Can you imagine anyone else in the role of the flinty flyboy Tom “Iceman” Kazansky? If Val Kilmer had had his way back in 1985, it would have been anyone but him. Although he was a young, hungry actor with just a couple of feature film credits, he had tried hard to stay out of Top Gun.
“I didn’t want the part. I didn’t care about the film. The story didn’t interest me,” Kilmer wrote in his 2020 memoir, I’m Your Huckleberry. “My agent, who also represented Tom Cruise, basically tortured me into at least meeting [director] Tony Scott.” Kilmer agreed to go, but did his best to blow his chances. At the audition, he writes, “I showed up looking the fool. . . . I read the lines indifferently.” Yet after he landed the part, he found that he loved playing Iceman, the hot shot rival pilot to Cruise’s Maverick.
“My main joy was the camaraderie of the cast, [producers] Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, along with the incredible, unflappable enthusiasm of Tony Scott and Tom Cruise,” Kilmer tells PEOPLE in a new Top Gun special edition. He was 26 at the time and made fast friends with his co-stars. “My crew was Rick Rossovich [who played “Slider”], the funniest strong man in show business back then, and Barry Tubb [“Wolfman”]… Oh, we all laughed till we fell down the hot, spiked crabgrass at the Holiday Inn in San Diego.”
As for his off-screen relationship with Cruise, “I am happy to announce we have home movies to prove how much fun we had!” says Kilmer, who used personal camcorder footage from his early career in a 2021 documentary, Val. But if Cruise, then 23, wasn’t hanging out as much with the others it was, Kilmer recalls, because “he was in virtually every scene and when he wasn’t rehearsing he was practicing flying or volleyball or singing or riding his motorcycle or a dozen other details like how you salute.”
Despite his skepticism about signing on, Kilmer was wowed by the finished film, which launched him to a new level of fame. Some three decades later, when he heard about a potential Top Gun sequel, it was now the once-reluctant actor who lobbied to bring back Iceman. His successful pitch made him the only cast member besides Cruise to reprise his role in Top Gun: Maverick.
“The rivalry between Iceman and Maverick was such a memorable part of the first movie,” says the sequel’s director, Joseph Kosinski. “I’m glad we’ll be able to show the evolution of that relationship.” And Cruise was thrilled to have Kilmer return. “I’ve always admired his work, his talent,” Cruise tells PEOPLE, adding, “We get together. . . we just start laughing. It was special to have him back. It meant a lot to me.”
Filmed after Kilmer recovered from throat cancer, his affecting performance may be among this year’s most talked-about. For the actor, becoming Iceman once again was “like being reunited with a long lost friend.” Even after more than 30 years, he says, “the characters never really go away. They live on in deep freeze. If you’ll pardon the pun.”
For more, pick up PEOPLE’s new TOP GUN special edition, available now wherever magazines are sold.