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15 Things You Might Not Know About Dr. Strangelove

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Stanley Kubrick’s bleak Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb belongs to a class and genre all its own. Here’s everything you need to know about the game-changing film, which made its premiere on January 29, 1964.

1. THE MOVIE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A DRAMA. 

The international climate of the early 1960s piqued Stanley Kubrick’s interest in writing and directing a nuclear war thriller. Kubrick began consuming piles of literature on the topic until he came across former Royal Air Force office Peter George’s dramatic novel Red Alert. Columbia Pictures optioned the book, and Kubrick began translating the bulk of the novel into a script.

During the writing process, however, the director found himself struggling to escape a persistent comedic overtone because he found the vast majority of the political calamities described in the story to be inherently funny. Eventually, Kubrick abandoned the idea of fighting the adaptation’s dark sense of humor and embraced it wholeheartedly. Tone aside, the plot of Dr. Strangelove is strikingly similar to that of George’s novel. There’s one notable exception: Dr. Strangelove doesn’t appear in the novel—Kubrick and writer Terry Southern created the new character. 

2. THE STUDIO DEMANDED THAT PETER SELLERS PLAY MULTIPLE ROLES. 

Columbia Pictures slapped Kubrick with a few conditions at the dawn of Dr. Strangelove’s production. The studio’s chief demand was that Peter Sellers, with whom Kubrick had worked on Lolita and who the director had planned to cast again, play multiple roles in the new movie. (Sellers played a character with a propensity for disguises in Lolita, which Columbia speculated helped fuel the movie’s success.) 

Originally, Sellers was cast as four characters in Dr. Strangelove: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular mad scientist (all of whom he played in the movie), as well as Major Kong. After Sellers injured his leg and had trouble with the Texas accent, Kubrick had to bring in an outsider. 

3. TWO OTHER FAMOUS COWBOYS WERE APPROACHED TO PLAY KONG. 

Before landing on Pickens, the production team sought fellow Western mainstays John Wayne and Bonanza star Dan Blocker for the part of Major Kong. Wayne never replied to Kubrick’s messages, and Blocker’s agent passed on the project. Co-writer Southern later remembered the agent sending a telegram that read, “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know for that matter.”  

4. NOBODY TOLD PICKENS ABOUT THE CHANGE IN TONE. 

Before being cast as Dr. Strangelove’s gung-ho bomber pilot Major. T. J. Kong, actor Slim Pickens had starred almost exclusively in Westerns, with nary a comedy part to his name (much less a political satire). This didn’t pose much of a problem, however, as Kubrick deemed the actor’s natural cadence and decorum to be perfect for the cowboy soldier. 

Kubrick led Pickens to believe that the film was supposed to be a serious war drama, prompting him to carry himself as he might in any of his Western pictures. Furthermore, according to James Earl Jones (who made his film debut in Dr. Strangelove) and Kubrick biographer John Baxter, Pickens behaved, and dressed, identically onscreen and off…not because he was “staying in character,” but because he apparently always acted like that. 

5. KUBRICK LIED TO GEORGE C. SCOTT IN ORDER TO GET FUNNIER TAKES.

Unlike Pickens, George C. Scott—who plays bombastic General Buck Turgidson—was well-aware that Dr. Strangelove was a comedy, but was nevertheless hesitant about playing his character too “big.” Kubrick coaxed Scott to deliver broad, animated performances as Buck, promising him that they were merely an exercise and would not be used in the final cut. Of course, the takes that went to print were among the actor’s wackiest. Scott felt terribly betrayed, and vowed never to work with Kubrick again. Although Dr. Strangelove remained their sole collaboration, Scott did eventually come to appreciate the film and his performance.

6. PRESIDENT MERKIN MUFFLEY ORIGINALLY HAD A COLD. 

On the contrary, some performances were a bit too unruly for Kubrick’s tastes. In developing his part as U.S. President Merkin Muffley, a wimpy and diplomatic foil to Buck Turgidson’s vociferous “man’s man,” Sellers and Southern experimented with giving the character a bad cold. Sellers’s imitation of comically agonizing cold symptoms consistently cracked up the rest of the cast and became too much of a distraction from the film’s forward momentum. 

