top gun

Top Gun’s Rick Rossovich on That Volleyball Scene, Bonding with Val Kilmer, and Inspiring Kronk

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Rick Rossovich never became the huge star many thought he might, but you could say that he has had an outsized effect on pop culture. For starters, he played key roles in some of the most memorable films of the 1980s. The first, of course, is Top Gun — celebrating its 35th anniversary this week — in which Rossovich played Slider, inseparable partner of Val Kilmer’s Iceman and critical member of the quartet of actors participating in the film’s infamous volleyball scene. One year later, he appeared in the hit modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac adaptation Roxanne, playing the handsome but dim fireman who romances Daryl Hannah while secretly using Steve Martin’s beautiful words. You may also remember Rossovich for being very memorably killed in the first Terminator film (“Don’t make me bust you up, man!”), or for his turn as an ineffectual cop in Walter Hill’s gonzo biker-musical extravaganza Streets of Fire, or for his bigger role in the slightly less reputable cult film Navy SEALS, opposite Charlie Sheen and Bill Paxton. The actor would also go on to major parts in E.R. and Pacific Blue. “I was like King Midas in reverse,” he jokes. “I worked from the studio system in A movies all the way down to cable television by the end of it.”

To celebrate Top Gun’s anniversary and its rerelease, Vulture spoke with Rossovich, who was calling in from Sweden (more on that later), to talk about the film’s enduring appeal, his fondness for weightlifting, the problem of typecasting, and the role he unwittingly played in the creation of Kronk in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove.

When you were making Top Gun, did you have any sense that the film would become so huge?
Well, I had made a movie with Tom before, called Losin’ It, which was a teenage comedy romp directed by Curtis Hanson. It was Tom’s least-successful film. But he hit paydirt with Risky Business, and now he was being launched. I knew where he was going. So that gave me a little glimmer of hope that Top Gun could at least be successful. But who can predict something like that — that it would go out and sell 48 million tickets in six months and keep adding theaters for six months. I mean, the biggest movie in the world in 1986. There were other phenomenal movies made that year as well. But who could ever think something like that might happen in your career? Thirty-five years later, it’s still on people’s minds, still being released. People still use the taglines.

Tony Scott, the director, went on to have a great career in action. But at the time, he had just made The Hunger, which was an arty queer vampire movie. Top Gun seemed at first to be a departure for him.
He was well-known for making commercials, too. He had a visual shorthand that was instantly recognizable. You could see where that was going to go. Working with him on the set day to day, he was just a master. He really knew what he wanted. It was like he was painting the film. I mean, he had a great cinematographer, Jeffrey Kimball, and the producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, gave him everything he needed. He was so enthusiastic every day. Movies can really grind you down and spit you out, so that by the end of the movie sometimes you’re hating everybody, you’re hating yourself. But this thing, it just had lifeblood pumping through it the entire time. He’s the guy that should really be awarded for what we have still 35 years later.

I was a kid when Top Gun came out and I remember it being a huge hit. Some criticized it for being too jingoistic, but it also seemed to appeal beyond the typical action-movie demographic. I mean, let’s face it, what’s kept it going in the popular imagination is stuff like the sight of you guys on the beach with your shirts off. The volleyball scene is so iconic. And among those four guys, you are probably the most stacked.
I love the way you phrased that. [Laughs] Yeah, here’s the deal: I knew that was coming. And I had been a bodybuilder in my late teens, early 20s in college. Arnold Schwarzenegger was my idol from Pumping Iron, and I got to make Terminator with him and a couple other projects down the road. I was always angling to use my physique as one of my assets in characterization. I’d done a movie for Paramount called Lords of Discipline two years before, based on a Pat Conroy novel about the Citadel Military Academy, where I had to gain over 30 pounds to play another character. So I knew [the volleyball scene] was coming. I knew I’d have my day. [Anthony] Edwards, he had his corner. Tom, of course, is completely competitive: He works out like a maniac. And Val wanted to catch up, and he almost caught up — but not quite. I’m really thankful that we had that half a day of shooting in the sand there. I could kick sand in everyone’s face. It was a lot of fun.

By today’s standards, you guys would probably be considered skinny. I feel like today’s action stars are ripped in a different way than you guys were. They’re much bulkier, and every single muscle seems defined. It looks fake, frankly.
Yeah. It’s so weird to me, almost; it’s alien. Back when I started, in the late ’70s, people who were gym rats and working out and doing this and that — there was spacing. And within five or six years, by the mid-’80s, everybody was working out in a gym. And then it just took off and became something totally different. It’s odd the way the media and the film industry and television have promoted it.

