'80s heroes: Tom Skerritt

Image for '80s heroes: Tom Skerritt

Dallas. Viper. Even Space Camp's Cmdr. Bergstrom. If you were a filmmaker in the late '70s and '80s and you needed a zero-nonsense aviator to pilot you into (and occasionally out of) the jaws of death, Tom Skerritt was your guy. But there was much more to those 1980s heydays than scaring the crap out of Maverick and Goose in Top Gun and playing gruff authority figures with helmets. Skerritt has worked with filmmakers of the calibre of Robert Altman (*M*A*S*H*), Hal Ashby (Harold And Maude), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), and the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony. This week he adds Tom Tykwer to that honour roll with a role in his drama A Hologram For The King, in which he plays Tom Hanks' dad. Unexpectedly, perhaps, he's also working to get a new mobile media enterprise off the ground. "I've got four or five irons in the fire. Everyday it's about which cow I'm going to get out and brand," he laughs. "Metaphorically speaking."

Movies, though, are the Detroit-born actor's first love and he's very happy to chat about them and share his memories. "I've been very, very fortunate," Empire's latest '80s Month hero tells us...


You've played a famous father figure to another Tom – Tom Cruise in Top Gun. What are your recollections of playing Viper?

I went in and met the actual Top Gun commanding officer at the time and replicated that. I know the producers, Don Simpson in particular, liked that tough-guy, top-sergeant kind of character and initially it was felt that I was... the word I think was "lethargic" (laughs), which pissed me off.

Don Simpson wasn't going to hire me for Top Gun. 'Lethargic' is the word he used.

How did you respond to that?

I just kinda told them off (chuckles).

Did you change your performance after that?

No... [Simpson] wasn't going to hire me. 'Laconic' – that's the word he used. I played laid back characters. In Alien, I wasn't over-the-top. That's harder to play than being angry. The real Top Gun guy I talked to was very much a listener and a thoughtful guy, so I wanted Mike Metcalfe to be that too.

Was Top Gun a fun set to be on?

Yeah. I'd been an English major at UCLA and was already interested in directing, so the experience with Top Gun, as it was with the other [Scott] brother on Alien, was one of following them around, watching how they framed a shot and got the depth of textures they always went for. They were both learning experiences.

They were quite different directors, weren't they?

Yeah, Alien was the first time Ridley [Scott] had done a film of that scale. He'd done The Duellists (1977) which made me realise he was a guy I wanted to follow. He was very innovative on Alien which caused delays, but watching all of that I learnt that as a director you have to know your vision is going to work even if you can't verbalise it to the people who are telling you not to do it. Tony was more accessible. I don't know if that was normal, because Ridley was initiating a lot of things that were being done for the first time and Tony didn't have that issue with Top Gun.

Tom-Skerritt-Top-GunHoly shit, it's Viper. Skerritt chews out Maverick and Goose in Top Gun.

That must have been a pretty exciting period in your career.

You know, there were times in the '70s and '80s when I'd wake up in the middle of the night wondering what country and what hotel I was in. I got used to figuring out where the bathroom was (laughs). You look back at a stage in your life and think, "WOW!" I don't take any of that for granted. I think back gratefully on those experiences on classic movies.

You must still get your movies quoted back to you. Do people come up to you and say "Holy shit, it's Viper!" in the street?

I get a lot of Viper... Top Gun is a generational film, in that each succeeding generation has watched the film multiple times. With MASH, a lot of people don't even know that it's a movie now, but for a time that lingered. And then Alien, and even Ted now...

I'm a blue-collar guy off the streets of Detroit so I'm always amazed being in the company of someone like Helen Mirren.

Top Gun famously inspired people to become fighter pilots. Have you ever encountered anyone who became an astronaut because of Space Camp?

(Laughs) That's an obsure one. I barely remember that one. I do remember working with Kate [Capshaw], who's now married to Steve Spielberg. I've had these wonderful experiences working with great women – I'm a blue-collar guy off the streets of Detroit so I'm always amazed being in the company of someone like Helen Mirren (on 1989's Red King, White Knight) and seeing the ease with which they work. I'm just a lucky guy.

You worked with some great actresses on Steel Magnolias, like Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis and Sally Field. That must have been a raucous set?

Well, they were very supportive of Julia [Roberts] who was on her first big movie. I was sort of the male mascot. They each had a house where we were filming down in Louisiana and every Saturday they'd make a dinner for everybody. They'd have four or five conversations going on all the time and it'd be like watching the fastest tennis match. You'd try to interject something and they'd get just glance it off and get back to what they were talking about. I'd just shut up and listen.

Tom-Skerritt-Steel-MagnoliaWith Julia Roberts on Steel Magnolias. "I was the male mascot on that film."

There are stories of the director, Herbert Ross, being tough on some of the cast, especially Julia Roberts. What are your recollections?

Herb was a dance bastard, basically. I'd worked with him on (1977 ballet drama) The Turning Point before Steel Magnolias and if you know dance or you've been around ballet, they're very harsh people. "You'll never amount to anything! You're a weakling!" They just insult you. He came from that background.

Shirley MacLaine had worked with Ross in The Turning Point. She must have been braced for it.

He didn't dare give her a hard time. Shirley doesn't take anything from anybody.

Have you see The Dead Zone again recently? It feels strangely current again.

David was a brilliant director – he called himself a garage or a basement filmmaker – but, no, I've haven't. I don't make a habit of watching [my movies], although I have seen A River Runs Through It many times.

Tom-Skerritt-Dead-ZoneWith Christopher Walken as The Dead Zone's Sheriff Bannerman.

It looked like it must have been a gruelling shoot up in snowy Ontario.

There's very few films that were uncomfortable. It was comfortable because David knew what he was doing. [Christopher Walken] was easy. He's one of my favourite actors.

Do you keep any props or mementos from your movies?

I have a Nostromo shoulder patch from Alien, the original script from *M*A*S*H* and a jacket from Top Gun.

Finally, we're seeing you in A Hologram For The King. How did that come about?

It was just a couple of days work. Tom Tykwer called me up and asked me if I'd come over to Berlin to play Tom Hanks' father for a day and I said sure. Tom Hanks is just a delightful guy. I've had a few of those down the years: I played a motorcycle cop in Harold And Maude and got called up to do Up In Smoke, and they're always a pleasure to do. Everything I've done has done well financially. Maybe I'm a harbinger! (Laughs) I don't get any of the gold though...

Read the other articles from Empire's '80s Month here.