San Diego will always be America’s Finest Beer, Beach and Burrito City, but for a busy few months in 1985, it was also Hollywood’s Hottest Sound Stage.
That was the summer America went ballistic for Top Gun. From the hangars of the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to the locker rooms of the Mission Beach Plunge, San Diego provided many of the locations for the film that topped the U.S. box office in 1986 and transformed Tom Cruise from a charming, dentally blessed young actor to a blazing superstar.
It all started when producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance) read a magazine article about Miramar’s elite Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as Top Gun. Bruckheimer thought this school for ace pilots had the makings of a bang-up movie. He was right on target.
In exchange for allowing director Tony Scott to film at Miramar — and giving him access to pilots, aircraft carriers and a fleet of F-14 jets — the Navy was given authority to approve the script. The result was a film that made the Navy look so awesome, Top Gun was given credit for reversing its slide in recruiting high school graduates.
The movie did San Diego more than a few favors, too.
Beginning with an early June casting call for “attractive, healthy and athletic men” between the ages of 23 and 35 to play naval pilots and instructors, the summer of ’85 was all about San Diego’s moment in the spotlight. And man, did the city enjoy its close-up.
If you weren’t lucky enough to see Tom Cruise working out at Gold’s Gym in Pacific Beach, perhaps you spotted him hanging out with some pilots at the Rusty Pelican restaurant in La Jolla. Cruise made it to the Old Mission Bay Athletic Club’s annual Coming-Out Party and braved the meat market at Diego’s bar in Pacific Beach. Sizzling!
During the 10-plus weeks the Top Gun circus was in town, locals flew planes for the cameras, nabbed small speaking roles and acted as technical advisers. Downtown’s Kansas City Barbecue restaurant scored the coup of a lifetime when it became the site of the famous piano bar singalong. And two Navy men made their mark on the cinema history when they kept Cruise from drowning while he was shooting a swimming scene off the coast of Point Loma.
By the time filming wrapped up in the fall, the production had pumped about $2 million into San Diego’s economy. And when Top Gun had its West Coast premiere at the huge Mann Cinema 21 in Mission Valley on May 15, 1986, the benefit screening raised more than $20,000 for the local chapter of the USO and the Armed Forces YMCA.
Earlier this year, Cruise confirmed that a Top Gun sequel will begin shooting in 2018. Here’s hoping San Diego is on the flight plan. “Highway to the Reunion Zone” has a nice ring to it.
Top spots: Six San Diego Top Gun locations
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar: Where the flyboy action happened.
Kansas City Barbecue: Where Goose (Anthony Edwards) and the gang ignited Great Balls of Fire.
West Laurel and Union streets: Where Charlie (Kelly McGillis) chased Maverick (Tom Cruise) and caught him just in time.
Lafayette Hotel’s Mississippi Ballroom: Where Maverick serenaded Charlie with You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.
Mission Beach Plunge (scheduled to reopen in 2017 at Belmont Park): Home to the muscle-flexing locker-room scenes.
Victorian house in Oceanside (aka the Top Gun House; located on Pacific Street): The beach bungalow where Charlie lives.