10/05/2011 11:04 am ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

Tom Skerritt On Why 'Top Gun,' 'Mash' And 'Harold And Maude' Succeeded

Tom Skerritt's film debut came in 1962 and he's never looked back. The 78-year-old, who starred in this year's "Redemption Road," has managed to remain relevant with his slew of roles in iconic films of every recent decade. In total, Skerritt has been in 40 feature films, including classics such as "Top Gun," "Harold and Maude," "Mash" and "A River Runs Through It," and starred in the CBS drama "Picket Fences" (for which he won a Best Actor Emmy).

Skerritt recently took the HuffPost Pop Culture Quiz. Read on for his rules on spotting a classic-in-the-making, and why "Harold And Maude" would never be made today.

What was the first album you bought?

Charlie Parker, I think. He was probably the greatest alto saxophone player. I love jazz. He played beyond anything the instruments could handle. He played the sax like Mozart wrote music.

If you had to be stranded with one DVD, what would it be?

That's not fair. Jeez, there are so many really good films. "Citizen Kane." Alright.

What movie character that you played do you most relate to?

That's a hard question. I suppose the character [Rev] in "A River Runs Through It" comes to mind.

Do you put added pressure on yourself when you know you're playing such a transcending role?

That's hard to say that one does that consciously, but I certainly did because I knew those people. My father was very much what I drew on -- he was very much like Rev, very stoic, didn’t show himself in a healthy way emotionally. The thing that one learns in doing films like that is really the exercise of doing less is more. That film was very contained. As an audience you always leave those films like a great French dinner, you know? There's never enough. You start thinking, 'Oh my god, I have to come back to that.'

What’s one movie ending you’d like to rewrite?

You know, I'm a writer so I cant just pick an ending out of it, because the ending doesn’t work with the rest of the screenplay. One can't go without the other.

What was your first cultural experience?

I grew up in Detroit, so there wasn’t a whole lot of culture, but I do remember distinctly two cultural experiences. [One was] seeing Arturo Toscanini rehearsing. He was a great conductor and a guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and he was rehearsing on a Saturday morning. He looked like a ballet dancer with his feet nailed to the floor but his body being so expressive in terms of urgency. This guy was one of the great ones of the 20th century and was quite old then, but wow, what a vision of seeing his movements. Bring it up, bring it up -- oh jeez, how do you get all that out?

When you were filming "Top Gun," did you know it would be such a hit?

Oh yeah. [Same] with "Mash" and "Alien." No question about it that they would be around 20 to 30 years later.

How do you know when a film is going to be really special?

Generally, it's the director, the filmmaker you're working with. "Harold and Maude" I should have mentioned. I was a friend of [director] Hal Ashby's and Bob Altman in that period so I knew those guys going into these situations. And then Ridley Scott and Tony Scott -- you can’t beat them. So it was about the filmmakers.

Bud Cort was in "Mash" and I drew his name out to Hal as the possibility for Harold. I remember reading the script and I thought, 'Wow, this is really something,' and Hal said, 'Yeah, this is ahead of its time. It's not going to be immediate. It's a cult classic,' which it turned out to be. These guys were teaching me. When I was doing "Mash," Bob Altman was telling me this is going to be a two-ticket film: 'You load it up with so many good things going on, you're going to come back two or three times,' which is exactly what happened.

How about with "Harold and Maude"?

Hal said that this is something that will linger with a lot of people. The story goes that "Harold and Maude" ran in a Paris theater for 10 years. I think it was a great foreign film made by American money. You [could] never get it made now. Theaters just are not drawn to that type of film. They're just drawn to high budget, high concept, fear-based films basically now. It's not something I favor. In this fearful climate that we have in this country, it's the last thing that we need -- the most influential of all media making fear-based films. I just loved those films like "Harold and Maude" -- things that move you in a way that you forgot about yourself. Those are films that really expand who you are.

Email me at or ask me questions @206Child for my upcoming mailbag.

Plus, check out my brand new HuffPost sports blog, The Schultz Report, for a fresh and daily outlook on all things sports.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Mr. Skerritt as listing "Alias" as one of his movies. The movie in question is "Alien," and this version reflects that.