A 'Top Gun' Film, TV star traces his acting roots to Detroit

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Detroit native Tom Skerritt is an actor who's been in pretty much everything.

Or close to it anyway, given that his career's spanned more than 50 years and has nearly 200 credits to his name.

"I'm a working actor," said Skerritt, 81, who won the Apple Award from the Wayne State University Department of Theatre and Dance earlier this year.

He's best known for his roles in "M*A*S*H," "Alien," "Top Gun," "Steel Magnolias," "A River Runs Through It," as well as the TV series "Picket Fences" (for which he won an Emmy Award as Sheriff Jimmy Brock) and "Cheers."

Most recently, he's had a recurring role on the legal drama "The Good Wife," played General Ulysses S. Grant in the independent film "Field of Lost Shoes," and reprised his role as Captain Dallas in a voiceover for the video game "Alien: Isolation."

"All the voiceovers were done separately, one from the other. I did see (Cartwright) briefly," he explained. "Beyond that, we did not see each other so there was no mutual exchange. These things are scheduled according to availability."

On "The Good Wife" which focuses on attorney Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) Skerritt played James Paisley earlier this year.

The billionaire CEO of the Paisley Group, Paisley is the target of a wrongful termination suit, where a former employee claims he was fired because he was gay and has hired Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) to represent him. In turn, Paisley hires Florrick to take his case.

Florrick convinces Paisley to agree to a $140,000 settlement rather than have this go to trial. However, Paisley appears on a national news show and makes some insensitive, anti-Semitic comments. This not only scuttles the settlement, but also jeopardizes his chances in a jury trial. Canning ups the settlement amount to $3 million, much to Florrick's consternation.

According to Skerritt, he's unsure if he'll reprise his role as Paisley. Still, he enjoyed his time on "The Good Wife" now in its sixth season and enjoyed working with Margulies.

"Juliana is wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. She deserves the Emmy, but what's more important is how she is as a person; she's just a lovely person," he said.

He also gave his assessment on why it's such a hit series.

"Good writing. Good writing will always make anything work. The better you tell the story, the better everyone is moved by it. If you have a solid script, everyone's inspired by it and it just elevates performances. That's no secret," explained Skerritt. "Good storytelling is what everybody responds to: writers, producers, actors, directors, and ultimately the audience because you're respecting their intelligence."

It was the historical factor that attracted him to the part of Grant in "Field of Lost Shoes," which chronicles the Battle of New Market that was fought in Virginia on May 15, 1864 during the Civil War. The Confederate Army, which included young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, managed to force the Union Army out of the Shenandoah Valley. During the battle, several cadets lost their shoes in the mud, hence the name "field of lost shoes."

"The experience itself was very enjoyable, working in Virginia," said Skerritt. "(Grant as he was) written attracted me to the role. What was inherent in the dialogue as written was he was a man of few words, a very plain-talking Midwestern guy... (Grant and President Abraham Lincoln) were pretty much able to talk straight with one another 'This is the way it is.' They didn't embroider it."

Skerritt also addressed the oft-rumored, long-awaited sequel to "Top Gun."

"I've heard this question I don't know how many times over the last 28 years. I'm out of touch with goes on down in Hollywood," said Skerritt. "If I get a phone call, 'We want you to be in the sequel to 'Top Gun,' I'll know more. But I haven't gotten that phone call. Every year I've heard that rumor. I don't know anything about it. I have no knowledge of it."

The youngest of four, Skerritt played football at the new-closed MacKenzie High School in Detroit, where he graduated from in 1951. Upon graduation, he served in the U.S. Air Force for four years during the Korean War. After leaving the Air Force, he enrolled at what is now Henry Ford College in Dearborn in 1956.

"I was grateful to have been out of the service and have the G.I. Bill to pay for me to go to college. (HFC) was available to me. It was convenient. I don't think I even had an automobile at the time. It was a challenge and it was enjoyable. I was just grateful to be able to go to college. (HFC) made it easier to accommodate a larger college like Wayne State."

Skerritt transferred to Wayne State and later to the University of California at Los Angeles, hoping to become a film director. However, he left UCLA a semester shy of graduation to make his acting debut in 1962's "War Hunt," alongside Robert Redford and the late Sydney Pollack.

"I was making a living as an actor and I had a family to support, so my salary was my first priority," he said.

Even though Skerritt didn't receive a degree from Wayne State, he was presented with the aforementioned Apple Award and the Arts Achievement Award in 2007.

The Apple Award brings a nationally prominent theatre professional to Detroit and the Wayne State campus as a guest lecturer to educate the rising students through master classes and a question-and-answer forum. Previous Apple winners include renowned playwright Neil Simon, "The Princess Bride" star Mandy Patinkin, and actress/singer Patti Lupone.

"I was very humbled by it," Skerritt said. "It's given to those who are lucky enough to have experienced success over a long period of time. It's a big acknowledgement for a local person from Detroit who got lucky."

Skerritt credits the bulk of his success to his Michigan roots.

"I am what Michigan gave me and I'm very fortunate for it. It gave me a place to begin. To define these things, they're undefinable," he recalled. "It was a good solid experience I had in Detroit. I knew the community there and it had a work ethic that I aspired to. Midwestern effort I picked that up there and that's what I carry with me all the time."

Published: Mon, Nov 24, 2014

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