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Masters of the Universe: The He-Man Movie Turns 30

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Special effects artist Richard Edlund, who won an Oscar for his work on Star Wars in 1978, was arguing. Cannon Films co-owner Menahem Golan was arguing back. Edlund was insisting the 64 planned effects shots for Cannon's Masters of the Universe, a live-action film based on Mattel's He-Man toy line, had been grossly miscalculated during pre-production and that the film would likely need nearly double that number. Golan screamed that he was being bled dry.

Edlund would later recall that Golan had "fun" when haggling, although he probably was having less of a good time trying to keep Cannon afloat. The company would soon fold, with Masters of the Universe being one of the last casualties of their budget-cinching slate. Released on August 7, 1987, it made an underwhelming $5 million its first weekend. Some 30 years after its debut, fans of the franchise continue to debate whether it was an earnest attempt at a fantasy spectacular or a misguided cash-in for a toy line that was already waning in popularity.

According to executive producer Edward Pressman, who was doing publicity for the film in 1987, the He-Man phenomenon began when Mattel was shown a rough cut of the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Conan the Barbarian. Having considered licensing the film for toys, Mattel executives were put off by the amount of violence in the footage and backed away from the deal. It would be easier to simply create their own sword and sorcery epic, with characters and confrontations molded into age-appropriate settings.

He-Man debuted in 1982, a larger, steroided alternative to the comparatively puny G.I. Joe. With his bowling-ball deltoids and modest loincloth, He-Man resisted the ambition of rival Skeletor to take over their shared home world of Eternia. To populate toy aisles, each had a supporting cast of allies and a host of vehicles. More than 120 million figures were sold; a syndicated cartoon kept adolescent eyes glued to screens.

A tie-in movie was a no-brainer for Mattel; the company petitioned studios via their relationship with Pressman (who had produced Conan) to take a risk on a big-budget feature. Estimating the movie would cost about $40 million, most studios declined. Realizing the risk was too great, Mattel approved a more affordable premise. Instead of staging the action on Eternia, He-Man would have to travel to modern-day Earth in order to retrieve a Cosmic Key that could release the Sorceress, a guiding light of the planet who had been captured by Skeletor.

Pressman eventually piqued the interest of Warner Bros. with the reworked idea. The studio offered a $15 million budget; Cannon, which was trying to establish itself with more expensive schlock like the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling drama Over the Top, offered $17.5 million. Mattel and Pressman agreed to the bigger deal and went with Cannon.

Dolph Lundgren, a Swedish actor and athlete who had studied chemical engineering at MIT, was a towering presence who had impressed Hollywood as stoic Russian Ivan Drago in 1985's Rocky IV. Though producers thought he'd be perfect for the part of He-Man, Lundgren wasn't convinced.

"I thought about it for months and months," the actor told Starlog in 1987. "Masters is one of those films where if you didn't do it right, it would be a disaster and everyone would laugh at you for another 20 years." After he eventually signed on, Lundgren packed on additional muscle until he looked remarkably like the action figure.


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Director Gary Goddard, who had overseen a Conan stage show for Universal and was hired by Pressman, saw in Lundgren a perfect physical specimen—although his Swedish accent had remained thick. Goddard hoped to perhaps dub the actor with another performer during looping sessions, although such extravagant expenditures would soon prove impossible.

One compromise Goddard was unwilling to make was setting the film entirely on Earth. The script originally opened with a beaten, weathered He-Man imploring a suburban family to help him. Goddard insisted the film be book-ended with scenes on Eternia, an economical way of honoring its fantasy elements. Sets were constructed so that Skeletor (Frank Langella) could luxuriate in an ornate throne room, barking orders at subordinates and plotting against He-Man. More expensive effects—a stop-motion Battlecat, or a wire-strung Orko, the hovering wizard sidekick—were left in the toy box.

Goddard and Pressman planned on shooting 13 weeks and wound up shooting for 20. Lundgren, described by most everyone who encountered him as a friendly man, struggled with his dialogue and spent his time off-camera pumping dumbbells. Langella's make-up required frequent attention, his prosthetic teeth never quite fitting right. Bounced checks from Cannon, which was suffering from a string of flops, became a weekly ordeal.

When Goddard needed to shoot the climactic fight between He-Man and Skeletor, he was reduced to a stripped-down set shot in the dark, a casualty of depleted funds. (Mattel tossed in the remaining half of their $1.5 million guarantee in order to keep shooting going.) Goddard had originally intended to make his film a grand tribute to comic book artist Jack Kirby and his distinctive space opera style. He would eventually have to be satisfied with getting the film completed at all.


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The delay in getting a studio interested in Masters of the Universe had unfortunate consequences. By the time the film was released on August 7, 1987, interest in the toy line had waned considerably. Had it been released in 1985, there's no telling how frenzied kids might have reacted. Years later, it was bested in its opening weekend by the Emilio Estevez comedy Stakeout.

Reviews were middling. Johanna Steinmetz of the Chicago Tribune was one of the rare critics to acknowledge the filmmakers' efforts. "It breaks no new ground," she wrote, "but neither will you demand your money back, unless you feel acutely deprived of hero Dolph Lundgren's less intelligible lines.

"European-born Lundgren, who played a Soviet boxer opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, here has the role of He-Man. He can ripple his muscles with the best of them but has trouble getting his Teutonic tongue around such complex sentences as 'I don't want innocent people to die'—to which his nemesis Skeletor responds, 'Well said, He-Man,' inspiring some scattered laughter in the audience."

None of this deterred Cannon, which was in its death throes but continued to put its best foot forward. At that year's Cannes Film Festival, Golan announced that Masters of the Universe 2 would go into production shortly. With Lundgren unwilling to reprise the role, they hired surfer Laird Hamilton for the lead and began constructing sets. When Mattel refused to participate, director Albert Pyun repurposed them for a low-budget Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle titled Cyborg.

Decades later, movies based on toy lines are no longer uncommon. Hasbro has made vast fortunes with films inspired by Transformers and G.I. Joe. A revamped He-Man film has been in the works for years, though no definitive release date has been set. In 2010, Lundgren expressed his desire to join the project, although he would like to have more input on his wardrobe.

"I think it's a good idea," he told IGN. "I think He-Man is a cool character, and I had fun doing [the movie]. I wouldn't want to take my shirt off again for three months, wearing that … diaper or whatever it was I was wearing, loincloth. I'd rather play the king. But yeah, good idea."

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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