Scott was born in North Shields, Northumberland, the youngest of three sons of Colonel Francis Percy Scott, who served in the Royal Engineers, and Elizabeth. He followed in his elder brother’s footsteps, studying at Grangefield School, West Hartlepool College of Art and Sunderland Art School, for a fine arts degree. At the age of 16, he appeared in Boy and Bicycle, a short film marking the directorial debut of his then 23-year-old brother Ridley.
Scott studied art in Leeds after failing to gain admission to the Royal College of Art in London at his first attempt. He made a short film in 1969 based on the Ambrose Bierce story One of the Missing. As Ridley had previously cast him in a film, he reciprocated by giving his brother a role too. “The film cost £1,000”, he recalled in April 2012. Whilst at the Royal College of Art, he starred in “Don’t Walk”, a film by fellow students, Hank Onrust and Richard Stanley: the film credits state it was “made for BUNAC by MARCA films at the Royal College of Art”. He graduated from the Royal College of Art, following in the footsteps of his elder brother Ridley, with the intention of becoming a painter. His eldest brother Frank had earlier joined the Merchant Navy.
It was the success of his elder brother’s fledgling television commercial production outfit, Ridley Scott Associates (RSA), that subsequently diverted his attention to film. His brother Ridley said, “Tony had wanted to do documentaries at first. I told him, ‘Don’t go to the BBC, come to me first.’ I knew that he had a fondness for cars, so I told him, ‘Come work with me and within a year you’ll have a Ferrari.’ And he did!” Scott said, “I was finishing eight years at art school, and Ridley had opened Ridley Scott Associates and said, ‘Come and make commercials and make some money’ because I owed money left and right and centre.” He directed many television commercials for RSA while also overseeing the company’s operation while his brother was developing his feature film career. “My goal was to make films but I got sidetracked into commercials and then I took off. I had 15 years [making them], and it was a blast. We were very prolific, and that was our training ground: You’d shoot 100 days in a year, then we gravitated from that to film,” he said.
Scott took time out in 1975 to direct a television adaptation of the Henry James story The Author of Beltraffio. After the feature film successes of fellow British directors Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and his elder brother during the late 1970s, all of whom had graduated from directing advertising commercials, he received initial overtures from Hollywood in 1980. His eldest brother Frank died, aged 45, of skin cancer during the same year.
Scott persisted in trying to embark on a feature film career. Among the ideas interesting to him was an adaptation of the Anne Rice novel Interview with the Vampire then in development. MGM was already developing the vampire film The Hunger, for which they brought Scott on in 1982. The Hunger starred David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve and introduced Willem Dafoe in a small role. The Hunger had elaborate photography and sumptuous production design, but it failed to find an audience or impress the critics, and had disappointing box office sales (though it later became a cult favourite). Finding few film opportunities in Hollywood over the next two and a half years, Scott returned to commercials and music videos.
In 1985, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer approached Scott to direct Top Gun on the strength of The Hunger, as well as a commercial he had done for Swedish automaker Saab in the early 1980s, where a Saab 900 turbo is shown racing a Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet. Scott, though reluctant at first, agreed to direct Top Gun. Though the film received mixed critical review, it became one of the highest-grossing films of 1986, taking in more than US$176 million, and making a star of its young lead, Tom Cruise.
Following the success of Top Gun, Scott found himself on Hollywood’s A-list of action directors. He re-teamed with Simpson and Bruckheimer in 1987 to direct Eddie Murphy and Brigitte Nielsen in the highly anticipated sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. While not being critically embraced, the film nevertheless became one of the year’s highest grossers. His next film, Revenge (1990), a thriller of adultery and revenge set in Mexico, starred Kevin Costner, Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Quinn. Once again directing Tom Cruise, Scott returned to the Simpson-Bruckheimer fold to helm the big-budget racing film Days of Thunder (1990). Scott later stated that it was difficult to find the drama in racing cars in circles, so he “stole from all race movies to date … then tried to build on them.” Scott’s next film was the cult action thriller The Last Boy Scout (1991) starring Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans and written by Shane Black.
In 1993, Scott directed True Romance costing just $13m, from a script by Quentin Tarantino. The cast included Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Val Kilmer and in bit roles, James Gandolfini and Samuel L. Jackson. Although it received positive reviews from Janet Maslin and other critics, it took less than $13m and was considered a box office failure. Scott’s next film, Crimson Tide (1995), was a submarine thriller starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. His follow-up film, 1996’s The Fan, starred Robert De Niro, Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin and Benicio del Toro. Scott’s 1998 film Enemy of the State, a conspiracy thriller, starred Will Smith and Gene Hackman, and was his highest-grossing film of the decade. Spy Game was released in November 2001. It garnered 63% positive reviews at Metacritic and made a little over $60m at the US box office. Man on Fire was released in April 2004.
Scott and his brother Ridley were co-producers of the TV series Numb3rs, which aired from 2005 to 2010. Tony Scott directed the first episode of the fourth season. In 2006, he contributed voice-over to a song called Dreamstalker on Hybrid’s album I Choose Noise; Scott has worked together with Hybrid on several films through mutual friend Harry Gregson-Williams.
Next for Scott came Domino (2005) starring Keira Knightley. In autumn 2006, Scott reteamed with Denzel Washington for the futuristic action film Déjà Vu. Scott once again teamed up with Denzel Washington on The Taking of Pelham 123, which also starred John Travolta and was released in cinemas on 12 June 2009. The film was a remake of the 1974 film of the same title starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. 2009 also saw the debut of The Good Wife, a legal drama television series which had Scott and his brother as two of several executive producers.
In 2010, the Scott brothers produced the feature film adaptation of the television series The A-Team. Scott’s film, Unstoppable, again starring Washington (with Chris Pine), was released in November 2010. Shortly before his death he produced Coma, an A&E miniseries, the Coca-Cola short film The Polar Bears and the thillers Stoker and The East, both with his brother.
Scott developed a film adaptation of Clifford Irving’s novel Tom Mix and Pancho Villa (1981) for over a decade. In November 2003, he scouted locations in Mexico, and Steven Zaillian was writing the screenplay. “This is Lawrence of Arabia meets The Wild Bunch, a huge film with trains, cavalry, thousands of soldiers in uniform and on horseback,” Scott said.
In late 2006, Scott announced a remake of the action thriller The Warriors (1979). “The original Warriors was New York in the 1970s, and everything went upwards, everything went vertically. And now I’m making it a contemporary thing and doing it in L.A., so everything is horizontal. So my vision of The Warriors is Los Angeles in 2007 and the gangs, instead of being 30, are going to be 3,000 or 5,000,” he said. Scott met with actual gang members for research: “I’ve met all the heads of all the different gangs, so I’ve already educated myself. They all said, ‘Listen dude, if you get this on we’ll sign a treaty and we’ll all stand on the Long Beach Bridge. There’ll be 150,000 members there. It’ll look like the L.A. Marathon.'” Scott was simultaneously developing a drama project titled Emma’s War about British foreign aid worker Emma McCune. Scott said in October 2006, “It’s been a difficult piece to crack. We had one writer aboard who did a pass at the script and didn’t get it, but we’ve got someone else onboard now who I’m going to make live down there and smell it, touch it, feel it. There’s nothing that can compare to that kind of first-hand experience.”
Scott was with Tom Cruise just two days prior to his death, scouting locations for a sequel to Top Gun, scheduled for production in 2013. In December 2012, Paramount announced that the project was officially cancelled, but they would go ahead with a 3D IMAX remastering of the original Top Gun, which was released on 8 February 2013. In June 2013 it was confirmed by Bruckheimer that Top Gun 2 has been given the greenlight once again. Scott was also slated to direct Narco Sub, from a script by David Guggenheim and Mark Bomback, about “a disgraced American naval officer forced to pilot a sub carrying a payload of cocaine to America.” Scott was also considering a remake of the classic western The Wild Bunch (1969).
Katey Rich of Cinema Blend wrote that Scott had a “trademark frenetic camera style”, which Scott spoke about in June 2009, in reference to The Taking of Pelham 123:
It’s about energy and it’s about momentum, and I think the movie’s very exciting, and it’s not one individual thing. The true excitement comes from the actors—that gives you the true drama—and whatever I can do with the camera, that’s icing on the cake. I wanted the movie to grab you. I use four cameras and I maybe do three takes—so the actors love it. Maybe I move it more than I should, but that’s the nature of the way I am.
