Tom Cruise got the role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun after a meeting with some Navy pilots determined to rattle a young actor they had badly misjudged… as a hippie.
The sequel to the 1986 film, Top Gun: Maverick, is out on digital this week, with the 59-year-old Cruise reprising the role he first played at 24. So we can finally pause and savor every frame of the new film. And also fondly remember the original.
Almost everyone involved in the original Top Gun, including screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., had Cruise in their sights thanks to his star-making turn in the 1983 film Risky Business. Cruise was fresh from Legend, by director Ridley Scott, whose brother Tony Scott ended up directing Top Gun.
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“When we got the script from Cash and Epps, we felt that the perfect actor — it really came from them — was going to be Tom Cruise,” Bruckheimer said in a commentary on the 2020 Top Gun Blu-Ray release. “We’d sent various versions of the script to Tom. There was interest, but he would never sign on the dotted line. We just couldn’t get him to say yes.”
So Bruckheimer enlisted the Blue Angels — the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron — because the Navy had agreed to help with Top Gun.
“He’d just finished a movie called Legend with Ridley Scott,” Bruckheimer explained on the commentary track. “He had this long ponytail. I called the information officer at the Pentagon and I said, ‘Look, we need to close this thing with Tom. When are the Blue Angels going to be around?’ And they were in El Centro [California] for an airshow. So I got ahold of Tom’s agent… and said ‘Look, we’d like to send Tom down, let him take a flight and see what it’s really like in one of these planes.’”
Bruckheimer continued: “Tom jumps on his motorcycle and drives down to El Central and pulls off his helmet. He’s got this long ponytail. So right away these pilots say, ‘Oh, we’ve got this hippie. Let’s give him the ride of his life.’ So they spin him at three or four G’s and five G’s and turned him upside down.”
But Tom Cruise, the pilots soon learned, was no hippie.
“I’m sure he threw up all over the plane, but when he got on the ground, he went to the nearest phone booth — because mobile phones weren’t in fashion or around in those days — and called me and said, ‘I’m doing the movie. That’s it.’ So he loved the speed and loved the excitement and loved the pilots.”
The next step was finding a director — a story you can read about here.
In fairness to the Blue Angels, who I’m sure were very good at their jobs, Cruise did have a brief, unfortunate foray into hippiedom in the 1988 movie Cocktail, in which he mixed drinks to a song called the “Hippy Hippy Shake.”
Main image: Biker yes, hippie no. Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise in Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott.