You may know Tom Skerritt for his iconic roles (Viper in Top Gun, anyone?) or his tell-tale mustache. But did you know he is an Air Force veteran? WATM had the opportunity to sit down with this Hollywood legend to learn more about his childhood, his work ethic and his time in service. Here are 10 questions with the unbeatable Tom Skerritt:
- Can you share about your family and your life growing up?
My parents suffered through the Depression and lost quite a bit through it. I was born toward the end of the Depression and we had hard times and lived in Detroit. Detroit was a depression ridden city; I didn’t know the differences as a kid. I thought it was how life is. My school had creative programs where we were in public schools growing up. We had dance, shop, painting and similar programs. One Saturday morning a month, a school bus would take us to creative venues and I remember getting off the bus in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The first thing I see is Rodin’s The Thinker in front of the museum. I was about 7 or 8 years old then and am thinking, “naked guy, sitting on the toilet without the sports section.” We go into the museum and see a bronze plaque with a Shakespeare phrase, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It stands as a distinct memory because the teacher had us write these things down, so it sticks with me. I then remember seeing a painting at the museum by Diego Rivera that was just so powerful. I had not seen anything like that so full of opinion, feeling, talent and genius.
The next time was a Saturday morning where they took us to a rehearsal for a concert to be done that night. We were setting in the hall and out comes this guest conductor. He was Arturo Toscanini, who was a great conductor of the 20th century. He was very old and physically in bad shape. He was dressed in white and his hair was shooting off in every direction like Albert Einstein. He looked like a white angel. He raised the baton and physically he became thirty years old. He straightened out and came alive like a ballerina conducting this orchestra. The sound of it was unbelievable and he was yelling at them in Italian throughout the rehearsal. These two moments compelled me by knowing there was another world out there beyond the common neighborhood I grew up in. It stayed with me — to know there is something more to this life than the Depression.
- What made you want to join the Air Force and what was your experience like?
My father instructed me to get a trade after high school and nothing really registered to me, so I enlisted in the Air Force. I knew I needed direction and discipline. I needed something to accept as progress. I thought I could learn to fly… what did I know at 17? My older brother was a P-51 Mustang pilot in WWII so there was a dream there to do something bigger. I was very proud of my older brother where he was more like a father than my father could be. The Air Force gave me a purpose. I learned so much about the country by just being in the Air Force. It is a wonderful frame of reference that informs my intelligence and how I look at life.
The Air Force was about me taking in where I was. My duty station was the Bergstrom Air Force Base, which is now closed. I got a lot out of living close to Austin, Texas. They offered me a promotion if I re-enlisted where I decided I needed an education and should use the GI Bill. The military made me feel like I needed to have that college education. I didn’t get to fly, but I sure tried. I didn’t know the math or anything towards flying. I didn’t have a frame of reference of what was required to be a pilot.
After service for four years in the Air Force I used the GI Bill to go to UCLA. At that time UCLA was affordable where it was about $150 a year to study there. The GI Bill basically helped me pay the rent. I could go over to the West LA VA center for anything else I needed. LA in the 1960’s was laid back, easy and was nice then. I look back at LA with a great favor and what it gave me from going to school, learning to write, act and direct and the career I have. It makes me so damn appreciative of all it. The military was good for me and hope I was good for it.
I went to the university and studied English. The previous experiences with creative endeavors pushed more towards doing something creative. My other older brother used to play music for me as well when we were growing up, especially when our parents were out. My brother introduced me to classical music and jazz like Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday. The exuberance my brother exhibited when listening to the music and speaking of it left an indelible impression on me. I saw Citizen Kane growing up and was so impressed with it I decided I am going to write and direct that movie. I set the bar high.
I thought of having to understand writing and how it is to be an actor. So, I decided to take courses in acting and it would help me get through my shy phase. I was doing some local theater outside of UCLA to work with professional actors. Everything was about the challenge and going after it. After I got hired on a small film, I came out wanting to know how it was all put together, the sets, the actors and the writing. During this time, two people I became friends with were Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack.
I found the quotes on leadership by John Wooden, a UCLA coach and professor at the time, to be so life giving, especially with how he influenced the players. He gave his guys a way of looking at things that they wouldn’t consider as athletes. I think the small things that your brain picks up across life sticks with you, which he taught the players. Wooden had a great philosophy approach to doing what you got to do. Whether it was passing a ball to another player where you just pass the damn thing or bigger in life. Wooden would instruct in such a way that was a lot more than just passing a ball.
