The tragic life of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis

She became a megastar by playing the flight instructor who falls for Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’. But 30 years on from that movie’s release, 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 58, 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.

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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.

“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.


All this happened before the actress won her breakout role opposite Harrison Ford in 1985 Amish thriller ‘Witness’ (above) 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.

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.


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. 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.”

Just after McGillis had given birth to their second daughter, her husband (below) 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.


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

“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.


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

She has talked about her fond memories of shooting ‘Top Gun’ – hanging out with the actors who played the pilots as well as revealing why the iconic ‘Take My Breath Away’-soundtracked love scene is shot in silhouette.


“I was doing another movie and I wouldn’t cut my hair,” she said, explaining that the scene was added during a reshoot. “So in the elevator scene, which we shot [afterwards] as well, they put me in a baseball cap. And then [in the love scene] it was all in silhouette because I had dark brown hair.”

Such is the reach of the movie that she couldn’t even escape it when she was living in the middle of nowhere.

“I swear, every time I went to the grocery store a song from ‘Top Gun’ was on and I thought, ‘do they know that I am in this store now?’” she said.

Now living in the mountains of North Carolina and unwilling to move back to Los Angeles or New York, she acknowledges her refusal to play by Hollywood’s rules has its price.


“That makes it much more difficult but I am not willing to sacrifice the quality of life I have today so I can work,” she told The Big Issue. “[I] have a very quiet, simple life and I love that.”

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Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, Getty