7. THE DIRECTOR ALSO GOT HIS WAY WITH SCOTT BY BEATING HIM AT CHESS. 

When Kubrick wasn’t duping Scott into performing against his instincts, the two were wagering on the outcome of chess matches. Both the director and his star were expert chess players, and would settle arguments about creative differences with on-set competitions. (Kubrick often won.) 

8. KUBRICK WAS SURPRISED THAT FEW PEOPLE CAUGHT ON TO THE FILM’S MANY SEXUAL INNUENDOS. 

It wasn’t until around two months after the release of Dr. Strangelove that Kubrick heard anyone mention the movie’s vast array of visual and verbal sexual euphemisms. The first person to contact him about the in-movie prevalence of double entendre was Cornell University art history professor LeGrace G. Benson, to whom Kubrick replied two weeks later with a letter of gratitude. 

9. DR. STRANGELOVE WAS BASED ON FOUR (NOT FIVE) FAMOUS GERMAN SCIENTISTS AND POLITICAL FIGURES. 

The movie’s wheelchair-bound namesake, an ingenious but maniacal former Nazi scientist, drew from a collection of real life influences. The character was modeled chiefly after rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, with traces of RAND Corporation military strategist Herman Kahn, Manhattan Project kingpin John von Neumann, and hydrogen bomb designer Edward Teller. Some later critics have claimed that Henry Kissinger also helped inspire the character. However, Sellers always denied this speculation, and as Slate notes, Kissinger was still a fairly obscure Harvard professor in 1964.

10. GENERAL RIPPER’S FLUORIDATION CONSPIRACY THEORY CAME FROM A REAL RADICAL GROUP

General Jack Ripper’s conspiracy theory about water fluoridation that prompts him to instigate global warfare wasn’t Kubrick’s creation. Founded in 1958, the John Birch Society promoted an anti-fluoridation agenda throughout small-town America. In several areas of the country, water fluoridation was banned, and advocates of the practice were threatened with arrest and incarceration. 

11. ONE LINE OF DIALOGUE WAS CHANGED IN LIGHT OF THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION. 

Dr. Strangelove held its first test screening on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. Recognizing that the tone of the dark, politically charged satire might seem too abrasive for American audiences in light of the tragedy, Columbia Pictures delayed the film’s release from December 1963 to January 1964. 

On top of this, Strangelove employed sensitivity by tinkering with a line spoken early on in the film by Maj. Kong. While rifling through a pack of military supplies that included chewing gum, lipstick, nylon stocking, and prophylactics, Kong (originally) remarked, “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all this stuff.” A sloppy lip-dub replaced the word “Dallas” with “Vegas” as not to allude callously to the site of Kennedy’s murder.

12. KUBRICK OPENED A LAWSUIT AGAINST A RIVAL FILM DURING PRODUCTION. 

Four years after Peter George penned Red Alert, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler came out with similarly themed but more commercially successful novel Fail Safe. Shortly after the second novel’s publication, the film was optioned for adaptation. Curiously enough, the studio in question was Columbia Pictures, the very company that was producing Dr. Strangelove at the time. 

While George was engaging in his own legal battle with authors Burdick and Wheeler for alleged plagiarism of his 1958 story, Kubrick threatened the Fail Safe adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet, with similar legal action. In truth, Kubrick only wanted to push the rival’s release back far enough that it wouldn’t interfere with the performance of his own picture. Fail Safe was ultimately released in October of 1964, nine months after Dr. Strangelove

13. THE MOVIE WAS SUPPOSED TO END WITH A PIE FIGHT. 

Perhaps the most legendary deleted scene in the history of cinema, Dr. Strangelove’s original ending involved the entire war room staff engaging in a madcap pie fight. The segment in question begins with Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, disgruntled over his mistreatment at the hands of General Turgidson, hurling a custard pie at the American officer, but missing and hitting President Muffley instead. 

What comes next is a rally cry by Buck (“Gentlemen, our beloved president has been infamously struck down by a pie in the prime of his life! Are we going to let that happen? Massive retaliation!”), followed by fast-motion warfare that is ultimately halted by the yells of an infuriated Dr. Strangelove. 

