Tony Scott directed high-decibel, testosterone-pulsed movies—Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Unstoppable—typically focused around action heroes who charge hard, die hard, and drive full throttle. They are guys who take matters into their own hands and battle long odds, operating often as unstoppable forces of destiny. The director, 68, apparently took fate into his own hands, scaling a fence to plunge 185 feet to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles harbor Sunday afternoon. His death is being investigated as a suicide.
On Monday, expressions of grief poured in from across Hollywood. “Tony Scott as a friend and mentor was irreplaceable,” director Joe Carnahan wrote on Twitter. Writer-director Richard Kelly, who wrote the screenplay for Scott’s 2007 thriller, Domino, tweeted Monday: “Working with Tony Scott was like a glorious road trip to Vegas on desert back roads, a wild man behind the wheel, grinning.”
Tom Cruise, who stars in Top Gun and was working with Scott on a planned sequel to that 1986 worldwide blockbuster, said in a statement Monday: “Tony was my dear friend and I will really miss him. He was a creative visionary whose mark on film is immeasurable.”
Scott’s brother, Sir Ridley Scott—an acclaimed auteur responsible for such classic films as Alien, Blade Runner, and this summer’s sci-fi thriller, Prometheus—was sighted at London’s Heathrow Airport, appearing visibly distraught as he boarded a Los Angeles-bound plane.
Tony Scott’s death marks not only the loss of one of filmdom’s most consummate blockbuster moviemakers, a swaggering, larger-than-life figure widely admired in a fickle industry. It provides a sad coda to the director’s 44-year business partnership with Ridley that has resulted in thousands of TV commercials, scores of music videos, and numerous feature films produced under the banner of their shared companies Scott Free Productions and RSA. Maneuvering in the advertising and film worlds together, the Scotts operated as one of the most collaborative sibling tag-teams in all of pop culture. They created a unique synergy that compelled humongous budgets for their respective films, a lucrative—and unprecedented—tandem distribution deal with 20th Century Fox and an ownership stake in Britain’s historic Pinewood Shepperton Studio.
Born in industrial North Shields, England, to a working-class family, Tony Scott made his first mark in movies at age 16, appearing in Boy and Bicycle, a short film directed by Ridley, his elder by six years. Big bro would continue to offer key advice and career guidance for the rest of Tony’s life, while Tony would provide a kind of ballast for Ridley’s creativity and relentless ambition.
After studying at several of the same schools Ridley attended, Tony enrolled at London’s Royal College of Art, where he made a movie for the British Film Institute at his brother’s urging. “Ridley gave me an Ambrose Bierce short story and said, ‘If you’re interested in doing a film, see if you can beg, borrow or steal a Bolex camera,’” Tony recalled to the U.K.’s Sunday Times Magazine in 2007.
When Ridley established his TV commercial production company Ridley Scott Associates in 1967, he needed a trusted partner. The frustrated ad man lured his younger brother—then an aspiring painter and documentarian—to join the fledgling firm as a means of paying off his debts, and promised to buy Tony a Ferrari within the first year of his employ to sweeten the deal.
Co-managing the company while also working as directors, the Scotts developed a reputation for perfectionism, and won awards for commercials they shot for Chanel and Marlboro. After Ridley made the jump from the commercial world into feature filmmaking, Tony similarly succumbed to Hollywood’s siren song. He helmed his debut movie, The Hunger (starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve), in 1983. But where Ridley’s first films—1977’s The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner in 1982—were greeted with critical plaudits and boffo box office, The Hunger was D.O.A. and Tony was essentially written off by the movie industry.
In a strange twist of kismet, however, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson caught a Tony Scott-directed Saab ad, and on the strength of his limited experience filming a fighter jet in that spot, hired him to helm their pet project, Top Gun. Scott recalled a fateful river-rafting expedition to the Grand Canyon with the producers that helped ice the job. “I had to win a bet with Don Simpson to get it,” Scott told Boards magazine. “We were all wasted and I swam the biggest rapids in the canyon. I just jumped over the boat. Simpson says, ‘Fuck it, you’ve got it.’”
Top Gun went on to become the top-grossing film of 1986, and a generational touchstone, minting Tom Cruise as an international superstar in the process. And Tony Scott went on to become a journeyman director of big-budget, mucho-macho action flicks—Beverly Hills Cop 2, Man on Fire, Enemy of the State, and True Romance among them—the kind of popcorn fare that puts butts in seats but exerts negative polarity for movie critics. Ridley, meanwhile, distinguished himself as the rare filmmaker capable of conjuring slam-bang schlock action (see: Black Rain, Kingdom of Heaven) as well awards bait such as Thelma and Louise and the Oscar-winning Gladiator.
Not that their divergent aesthetic choices engendered any bad blood between the Scotts. “Rid makes films for posterity,” Tony told the Sunday Times Magazine. “His films will be around for a long time. I think my films are more rock ’n’ roll. I experiment more.”
With RSA morphing into a global operation, producing music videos, television, film and commercial projects in the U.S., the U.K. and Asia—in addition to managing a stable of acclaimed directors including such Oscar-winners as Kathryn Bigelow and Martin Scorsese—in 1995, the brothers formed the Los Angeles- and London-based production company Scott Free Productions. Since then, all of Ridley’s movies have been produced under its imprint. That year, the brothers also purchased a controlling interest in Shepperton Studios, the historic production facility where such classic British films as The Guns of Navarone, The Omen, and even Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix were shot (it later merged with Pinewood Studio). And in 2001, the two signed a lucrative development deal with 20th Century Fox—a singular feat for filmmaking siblings who did not co-direct movies a la the Wachowskis or the Farrelly brothers or the Coen brothers.
Until Tony’s death, the Scotts remained unusually close, speaking to one another on the phone or in person at least once daily. Despite Tony’s absence of critical bona fides, Ridley frequently relied on his acumen for quality control. “I will sometimes have a cut of the film and will show it to him saying, ‘What do you think?’ And I’ll immediately get 36 pages of notes. And he never asks ME to do that for him,” the elder Scott told the Chicago Tribune.
Thrice married and twice divorced, Tony exemplified a certain Hollywood archetype. A self-professed “adrenaline junkie” with a taste for the extreme gesture, Scott chomped cigars, drove expensive sports cars, collected Harley-Davidsons, and took pride in having scaled El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a granite monolith with a 3,500-foot vertical face. In 2005, after undergoing hip-replacement surgery, he brought the extracted bone to a taxidermist, who polished and mounted the hip for display in the director’s home.
Also a prolific producer, Tony co-produced Ridley’s latest movie, Prometheus, as well as such TV shows as the crime drama Numb3rs and legal drama The Good Wife; he left more than 30 film projects in various states of pre-production at the time of his death. As recently as Friday, Scott was meeting with Cruise about their impending Top Gun sequel for Paramount. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the star and the director toured a Nevada Naval base late last week as part of their research for the movie.
Ridley Scott has not yet publicly commented on his brother’s passing. But on Monday, as the director flew from London to Los Angeles, production on the film he was shooting—The Counselor, starring Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz—ground to a halt. The A-list will have to wait while Ridley mourns.