I’m willing to bet with Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in the mix, as well as a few other memorable names that didn’t get remembered much past the first movie, Tim Robbins might have become kind of an afterthought to a lot of people when it came to Top Gun. Amazingly enough, some folks have barely even thought about Tim since his time in The Hudsucker Proxy, Bull Durham, and The Shawshank Production. A lot of people might recall a lot of work that he’s done in the past such as Jacob’s Ladder and many other movies, but the fact is that for a guy that’s as big as he is and has made such a big name for himself, Robbins is still not the first person that anyone thinks about when it comes to Top Gun. It’s kind of amusing but also kind of depressing in a way since he did have a couple of close-ups and he was important in the early minutes of the movie. But eventually, Lt. Sam ‘Merlin’ Wells kind of faded into the background, never to be heard from again.
It doesn’t help that he was the replacement for Goose, who a lot of people were still sore about after his unexpected death in the movie. But even though he was eventually put in as Maverick’s RIO (radar intercept officer), he was never seen as the guy who would permanently take on the job of flying with Maverick. In a big way, Merlin became one of the background characters that were there occasionally to toss out a word or a line but weren’t really considered to be of that much consequence to the rest of the story, unless they needed to be in a given moment. It’s kind of funny to think that among the group of glorified extras, Tim Robbins has actually been the most successful of them all since his name has gone on to be known by millions of people and his acting talents have taken him much, much further than many of his costars.
Another fact to consider when thinking of why he was given such a forgettable role though is that Top Gun was stacked with talent from start to finish, and while some of the actors in the movie wouldn’t become truly legendary until later, all of them are easily recognizable at this time as being among the most popular of the 80s and 90s actors that people remember fondly. But looking at his career and the way things advanced in the years following this movie, it’s not tough to think that Robbins didn’t really need to hit this role out of the park since he went on to turn in several great acting roles in his career and is still remembered as someone that people grew enamored of in the decades that came after. The 63-year-old actor is still active to this day, but it’s fair to say that while he’s cemented his legend in the business, a lot of those from the current generation don’t know that much about him unless they do their research. Asking those that were born after 2000 if they know who he is or what he’s been in is an iffy thing since some cinephiles might know a lot about Robbins, but the average person might know next to nothing.
That’s fair since a lot of us born in the 60s and 70s didn’t know much about the actors that were deemed popular a decade or two before unless we were big film buffs and wanted to know everything. But one has to remember that with the advent of the internet it became much easier for people to look others up and figure out what they’d done in their careers, even if they didn’t have the personal investment that a lot of us picked up along the way. That kind of thing tends to come as a person gains the knowledge and experience that’s been built over years and decades of exposure to cinema and pop culture, and to be fair, Tim Robbins has slowed down just a bit over the years and hasn’t taken on the same kind of provocative roles that he did when he was younger.
Anyone who wants to argue that point might need to compare what he’s done in recent years with Jacob’s Ladder, Bull Durham, Mystic River, St. Elsewhere, and many upon many other movies that Robbins has taken on throughout his career. It’s not enough to say that he was edgy, but Robbins does have a presence that’s hard to ignore when he’s on screen. These days though, he feels more like the seasoned veteran he is that’s there to do his job and help others look good at the same time. As for his role in Top Gun, it’s a revelation to some and another bit of information for others.