gritty cop drama Narc (2002), the underrated journalism exposé Shattered Glass (2003), and The Last Samurai (2003), a period action-adventure starring Cruise as a traumatized Civil War veteran who learns the way of the noble Japanese warrior. In 2004, Variety honored the seemingly unstoppable movie-making team as "Billion-Dollar Producers," just prior to their release of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005), a harrowing adaptation of the H.G. Wells science fiction classic, in which Cruise also starred.
Less successful for Wagner and her movie star partner were films like the dismally received romantic comedy Elizabethtown (2005), once again directed by Crowe, and the largely ignored Robert Towne drama starring Colin Farrell and Selma Hayek, Ask the Dust (2006), an adaptation of the revered John Fante novel of the same name. The third installment of the lucrative franchise, "M:I 3" (2006) did manage to boost the team's flagging track record to an extent, although cracks in their long-running relationship with Paramount Pictures - which claimed that "M:I:3" performed below expectations - were beginning to show. In the wake of Cruise's infamous couch-jumping antics on Oprah Winfrey's program, several volatile interviews, and an increased scrutiny on his involvement with Scientology, Paramount Pictures announced in the summer of 2006 that it was ending its 14-year relationship with Cruise/Wagner Productions. In a statement at the time, Paramount CEO Sumner Redstone even went so far as to say that Cruise's "recent conduct had not been acceptable." Stunning as the blow was to Wagner and Cruise, they quickly rebounded when a month later they were asked by former Hollywood giant MGM Studios to join them in resurrecting the dormant United Artists, a once-great production entity originally formed by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
The first film delivered by Wagner and her fellow movie mogul was the Middle East war polemic "Lions for Lambs" (2007), starring Cruise along with fellow Hollywood heavyweights Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who also directed. Despite its timely storyline and impressive star power, the film was an unmitigated disaster, both critically and financially. The Cruise/Wagner era at UA was not off to a confidence-building start. Outside of their duties at UA, the Cruise/Wagner banner delivered a pair of genre pictures the following year with the ocular supernatural horror tale starring Jessica Alba, The Eye (2008), and the road rage exploitation remake Death Race (2008), co-produced with Roger Corman. The next production for United Artists was the Hitler assassination drama "Valkyrie" (2008), directed by Bryan Singer and starring Cruise as the man who attempted to kill the world's most hated dictator. A subject of concern even before the film's release, it also fared poorly at the box office, although by that time, Wagner's fate at UA had already been decided. Just prior to the premiere of "Valkyrie," Wagner announced that she was leaving her position as chief executive at United Artists in order to pursue projects independently. Amid rumors that she had been pushed out and that her relationship with Cruise had been irreparably damaged, Wagner maintained that the departure was of her own choosing, and that she and her former partner would continue to collaborate on occasion. Interestingly, Wagner's decision to leave UA came on the heels of a similar move by her husband, Rick Nicita, to end his long career as the top agent at CAA - Cruise, not surprisingly, having been his most notable client - in order to become co-chairman and co-CEO of Morgan Creek Productions. Within a year, Wagner had started a production company of her own, Chestnut Ridge, which produced the made-for-TV movie "Five" (Lifetime, 2011). An anthology drama comprised of five separate stories concerning women struggling with breast cancer, each vignette was directed by a different female director, among them, Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore and Alicia Keys.
By Bryce Coleman
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