In Memoriam

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

Tony Scott, the veteran Hollywood director behind the celebrated hits Top Gun, True Romance, and Crimson Tide, died Sunday after jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, Calif. Marlow Stern reflects on the British filmmaker’s legacy. Plus, Christine Pelisek on the police investigation and celebrities share their grief on Twitter.

Alexandra Wyman / Getty Images

Hollywood lost one of its great showmen Sunday afternoon, as Tony Scott, the veteran British director behind the celebrated hits Top Gun, True Romance, and Crimson Tide, reportedly jumped to his death off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, Calif., according to the Los Angeles Times. He was 68.

Los Angeles Police Department, California Highway Patrol, and Coast Guard officials recovered Scott’s body from the water. Law-enforcement officials said eyewitnesses saw Scott scale a fence on the bridge and jump off and also that a suicide note was retrieved in his office, the Times reported.

Channel 7 news also reported that onlookers saw Scott wearing his signature red pea baseball cap when he jumped. The director was usually seen sporting the cap, which he had purchased during the making of Top Gun, had become frayed due to wear and tear, and had faded from red to a pinkish hue.

Born Anthony David Scott in North Shields, England, he was the youngest of three children. His brother Ridley Scott, who is seven years his senior, would become a prolific director in his own right, helming the classics Alien and Blade Runner. The third brother was Frank, who died of cancer in 1980.

When Ridley was 23, Tony made an appearance in his older brother’s debut film, a short entitled Boy and Bicycle. Tony initially intended to be a painter, studying at Grangefield School, West Hartlepool College of Art, and the Sunderland art school before graduating from the Royal College of Art. After he saw how successful Ridley was with his TV-commercial production company, Ridley Scott Associates, Tony followed in his brother’s footsteps, directing hundreds of commercials for the company.

Tony Scott made his feature filmmaking debut with the 1983 atmospheric horror film The Hunger, starring David Bowie, which has since become a cult favorite thanks to its steamy on-screen lesbian encounter between actresses Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. The film was a critical and commercial flop, but producer Don Simpson reportedly stumbled on it while channel-surfing at 3 a.m. and, with partner Jerry Bruckheimer, hired Tony to direct their pet project, Top Gun (they were also both fans of a commercial he did for Saab showing a Saab 900 turbo racing a Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet). Top Gun became one of the highest-grossing films of 1986, taking in $176 million in North America, and launched the career of its star, Tom Cruise. In the blink of an eye, Scott also vaulted to the A-list of action-film directors.

In many ways Tony Scott helped define the modern Hollywood blockbuster, with his trademark hyperkinetic camera, dazzling set pieces, booming orchestral scores, and A-list star power.

Scott continued to direct Hollywood’s biggest stars in commercial hits, including Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop II and reuniting with Cruise in the car-racing drama Days of Thunder. But it was 1993’s True Romance, which Scott helmed from an original screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, that led both critics and audiences to take Scott seriously as a filmmaker.

Since True Romance Scott’s career had been hit (the 1998 Will Smith vehicle Enemy of the State) and miss (2005’s desaturated Domino). In recent years he’s become known for his strong working relationship with star Denzel Washington, which began with the underrated 1995 submarine drama Crimson Tide and continued with five more films, culminating in his final directorial effort, 2010’s Unstoppable.

In addition to directing a plethora of hit films, Scott shepherded many others as a producer, forming the banner Scott Free Productions with his brother Ridley. The company was responsible for producing, among other titles, the Golden Globe–winning drama RKO 281, about the making of Citizen Kane; 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt; and the critically acclaimed documentary Life in a Day, released in 2011.

And, as it happens, Mr. Scott and I have a bit of history.

By the time I had reached age 10, I was already a slave to the cinema—a true, bona fide film geek. In lieu of skateboarding, Skip-It, Myst, or any of the other myriad adolescent activities, my weekend days would be spent browsing the movies section of the local library and renting as many classic films—on videocassette, no less—as my little arms could carry. I still vividly remember the first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia (I confess having to take a break midway through to make some Bagel Bites, since it came in two VHS tapes).

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However, I still hadn’t been to an R-rated film in theaters.

All that changed on May 12, 1995. My pal Brian McCleery and I desperately wanted to see the Tony Scott film Crimson Tide on its opening day. I’m not entirely sure why. After I pleaded with my parents for hours, they finally allowed me to go with Brian and his father to see it at the Cross County Multiplex in Yonkers. Between the booming Hans Zimmer score, the eye-catching cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen dripping with sweat, and Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman spitting all over each other, I was riveted. Hackman yelling “I’m the commander of this ship!” will be forever ingrained in my memory, as will the two actors’ brilliant exchange concerning Lipizzaner Stallions, with Washington coolly stating, “Yes, sir, I’ve seen them. Yes, sir, I was aware that they’re all white. They are not from Portugal; they’re from Spain, and at birth, they’re not white; they’re black. Sir.”

Fourteen years later, it was 2009, and I was a struggling journalist blogging for a DIY website called Manhattan Movie Magazine. I didn’t really know what I was doing. Most of my pieces were brief summaries of actors’ or filmmakers’ careers followed by a Q and A, usually obtained from a roundtable interview where I’d only manage to ask a handful of questions directly. One of my most memorable “interviews” during this period was with Tony Scott.

It occurred while he was promoting his remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, starring Denzel Washington as an MTA employee and John Travolta as a bat-shit dude with a goatee who hijacks a New York City subway.

Prior to the interview, I binged on Scott’s oeuvre—including Top Gun, True Romance, and Crimson Tide. I was always fascinated by Top Gun in particular and its flagrant homoeroticism. I was determined to ask Scott about it, and about Quentin Tarantino’s Top Gun soliloquy in the 1994 film Sleep With Me, where he brilliantly explains to actor turned director Todd Field that Top Gun is “about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.” This was going to be my big roundtable question.

All the reporters—about eight of us, total—gathered in a conference room in the Sony building on 55th and Madison Avenue in New York City. And in came Tony Scott, sporting his signature weathered pink baseball cap, aviator shades, and a stogie hanging out of his mouth. Throughout the interview, he had a huge grin on his face—matching mine—and answered each and every question jovially, no matter how inane. Then it came time for me to ask my question (it was double-barreled, which I now realize is a no-no):

Mr. Scott, I was wondering if you could talk about the enduring legacy of Top Gun? Also, a lot of people have satirized the homoerotic elements of the film. Was any of that apparent while you were filming it?

He looked at me and let out a big laugh. “No, it wasn’t. Not at all. But Quentin did that little cameo in that movie Sleep With Me, and it was brilliant. He sent it to me and said, ‘Watch this, and don’t take offense!’”

I didn’t really believe him, but I was satisfied. And still, over the course of the interview, which lasted almost an hour—a rarity for a roundtable—Scott was the consummate gentleman, openly discussing his career, from his working relationship with Denzel Washington (“He’s always reached back inside himself and taken different aspects of his personality; he’s always given me a different Denzel”) to his partnership with his brother (“If Ridley and I worked together on the set, we’d kill each other ... He’s great. He’s the nuts-and-bolts up at the front, and I’m the day to day”).

When the interview ended, I was a bit crestfallen. I wanted it to continue for another few hours. He seemed in such high spirits and genuinely passionate about what he did. It was, for this fledgling writer, inspiring.

Tony Scott is survived by his brother Ridley Scott; his third wife, Donna W. Scott; and their two children.

He will be sorely missed.