Today, with its prevalence in pop culture and its sequel waiting in the wings, it's difficult to imagine that Top Gun was anything but a surefire hit. But, in the time leading up its 1986 release, Top Gun's production had its share of problems and setbacks. In fact, plenty of people doubted that the idea of fighter jets would even work as a movie.
1. People didn’t want to be part of Top Gun
After producer Jerry Bruckheimer saw a picture of an F-14 in a magazine, he came up with the idea of a fighter jet movie that would be like "Star Wars on earth." After their successes with Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, Bruckheimer and his production partner, Don Simpson, went around pitching the idea to Hollywood studios. Though they were rejected by studio after studio, Paramount Pictures eventually picked up the movie and cautiously agreed to fund it.
The next challenge was getting actors onboard. At that time, a young Tom Cruise was known only for his role in Risky Business. Bruckheimer and Simpson were adamant that he be cast as their lead actor and sent him script after script to get him to sign on.
Cruise rejected every offer made to him, so Bruckheimer pulled out all the stops.
He called up Navy Admiral Peter Garrow and asked him to send Cruise up in a fighter jet to convince him to join the film. The Admiral arranged for Cruise to ride along in a Blue Angels A-4 Skyhawk and be put through his paces. After a wild ride (during which he reportedly threw up on everything), Cruise stumbled from the jet to the nearest payphone and called Bruckheimer to take the part. The only non-negotiable part in his contract was that he had to fly in an F-14 Tomcat.
Pete and Charlotte sing with the Bradshaws, Nick, Carole, and their son. Weird hearing their real names, isn't it? (Credit Paramount Pictures)
With no real script and unable to send every potential actor up in a fighter jet, it was difficult for the producers to cast the rest of the movie. The part of Charlie was originally pitched to Ally Sheedy of Brat Pack fame, but she turned it down reportedly saying, "No one would want to see Tom Cruise flying around in an airplane." Fresh off of filming Witness, Kelly McGillis only signed on because she didn't expect the film to be the blockbuster hit that it would become. Val Kilmer was actually forced into the role of Iceman due to a contractual obligation with the studio. The rest of the cast like Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan and Anthony Edwards were still years away from becoming household names for their roles in The Shawshank Redemption, When Harry Met Sally and ER, respectively.
2. Danger Zone was attempted by Toto and REO Speedwagon
Bruckheimer and Simpson implemented the same formula that worked for them with Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop and put together a top-notch soundtrack for Top Gun. Soundtrack producer Giorgio Moroder originally had Toto record the song, "Danger Zone," but Bruckheimer disliked it and the recording was scrapped. The song was then offered to REO Speedwagon who wanted to be part of the film, but insisted that the song be their own. They recorded an original song and submitted it to the producers, but it was never used.
Kenny Loggins and his collaborators were hot off of their successes with Caddyshack and Footloose and decided to write the song "Playing with the Boys" for the volleyball scene. Assuming that other bands would be vying for the opening song, they figured that this scene would have less competition. While recording "Playing with the Boys," Loggins was asked by Moroder to give "Danger Zone" a shot. "I walked in and I sang 'Danger Zone' and messed with it a little bit, you know, and had a good time with it," Loggins recalled. The rest is history. "I wasn't supposed to be the guy to sing it. I just lucked into it."
Moroder had more luck pitching "Take My Breath Away" to Berlin lead-singer Terry Nunn. After hearing the song and watching the love-making scene that it would be set to, Nunn was on board. Less enthused was her bandmate, John Crawford, who didn't want to perform a song written by someone else. Their band manager, Perry Watts-Russell, also had his doubts and said that he would shave his head if the song became a number one hit. Of course, Berlin recorded the song and it did reach number one. While Watts-Russell kept his word and shaved his head, Crawford was less pleased with the song's performance as it meant that Berlin had to play it at every live performance following Top Gun's release.
3. There was a constant struggle between the producers, the director, Paramount and the Navy
Director Tony Scott was unpopular in Hollywood after his box office flop The Hunger, and clashed constantly with Paramount Pictures over the creative direction of the film. In fact, Scott was fired and rehired by studio execs three times over the course of Top Gun.
While filming aboard the USS Enterprise on a foggy Sunday morning, Scott lost the ideal lighting for his shot when the carrier altered its course. He implored that the captain return to his previous course so that they could film the scene. When the captain refused, Scott asked, "What does it cost for this aircraft carrier to run per minute?" The captain gave him a figure and Scott retrieved his checkbook from his bunk and wrote the captain a check for $25,000. The captain returned the ship to its previous course and Scott was able to get his shot. He later bounced the check.
