Val Kilmer: My Wild Time Shooting ‘Top Gun,’ From Drunken Run-ins With the Cops to Pranking Tom Cruise

Val Kilmer
·12 min read

I didn’t want the part. I didn’t care about the film. The story didn’t interest me. 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 and I could never afford to not meet with as many of them as possible, and also he was completely obsessed with me. Well, an agent doesn’t have to offer any other reasons when “the director is completely obsessed with you” comes out of their mouth.

I showed up at the audition because that’s what actors do when they’re asked to audition. I showed up looking the fool, or the goon. I wore oversize gonky Australian shorts in nausea green. I read the lines indifferently. And yet, amazingly, I was told I had the part. I felt more deflated than inflated. I had to get out of there.

The moment I got into the elevator, the director ran after me and slid his arm in to block the door. He blurted his truth in his chipper British accent: “I know that the script is insufficient, but it will get better, Val. Wait until you see these jets. They take your breath away.”

He then proceeded to imitate aircraft sounds and motions as if we were six years old and as if there were no one else in the hallway. “I know you’ve been told this before, I know you’re a serious actor, but you are perfect for this role. It’s as if they wrote it for you. It has to be you. It’s not the lead, but I’m going to make you feel like it is. And this kid we found, Tom Cruise, he has it, man, and you two together, and Kelly McGillis—you know her from Juilliard, she’s nine feet tall and utter perfection.”

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He was a wrecking ball to my consciousness. I had never before been treated with such passion. I was so accustomed to giving passion, less familiar with receiving it.

Side note: I once flew to London when I couldn’t afford a ham sandwich to sit in a hotel room with a single videotape in hopes of hand-delivering it to Stanley Kubrick. Eventually I befriended one of his “people,” who told me after my forty-eighth phone call in one week, “I’m sorry, Val. He really liked the last video you did. I am not supposed to say this, but he’s really interested. In fact, we have stopped pre-production because of that last video. But he won’t see you. He just doesn’t work like that.”

Self-taping was new at the time, and Kubrick must have been enchanted with it. I got it. I was enchanted myself and had been shooting me and my friends since I could get my hands on a magical machine of my own. But Kubrick’s stubbornness sent me home, deflated.

Tony Scott’s British enthusiasm was the pick-me-up my ego craved. He was ferocious and hilarious. We both had penchants for fishermen’s vests. His was primly packed with pens, folded paper, and cigars, plus a monocle cinematographers use to examine the sun. Now video cameras adjust to let you film through the night, but it wasn’t like that back then.

Tony loved the process, loved the energy of the set, loved the characters. Everything was fuel to Tony. Every time a jet took off, Tony swooned. I threw lines away. He would jump for joy. Ultimately, he overwhelmed my disdain for the project with pure unadulterated positivity. Every day he would exclaim, “This is incredible! This is beautiful! This is beyond belief. You guys are going to be kings.” Off set, the actors broke into two camps—mine and Tom’s, a reflection of the rivalry between our two characters. In the film, I was Iceman and Tom was Maverick. I commanded my camp because I had a tricked-out van.

Tony Scott’s Enduring Legacy, From ‘Top Gun’ to ‘True Romance’

We were the party boys. Every night we’d hit the San Diego nightlife. Once we were stuck at an intersection where all four lights were red. I peeled out, spinning and burning rubber in a perfect circle, showing off. Until we cozied right up to a cop car. He looked at me like, Really, dude? He didn’t even bother turning on his lights. I just pulled over and begged my drunken passengers, in my firm Iceman voice, to sit up straight and to let me do all the talking. Since I hadn’t been drinking, I was able to quickly rely on my actor’s instinct.

“Where’s the fire, boys? License and registration.” I snapped my fingers as if Rick Rossovich, who played the pilot Slider, worked for me. He popped open the glove box, and I started. “Officer, the fire is in my producer’s eyes. It’s entirely my fault but we’re about forty minutes late for the movie we are shooting down here called Top Gun.”

“Oh, Top Gun. Yeah, I’ve heard of it. My brother is a pilot.”

“Oh, a real pilot. Outstanding. We’re a bit lost. Perhaps you can point us in the right direction.”

“It smells like a frat party in here.” “Yes, officer. I’ll tell these bozo ruffians to shower.”

“All right, then. Go on. Be careful. And take it easy. That was some crazy driving, son.”

“Yes, sir. And best to your brother, sir.” The uncannily blessed lives that actors lead. A privilege of uncountable latitude.

Tom refrained from our revelry, with good reason. From day one, he was laser-focused on a singular goal: to become the greatest action hero in the history of film. He was up nights learning lines; he spent every waking hour perfecting his stunts. His dedication was admirable. Of course even more admirable is the fact that he achieved his goal. I also love that he’s a Mark Twain fan. Tom is a comrade I respect and admire, though as creatures we hail from galaxies far, far away from one another. My favorite moment between us was a small prank in which I gave him an extremely expensive bottle of champagne but placed it in the middle of a giant field and made him follow scavenger-hunt-style clues to find it. I hid behind a bleacher and watched him lug the giant crate to his motorcycle. He never did thank me for the Iceman-style bit. I thought it would break the ice, but I guess the ice was just right.

