The tragic life of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis

·6-min read
Kelly McGillis in Top Gun (L) and at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (R). (Paramount/Getty Images)
Kelly McGillis in Top Gun and at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. (Getty)

She became a megastar by playing the flight instructor who falls for Tom Cruise in Top Gun. But she doesn't appear in the sequel that came out more than 30 years later, so what happened to actress Kelly McGillis?

Warning: Some may find aspects of this story distressing.

Before Top Gun

Growing up in Newport Beach, California, Kelly McGillis, now 64, didn’t really think about danger. Two years after she moved to New York to study acting at the prestigious school Juilliard, she was mugged at gunpoint but even then she considered it a Big Apple initiation rather than being afraid.

Kelly McGillis 1982 Credit: Adam Scull/PHOTOlink/MediaPunch /IPX
Kelly McGillis in 1982. (Media Punch)

But that all changed in 1982. She was at home in February when two men forced their way into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint.

Read more: Top Gun cast then and now

“I’ll never forget the way they smelled,” she told People magazine in 1988. “Like alcohol and old sweat…While one watched, the taller one got on top of me and held the knife at my right eye…Then the other one got on top of me. They kept switching and telling me they were going to beat me until I was dead.”

Luckily, someone had heard her screams and called the police who banged on the door and caused the attackers to run away. McGillis later identified them, with the primary attacker being imprisoned for three years.

Stardom

American actors Lukas Haas, Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford on the set of Witness directed by Peter Weir. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Lukas Haas, Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford on the set of Witness directed by Peter Weir. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

All this happened before the actress won her breakout role opposite Harrison Ford in 1985 Amish thriller Witness and before she was cast as Charlie Blackwood, the teacher who trains wannabe Navy pilots in Top Gun.

But the spectre of her rape hung over everything she did. She admitted that she couldn’t use the New York subway without gagging and that without the understanding of her fellow students and teachers at Juilliard, she would have committed suicide.

Kelly McGillis rose to fame for her role in Top Gun.
Kelly McGillis rose to fame for her role in Top Gun.

She subsequently revealed that while she’d married and divorced a fellow student by the time the rape happened, she’d actually been living with a woman at the time of the assault and thought the attack had been punishment for being gay.

Read more: Tom Cruise 'came in and just fired everyone' on Top Gun: Maverick, 21 Pilots singer says

She drank excessively and as she told People: “I would put myself in demeaning relationships with men. It made me feel horrible, but it seemed to be what I deserved.”

While she took Hollywood by storm with her BAFTA-nominated performance in Witness and the global phenomenon that was Top Gun, behind-the-scenes she was struggling.

VANCOUVER, CANADA -- JUNE 1987: Actresses  Kelly McGillis (L) and Jodie Foster pose for a photo in June 1987 in Vancouver, Canada. McGillis and Foster are promoting the movie,
Kelly McGillis (L) and Jodie Foster pose for a photo in June 1987 while promoting the movie, The Accused. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

She partly took the role of the prosecutor opposite Jodie Foster in acclaimed 1988 rape drama The Accused because she thought it might help her come to terms with her past.

Another broken marriage

She married yacht salesman Fred Tillman in 1989 and together they had two now-adult daughters, but while they were in love, the cracks soon started to show.

“Deep inside I always knew it wasn’t the truth,” she told the New York Times. “I was never dishonest with Fred about my past and history, but it was a big struggle with me.”

Actress Kelly McGillis poses at the premiere of her new film,
Kelly McGillis with husband Fred Tillman in 1999. (Getty)

Just after McGillis had given birth to their second daughter, her husband was arrested for soliciting sex from a prostitute who turned out to be an undercover policewoman.

By this time, the couple had moved to Key West in Florida and opened up a bar, called Kelly’s, where she met bartender Melanie Leis. They hit it off, but together they became self-destructive.

“We were partners in crime and were both drinking and abusing drugs,” said Leis, who is openly gay.

They got sober, McGillis divorced Tillman in 2002 and the actress dropped out of Hollywood to raise her girls as a single mother alongside Leis in rural Pennsylvania.

Eventually, the couple moved to New Jersey, where the actress took a job as a counsellor, working with alcoholics and drug addicts at a nearby rehab facility. She also became a volunteer prison visitor.

Comeback

Kellita Smith and Kelly McGillis in
Kellita Smith and Kelly McGillis Z Nation in 2016. (Business Wire)

It wasn’t until 2008 that McGillis came back onto the entertainment world’s radar, taking a role in lesbian TV drama The L Word. A year later, she officially came out in an interview with SheWired.com.

“I’m done with the man thing,” she said, explaining that with her children grown up, she didn’t feel the need to pretend anymore. “Life is a journey and it’s about growing and changing and coming to terms with who and what you are and loving who and what you are.”

She appeared in indie vampire movie Stake Land and in cult horror The Innkeepers an in 2010 finally joined Leis in a civil union, celebrating their reception in a 1950s diner.

Today

Kelly McGillis in 2016. (Getty)
Kelly McGillis in 2016. (Getty)

The couple broke up in 2011, but McGillis, now a grandmother, is embracing her past as a performer – up to a point.

In 2016 she was attacked in her own home in North Carolina by a complete stranger. The woman was later convicted of misdemeanour breaking and entering.

Soon after the attack McGillis said she had acquired a concealed gun carry permit.

She has also discussed why she wasn't in Top Gun 2 saying she thinks she's been turned down for starring roles recently because she refuses to have plastic surgery or dye her now-grey hair back to blonde.

LOS ANGELES - MAY 16: The movie
Tom Cruise as Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell and Kelly McGillis as Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood in Top Gun. (CBS via Getty Images)

She told Entertainment Tonight: “For a long, long time, I really tried to be something I’m not — and I have to say it ruined my life in a lot of ways.”

But Top Gun director Joseph Kosinski has denied this and said he wanted to take the film in a different direction with different characters.

"I'm old, and I'm fat," she said. "And I look age-appropriate for what my age is. And that is not what that whole scene is about.

"I'd much rather feel absolutely secure in my skin and my age than place any value in all that other stuff."

Top Gun: Maverick is in IMAX and cinemas now.

Watch: Top Gun 2 director addresses Kelly McGillis' absence

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting