When Jerry Bruckheimer was casually flipping through California magazine in 1983, he was suddenly struck by an image.
“It was a picture of this helmet with a visor down and a plane reflected in the visor,” the producer recalled in the book Blockbuster. “And then two airplanes beside the helmet and the guy’s in a cockpit.” Staring at the page, Bruckheimer couldn’t escape one thought: “It looked like Star Wars on Earth.”
That magazine picture – and its accompanying article – set into motion the creation of Top Gun. A script would be crafted around the story of fighter pilots – their internal rivalry with one another, heroism when called on by their country and a deeply ingrained “need for speed.”
A car commercial would lead Tony Scott to the project. The English director had helmed a 1984 spot for Saab, in which the Swedish automotive company’s 900 model is visually compared to a fighter jet. Scott’s sleek style of filmmaking was exactly what Bruckheimer wanted to Capture the essence of Top Gun.
Watch the ‘Top Gun’ Trailer
“Jerry Bruckheimer was very bored of the way American films were very traditional and classically done,” Scott recalled decades later to Cinema Blend. “Jerry was always looking for difference.”
Bruckheimer knew he wanted Tom Cruise for the lead role of Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, but plenty of other stars were lined up as potential backup options. Michael J. Fox, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Matthew Modine, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Nicolas Cage and John Cusack were among those in discussion for the role.
Cruise eventually accepted the role … after a little convincing. Bruckheimer arranged for the star to be flown in a real fighter jet, an experience that led Cruise to puke. Still, the adrenaline rush was enough to bring him aboard the project, and the star even made sure his contract stipulated that he got to fly in an F-14.
Watch the First 10 Minutes of ‘Top Gun’
The rest of the cast soon fell into place. Brat Pack actress Ally Sheedy was offered the role of Charlie, Cruise’s love interest in the film, but declined. The part would instead go to Kelly McGillis. Anthony Edwards would play Goose, Maverick’s best friend who dies during an in-flight training exercise.
Val Kilmer was approached for the role of Iceman, Maverick’s chief rival, but said he wasn’t interested. “My agent, who also represented Tom Cruise, basically tortured me into at least meeting Tony Scott, saying he was one of the hottest directors in town,” Kilmer recalled in his autobiography I’m Your Huckleberry. The actor purposely gave an uninspired audition in an attempt to sabotage himself. “I read the lines indifferently and yet, amazingly, I was told I had the part. I felt more deflated than inflated.”
Watch a Clip From ‘Top Gun’
Principal photography took place in the summer of 1985. The Navy played an active role in the production, allowing fighter jets, pilots and the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier to be used in the film. As part of their agreement, the Navy also had the right of script approval, meaning it could veto any scene it felt was an inaccurate depiction of naval life. This would come into play in the death of Goose, which had originally been written as a midair collision, before being changed to an ejection-related incident.
Though much of filming went as planned, a real-life tragedy did occur. While trying to capture footage for Goose’s fatal accident, stunt pilot Art Scholl put his plane into a spin. He was unable to recover and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Neither his body nor the aircraft were ever recovered.
Beyond its state-of-the-art visuals, Top Gun also boasted some powerful music. The film’s score was composed by Harold Faltermeyer, whose previous credits included Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch. Kenny Loggins would contribute two songs to the soundtrack: “Playing With the Boys” and “Danger Zone.” The latter track – which had been offered to Bryan Adams, Toto and REO Speedwagon – would become one of the ‘80s’ biggest songs. Meanwhile, new wave band Berlin scored a worldwide hit with its contribution, “Take My Breath Away.”
Watch Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ From ‘Top Gun’
On Jan. 29. 1986, an advance screening of Top Gun took place in Houston. The day before, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in one of the most dramatic disasters in American aviation history. Emotions were still high with the audience that turned up to see Top Gun; its reaction to the film reflected that fragility.
“We’re in that theater, and I’m telling you, it was like a funeral,” Bruckheimer later recalled to VH1. “I watched the movie with this audience, and nobody reacted. They didn’t laugh, they didn’t applaud. Nothing.”
Scott, who was also in the crowd that evening, assumed he had made a flop. “That was the worst experience of my life,” the director admitted. “Just thinking, ‘Ugh, I screwed it up.’ Afterwards, I disappeared. I went and got drunk, I think.”
Watch a Clip From ‘Top Gun’
The filmmakers’ fear would soon be dispelled. Top Gun was released on May 16, 1986, and immediately soared to No. 1 at the box office. The movie became a pop-culture phenomenon, while its loud, powerful and patriotic energy perfectly reflected Regan-era America. Thanks largely to the movie’s popularity, U.S. Navy recruitment soared by 500 percent.
Top Gun remains one of the most successful films of the ‘80s, but its lure is not limited to that decade. A long-awaited sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, was set for release during summer 2020 but delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is currently slated for release on Nov. 19, 2021.