Tony Scott, director of ‘Top Gun,’ ‘Days of Thunder’ and other films, dead at 68 in apparent suicide

August 20, 2012

Tony Scott, the British-born producer and director of exuberant, technically polished and immensely profitable action films such as “Top Gun” and “Days of Thunder” and thrillers such as “Crimson Tide” and “Unstoppable,” died Aug. 19 after jumping from a bridge near Los Angeles in an apparent suicide.

A Los Angeles County coroner official told the Associated Press that Mr. Scott leapt from the Vincent Thomas Bridge spanning San Pedro and Terminal Island in Los Angeles Harbor and that he left notes for his family in his car. The death is being investigated as a suicide.

The 68-year-old Scott once called himself a “hired gun” for Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producing team known for testosterone-laden action movies, as well as other producers.

Mr. Scott didn’t pretend he was Orson Welles or Martin Scorsese, artists who have elevated the craft of moviemaking. Nor did he aim for the slightly more philosophical approach to crowd-pleasing fare practiced by his older brother, director Ridley Scott, on films such as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Gladiator.”

“Ridley makes films for posterity,” Mr. Scott quipped in 2005. “His films will be around for a long time. I think my films are more rock ‘n’ roll.”

As a young man out of art school, Mr. Scott collaborated with his brother to build a commercial advertising business. They gained major corporate accounts by injecting action-movie panache to the traditional pitchmanship of commercial advertising on European television. That brought the Scott brothers to Hollywood’s attention — part of a wave of other British TV commercial veterans such as Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker.

As a director, Mr. Scott made his feature movie debut with “The Hunger” (1983), a vampire drama starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. Critics gave it two fangs down, and Mr. Scott considered his maiden effort “arty and indulgent.”

Simpson and Bruckheimer, who were impressed by Mr. Scott’s TV advertising portfolio, hired him for “Top Gun” (1986), which helped solidify Tom Cruise’s screen persona as the coolest and cockiest man in the known universe.

It was sleek escapism at its best: the film’s hook-laden rock soundtrack, the virtuoso aerial sequences, the screenplay that trafficked in stereotypes (the maverick, the rival, the doomed), and the attractive leading stars (Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer).

“Top Gun” was, of course, ludicrous: Kelly McGillis as an astrophysicist discussing “negative G pushovers” with a group of Navy aviators? And the dogfights were fairly low-stakes, mostly training exercises masquerading as Navy recruiting fodder. But critics who usually salivated at the thought of puncturing overbaked blockbusters were for the most part disarmed by the exhilarating somersaults of F-14 Tomcats.

(The film also inspired a terrific satire, “Hot Shots,” a compliment to how pervasive and enduring “Top Gun” was with audiences.)

The commercial success of “Top Gun” — it reportedly grossed $176 million domestically — led Simpson and Bruckheimer to hire Mr. Scott for “Beverly Hills Cop 2” (1987) with Eddie Murphy and “Days of Thunder” (1990) with Cruise as a hotshot rookie on the stock-car circuit.

The formula was, by this time, literally on cruise control: the relentless track noise, the dropping of racetrack lingo (“magnaflux”) and the decorative beauty (Nicole Kidman) who tries to tame the brooding rebel. The film, while drawing excruciating reviews, reportedly grossed $165 million worldwide.

“I went back and I stole from all race movies to date,” Mr. Scott told the AP at the time. “I took the better elements, then tried to build on them. Really, the speed, the energy and the placement of the audience inside some of the cars came in the editing room.”

Mr. Scott reteamed with Simpson and Bruckheimer on “Crimson Tide” (1995), a drama on a nuclear submarine starring Gene Hackman as the tough commander and Denzel Washington as the deputy who challenges his authority.

For film students who measure a movie’s artistic value by an intelligent script, persuasive acting and complete immersion into whatever world is being presented, watching a Tony Scott film may have seemed just another high-tech assault at the multiplex.

The film scholar David Thomson picked on Mr. Scott’s “flashy implausibility” and said he had “the visual sensitivity of a maker of commercials, and an attitude to material and narrative that is absurd without ever taking off into the fanciful.”

Reviewing “Top Gun,” critic Pauline Kael was repulsed. “Selling is what they think moviemaking is about,” she wrote of the filmmakers. “The result is a new ‘art form’: the self-referential commercial.”

Critic Roger Ebert explained the appeal of a Tony Scott film in his review of “True Romance” (1993) starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette and based on a script by Quentin Tarantino. The plot involved a comic-book store employee, a hooker, a cocaine stash and a long pursuit by law enforcement, pimps and gangsters.

The film, Ebert wrote, “feels at times like a fire sale down at the cliche factory, is made with such energy, such high spirits, such an enchanting goofiness, that it’s impossible to resist. Check your brains at the door.”

Anthony David Scott was born July 21, 1944, in northeastern England and was the youngest of three sons of a career British military officer. (His oldest brother, Frank, died in 1980.) He attended art schools with the intention of becoming a painter and received a master of fine arts degree in 1972 from the Royal College of Art in London.

His later work included the thrillers “The Fan” (1996) with Robert De Niro, “Enemy of the State” (1998) with Will Smith and Hackman, “Spy Game” (2001) with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, and “Man on Fire” (2004), “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” (2009) and “Unstoppable” (2010), all with Washington. In recent years, Mr. Scott was an executive producer of “The Good Wife,” a CBS-TV drama.

Mr. Scott, who said he was drawn to scripts featuring “people who live in danger or in dark places,” developed an off-camera reputation as a daredevil fond of fast cars and scaling mountain faces.

“The most frightening thing I do in my life is getting up and shooting movies,” he told the publication Cinema Blend in 2009. “Commercials, movies, every morning I’m bolt upright on one hour two hours sleep, before the alarm clock goes off. That’s a good thing. That fear motivates me, and I enjoy that fear. I’m perverse in that way.”

Tony Scott’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1994, he married actress Donna Wilson. Besides his wife and brother, Ridley, survivors include twin sons from his third marriage.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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