All in all, the movie was both a blast and an education. I hear the voice of poet Ezra Pound, who, in one of his cantos, wrote, “Pull down thy vanity,” but I am afraid my vanity is about to be put on full display. Take the famous volleyball game. It was a real game with all us showing off our pecs. Because I was the only Californian in the match, I was actually the only real volleyball player and couldn’t help but demonstrate my best moves. We got loads of sweaty, sexy close-ups. I was happy with the day’s work until Tony ran up to me the next day looking like he’d seen a ghost.

“Horror of horrors,” he said. “We overexposed some of the film and your close-ups have been ruined.”

I wasn’t happy and wouldn’t have minded a reshoot of the entire scene, but that was not within my purview. Tony was genuinely remorseful and I let him know that, as proud as I was of my physique, a little less cheesecake would hardly hurt the film. Besides, certain moments that I had improvised, like spinning the ball on my finger and the trash-talking locker room scene, made it into the film. I must also take partial credit for the weird crew cut I sported. The style was Tony’s idea, but I went out of my way to make it weirder. When it turned into a national fad—thousands of guys started emulating the coif—I was flabbergasted. And that’s a word you just don’t get to say that often and mean it. Another point of pride was flying in the jets. Though I was never really doing it, I learned the mechanics of operating the plane. We all went up in the jets several times and—here comes more vanity—I have to report that I was the only one who didn’t regurgitate, which, given the gut-wrenching drops and spins of those ferocious flights, was no mean feat.

The servicemen loved partying with us. At one such fête, a flyboy came up and said, “Val, you’re the one who operates like a real pilot.” With each word of praise, he struck my chest—all in the spirit of manly goodwill—until he left a silver-dollar-size bruise that took weeks to heal.

And then, just like that, our real-world counterparts, our advisers, were gone. They had to fly off on a secret mission. At the outset, I saw Top Gun as jingoistic, but in the spring of 1986, about a month before the release, the US carried out airstrikes on Libya for terrorist attacks at airports in Vienna and Rome, which gave the film a relevance it had previously lacked.

As filming went on, I grew more serious about my on-screen character. Even though I could play an arrogant jerk in my sleep, I actually found myself looking deeply into this guy. What made him arrogant? The question intrigued me. I thought about it for long stretches of time. Even dreamed about it. And then, without any forethought, I applied whatever I had learned (or unlearned) at THE Juilliard School, whatever I had read of Stanislavski and Suzuki, whatever natural instincts I had, and brought it all to bear in Tom “Iceman” Kazansky. I became so obsessed that at one point in my trailer I actually saw—the way Macbeth saw the ghost of Banquo—Iceman’s father, the man (my imagination told me) who had ignored his son to the point where his son was driven to prove himself as the absolute ideal man. So real was the elder Mr. Kazansky that I saw him take a chunk of ice and chew on it like a wild dog (which inspired my improvised ice-chewing and teeth-chomping moment in the film). I even spoke to him. As Iceman, I asked him, “What do you want of me, Dad?”

He answered, “To stay on your journey.”

“What journey is that?” I asked.

“A journey,” he said, “for the clergy. You’re on a journey for the clergy.” I’m not sure I understood that exchange, but I am sure that this encounter with Iceman’s father imbued my character with greater fury.

The only person who honored the process more than me, I think, was our brilliant Tony. One day at dusk, we were up in a helicopter. He was trying to get a perfect angle on the aircraft carrier where most of the film takes place, and I was along for the ride.

I couldn’t understand what he was trying to capture. There were so many fumes and we were losing the light, and I thought he might be going mad. And then, suddenly, the clouds were rainbow sherbet, and you could see circles of rainbow smoke curling, falling on the water as the aircraft carrier danced its dance. Just like Tony had dreamed. It was incredible. I glanced over to smile at him or give him a little nod, and as I turned toward him, tears were rolling down his cheeks.

When I finally saw the film for the first time, on the Paramount lot, I jumped up after the first five minutes and yelled, “This is a hit!” The editing and sound were stupendous. The minute it was over I made a mad dash across the lot to the office of the film’s producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, past their assistants, and into the royal quarters, where the prince himself, Simpson, was seated behind his massive desk.

“Don,” I screamed with stars in my eyes, “you’ve done it!”

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Jerry looked up at us both. Don’s response to my declaration was to jump on top of his desk, clad in his signature cowboy boots, and assume the pose of a cartoon superhero. His stance was earned, and I cheered. It was so wild a move from Don as to be normal.

In the final analysis, Top Gun’s iconic endurance is the result of the untiring dedication of Don, Jerry, Tony, and Tom. Optimism can work wonders. Infusing things with light was a sport Tony Scott had mastered, and one I would emulate for many years to follow.

Ah, Tony, Tony, Tony. I don’t know why you killed yourself, but I miss you almost every damn day. In 2012, Tony drove to the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, and jumped off the highest point.

When Tony was making a television show that needed a bit of a face-lift, he asked me to appear. Despite the fact that I hated TV, I didn’t hesitate. I’d hang around him as we filmed and just observe. Tony and I would wake up and have coffee on a bridge near our set every morning at dawn, overlooking the Mississippi River. So when he jumped, I almost felt like I had a memory of it.

From I’M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY: A Memoir by Val Kilmer. Copyright © 2020 by Val Kilmer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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