Watching Tom Cruise appear on Oprah last week, I was surprised at how authentic he appeared. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend who did the makeup FX for Cruise on Collateral. We’ve all heard the tales of how Scientologists try to convert everyone they come in contact with, and I was prepared to hear horror stories of a whack job superstar trying to change my artistic friend into an L. Ron Hubbard clone. Instead, my friend told me that Cruise was really down to earth, and spent most of his time in the makeup chair discussing his kids and parenting. I was pleasantly surprised. This was also the impression I got from the intimate interview that took place between Winfrey and Cruise at his Colorado mansion.

The show began with the typical setups. Wife Katie Holmes just “happened” to be there to say hello, and then took off with the kids. Cruise gave Oprah a tour of the house. To that point, it felt like just another typical celebrity interview. Then they sat down in his living room (which looks out on the Colorado wilderness) and Winfrey began to ask him direct questions about the past three years. His crazy couch-jumping, his rants on television about Brooke Shields and antidepressants, his notorious interview with Matt Lauer, and that bizarre Scientology video that hit YouTube last year.

One has to presume that Cruise knew these questions were coming, but I was impressed that Winfrey did not let up when he merely gave answers like he was “misunderstood” and that his quotes about anti-depressants were actually aimed toward medicating children. Still, Cruise was humble, and for the first time in recent memory, he was not “on.” He spoke endearingly about his wife and especially his children and made a point to always include his older children, Isabella and Connor, in the conversation, even though Winfrey continually veered the discussion back to his two-year-old daughter, Suri. As a parent watching this, I was impressed with Cruise’s devotion to his family and his protectiveness.

We’ve all seen in the past couple years how the paparazzi can act like vultures, circling and waiting for something dreadful to happen. Over the years, with the Internet and channels like “E!” thriving on gossip, stars don’t have the luxury of calling off the attack dogs on certain nights. In fact, Cruise explained that he used to be able to actually have human conversations with photographers, asking them to ease off every now and then in exchange for pics the next night. Obviously that is not the case anymore. Still, he seems to have done a decent job of shielding his children from the spotlight and allowing them to grow up in a relatively normal way (if being the child of an international superstar spokesman for a little-understood religion can ever be normal). Furthermore, his protectiveness of his family, basically stating “come after me, but leave my kids alone,” was admirable.

The most moving moment during the hour came when Winfrey asked Cruise if he had any real friends. He answered that his sisters have always been his best friends. That he could not actually name anyone else (not even a celebrity or his longtime producing partner, Paula Wagner) was not only strange, but very sad. My wife, Julie, turned to me and said, “He doesn’t have any friends.” Aside from his wife, it would appear that would be true. For, even if he was out to protect the identities of his closest friends who aren’t in the entertainment industry, he still could have replied, “of course” or “sure, but I’m not going to reveal their names.” In that instant, Cruise did not appear to be the guy who had the entire world on a string; he seemed kind of lonely.

While the final minutes turned into a bad SNL skit (barefoot Oprah, declaring how comfortable she was, kept saying “look at my feet” while Cruise revealed his well-known laugh), this was a great piece of television. Like any good politician, Cruise took his knocks for his recent behavior and running his mouth off and came out looking more human than he has in the past couple of years. With his next film (Valkyrie) delayed until February 2009, appearing on television now may have restored his image in the public eye long before the film is released. To do so in just one hour is remarkable, and perhaps his shrewdest move yet as a Hollywood superstar.