A new handler for Cruise control

HOLLYWOOD — With his wildly colorful T-shirts and gargantuan belt buckles that would make a member of World Wrestling Entertainment proud, 66-year-old Paul Bloch doesn't look like your typical celebrity publicist. But when Tom Cruise, America's favorite out-of-control movie star, announced his hiring last week, Hollywood was waiting to see whether the couch-hopping, psychiatry-bashing, Scientology-proselytizing genie could be stuffed back into the bottle.

Bloch certainly seems equipped for the job, with his four decades in the business and his ability to make big, tough male movie stars feel safe, particularly the ones like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy — guys who broke into the superstar ranks around the time Cruise did, although their careers are now trending downward. He prides himself on loyalty and is willing to say what the situation demands.

Consider when Murphy got stopped by police after picking up a transsexual. Bloch explained that Murphy was simply "trying to be a good Samaritan" and give a woman a ride home.

Or more recently, on his predecessor as Cruise's gatekeeper, Cruise's sister Lee Anne DeVette: "Lee Anne did a great job and is still very involved on the philanthropy side."

Well, there's a reason why celebrity publicists get paid the big bucks — when the client is Cruise, that figure is rumored to be as high as $12,000 a month. Whether he's copping to it or not, Bloch has his job cut out for him: As a number of industry wags are pointing out, the real question is not can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again but does Humpty Dumpty think he's broken?

"The conventional wisdom is that Tom Cruise shot himself in both feet and the stomach. And he's trying to correct that," said Allan Mayer, a publicist who specializes in crisis PR. "We have yet to see any hard evidence that he's hurt himself professionally. Clearly he's more controversial and less popular, but that's a subjective judgment."

Mayer pointed out that it's equally possible that "whatever [Cruise] hoped to accomplish by speaking openly about his beliefs, he's done. He's ready to move on to another phase, more focused on his public life. If you do want to project a more professional image, Paul is a good choice."

Like Pat Kingsley, the grande dame of the celebrity publicity world, whom Cruise fired last year, Bloch is an old-school publicist who practices a policy of containment and limited access.

But unlike Kingsley, whose occasionally imperious manner has intimidated journalists for years, Bloch isn't antagonistic toward the press; he is generally considered a nice guy, or at least as nice a guy as an extremely powerful celebrity publicist can be.

"He gives a tremendous amount of time to clients and is completely focused on each of their careers. He's very hands-on," says fellow publicist Eddie Michaels, head of EM&A Public Relations. "He's always been a straight-up guy in any business dealings. They're not poachers, and they don't home in on other people's clients."

But there is a chance this niceness might backfire with Cruise, who is known to simply ignore his press; when Kingsley wanted to make him aware of what was being said about him, she had to actually sit down with him to ensure he read it. And it was her suggestion that Cruise stop mixing Scientology promotion with movie promotion that ended their 14-year relationship.

Then DeVette took over. It was during his sister's tenure that Cruise became unhinged — at least in the eyes of the media. First he jumped maniacally on Oprah's couch, spouting his love for new girlfriend Katie Holmes. Then he attacked Brooke Shields over her use of drugs to combat postpartum depression (which he claimed was a figment of her imagination), sparred with "Today" show host Matt Lauer over psychiatry and spent long stretches of his interview on "Access Hollywood" proselytizing for Scientology.

During the same period, he established a Scientology tent on the set of "War of the Worlds" and asked a number of journalists who wished to profile him to attend multi-hour sessions on Scientology.

There are those in the DreamWorks camp who felt that DeVette, also a Scientologist, was more keen on promoting the religion than the movie. At the time, Steven Spielberg's personal publicist, Marvin Levy, publicly despaired that Cruise's personal life and beliefs were overshadowing the marketing for "War of the Worlds."

DeVette declined to return phone calls for this article, but this summer she gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times in which she professed nothing but familial approbation about how her brother was handling himself publicly.

"I think Tom's being who he is, and he's really happy, and he's just excited to be able to share that. After the Oprah show — the calls and letters he's gotten congratulating him. I'm enjoying seeing him enjoying life, and I think for the most part, besides our world of the media, I think it's being embraced," she said.

Most industry insiders expect Bloch to do what he's done for many of his clients: Shut down the access to the superstar who seemed ubiquitous just months ago. Seen much of Bruce Willis recently in the press? Or Eddie Murphy?

Of course, neither Murphy nor Willis is catnip to the tabloids the way Cruise has become, what with the impending birth of his child with Holmes and their possible nuptials.

And it remains to be seen if Cruise himself believes there's a problem in CruiseWorld. After all, this summer's "War of the Worlds" made $590 million worldwide, the most of any film of his career.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Mary McNamara contributed to this report.