How 'Top Gun: Maverick' Brought Back Val Kilmer After Throat Cancer Battle

The 'Iceman' returns for an emotional cameo in the sequel to the 1986 classic.

Spoiler alert! If you haven't yet seen Top Gun: Maverick, there are some major spoilers and plot points ahead!

For Tom Cruise and the creative team behind Top Gun: Maverick, there were many factors to consider when it came to developing the long-awaited sequel to the beloved 1986 action flick. From a storyline that brought Cruise's character, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, back on board with a cast of talented young recruits, to the logistics of filming in real-life fighter jets, the producers and stars pulled out all the stops to create a jaw-dropping follow-up to the high-flying original.

Of course, that also meant answering some questions about Maverick's closest relationships from the original film. His best friend and flying partner, Goose (Anthony Edwards), died during a heartbreaking Top Gun scene, but his son, Rooster (Miles Teller) joins the team as one of the talented young trainees, with a major chip on his shoulder. And while Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan also didn't return in the film, Jennifer Connelly stars as Penny, an on-again, off-again love interest of Maverick's who is referenced in the first film simply as "the admiral's daughter."

And then there's Iceman. Val Kilmer starred in Top Gun as Tom "Iceman" Kazansky, a cocky rival of Maverick's who earns a begrudging mutual respect by the end of the film. But bringing back the character was complicated by Kilmer's real-life health struggles. The actor underwent a tracheotomy several years ago as a part of his fight against throat cancer, which drastically changed the way he speaks. 

Kilmer's presence is felt throughout the movie, even though the actor only appears in person in one scene. Unlike Maverick, Iceman followed the Navy's planned career trajectory and has become a four-star admiral. It's clear in Maverick that the pair's former rivalry blossomed over the years into a genuine friendship -- they regularly trade text messages and Iceman is name-dropped as the member of the Navy brass who most often gets Maverick out of whatever bureaucratic scrapes he finds himself in.

The emotional gut-punch is saved for the second half of the movie, when Maverick receives a message from Iceman's wife, warning him that the admiral's illness -- unnamed in the film, but seemingly similar to Kilmer's real-life cancer battle -- has returned and he has taken a turn for the worse.

Maverick visits his old friend, who communicates mostly through typing and text-to-speech technology. However, at the end of their conversation, the two men stand to say an emotional farewell and Kilmer uses his real voice to give some heartfelt advice before taking one last opportunity to rib his rival-turned-friend.

"So, who was the better pilot?" he teases.

Maverick just smiles, and gives it right back, replying, "Let's not ruin a nice moment."

When ET spoke with Cruise at Top Gun: Maverick's red carpet premiere earlier this month, he had nothing but praise for his former co-star, recalling how special it was to work with Kilmer on both the original film and its sequel.

"In the first one, I really rallied hard for him to be in the movie, because he's such a tremendous actor, and [I wanted] to have him play that character," Cruise recalled of Kilmer, who famously was hesitant to co-star in Top Gun. 

"I told [director] Tony [Scott], 'You gotta go and tackle this guy!' I said, 'Val, you gotta make this movie. You're gonna be amazing.' That's the kind of talent that he has," he shared.

Cruise worked his magic once again for the sequel, and it paid off, adding an important emotional heartbeat to the film.

"You see that scene and it's very special. It's just very special," the actor shared. "He's beautiful."

ET spoke with Kilmer back in August 2020 about reprising his Top Gun role, and while he didn't offer any spoilers, he did express how great it felt to be back on set.

"I'm doing terrific. I sound like I've been run over by a cement mixer, [but] I feel fabulous," Kilmer said at the time. "Some days are better than others, but I am very much improving, so, yeah, I'm going to work till I'm 150 years. I wanna play the oldest man on Earth."

During their ET interviews, the rest of the Maverick cast also couldn't help but rave about Kilmer's presence on set, with Connelly describing his emotional scene with Cruise as "really moving and beautiful."

"Talking to Tom about that moment, it really was like they started their careers out together and they've had this wild, amazing journey," Glen Powell agreed, noting that he also got a chance to chat on set with Kilmer, whom he described as "a beautiful, beautiful person."

"Top Gun holds such a beautiful place for both of them, in their life, their careers and before stardom -- it put them on this crazy rollercoaster," he added. "I think to see each other and be back in this world together was-  Obviously, it was goosebumps for them as well as the rest of the world."

"You can tell that his energy was still the same and he was very playful and excited," Jon Hamm said, noting that the on-set reunion was joined by fellow Top Gun stars Rick Rossovich and Tom Skerritt. "You could tell he was so excited to be back among his people... That nostalgic reunion energy was all very much there, and he was participating in that a lot. It was great to see him."

"A lot of the guys from the original would kind of pop in and out from time to time and that just adds to the glee factor," Teller agreed. "The whole thing for us, the next generation of pilots, he's just such a positive energy. He's so full of life and to see him on set and chat with him was good."

See more from the cast in the video below. Top Gun: Maverick is in theaters Friday, May 27.