‘Top Gun’ Turns 35: Producer Jerry Bruckheimer on Convincing Tom Cruise to Play Maverick

Moviegoers had never seen anything quite like “Top Gun” when it jetted across screens in the summer of 1986.

The propulsive story of a hot shot group of pilots had dazzling aerial sequences that gave audiences a cockpit view of the action, as well as a star on the rise in Tom Cruise, fresh off his role in “Risky Business.” “Top Gun” would go on to make a then-massive $356.8 million, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and propelling Cruise onto the A-list, where he has remained for decades. He reprises his role in this fall’s long-awaited follow-up, “Top Gun: Maverick.”

To mark the film’s 35th anniversary this week, Paramount is re-releasing “Top Gun” in theaters. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer spoke with Variety about the hurdles of bringing “Top Gun” to the big screen and why Cruise was the only actor he considered to play Maverick.

“Top Gun” is still popular 35 years after it came out. Why does it endure?
First of all, you have Tom Cruise whose career keeps getting bigger. That’s the magic of movies when you get a young actor like that in one of the first films of his career. Then you have the visual brilliance of Tony Scott. He was iconic filmmaker and his movies just hold up.

There’s a lot of stuff online about all the actors who were considered for Maverick — Matthew Modine, Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn, Matthew Broderick and Tom Hanks. Is that true? Did you think about casting them?
It was always Tom. Once we finished the screenplay, he was the only actor we talked to.

Was it hard to convince him?
It wasn’t easy. We wanted Tom after we saw “Risky Business” and he kind of hemmed and hawed. So we arranged for him to fly with the Blue Angels at the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, California. He drove up there on his motorcycle and he had just finished a movie with Ridley Scott, “Legend,” and his hair was long and in a ponytail. And they took one look at him and thought, we’re going to give this hippie a ride. They took him up on an F-14 and flipped him and did all kinds of stunts to turn him around and make sure he never got back in a cockpit. But it was just the opposite. He landed and he walked over to a phone booth and called me up and said, “Jerry. I’m making the movie. I love it.” He became an amazing aviator himself. He can fly just about any plane they can make.

Was it difficult to get the Navy’s participation?
We wanted to make it real. We had to put the actors in real planes with real aviators. We needed them to hang with them and see what it was like. Initially, the admiral of the base where we shot wasn’t a fan of this. He was worried something would go wrong and that would be a black mark on his career.

So Tom and I flew to D.C. and met with the secretary of the Navy, who at the time was John Lehman. He understood what Hollywood could do for the Navy and he gave us his home number and said, “if there’s anything or anyone that gets in your way, you just give me a call.” From that moment on the floodgates opened. But you still had to deal with the navy lawyers about the weight change if you put a camera on a wing or on the cockpit. It was a negotiation process the whole way through. On the new movie, the sequel we just shot, it was completely different because after “Top Gun” came out, the enlistment in the navy went up 500%. They understood that this is a great recruiting tool, so they were even more helpful and they embraced the filmmaking process with us.

Was Paramount enthusiastic about the film when you pitched it?
Not at first. There was a TV show about the Air Force that had just come out and unfortunately, it failed, so they figured that aviation is not something that people want to see. But management changed and Ned Tanen came in as motion picture chief. We pitched him “Top Gun” and he loved it and said, “go make it.” That doesn’t happen today. There are greenlight committees and all kinds of hurdles to overcome.

Tony Scott died in 2012. What was he like as a collaborator?
He was an adventurer. He was a daredevil. We went on a rafting trip in Colorado right before this. One night we camped next to a sheer rock wall and we look up and he’s climbing it with his bare hands. You looked at “The Hunger,” the movie he made prior to “Top Gun” and you saw how beautifully it was photographed. On “Top Gun,” he shot all this amazing footage that isn’t even in the movie. He shot some sunsets with the planes against it. Just gorgeous stuff.

Did you have a sense before “Top Gun” opened that it was going to be a smash hit?
You never know. We had a preview in Houston. The audience was muted and it felt like we had a flop on our hands. When the cards came back, they rated the film with a high score and we couldn’t figure out what happened. How come the audience wasn’t laughing and showing they were enjoying this movie? What we didn’t realize was that this was two days after the Challenger shuttle disaster, and since we were in Houston, a lot of people had friends and relatives involved in that.

Long after the movie came out, some critics, including Quentin Tarantino, argued that the film was homoerotic. Do you see that?
Not at all. These pilots, when you look at them, they’re really handsome guys. There are reasons they have nicknames like Hollywood and Maverick. It’s something that’s real and that Tony captured. These guys are confident and cool, with amazing hand-eye coordination, otherwise they wouldn’t be top gun pilots. Tony got the flavor of them and their love of life. That’s what Tom is like. Tom is a hard charging, smart, really dedicated actor.