Between 2001 and 2005, IFC aired a terrific show produced by Jon Favreau and Peter Billingsley (the A Christmas Story star who is also Vince Vaughn’s best friend) called Dinner for Five. It was a fantastic little series in which five actors, filmmakers, and screenwriters would sit down for dinner and drinks and just shoot the sh*t. Before Marc Maron, Chris Hardwick, and now Dax Shepard came along with their respective podcasts, Dinner for Five was one of the only times fans could gain some real, unguarded insights into their favorite actors.
One of my favorite episodes of Dinner for Five aired in 2005 and gathered a terrifically cool combination of five people. Kevin Smith acted as host in the episode, and he was joined at the table by comic-book legend Stan Lee, J.J. Abrams, Mark Hamill, and Jason Lee, coming off of The Incredibles. This was a few years before the MCU, so Stan Lee was mostly known only in comic circles; J.J. Abrams was strictly a television writer (Lost, Felicity, Alias), and Mark Hamill was a terrifically famous but mostly out of work actor, while Kevin Smith had yet to start his own podcast empire.
One of the neatest ironies about the episode is that J.J. Abrams — who would resurrect Star Wars ten years later — was at a dinner with Mark Hamil talking about his first produced script, Regarding Henry starring … Harrison Ford. Star Wars wasn’t even a consideration at the time, however, because Abrams had never even directed a feature film. Now, of course, he’s known not only for resurrecting Star Wars (and killing off Han Solo), but also bringing back Star Trek and, before that, making the Mission Impossible films relevant again after John Woo’s disastrous Mission Impossible 2.
The episode of Dinner for Five aired only months before Mission Impossible III turned Abrams into one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors, and Abrams actually told the story of how that came about during that dinner. He owes it all to Tom Cruise and Alias.
As he explained during Dinner for Five, an assistant of Abrams gave Cruise copies of the first two seasons of Alias. “I didn’t even know,” Abrams said. “I was in Hawaii, months later, shooting the pilot for Lost and I get this phone call from Tom Cruise. I thought, well, that’s odd. I call him back, and he’s like, ‘Hey! How are you doing?'”
“Good,” Abrams says. “What’s up, Tom Cruise?”
At this point, Abrams thinks he’s being pranked, but then Cruise says, “I watched every episode of Alias. Forty-four episodes. The first two seasons.”
“I was like, ‘Really?'” Abrams said. Cruise then said that, after shooting the Lost pilot, that the two should “hang out.”
“And so we did,” Abrams said. “We hung out. It was like we had started dating, and before I knew it, we’d become buddies. It was, like, normal. And before I knew it, I got this phone call, and my agent is like, ‘Are you aware of the conversation?'”
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Abrams said. “‘About you directing Mission Impossible 3.’ And I was like, ‘what‘?'”
“And that’s how it happened.”
And that is, indeed, how J.J. Abrams landed the Mission Impossible III gig, which led to Star Trek, which led to Star Wars, which led to J.J. Abrams becoming arguably the most successful director of his generation. Tom Cruise watched 44 episodes of Alias and loved them so much that he decided to become friends with J.J. Abrams, who continues to work with Cruise as producer on those Mission Impossible films.