While at UCLA, I became friends with a neighbor who was a TV director where he hired me to do a couple acting jobs and TV work. I was mentored by him in film making, editing them and how he looked at the business. One day he calls up and says, ‘I have a movie to direct’. That movie turned out to be M*A*S*H and the director was Robert Altman. The studio initially hated the film where they weren’t going to release it. Altman got the critics to review it and they went berserk. Mentorship was a day to day thing from those in the industry where it was very important to me and my career.
When I had completed M*A*S*H, an up and coming director named Hal Ashby connected with me. I started mentoring with him for about three years, so I was being mentored by Ashby and Altman at the same time. These guys invited me to see their work and wanted to be friends. I was then hired to do movies in Italy for over four years.
- What are you most proud of from your service in the USAF?
My service in the Air Force… I was a classification specialist at Bergstrom. If there was a motor vehicle airman in some air base in Italy, I would have to select them to be sent to Korea or wherever off the base. It was not what I wanted to have, but it was okay.
- What values have you carried over from the Air Force back into the civilian world?
Focus and discipline with a better sense of who I was.
- What was one of the toughest lessons to learn coming from the service to Hollywood?
I don’t have one other than a lesson from childhood — an old man told us young kids to “just keep moving.” Every day I am writing, and people ask me why I work so hard. I am busy working on Triple Squirrels where we are collecting a lot of documentaries that have been on shelves for years. All of this stuff is still related to film. We are covering artists doing unique things in the Pacific North West from great fishing rivers from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean or some guy who claims he saw the sasquatch which is a legendary character in the forest. The man filmed it and it looks like a moose and not the sasquatch where the man was so serious about the event. Five guys up in Bellingham all had that common purpose, let’s put a motorcycle together that can break the land speed record. Unfortunately, the motor blew out on the motorcycle while running it at the salt flats before it could break the record.
It is all wonderful, entertaining stuff such as glass workers like Dale Chihuly, one of the great glass artists in the world lives up here. It’s guys doing imaginative stuff. I keep going back to that and the imagination is such a gift to us human beings and sets us apart from all the other animals. It makes us curious and gives us the highs and lows that we have emotionally. It gives us the questions we have where it is all driven by our imaginative experience. The Air Force is the same thing with imagining to fly and being able to fly. I had a little bit of that experience in Top Gun, which made me feel like I was the real thing.
All of these things of being an actor and writer and director where I look back on all of it and say, “Holy shit man, did you really cover some territory where you have some advantages that you could employ to give to other people?” There is one thing from the service such as having the back of the other person and you are looking out for them. That was one of the big things I loved about the military. In the military, you have the training to be aware of other people for their benefit and your own. Not always the same in the civilian world
- What are your most favorite projects to have worked on?
I was fortunate to have worked with Ashby, Altman and then into The Turning Point which starred Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. All of these extraordinary people that I worked with where how could I pick out one favorite from M*A*S*H to Alien with Ridley Scott? Alton, Ashby and Ridley Scott were new when I worked with them. I met Tony Scott on the set of Alien, which led me to being involved in Top Gun. Being in films with just wonderful people from craft and how they approached life itself and how they applied it to the work they did. M*A*S*H was the best time I ever had in anything where I knew we had something and no one else did except, Altman and I. I just knew he was going to do something remarkable with all of the shooting he was doing. Alien was done about seven to eight years after M*A*S*H where those two films are in the top twenty-five films of the 20th century. So, I wanted to work to the level of Citizen Kane…*Tom laughs.
My getting close to Citizen Kane is being in two of the top films of the 20th century and then Top Gun and A River Runs Through It. All quite different with different approaches as an actor to each one of them. Doing interesting real people in every one of them where you had to make it real. It is hard to pick one out.
You bring all your past experiences into the roles you do in the future. My whole sense about life itself its how much of the good and not so good that you ingest and reject. All of it is there. This goes back to the Shakespeare quote from earlier, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The creative process I began and later on understood what that meant. You have to have thinking processes based on what your imagination has to draw upon. I understand this through writing and looking back. I understand that everything leads to the next day, everything I got from life, the military, which has given me this discipline to write every day, it has given me a sense that words have value. That is not something you are conscious of, it is just who you are and part of who you are.