The opening scene gives me goosebumps every time (Credit Paramount Pictures)
Rear Admiral (ret.) Pete "Viper" Pettigrew, whose callsign was loaned to Tom Skerrit's character, was hired as the film's technical advisor for a sum of $35,000 and served as a liaison with the Navy. Per his contract, he had a brief cameo in the film as Charlie's boss, the "older guy" in the bar that she sits down with after Maverick's rendition of "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." Pettigrew's job was to keep the film grounded in reality, though his protests to the film's eccentricities were always overridden by Bruckheimer and Simpson.
He argued against the locker room argument between Maverick and Iceman and the shower scene, saying that pilots just get changed after a hop and go to the bar. However, paying $1 million to have Cruise in the film, the producers insisted that Cruise show as much skin as possible to appeal to a female audience. As the script took shape, the Navy raised concerns regarding the increased focus on the relationships between the characters over the fighter jets and aerial combat. "Right now, I'm just trying to keep it from turning into a musical," Pettigrew responded.
Though it played a major role in production, the Navy authorized only two missile shots to be filmed for the movie due to the cost of the weapon system. The shots were filmed from several angles to make the most of them. Additional missile shots were filmed using models of the planes and missiles. However, the company that produced and fired the model missiles did such a good job that the Navy launched an investigation to determine if additional missiles were fired beyond the two that were previously authorized.
One of the two authorized missile shots (Credit Paramount Pictures)
4. More trouble off-screen
Bruckheimer and Simpson worked well together because they complemented each other. While Simpson was bold and brash, Bruckheimer was calm and collected. However, Simpson's alleged love of fast cars, women, hookers and drugs were reportedly negatively impacting his job as a producer. Having already been to rehab at least twice before, he checked himself in again midway through production. Little had changed by the time he checked out though. After renting a car, he sped down to the production office, crashed the car in the parking lot, barged into a meeting and declared, "We're not shooting that f***ing scene!" He then proceeded to fire people and start rewrites to the script. Simpson's self-destructive lifestyle came to a head when he overdosed in 1996.
Though Cruise and McGillis had to maintain a sexual tension and chemistry on set, McGillis had fallen for another actor during the filming of Top Gun. "We were walking across the street and she actually fell down, and I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen," Barry Tubb remembered of McGillis. "She fell down on her face in the middle of the street and she had my heart." Tubb played a supporting role in the film as Wolfman.
Tubb and McGillis' relationship off-screen threatened to weaken Charlie and Maverick's relationship on-screen. To create more tension and add more lead-up to their eventual chase and kiss on W. Laurel Street, McGillis and Cruise were brought back to film one more scene months after production had wrapped.
In the elevator scene that follows the dinner at Charlie's Oceanside house, Maverick's hair is wet and slicked back while Charlie's is hidden under a hat. Both actors had different hairstyles by that time which needed to be masked in order to preserve the continuity of the film. The scene succeeded though in adding more tension and lead-up to the relationship.
5. A tragedy occurred
Top Gun's production also saw a real-life death. While capturing footage for Maverick and Goose's flat spin, stunt actor Art Scholl lost control of his Pitts S-2 camera plane. Filming about five miles off the coast of Carlsbad, California, Scholl radioed to his ground spotter, "I have a problem - I have a serious problem." He was unable to recover from the spin and crashed into the ocean. The aircraft and his body were never recovered. As a tribute, Top Gun was dedicated to Scholl.
Scholl and his dog, Aileron (Credit Smithsonian Institution)
6. Bruckheimer and Scott thought the movie was a flop
Having wrapped production, an advance screening of Top Gun was scheduled for January 29, 1986, in Houston, Texas. With the rather lukewarm release of Iron Eagle two weeks before, receiving mixed reviews and grossing just $6 million more at the box office than its budget, Top Gun's future as the second fighter jet movie of the year seemed unsure.
The advance screening was also clouded by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster just the day before. "We're in that theater, and I tell you, it was like a funeral," Bruckheimer recalled. "I watched the movie with this audience and nobody reacted. I mean, they didn't laugh, they didn't applaud, it was nothing." As a result of this screening, Bruckheimer thought that the movie would be a disaster upon its full release.
Director Tony Scott felt similarly following the Houston screening. "It was the worst experience of my life," Scott said. "I can't remember even hearing the audience." Thinking he had failed directing another movie, Scott left the screening and went to a bar to get drunk.
However, contradicting the lack-luster advance screening, Top Gun was well-received by the rest of the cast and crew when it was screened for them. During that screening, Kenny Loggins was thoroughly impressed with what they had created. "I just held my wife's hand and went 'Holy s**t'," he recalled.
Of course, Bruckheimer and Scott's fears were misplaced and the film's release in the summer of 1986 was perfect; Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the military was cool again and the country was going through a patriotic renaissance. Since its blockbuster release, Top Gun has gone on to become one of the most successful and iconic films of all time.