Whether you remember him from the hit comedy M*A*S*H, the sci-fi shocker Alien, TV’s Picket Fences or his dozens of other television and film roles, you know that Tom Skerritt has made a career of playing principled characters. The ruggedly handsome actor, 86, has remained a steady presence in our lives for almost six decades, and this year, he returns as Viper in Top Gun: Maverick, due out Dec. 23.

When he’s not in front of the camera, Tom (who cofounded TheFilmSchool, a nonprofit screenwriting/directing program) is busy working at Triple Squirrels, a film company he launched with his wife of nearly 22 years, Julie Tokashiki, 56. Where does he get the energy? When he was a kid, the Seattle-based star tells Closer Weekly exclusively, “Another kid asked a man, ‘How did you get to be so old, mister?’ And the guy said, ‘I just keep moving.’ That’s the one lesson I’ve kept for most of my life: Just keep moving!”

Great to talk to you, Tom. What’s going on?

Just very busy with things I haven’t given myself the opportunity to do earlier in life. I was working on a memoir but put that on the back shelf. I finished a screenplay, and I’m on the road to finishing a play.

And you’re starring in an upcoming film, East of the Mountains, with Mira Sorvino?

We filmed it last June. I haven’t really been in touch with them about the final results.

What can you tell us about Top Gun: Maverick?

They asked me to come down for a funeral scene for one of the Top Gun guys, but they didn’t share the script with anybody, so nobody really knows what the story is going to be. So I’m curious! I had one good day with Tom [Cruise] and that was about it.

TV viewers loved your offbeat series Picket Fences. What are your memories of it?

Four great years. Kathy Baker played my wife, and the rest of the cast was a nice group. It was written by David E. Kelley, the best writer in TV, so it was rated as the best show on TV for a couple of years and it won 14 Emmys. I have no complaints!

And you won one for it. What was that like?

I was speechless. To win over those guys, I’m thinking, “Oh gosh, it’s so good … but how can anyone be rated better than the other one?” I’m not much for that sort of thing.

What’s been your favorite role?

I suppose the one that moves me most was A River Runs Through It, playing the reverend. That’s an exquisite-looking film, and it’s so American and quite moving. I don’t see every film that I’ve done, but that one I’ve seen multiple times. And every time, it just moves me on a different, deeper level. What counts is the movie, not the role so much.

Your screen debut was in 1962’s War Hunt, but you did a lot of TV and didn’t have a hit until the 1970 film M*A*S*H

If it weren’t for [director Robert] Altman, I don’t know if I’d be in the business. I had been mentoring with him, watching him direct television, and I learned about filmmaking, the business and everything else from him. He allowed us to improvise about 80 percent of it. That was eye-opening; I didn’t really know what I was doing as an actor [before that].

What roles put you on the map?

M*A*S*H and Alien. Both [Altman and Ridley Scott] would tell me why they’d shoot this or that way. I’ve learned a lot from some of the best directors.

You’ve had many other great films, too. What was filming Steel Magnolias like?

Being with very strong-willed, strong-minded women, I learned to just keep my place! [Laughs] Each of us were renting a house in Louisiana and each one [hosted] dinner on a Saturday night. I’d just go listen to them talk, and it was quite wonderful to be around strong women. You begin to realize that women should be running the country right now!

You’ve called yourself a “blue-collar, middle-class guy” who grew up in Detroit. How did that shape you?

You feel more humble about your success. I just don’t have that ego thing.

Why did you join the Air Force?

I just graduated high school and knew I had to get out of Detroit; I didn’t feel comfortable with the 9-to-5 thing. Got the GI Bill and wound up at UCLA.

In your first movie, War Hunt, you acted with Robert Redford, who later directed you in A River Runs Through It. How did you get the role?

I was an English major and thought, “If I’m going to write screenplays, I’ll find out what it’s like to write for an actor by doing it.” I happened to be seen in a play, and someone asked me to be in the movie. I had that friendship with Redford because we lived in somewhat the same neighborhood.

Did you stay close to any M*A*S*H stars?

I didn’t. I had to raise my kids myself, pretty much. I was trying to deal with a difficult situation.

Tom Skerritt Mash Photos
20th Century Fox/Aspen/Kobal/Shutterstock

Your first wife reportedly suffered from mental illness, and your daughter Erin, 56, said you “worked hard to keep [them] sane in an insane environment.” How are your five kids now? Are any in showbiz?

They’re all wonderful! I have a son [Matt, 52] who’s a cinematographer and director and five granddaughters. I’m lucky!

How did you meet your third wife, Julie?

She was an executive at Fox, and I was doing Picket Fences there when we met.

What makes her special?

She’s strong, lovable. Whatever differences we have, and there are some — there [are] a few years between us, age-wise — I look at her with a great deal of respect and marvel at who she is. She’s just a great piece of art.

You adopted Emi, 12, in 2007. What’s it like to parent a young daughter at 86?

Emi is one powerful preteen lady!

You’ll be 87 on August 25. Any plans to retire?

I don’t know what the hell that means! Your life changes, and you try to fill it up as much as you possibly can.

Any regrets? Life lessons you’ve learned?

I’ve lived through everything, so what regrets could I have? I’m healthy and reasonably sane. Lessons? Make the most out of every day!

Reporting by Diana Cooper

For more on Tom, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.