For me having been in a situation to the military and bringing it to a role, you’re damn right it is still with me. I appreciate it and still do. I still have my gig line and can remember my serial number 16401805! Why would I remember these things if they didn’t have something meaningful for me? You know about your posture as well from the military.
Doing “Picket Fences” in the 90s for four years and getting sixteen Emmys over four years for best show, actor, writer and that sort of stuff. To be in that environment, especially high end, you get spoiled in it and I admit that. It is an unusual career for a person that wants to be a writer and director. I did some directing on David E. Kelly’s TV shows such as “Picket Fences” and “Big Little Lies”. Kelley was another mentor of mine which he makes about the best TV can get.
What I am trying to give people through Triple Squirrels is the enjoyment of their own imagination. I ought to try and fish, or try to mess around with some glass, or get some scrap metal and make a motorcycle. You feel better about yourself when you feel there is something you might be able to do that makes you feel good. Life is largely a stew with salt, pepper and onions where you come up with this extraordinary stew of life.
I am trying to share a lot about life where I have been working with young filmmakers to get in touch with themselves. They want to make a movie like someone else where you make your own movie based on who you are and what comes out of that.
- Can you share about some of your experiences working on “Gunsmoke”, “The FBI”, “Bonanza”, “The Virginian”, “Combat!”, “12 O’Clock High”, “Pickett Fences” and then on M*A*S*H, Alien, The Dead Zone, Top Gun, A River Runs Through It, Tears of the Sun and the like?
A great sense of gratitude and appreciation and good fortune to be able to do all of that. I don’t think many people in the business I am in have not had that overreaching of two or three decades of extraordinary projects. Stage acting is quite different than TV and motion pictures. Each one has a different approach to it. TV is always geared for twelve-minute segments before going to commercial. You have an unreal behavioral pattern in TV more so than film or stage or real life. In TV you have to get the answers real quick, respond real quick and draw that gun and shoot a guy. In film you want to resolve the issue more without the shooting. Let’s get down to see what we really want to work out here. On stage it becomes never getting around to shoot each other it is about getting to understand each other. Your honest engagement of that story in resolving our difference of opinion in theater, film is different and in TV you are working towards a commercial. TV lacks the grace of film and the courage stage has.
For Top Gun I read the script where I didn’t know who the director was at the time. I thought it was really solid and then heard that Tony Scott was going to direct it. I heard about the film like having heard about Ridley doing Alien. I read the Alien script and thought it was solid where they had only been to me, so Ridley was not attached to it that early on. Top Gun was already going to be done with the budget and good producers. I knew nothing else and then found out Tony was going to direct. It came together and then met Tom Cruise in the office to meet with Tony and with the producers. Tom was out in the waiting area with me. I had seen Tom act in Risky Business and thought he was a good young actor. I said to him, “you are a pretty good actor, where did you come up with that juice?” Tom responded, “By watching guys like you, Sir.” I thought, “Wow, a young gentleman that appreciated his opportunity in Top Gun.” He was not egomaniacal the way some actors can be in the movie business where it is all about me. For me I am always learning so I never felt that way where Top Gun is that type of thing where Tony is teaching me as well.
I get it from Ridley on Alien and then from Tony where they were both similar. They were both soccer players and believe in getting into rhythms as athletes and musicians do. All of these rhythms come into what we do. I felt very strong about Tony and for one of the few times really pushed to get into the film. Some of the producers felt I was too lethargic or casual and not military enough. I had been in the military so I could pull that one off going back with the gig line on and pack into that presence you had when you were in the service.
Once I got the role, I met the actual Top Gun commander. I used him as he was a thoughtful guy. I think the producers wanted someone who would be barking at the guys and getting on them all the time. I didn’t think the officer had to be someone shouting at other people. You just look them in the eye and say, “Why would do such a dumb thing as that? What accounts for that behavior you pulled off out there because you didn’t pull it off that’s why you are in this office right now?”
The reality of our life informs us in how we perform and that’s really all I could do in getting that role. To work with Tony, that script and then Tom Cruise pulled it all together. I was very sure about that film being very successful before I got into it. The instincts come back to me from going back into the Air Force where they never leave you. It becomes all things if you are conscious of them or not. They do lead our behavior patterns and how we pursue our life we have to live. I am delighted to have the life I have even with all of the not so good.
- What leadership lessons in life and from the USAF have helped you most in your career?
Self worth and the will to do more. I don’t feel all that I need to do and all that I can do. There is a lot to learn still. When you have that in your life it is a big purpose.
When I started hearing about veterans coming home from the Middle East with severe PTSD during the 2000s, I felt responsibility for them. I was not in a position to do it for them when it pulled on me. I was able to level out through setting up a writing program for them. In some way this is all a gift where you just fully appreciate the best you can give. We, through the Red Badge Program, took veterans down to Ft. Lewis-McChord AFB to teach those guys coming back how to utilize PTSD experience in terms of telling a story. Usually the bad stuff of what happened took place when under extreme stress. We had teachers come in to teach them how to tell their story and the best way they possibly can. It has to do with these dealing with their own feelings and being able to express that.
The best way for me to relate to veterans is from some of my own PTS experiences. During the 60s and 70s as a young father and husband I had to deal with some intense family issues, many times dealing with the safety of my children. I was on 24/7 surveillance and did not always know when and who to trust. It was a tough time for me personally, but a good time for me professionally where acting was this cathartic release for me. Things did get better for me and my family thankfully.
We had musicians come in to play music for them so they could write lyrics to the music. The veterans came out of their feeling so much better about themselves. I had veterans come up to me and tell me, “I was ready to do myself in. You saved my life.” We had it for about seven or eight years where it was a hot news item with so many veterans committing suicide. We had to teach the veterans off base at the University of Washington-Tacoma branch because the military was not consistent with us since we were some soft, fluffy thing. The military was keeping veterans from coming at times, which stood in the way of what we were doing. We were able to set up a community away from the military where they can feel comfortable in that environment without being evaluated. I gave the veterans my stories and they gave me theirs where we could trust each other. That’s really what they got. Most often they said, “I could trust myself; I got a trust of people and I felt like I could be true.” That sounds simple, but it’s not simple.
- How do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
The Hollywood arena has changed so much where I don’t know how it works anymore. Most of the films I was involved had a good story line. It was always about the story first. Hollywood has gotten so much into nine-digit budget films in the summer being a financial resource. Once you get to there its like saying, “I know it all.” They would make their own audience, age 17-39, from the early 90s on with every generation that came along they would replicate the same special effects, same story line just realigned to where they lost touch with the good stories they could tell. The screenplays became soft from then on and once they are soft there is nothing shocking about it. When you make films that have a lot to do with shooting and killing, some of it may be comedy, but it is the most influential of mediums, so you must be responsible. We have a responsibility to do the best we possibly can for the audience. It’s not the right approach to have aggressive, hostile and angry films like how to blow some up. Whatever it may be, and it does influence impressionable young minds. It does influence some kids in high schools killing other students. It does influence people.
The concern with studios and blockbuster ran out about six summers ago. All of those films had a sense of darkness and fear in them. We are running downhill where people are not reacting the same way they used to be scared. It is the same in so many ways that you have seen before. Once the reaction is gone you don’t return to the movies where less tickets have been sold the last six summers. Studios realized how in debt they were and always relied on big blockbusters to bring revenue back to the studios. When the revenue falls out you still have a lot of bills to pay. We are in a pit now in the lion’s den with movies. Hollywood will make some crafty films but will not be making as many as before.
- What are you most proud of in life and your career?
I don’t think that way, where I am just grateful to have done so many projects. It has been extraordinary where working in Europe and Italy for three or four years and seeing ruins of great civilizations and the Renaissance buildings. Finding that only culture can come from conflict and resolution. We are in the deepest conflict here in America right now. We should be concerned about where we are going. What am I most proud of? I don’t know how to answer that because I have had a lot of good fortune. I am proud of what I can say to you and proud to have the capabilities and the wife I have and the children that I have. I know what they have had to go through with me, and they are still with me and we have that love. I have this wonderful woman, Julia where we have been together for 25 years. I have to tell you I appreciate her beyond words in a way that I could not if I hadn’t had all of these other life experiences, I related to you. That is the first time I ever said that. I have this woman I have now. I am also proud to have been in the US military.