Conflicting rumors attribute the scrapping of the scene to the Kennedy assassination (with Turgidson’s “our beloved president” line coming off as inappropriate in the context of JFK’s death) and Kubrick’s feeling that the scene simply didn’t work creatively. The idea was scrapped following the Nov. 22 test screening and has been shown publicly only once: at a screening of the film at London's National Film Theatre in 1999, immediately following Kubrick’s death. 

14. SELLERS’ COMEDY PARTNER ALLEGEDLY SUGGESTED THE SOMBER ENDING. 

Prior to his work on Lolita or Dr. Strangelove, Sellers was known best as one third of a British radio comedy group that led The Goon Show. Rumor has it that Sellers’ fellow Goon, Spike Milligan, paid an impromptu visit to the Strangelove set one day during production to spend time with his friend. It was during Milligan’s pop-in that he apparently suggested to Kubrick the idea of juxtaposing footage of nuclear explosions with the bittersweet melodies of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” 

15. DR. STRANGELOVE INSPIRED ACTUAL CHANGES IN INTERNATIONAL POLICY. 

While certain critics, politicians, and military personnel alike dismissed Dr. Strangelove as farce and fallacy, the terrifying plausibility of the events at play in the movie struck a nerve with Washington D.C. Government agencies including the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles examined the film and Peter George’s Red Alert as a means to qualify the likelihood and prevent a Strangelove-like scenario in the real world. As early as the mid-1960s, procedure was shifted so that no one government individual would have access to the complete code needed to unlock a nuclear weapon. By the 1970s, the Air Force began employing coded switches that would disallow the unauthorized instigation of nuclear arms, as represented by the actions of General Ripper in the film.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Mystery Science Theater 3000
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While the rest of America was slipping into a turkey coma on Thanksgiving Day in 1988, Minneapolis area residents lucky enough to get clear reception of local UHF channel KTMA were getting the first taste of what would soon become a Turkey Day tradition: Mystery Science Theater 3000, the classic cult television show which made a sport out of mocking schlocky movies of the past. The premise was simple: two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch a janitor (local comedian Joel Hodgson, as Joel Robinson) into space to study the effect bad movies have on the human mind in order to determine the single film that can help them in their efforts toward world domination.

But as it turns out, human beings can withstand a whole lot of bad acting, sloppy pacing, and ridiculous dialogue. Rather than drive them to the brink of insanity, Joel and the robot friends he built while orbiting Earth—Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Gypsy, and Cambot—found a certain amount of pleasure in having to endure these B-movies, spending the bulk of the show offering their own bitingly funny analyses of the on-screen happenings. It didn’t take long for audiences to catch on, or for MST3K to migrate to a national stage.

1. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 WAS BORN FROM FINANCIAL RESTRAINTS.

After trying his luck on the grander Hollywood stage for a few years, comedian Joel Hodgson moved back to Minneapolis with the idea of launching his own television show. There was just one problem: he had no budget. “Basically, Mystery Science Theater came from me saying, ‘What’s the cheapest possible show I could create that would still be novel and bring something new, [and] kind of have a new angle of doing something funny?’” Hodgson told Flavorwire of the show’s origins. “It all just came together, basically, at that point when I realized it could be like hosting a movie show, and if I utilized the silhouette thing, the characters will kind of run not only through the host segments, but through the entire movie, and they’ll be, like, companions.” 

2. THE “3000” IN THE TITLE WAS MEANT TO BE CONFOUNDING.

“The 3000 was a joke on all the people that were attaching the year 2000 to various programs,” said Hodgson in a 2011 interview with Art of the Title. “In the late ’80s it was everywhere: ‘America 2000’ was something that George Bush Sr. was talking about a lot so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I name it 3000 just to confound people?’ But there was a lot of confusion about it. I never meant for the show to take place in the year 3000. That simply makes no sense! If it is the year 3000, then why are all the films and the references about the end of the 20th century? For the concept of the show, it’s just a series number like Galaxie 500 or HAL 9000. Fords aren’t from the year 500 and the HAL wasn’t from the year 9000. In hindsight, I think it’s likely that the Mads were trying to snazz up the name of the show by tacking on the 3000.” 

