The original “Top Gun” is a study in Hollywood moviemaking of a certain era — an era captured in the pages of Variety as the movie was birthed starting in mid-1983 until its triumphant release by Paramount Pictures three years later.
The movie came together during the period when Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were at the peak of their powers as red-hot producers of culture-shaking films such as 1983’s “Flashdance” and 1984’s “Beverly Hills Cop.” The film that the pair crafted with numerous screenwriters (more on that in the clips), director Tony Scott and veteran producer Bill Badalato launched Tom Cruise to a new level of stardom and created a legacy sturdy enough for Cruise, Bruckheimer and Paramount to leap back to the top of the box office nearly 40 years later with the long-delayed, made-for-movie-screens sequel “Top Gun: Maverick.”
As demonstrated by the steady pace of news about “Top Gun,” Simpson and Bruckheimer had a ton of clout with Paramount and the industry at the time. They even were able to control the rights to the soundtrack for the film — something they learned from the success of “Flashdance” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” Simpson-Bruckheimer Prods. cut a deal with Columbia Records for the soundtrack that spent several weeks at No. 1 in the summer of 1986 and yielded hits for Kenny Loggins (“‘Danger Zone”), Berlin (“Take My Breath Away”) and Harold Faltermeyer (“Top Gun Anthem,” “Memories”).
A trip through the Variety archives shows the first reference to the movie in nascent form came about two months after California magazine published the article that inspired the movie. “Top Guns,” penned by Ehud Yonay, told the story of derring-do by top-tier young pilots at the Naval Air Station Miramar training facility near San Diego.
The project was mentioned as one of several in development in the Aug. 3, 1983 edition of Daily Variety, which included a page 1 story about Simpson and Bruckheimer signing a rich new three-year production pact with Paramount, which was eager to keep its dynamic duo on the Melrose lot. (In classic slate-story fashion, the other early-gestating projects cited are worth a read-through for ’80s movie obsessives.)
The “Top Gun”-related clips shared here follow the nuts-and-bolts process of assembling a movie, from landing Cruise and director Tony Scott to the hurdles in selecting the film’s female lead to the tragic 1985 death of ace pilot Art Scholl,who crashed while capturing aerial footage for the movie.
A look back at the transactional history of “Top Gun” also adds telling details to the legend of the late Don Simpson. Variety’s coverage of the voluble producer is a window on how the master showman worked every lever — he was on the phone with Variety‘s Army Archerd at least once a week — to lay the groundwork for a blockbuster that would stand the test of time.
Simpson had his demons that led to his death in January 1996 at the age of 52. But before tales of his personal behavior overtook his professional accomplishments, he spent years as a movie marketing and advertising executive. He knew what to do with a massive hit. And he had a lot of thoughts about what it takes to make a great movie.
As Simpson told Variety in August 1983 when he and Bruckheimer inked what would be a fruitful, multi-picture deal with Paramount:
Interestingly, all of the 11 films Simpson and Bruckheimer now have in development are original ideas rather than scripts based on novels or film remakes. “One of the problems and reasons behind movies failing is that they’re not based on new ideas, ” Simpson offered. “We have much more on the upside working this way and I think our personal aptitude is more in that area.”
August 3, 1983: 'Top Gun' the Movie is Born
The first reference to “Top Gun” as a movie project came in the Aug. 3, 1983, edition of Daily Variety.
Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer parlayed their success with “Flashdance” into a lucrative multi-picture deal with Paramount Pictures — a pact that would pay off nicely for both sides with “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun,” for starters.
The above-the-fold page 1 story in Variety cemented their status as hot-shot movie producers. It’s full of pearls of wisdom from Simpson, who had previously been president of production at Paramount before stepping down to produce “Flashdance.”
The story also features Paramount president Michael Eisner vowing that the pair would “be productive in both films and television.” What’s more, Eisner assured, in a quote that is now a time capsule, the TV marketplace was wide open for the pair: “We have two of the three networks interested in them (Simpson and Bruckheimer) as a team,” Eisner told Daily Variety‘s Steven Ginsberg.
(Bruckheimer, of course, was destined for big things in TV, but it would take another 17 years before he found his first smash hit, CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”)
Read the story in two parts below.
December 7, 1984: 'Top Guns' Gets the Greenlight
Paramount Pictures gave Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer an early holiday gift in December 1984 with the formal greenlight for what was dubbed “Top Guns,” as the tale was titled in the original 1983 magazine article on the Miramar Naval Air Station, aka “Fightertown, U.S.A.” It’s no coincidence that the good news came to Simpson and Bruckheimer as the pair’s Eddie Murphy starrer “Beverly Hills Cop” was beginning its strong run that same month.
Simpson vowed to Variety that the movie about hot-shot naval aviators would be akin to “this generation’s ‘From Here to Eternity.’ ”
Read the story below.
March 28, 1985: 'Top Gun' Lands Its Star and Director
A new regime at Paramount Pictures (Michael Eisner had moved on to run Disney by this point) threw even more money at Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer in 1985, as “Top Gun” readied for lensing and as “Beverly Hills Cop” fired up the box office. News that the producers had landed Tom Cruise to star and Tony Scott to direct made page 1 on March 28, 1985.
Read the story below.
May 20, 1985: 'Top Gun' Gets a Quick Rewrite
Producer Don Simpson kept beloved Variety columnist Army Archerd regularly apprised of the trajectory of “Top Gun.” Here it’s clear he was doing some proactive damage control on rumors that the studio was unhappy with the script just as filming was about to begin.
Read the story below.
June 3, 1985: Casting Call for 'Top Gun' Female Lead
“Available part: 26-28, femme, physics proficiency, intelligent, starring role.”
With cameras getting ready to roll in San Diego, Paramount sought submissions for the female lead on “Top Gun” as late as the June 3, 1985, edition of Daily Variety.
But in reality, the “Top Gun” team wasn’t waiting on general submissions to land in Marge Simpkin’s office at Paramount. Two days after that item ran, Variety columnist Army Archerd reported in “Just for Variety” that Kelly McGillis had landed the plum part opposite Tom Cruise.
McGillis was on a roll in her career at the time, coming off a well-reviewed performance with Harrison Ford in 1985’s “Witness.” But she did not return for sequel “Top Gun: Maverick.”
September 18, 1985: Top Hollywood Pilot Killed While Working on 'Top Gun'
“Top Gun” came face-to-face with the danger of flying during production when veteran Hollywood film pilot Art Scholl was killed while shooting second-unit aerial footage for director Tony Scott.
Daily Variety, in the Sept. 18, 1985, edition, reported that Scholl, 53, was believed to have died after his “prop-driven biplane crashed into the sea off the northern coast of San Diego.” A Paramount rep told Variety that Scholl had been working with a remote control camera.
Scholl’s previous credits include 1983’s “Blue Thunder” and “The Right Stuff” and 1975’s “The Great Waldo Pepper,” among other films. He was survived by his wife, Judy, and two sons, David and John.
Read the story below.
May 9, 1986: 'Top Gun' Review -- 'Revved-Up But Empty Entertainment'
Let’s be frank: Variety did not love “Top Gun” on first viewing. Our reviewer deemed it “revved-up but empty entertainment” and observed that “watching the film is like wearing a Walkman” thanks to its propulsive soundtrack. But we did allow that “audiences prepared to go with it will be taken for a thrilling ride in the wide blue yonder.” (According to Variety‘s unusual custom back then, the reviewer stayed mostly anonymous under the abbreviated byline “Jagr.”)
Read Variety‘s original “Top Gun” review in two parts.
May 21, 1986: 'Top Gun' Soars at the Box Office
The verdict was in after opening weekend. “Top Gun” was a hit.
Variety reported on the film’s “big bow,” which ranked as the second-best of the year and helped boost overall receipts over the previous weekend by 37%. Simpson/Bruckheimer Productions and Paramount Pictures also made sure the industry didn’t miss the big numbers with a double-truck grosses ad that featured an instantly iconic shot of star Tom Cruise.
See the story and advertisement below.
January-March 1987: 'Top Gun' FYC Ads
“Top Gun” lived up to its name and stayed aloft as the top-grossing movie of 1986. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and Paramount Pictures took a shot at the Oscar race, but they were practical.
Variety‘s pages during the heat of the early 1987 campaign season (for movies released in 1986) demonstrate that Team “Top Gun” wisely focused its efforts on competing in song and score categories as well as film editing. The movie wound up earning a total of four Academy Award nominations: for sound, film editing, sound effects editing and original song, for tunesmiths Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock for “Take My Breath Away,” as performed by Berlin. The film’s sole win came for song.
Here’s a sampling of “Top Gun” For Your Consideration ads.