Your character, Slider, and Val Kilmer’s Iceman are inseparable in the movie. Did you do anything to foster that energy? 
Val and I were closer than close. He’s my son’s godfather. We were brothers in arms, and I really wanted to create that relationship of the wing man. You can see all those subtle things in the movie: If you just watch me, see how I stand around him, how I walk around him. We had a lot of competition because there was a lot of testosterone flowing around. Also, we didn’t work every day. Tom really carried the movie. He was front and center all the time, but we had some time off. We had to fill the time and we developed a lot of the subtext and a lot of the relationships. Of course, there was competition among the actors, but like in real life, there’s a camaraderie that goes beyond the competition. But Slider and Iceman, they were the Top Gun pilots at the end of the day. I just want to make sure that’s clear. Maverick is shooting down all those MiGs at the end, but we actually won the trophy! [Laughs]

Photo: Paramount Pictures

After this, you do Roxanne, with Steve Martin, which became another classic.
Steve Martin, what a genius. Cyrano de Bergerac, to be able to get into a story like that, to have a literary classic to delve into every day and shape our sensibility … I’m so thankful to get a role like that. I worked for 25, 30 years almost, and I did a lot of work on television, too — and a lot of crappy movies, frankly. Every actor has his résumé littered with those, but when you get a few like that, like Roxanne or Top Gun, ER, on television, things like that, you can say, “Well, at least I rang the bell a couple times.”

Do you feel you were getting a bit typecast in himbo parts at the time, though?
Yeah. Well, I started out playing a lot of cops. Walter Hill let me take a stab at being a sniveling cop in Streets of Fire — I played the wussy, wishy cop next to Richard Lawson. I did try to do different things. I mean, I played a devil worshipper in a thing called The Witching Hour. I did a crazy movie called Paint It Black, directed by Tim Hunter, where I played an artist who was pulled into a Strangers on a Train situation. I’ve done a lot of different things, but I think people might associate me with what you’re saying, because some of those roles put a stamp on you.

Did you know that you were the inspiration for Kronk in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove?
Um, no. That’s … completely new information.

One of the story artists for that movie, Chris Williams, told me he had you and your character from Roxanne in mind when he first came up with the character that became Kronk. Are you familiar with Kronk?
Just peripherally. But that’s so interesting. [Laughs] When I hear things like that, it really goes right to my heart, to know that people out there took notice and took another step for me. That’s wonderful. Thank you.

Of all the films that you’ve done, what would you say was your most memorable experience?
Probably The Lords of Discipline. I was 23. I really fought tooth and nail to get that role at Paramount. I went in and met Franc Roddam, the director. I hadn’t done anything. I had done that little movie with Tom Cruise, Losin’ It, where I played a Marine who kept coming across their path and causing trouble. It wasn’t a big, splashy role. But this role in The Lords of Discipline, Pignetti, was really the role of the movie, in my opinion. For me to get that and then to go off to London and shoot it, to have that experience, to get away from America, away from my life, to be immersed in the film set, a period piece, a big studio film. To be that young and to get that chance, that shot — even though the movie wasn’t as successful as I had hoped, it helped get me into Top Gun. I was on their radar and Tony Scott knew Franc Roddam. They were buddies as kids. But I had such fun on Lords of Discipline. I just ruled the set. I gained 30 pounds and nobody could stop me! I was psyched. I was called “The Pig.” We’d be eating and having dinner together and I would just grab food off of people’s plates, and I couldn’t be stopped. I walked around in flip-flops and camouflage pants and the leather military vest with no shirt. Talk about being stacked! That’s the most memorable experience of my acting life. And it came early. I always say, I worked from the studio system in A-movies all the way down to cable television by the end of it. I was like King Midas in reverse.

But you know what? I’ve had a great career. I left the industry on my own terms. I’m talking to you from Sweden. I have a beautiful wife of 38 years who’s a Swede and two children whom I’ve raised as Swedes. I’ve been coming here every year since we got married. I haven’t missed a summer in 26 years, and only three in 38 years. That was always a priority. It’s one of the reasons my career narrowed, because I wouldn’t take any work for summers, and eventually I just wanted to stay in my garden. So, I retired about 10 years ago. We have a studio here in Stockholm, and I made a trip from our lake house into the big city. We’re waiting to come out of the pandemic like everyone else. We’ve been here since June of last year. Usually, I only spend summers here, but this year we stayed for the whole winter for the first time in six years. And here I am today, talking about Top Gun, 35 years later.

Top Gun’s Rick Rossovich on That Iconic Volleyball Scene