3. IN ORDER TO GAUGE THE AUDIENCE’S REACTION, THE PRODUCERS SET UP A PHONE LINE.

Even after its initial debut, the creators of MST3K had no idea whether the show had connected with audiences. So writer-producer Jim Mallon (who voiced Gypsy) suggested they set up a viewer hotline and run the number during the next airing. “When we checked the answering machine on Monday, it was full,” Hodgson told Flavorwire. “So people just reacted to it.” This led Hodgson and company to set up a local fan club for the show, which quickly acquired 1000 members.

4. MST3K’S (FIRST) CANCELLATION WAS ALSO BORN FROM FINANCIAL RESTRAINTS.

As MST3K’s popularity was rising, the fortunes of its broadcaster—KTMA—were moving in the opposite direction, which led to the show’s (first) cancellation in May of 1989. As a thank you to the many local fans who had tuned in religiously, the cast put on a live version of the show at the Comedy Gallery, which attracted an audience of more than 600.

As MST3K neared the end of its run on KTMA, the producers put together a short “best of” reel in order to pitch it to other networks. The show caught the attention of executives at The Comedy Channel, a brand-new, 24-hour comedy network owned by HBO, which premiered on November 15, 1989. Three days later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its national debut as one of the channel’s anchor programs.

5. AS PART OF THE COMEDY CHANNEL DEAL, HODGSON AND MALLON INSISTED ON KEEPING ITS PRODUCTION IN MINNEAPOLIS.

While the bulk of The Comedy Channel’s programming was produced on site in New York City, the channel agreed to let Hodgson and Mallon continue shooting in Minneapolis. They did, however, spruce up the look of the show with new sets, revamped robots, and a new opening title sequence. 

6. THE BIGGEST CHANGE TO THE MST3K FORMULA WAS IN TURNING TO A SCRIPTED FORMAT.


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The early episodes of MST3K were ad-libbed, but in 1989, Hodgson decided that the show should take a turn for the scripted. As part of this change, Hodgson hired writer (and future host) Michael J. Nelson. “I hired Mike based on his act at an open mic and a recommendation from Josh [Weinstein],” Hodgson told Mental Floss. “Also writing the eps was my call.”

7. IN 1991, MST3K BEGAN A NEW THANKSGIVING DAY TRADITION.

MST3K became Comedy Central’s signature series, with executives nearly doubling its run from 13 to 24 episodes per year in 1991. On Thanksgiving of the same year it launched what would become an annual event: a 30-hour MST3K marathon that came to be known as “Turkey Day,” featuring back-to-back episodes plus behind-the-scenes spots and interviews. In the four years it ran, several of the stars of the films the series mocked—including Adam West (star of Zombie Nightmare), Robert Vaughn (of Teenage Cave Man), and Mamie van Doren (of Untamed Youth and Girls Town)—hosted “Turkey Day.” In honor of the show’s 25th anniversary, Hodgson brought back “Turkey Day” in 2013. For 2017, the marathon will stream via Shout! Factory, beginning at 12 p.m. ET.

8. JOEL’S DEPARTURE IN 1993 WAS THE RESULT OF CREATIVE DIFFERENCES.

After sitting through his final test of cinematic endurance (Mitchell, starring Joe Don Baker—a skewering that led Baker to claim that if he ever met anyone from the show he would “kick their asses”), Joel managed to escape the Satellite of Love with the help of an office temp, Mike Nelson, who the Mads then captured in place of Joel. In a 1999 interview with The A.V. Club, Hodgson admitted that his decision to leave the show was because of disagreements with Jim Mallon. “You can't really be fighting with someone and doing all the stuff you have to do,” said Hodgson. “I think what made the show work for me was that I really loved it. I really liked the audience, and the whole process was ... I was really happy doing it, and I realized that I'd turn into Jerry Lewis or something if I started to kind of hate it. And that was starting to happen, just because of these conflicts I was having internally with Jim … The thing would have blown up if we both would have stayed there. I like to look at it like the story of King Solomon, when the baby was brought before him.”

9. WHEN COMEDY CENTRAL CANCELLED MST3K IN 1996, FANS (A.K.A. MSTIES) TOOK IT UPON THEMSELVES TO RESURRECT THE SERIES.

Viewers put pen to paper and began a massive letter-writing campaign to save the series. The fan outburst didn’t change Comedy Central’s mind, but executives at the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) understood their plight. And so on February 1, 1997, MST3K began its eighth season on its third network. The episode introduced audiences to Professor Bobo, an ape from the year 2525.

