My, how time flies: Celebrating the 35th anniversary of ‘Top Gun’

A scene from "Top Gun" with Val Kilmer, Rick Rossovich and Tom Cruise.
(Courtesy of Paramount)

Rick Rossovich, the actor who played Slider, shares memories of shooting ‘Top Gun’ in San Diego


If there’s a movie that defines San Diego, it has to be “Top Gun.”

(Sorry, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” may have given us the ubiquitous line “stay classy, San Diego,” but it wasn’t actually filmed here.)

Released in 1986, the blockbuster about an elite group of pilots showcased San Diego in all of its sun-kissed, seaside glory. Scenes were filmed all over the county — from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and First Street in Oceanside to West Laurel Street and, of course, Kansas City Barbeque, the city’s unofficial “Top Gun” bar.

The cast, which included Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards, even lived here during the making of it.

“We were down there in 1985, staying at the Bahia (Resort Hotel) and, you know, we just had a ball. We took San Diego by storm — and there may have been a few trips to Mexico,” said actor Rick Rossovich who played Slider (or, recognizable to fans as the shirtless, flexing volleyball player).

The actors didn’t realize it at the time, but the movie they were having so much fun making turned out to be a pop culture phenomenon, an instant classic, a feature that earned over $350 million and defined a generation.

Thanks to “Top Gun,” we have sayings like: “I feel the need ... the need for speed” and “You can be my wingman anytime.” It gave us memorable songs like “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away.”And “Top Gun” inspired many impressionable kids — specifically 1980s kids — to aspire to be fighter pilots.

Rossovich said he knew the film was special but tried to stay in the moment and keep cool about it.

“I’d been involved with movies before that I thought would hit pay dirt,” he said. “And they came up a little bit short, so you always want to temper your expectations. For ‘Top Gun,’ we were having so much fun, I did have a glimmer of hope, but you can’t think about it. You just try to do your best work.”

This year, “Top Gun” turns 35 and to celebrate, a remastered version is screening in movie theaters for a one-week engagement that kicked off on May 13, a day officially recognized as “Top Gun” Day. (For those not quite ready to celebrate in a theater, the movie is also available to purchase on Digital, 4K Ultra HD, and Blu-ray and features four hours of bonus content.)

“It’s a cultural icon,” Rossovich said. “This film — it says so much about us and has all these different dynamics. It’s a popcorn movie, if you will, because of all the action, but there’s also a lot of underlying emotion in it.”

“Top Gun,” in case you forgot, is centered around Maverick (played by Cruise), a pilot who shirks authority but, together with his radar intercept officer, Goose (Edwards), strives to be the best. Maverick’s main competition for the title of top pilot, or Top Gun, is Iceman (played by Kilmer) and his RIO, Slider (Rossovich).

Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise as Maverick in “Top Gun.”
(Paramount Pictures )

The audience is meant to root for Maverick because there’s a lot of attitude and taunting by Iceman and Slider, especially when Maverick wins competitions by cutting corners or cheating.

“You’re everyone’s problem,” Iceman tells Maverick in a memorable locker room scene. “That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.”

But Rossovich said Iceman and Slider weren’t actually so bad.

“Slider doesn’t stink,” he said, referring to a line Cruise said in the movie. “He’s a true blue wingman. Slider’s a guy who wants to be there for the team, the camaraderie. He loves the competition, but he knows everyone’s all on the same team, everyone has the same objective.”

As much as he knows about Slider, Rossovich wasn’t originally cast as Slider.

When he went to the first table read, he was playing Cougar, a pilot who resigns at the beginning of the movie after a stressful incident. To his surprise and delight, when Rossovich finished that first, initial read-through, he was asked to play Slider instead.

“Cougar’s a great role, but Slider’s a wingman,” he said. “And the wingman lasts through the whole picture, so that was a great step up for me.”

Another perk to being in the movie longer was staying in San Diego for the duration of filming. It turns out, Rossovich already knew and loved San Diego because his brother, Tim Rossovich, played for the San Diego Chargers in 1972 and 1973.

“My brother was a hippie, middle linebacker out of USC. He was an All-American national champion, a big star,” Rossovich said. “I first came out to San Diego as a 17-year-old kid to visit him, that was my first brush with the city. I loved it — I mean as a teenager, what’s not to love? It was heaven.”

Even now, 35 years later, Rossovich is still connected to San Diego.

His daughter, Isabel Rossovich, attended San Diego State University and stayed in town to work as a designer. And though he mostly lives in Sweden with his wife of 38 years, Eva Rossovich, he recently purchased land in Escondido and has grand plans for it.

“I want to develop it into a farm of the future,” he said. “I want to try and show how we can have a sustainable future for growing things.”

As for his future with the “Top Gun” franchise, that isn’t clear. So far it hasn’t been announced whether or not Rossovich is part of the upcoming sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” scheduled for release in November.

But he did say he’s excited for it, mostly because it means new fans will go back and watch the original film.

“I’m really looking forward to the new movie,” he said. “I love that a new generation is going to discover ‘Top Gun’ and that people will keep rediscovering the old movie — all roads lead back to the original.”

In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Kelly McGillis, left, and Tom Cruise
In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Kelly McGillis, left, and Tom Cruise are shown in a promotional image for the 1986 film “Top Gun.”