5 Wild Ways 'Top Gun's Production Almost Crashed And Burned
The top-grossing movie at the U.S. box office in 1986 wasn’t Aliens, The Karate Kid Part II, or even the retroactively cringey hijinks of Crocodile Dundee. Nope, the biggest hit of the year was a little movie called Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, and a volleyball that we’re pretty sure went on to land a supporting role in Cast Away.
With the release of a critically-acclaimed new sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, we’re looking back at the often turbulent making of this beloved blockbuster/blatant piece of military propaganda. Of course, making movies is always a tough task, but add real Navy fighter jets, a coked-out producer, and Val Kilmer to the mix, and things get even tougher, such as how …
The Producer Did Coke In The Pentagon And Thought The Mob Was Trying To Murder Him
The seeds of Top Gun allegedly began when producer Jerry Bruckheimer was flipping through a 1983 issue of California magazine and was taken back by the impressive aerial photography accompanying an article called “Top Guns” by Ehud Yonay, all about Naval fighter pilots and the elite training program designed to improve the Navy’s “kill ratio” during the Vietnam War. Reasoning that they could make a movie that would amount to “Star Wars on Earth,” Bruckheimer and his producing partner Don Simpson (who claimed to have first found the article himself while waiting at a dentist’s office) optioned “Top Guns” for a movie.
Before there was even a story, the pair pitched the project to not a movie studio but the Pentagon; Simpson basically made up the plot of Top Gun on the spot in order to secure the military’s involvement. Next, they hired screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. to bang out a script. Unhappy with the results, Bruckheimer and Simpson hired a writer named Chip Proser to rewrite Top Gun, pitching the movie as “two guys in leather jackets and sunglasses standing in front of the biggest, fastest f**king airplane you ever saw in your life” – which Proser noted “wasn’t even a concept” but rather “just an image.”
Proser’s rewrite of the script wasn’t received well by Simpson, who tore it to shreds, claiming that the pilots were “egocentric assholes,” the female lead a “moron,” and the dialogue “f**king terrible!” Which was a problem until Proser pointed out that Simpson had accidentally read the previous draft, which he’d already rejected, not the rewrite.
According to Proser, Simpson’s cocaine use at the time was out of control (Simpson died in 1996 due to an “overdose of 21 drugs, including cocaine”). He reportedly even did blow in the Pentagon during a follow-up meeting, allegedly emerging from the bathroom with white powder “visible on his nostril.” The producer often refused to leave his house because he “believed that the Mafia had ordered a hit on him.” Meetings were held in Simpson’s mansion, which was full of surveillance cameras and an “armory” of weapons. The “coked-up” producer proceeded to proudly show Proser an uncashed check for $2 million “for his services on Flashdance” and a stack of Polaroids featuring nude women he had fraudulently promised movie roles to. As for the actors he did hire …
Val Kilmer Purposefully Bombed His Audition (And Hallucinated Conversations With Iceman’s Dead Dad)
The directing gig went to Tony Scott, who had previously made the erotic vampire thriller The Hunger. How? Scott went camping with Simpson at the Grand Canyon and expressed his interest in Top Gun. Simpson allegedly dared the director to “swim Lava Falls,” which is “a Class 10 rapid,” and then “he could have the job” – which Scott accomplished while wearing two lifejackets and a helmet.
Cruise was convinced to play Maverick after the producers offered him a test flight, but Val Kilmer (who famously plays Maverick’s equally-cocky rival, Iceman) didn’t like the sound of Top Gun at all – so much so that he purposefully torpedoed his own audition. According to Kilmer, he showed up wearing “oversize gonky Australian shorts in nausea green” and “read the lines indifferently.” He was cast anyway and was eventually won over by Scott’s enthusiasm.
Kilmer became so dedicated to the role that at one point, he had a legit vision of the ghost of Iceman’s deceased father, who appeared in his trailer chomping on an ice cube like “a wild dog” – which in turn inspired Kilmer’s character’s affectation.
In Kilmer’s mind, Iceman’s dad had “ignored his son to the point where his son was driven to prove himself as the absolute ideal man.” Kilmer responded to the phantom by asking: “What do you want of me, Dad?” He answered: “To stay on your journey … You’re on a journey for the clergy.” Which is … not something that comes up in the movie. Even Kilmer, whose brain seemingly concocted this hallucination, claims not to understand what the hell Iceman Sr. was talking about. As for the rest of the performers …
Almost Every Actor Hurled During Flight Training
On the less glamorous side of Hollywood filmmaking, the production of Top Gun involved carny-tier levels of cleaning up puke. According to Bruckheimer, they trained the actors “for three months so they could get used to the g-forces” and “every one of them threw up.” Although Anthony Edwards claimed that he was the only actor who “didn’t get sick.”
Tom Cruise once recounted that his first training flight was with a pilot named “Bozo” – and if you think his Mission: Impossible stunts were risky, imagine entrusting your life to a dude literally called “Bozo.” Cruise vomited almost immediately and nearly choked on said vomit when Bozo suddenly pulled the plane up. While Top Gun: Maverick reportedly features shots of the actors in real F-14 jets, the filmmakers couldn’t use “one frame” of the real flight footage from Top Gun featuring the actors “because they all threw up.”
Filming Goose’s Death Led To Multiple Accidents (And One Fatality)
The saddest moment of Top Gun – other than when Tom Cruise attempts to sing – is the death of Maverick’s buddy Goose, who perishes not at the hands of an enemy combatant but due to a random ejector seat accident.
Filming this scene was somehow as calamitous as the scene itself; for starters, while shooting the moment where Maverick attempts to rescue Goose’s body after they’ve parachuted into the ocean, Tom Cruise nearly drowned. The weighted Goose dummy began to sink, and Cruise’s leg got tangled in part of the parachute, forcing rescue divers to intervene and cut him free. According to actor Barry Tubb: “Cruise came as close to dying as anybody on a set I’ve ever seen.”
Tragically there was an actual death during the making of Top Gun; stunt pilot Art Scholl was capturing background footage for Goose’s accident, went into a dive, and never recovered. Many details of Scholl’s death remain a mystery to this day; while the Coast Guard was called, his body and plane were never recovered. And according to Scholl’s wife, it was extra “puzzling” because the couple ran a school that specifically taught this type of maneuver. And speaking of mysteries …
The Director Was Nearly Fired Over The Iconic Volleyball Scene
Unlike other movies about warfare, Top Gun pauses the story for several minutes to show off the glistening bodies of its shirtless stars as the protagonists randomly play a game of beach volleyball. It has since become an iconic ‘80s movie moment that beach volleyball professionals have hailed as “pretty bad” and “absolutely tragic.”
This cheesily ‘80s sequence is one of the defining moments of the film, but it almost got director Tony Scott fired. Which is absolutely crazy; that would be like firing Orson Welles over his fascination with sleds. According to Scott, at first, he “didn’t know what to do” with the volleyball scene, which, in the script, was just a scant paragraph long.
So he opted to go the “soft porn” route and just “shot the s**t out of” the scene after getting the actors to take “all their gear off” and spraying them “in baby oil.” The studio wanted to straight-up fire Scott for taking two days to shoot the suddenly prolonged scene – which wasn’t an idle threat, they fired him three other times during the production, so much so that it became a “recurring joke” for the crew. Thankfully, Scott was allowed to complete what can only be described as the greatest scene in cinema history involving beach volleyball.
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Thumbnail: Paramount Pictures