In 1999, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was cancelled again, and fans once again launched a campaign to see the show resurrected, with Entertainment Weekly reporting that “efforts to save the show include more than a dozen ‘Save MST3K’ websites, a letter-writing push, and a pledge drive for ‘Save MST3K’ print ads.” The campaign led to a full-page ad in Daily Variety, but Sci-Fi Channel decision-makers remained unmoved, with then-VP of programming Bonnie Hammer citing low ratings coupled with the rising costs of securing film rights (for movies to be ridiculed by the cast) as the problem. Sensing the end was truly near, Nelson admitted: “I'm hoping to find a rich guy to just keep me in his living room and heckle live.” 

10. KURT VONNEGUT, JR. WASN’T A FAN.

In 1996, Jim Mallon and writers Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy released the ultimate fan guide, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. In it, Murphy shares the story about meeting his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and telling him about the show and its premise. Vonnegut was not impressed, telling Murphy that every artist deserves respect, even those who produce a bad movie. Still, Murphy couldn’t resist the opportunity to invite Vonnegut out to dinner, which the author politely declined, stating he had other plans. At dinner that night, Murphy and Vonnegut ended up dining at the same restaurant—except Vonnegut was alone, prompting Murphy to admit that he had been “faced ... but nicely faced.”

11. FRANK ZAPPA WAS A FAN.

Frank Zappa was an admitted monster movie fanatic, and wasn’t shy about his love of Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its run. A 1997 article in Total TV Online noted: “MST3K … made the late Frank Zappa an instant convert when he channel surfed into ‘this guy wearing a clown nose and a beanie copter roasting a puppet over an open fire.’ The clown was now-departed (and much beloved) Founding Father Joel Hodgson; the roasted puppet was plucky Tom Servo; and Zappa was equally bemused by the cinematic turkeys being roasted for the main course. ‘He just loved crummy old science fiction movies,’ says writer and voice of Servo Kevin Murphy, who thought ‘Frank Zappa on line one’ was a joke until he picked up the phone.” The show’s producers and Zappa had even discussed plans to collaborate on a giant spider movie; episode 523 was dedicated to Zappa following his passing. 

12. A HUMAN-LESS MST3K WEB SERIES DEBUTED IN 2007.

On November 5, 2007, Mallon debuted an animated Web series, The Bots Are Back!, which followed Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy’s adventures in space. Fan response was not positive, and only four episodes were ever released.

13. THE WORLD HAS MST3K TO THANK FOR HOBGOBLINS 2.

While not every filmmaker whose worked featured on the series was happy about the development, Hobgoblins director Rick Sloane came to see the positive side of the skewering. "I met Mary Jo Pehl a number of years later and she said I was the only director who ever liked the MST3K treatment of their own film," Sloane told Esquire. "They improved the film dramatically. It was barely watchable in its original version. While I enjoyed every joke that was at an actor's expense, I was seriously horrified when they did the fake interview with me over the end credits. It's become a fan-favorite joke and is constantly quoted on the Internet." But there was an upside to the notoriety: Hobgoblins became so widely known, that it led to the opportunity for a sequel. "I admitted from day one that Hobgoblins 2 was only possible because of the success of MST3K's revival of the original," said Sloane. "I submitted Hobgoblins 2 to both Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, but they both thought it was too easy of a target."

14. THE SHOW'S TITLE SPAWNED A VERB.

MSTing” is a practice that exists in the fan fiction universe, typically written in a transcript format, in which the characters of one piece of fic (or MST3K’s own characters) commentate another piece of fic. The process is also referred to as sporking.

15. THE RIFFING LIVES ON.

When new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 stopped being produced, the original cast kept riffing. In 2006, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett introduced a Web series called RiffTrax, which allows customers to download commentary tracks to sync with a movie. Throughout the year, the group also presents several RiffTrax Live performances at cinemas around the country. In 2007, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl launched Cinematic Titanic, offering a selection of riffed DVDs and a series of live events.

In 2017, a new generation of fans were introduced to Mystery Science Theater 3000 when—after a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring the series back—Netflix debuted Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, with Jonah Ray hosting.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2013.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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