The Forgotten Star of Top Gun

Kelly McGillis chose parenthood over stardom

David Paul Kirkpatrick
4 min readMay 24, 2022

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Kelly McGillis was much too tall for Tom Cruise. She was 5'11". He was 5'7". Besides, she was 27 and he was 24 and the difference was palpable. After I saw them together for a “chemistry meeting” on the Paramount lot, I walked away conclusively uttering, “She looks like his mother.”

Top Gun was a Paramount production in 1984, long before Tom Holland at 5’8 and Zendaya at 5’10” walked blithely down the red carpet for Spiderman No Way Home, breaking “stupid’ (according to Tom Holland) stereotypes of height between guys and gals.

It was fine when Kelly McGillis starred opposite Harrison Ford in Witness (her first movie for Paramount) but Harrison was 6’1”.

Demi Moore was in rehab and the insurance company deemed her (at that time) “uninsurable”. Later, Cruise and Moore were magnetic in the 1992 production of A Few Good Men.

In the old days at Paramount, we made three picture deals with unestablished actors. We guaranteed the first picture but had options for them for two more. If they became a star off a Paramount movie, we had the advantage of two more negotiated deals at a fair price (at least from the studio’s perspective). It was standard practice for Paramount and that’s how it started with Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours and Kelly McGillis in Witness.

We did 10 successful movies back-to-back pictures with Eddie. But during that tenure, Eddie’s fees went from $75k to 10 million plus significant participations in the profit. As a Paramount executive, I oversaw Eddie’s deal as well as Kelly’s deal. Over a period of four years, we made our three pictures with Kelly — Witness, Top Gun, and The Accused. Over her term, her fees went from $125K to $500K.

I was the executive on Top Gun but the producers, Tom Cruise , the director Tony Scott and the head of the studio, Ned Tanen would not consider screen testing Kelly and Tom to see how they “played” on screen. The screen carried its own mysteries. If the fiction of them as a couple worked on screen, that was the “truth”. Nothing else mattered.

Witness opened the Cannes Film Festival in 1985 to a 7-minute standing ovation and Kelly McGillis became a “star”. But Kelly was her own woman…

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David Paul Kirkpatrick

Founder of Story Summit & MIT Center for Future Storytelling, Pres of Paramount Film Group, Production Chief of Disney Studios, optimist, author and teacher.