Hollywood’s Forgotten Star: What Happened to Kelly McGillis?

The iconic Top Gun movie catapulted Tom Cruise to stardom.

But the woman who starred as his love interest in the movie, Kelly McGillis, went down a wholly different path.

Today, it’s hard to recognize the 65-year-old actress – she’s faced a lot of age shaming over the last few years…


Kelly McGillis, circ.1987 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.)”n

When I went to see Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the classic 80s film Top Gun, I couldn’t help but think of Kelly McGillis. I knew she wouldn’t be in it, but I still hoped she might make an appearance.

Unfortunately, Kelly McGillis didn’t show up, even though Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer had a touching reunion scene. According to McGillis, she wasn’t asked to join the cast for the sequel. In 2019, when Entertainment Tonight asked if she was offered a role in Top Gun: Maverick, she responded:

“Oh my god no. They did not, nor do I think they would ever,” McGillis said.

She added, “I mean, I’m old and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about.”

Kelly McGillis sits at a desk in a scene from the film ‘Top Gun’, 1986. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

However, the 65-year-old actress didn’t seem to mind being left out of Top Gun: Maverick, which became a huge blockbuster in 2022.

“I’d much rather feel absolutely secure in my skin and who and what I am at my age, as opposed to placing a value on all that other stuff,” she said.

In the 80s, McGillis was one of the few women who could earn million-dollar fees. In Top Gun, she played Charlie Blackwood, an astrophysicist and training school instructor.

The beautiful, blonde, long-legged actress made a lasting impression as Maverick’s love interest. Her smart and stunning character became iconic.

“I don’t think anything prepared me for what it was like to become a household name,” Kelly McGillis told the LA Times.

“It was really intimidating to me. I don’t aspire to be famous. I just want to be an actress, and that movie kind of shook up my reality in a big way. I got very insecure. I didn’t know who I could trust to be my friend anymore.”

Her character, Charlie, was based on Christine Fox, a well-known civilian flight instructor and mathematician. The producers met Fox while researching for the movie. She later had an impressive career at the Pentagon, becoming the Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, the highest position ever held by a woman there.

How Kelly McGillis got the role of Charlie was a bit of a coincidence. She was supposed to do another movie, but it got canceled. Paramount then called her and asked if she could do Top Gun instead. McGillis liked the script and drove to San Diego for the production.

“I felt it was a Western in the sky. I had no clue how visually stunning it would be. I think Tony Scott brought so much to that movie visually,” she said.

Her role in Top Gun made Kelly McGillis a sex symbol, but she was also praised for her acting. The chemistry between her and Tom Cruise was clear on screen, and Kelly really liked him off-screen too.

“I think Tom is terrific. He’s the sweetest guy. He is very genuine and sincere and respectful. And I just loved working with Tom. I think he is wonderful,” she said.

At the time, McGillis was compared to great screen beauties like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall.

But Kelly never took those comparisons seriously.

“I have never thought of myself as a great beauty. In my teenage and prepubescent years, when one forms one’s ideas of oneself, I think primarily I was very overweight and had a very low self-esteem,” she told the Intelligencer Journal in 1986.

While many remember McGillis for her role as Charlie in Top Gun, it wouldn’t be fair to only talk about that movie because she has done much more in her life and career.

She made a big splash in Hollywood in 1985 with her breakout role as an Amish widow in Witness. After Top Gun, she starred in the controversial film The Accused, playing a tough lawyer. McGillis continued to act in several television and film roles throughout the 1990s, but none of these films boosted her career as much as her earlier roles.

Kelly McGillis as Professor Diana Maitland in “The Monkey’s Mask” / Flickr

After that, the outspoken actress broke all the rules and turned her back on Hollywood. She refused the scripts she was given, cut her blonde hair, left the industry, had babies, and gained weight.

“I think just my priorities in life changed. It wasn’t like a major decision that I made to leave, it was just that other things became more important,” she told Entertainment Tonight.

After leaving Hollywood, she focused on her family and took time to raise her now-grown daughters, Kelsey and Sonora.

Shortly after The Accused premiered, McGillis fell in love with Fred Tillman, a man with no connection to show business. They shared the same interests, like sailing and beaches.

Born in 1957 and raised in Newport Beach, California, McGillis felt like she had found the man of her dreams.

McGillis and Tillman got married, bought a yacht, and sailed to Europe.

The family eventually settled in Key West, Florida, and opened a restaurant together called Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill.


But McGillis’ past always seemed to catch up with her. According to the Top Gun star, she didn’t move to Florida to escape, but she had a lot to deal with personally.

She drank too much and was uncertain about her sexuality. For about a year, she was a “wreck.”

“I was never really unhappy. It’s just that I wanted to reclaim my anonymity, to live my own life. I think that if you have children, it is you who should look after them. I didn’t want my kids to think of me as a movie star; I wanted them to know me as Mommy,” she told The Daily Telegraph in 1999.

In 2002, McGillis divorced Tillman. Seven years later, she came out as a lesbian during an interview with SheWired. According to the actress, coming out had been an ongoing process since she was 12.

“Life is a freaking 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 said.

While McGillis was running her restaurant in Key West, she met bartender Melanie Leis. Unfortunately, their relationship was shaky and self-destructive; both had problems with different substances and went into rehab. McGillis drank excessively.

Wikipedia Commons / Gordon Correll

However, the partners in crime got married in New Jersey in 2010. McGillis’s ex-husband, Fred Tillman, attended the civil union ceremony.

“He was my greatest, bestest friend, and he still is,” McGillis told Daily News. She added, ”I was gay before I had kids. I had a really tough time coming to accept myself.”

Kelly McGillis and Melanie Leis broke up in 2011.

Currently, Kelly is reportedly living in a log cabin in the hills of Hendersonville, North Carolina. She keeps her gray hair short and prefers wearing comfortable pants. She enjoys her quiet, happy, and content life far away from Hollywood.

“I am focusing on teaching acting privately in a small studio that is part of a school in Asheville, North Carolina. I feel it’s my time to give back, and teaching is something I know how to do,” she said in 2014.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Looking at McGillis today, it sure looks like she has given up her own acting career. It was a while since we saw her on-screen – her latest credited project is from 2018, when she starred in the TV movie Maternal Secrets.

“You hear women of my age talk about this all the time,” she said. “I think this industry is not particularly kind to women who are over 50. I am not into the coloring of my hair, doing the Botox and getting a face lift. I want to grow up to be a character actress,” she said in 2013.

As mentioned, Kelly appeared in the news a lot in 2022. Because of her absence on Top Gun: Maverick, people wanted to know what happened to her and why she wasn’t cast in the sequel.

According to the director Joseph Kosinski, he wanted to take the film in a different direction with different characters – that’s why Kelly was left out. It had nothing to do with her appearance, according to Kosinski.


Kelly McGillis will always be the hot astrophysics engineer to those of us who were there to see her in all her glory. A woman like her, in a movie like the original Top Gun, is an act that can never be followed. Period.

It takes so much more grace and beauty to leave such an industry to care for herself and prioritize her family. That’s more impressive to me than anything.

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