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 mentioned 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 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 a 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 blockbuster. 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.”