Scott also spoke about his career in general:
What always leads me in terms of my movies are characters. [I tell my production team] ‘Go into the real world, cast these people in the real world, and find me role models for my writers.’ Then I reverse-engineer. I don’t change the structure of the script, but I use my research. That’s always been my mantra, and that’s what gets me excited, because I get to educate and entertain myself in terms of worlds I could never normally touch, other than the fact that I’m a director. […] If you look at my body of work, there’s always a dark side to my characters. They’ve always got a skeleton in the closet, they’ve always got a subtext. I like that. Whether it’s Bruce Willis in Last Boy Scout or Denzel Washington in The Taking of Pelham 123. I think fear, and there’s two ways of looking at fear. The most frightening thing I do in my life is getting up and shooting movies. Commercials, movies, every morning I’m bolt upright on one hour two hours sleep, before the alarm clock goes off. That’s a good thing. That fear motivates me, and I enjoy that fear. I’m perverse in that way. I do other things. I’ve rock climbed all my life. Whenever I finish a movie, I do multi-day ascents, I go hang on a wall in Yosemite. That fear is tangible. That’s black and white. I can make this hold or that hold. The other fear is intangible, it’s very abstract, and that’s more frightening.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote that Scott was “one of the most influential film directors of the past 25 years, if also one of the most consistently and egregiously underloved by critics” and called him “[o]ne of the pop futurists of the contemporary blockbuster”. She felt that “[t]here was plenty about his work that was problematic and at times offensive, yet it could have terrific pop, vigour, beauty and a near pure cinema quality. These were, more than anything, films by someone who wanted to pull you in hard and never let you go.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote that “the propulsive, at times borderline preposterous popcorn-thriller storylines; the slice-and-dice editing and the images that somehow managed to glow with grit; the fireball violence, often glimpsed in smeary-techno telephoto shots; the way he had of making actors seem volatile and dynamic and, at the same time, lacking almost any subtext” were qualities of Scott’s films that both “excited audiences about his work” and “kept him locked outside the gates of critical respectability.”
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that after Top Gun, Scott “found his commercial niche as a brash, flashy, sometimes vulgar action painter on celluloid”, citing Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, and The Fan as examples. McCarthy concluded that Unstoppable, Scott’s final film, was one of his best: Apart from having “its director’s fingerprints all over it: the commitment to extreme action, frenetic cutting, stripped-down dialogue”, McCarthy found “a social critique embedded in its guts; it was about disconnected working class stiffs living marginal lives on society’s sidings, about the barely submerged anger of a neglected underclass”, something which “always had been lacking from Tony Scott’s work, some connection to the real world rather than just silly flyboy stuff and meaningful glances accompanied by this year’s pop music hit.” Betsy Sharkey of The Los Angeles Times wrote that Denzel Washington—who starred in Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Unstoppable—was Scott’s muse, and Scott “was at his best when Washington was in the picture. The characters the actor played are the archetype of the kind of men Scott made. At their core, and what guided all the actions that followed, was a fundamental decency. They were flawed men to be sure, some more than others, but men who accorded dignity to anyone who deserved it.”
Scott married three times. His first marriage was to BAFTA Award winning TV production designer Gerry Boldy (1944–2007) in 1967. They were divorced in 1974. His second marriage was in 1986 to advertising executive Glynis Sanders. They divorced a year later when his affair with Brigitte Nielsen, whom he met on the set of Beverly Hills Cop II, became public. She was married to Sylvester Stallone at the time. He subsequently met film and TV actress Donna Wilson, who was 24 years younger, on the set of Days of Thunder in 1990; they married in 1994. She gave birth to their twin sons, Frank and Max, in 2000.
On August 19, 2012, at approximately 12:30 p.m. PDT, Scott committed suicide by jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the San Pedro port district of Los Angeles, California. Investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor Division found contact information in a note left in his car, parked on the bridge, and a note at his office for his family. Witnesses said he did not hesitate before jumping. His body was recovered from the water by the Los Angeles Port Police. Within hours of his death, a rumor began circulating that a possible motive for his suicide was that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Both his widow and his brother Ridley categorically denied the rumor. On August 22, Los Angeles County coroner’s spokesman Ed Winters said the two notes Scott left behind made no mention of any health issues but neither the police nor the family disclosed the content of those notes.
On October 22, 2012, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office announced the cause of death as “multiple blunt force injuries”. Therapeutic levels of mirtazapine and eszopiclone were in his system at the time of death. A coroner’s official also affirmed Scott “did not have any serious underlying medical conditions” and was not suffering from cancer.
- June, 21, 1944
- North Shields, United Kingdom
- August, 19, 2012
- San Pedro, Los Angeles, California
- Hollywood Forever Cemetery
- Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California