Familiarize yourself with legal procedure, and these facts you might not have known about My Cousin Vinny, the classic 1992 comedy—released 25 years ago today—in which a very green, fish-out-of-water lawyer defends two “yutes” mistakenly charged with murder in his first court case. (Warning: There's profanity in the clips below!)
1. THE MOVIE WAS INSPIRED BY AN ENCOUNTER WITH A GUY HOPING TO PASS THE BAR.
My Cousin Vinny was one of the earliest ideas screenwriter Dale Launer ever had. “In the very early '70s, I met a guy who ... was waiting the bar exam results,” he told ABA Journal in 2012. Launer asked what would happen if he didn't pass, and the guy said he could just take it again, and if he didn't pass that time, he'd just take it again. And again. Until he passed. “So I said, 'What’s the most times somebody has taken and failed and finally passed?'” Launer recalled. “He said, 'Thirteen times.' ... I always thought that guy who took 13 times to pass the bar, or girl, is probably out there practicing law in some capacity. Now, how would you feel if suddenly you learned that guy is your lawyer? ... What if you have been accused of a crime and clearly, you have what appears to be the worst lawyer in the country?”
2. LAUNER TOOK A ROAD TRIP FOR SCRIPT RESEARCH.
According to the bio on his website, Launer set off on a road trip across the South for script research. He rented a car in New Orleans, then drove through Mississippi and Alabama and down the Gulf Coast. The trip provided plenty of inspiration for scenes that would eventually make it into the script: Launer’s car got stuck in the mud, every restaurant had grits on the menu, and he experienced the unearthly call of the screech owl. He even stopped to talk to the district attorney in Butler, who reminded him of Lane Smith; the actor was eventually cast in the role of Vinny’s DA.
Also a big inspiration: the attitude of the people he met along the way. Everyone “was very friendly and helpful,” according to the bio, “but when he told them he was making a movie that took place in the south—they'd get very concerned—afraid that Hollywood movies always made them look like bumpkins. That too [was] weaved into the story.”
3. ROBERT DE NIRO WAS LAUNER’S FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY VINNY GAMBINI.
After the script was written, a casting meeting was called and Launer met with Fox’s president, vice president, and CEO. When Launer suggested Robert De Niro for the part of Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, “the prez looked uncomfortable, embarrassed that I would suggest such an actor,” Launer told Writer Unboxed. “‘De Niro, uh … well … he’s not funny. And … his movies don’t make money.’ … Now ... the only movies De Niro acts in that make money? Comedies! So, I feel vindicated. But I wish I could’ve been given a big fat check when I [ended up] being proved right.”
4. DIRECTOR JONATHAN LYNN HAD NEVER SEEN THE KARATE KID WHEN HE CAST RALPH MACCHIO AS BILL GAMBINI.
“I was very eager to have Ralph Macchio in the movie,” Lynn said in the movie’s DVD commentary. “I must confess, I had never actually seen The Karate Kid. I watched him in a couple of videos that his agent sent and I thought he was just perfect for the part. … He’s very good in the movie.”
5. JOE PESCI BASED VINNY ON GUYS FROM HIS NEIGHBORHOOD.
“There’s a lot of people around like that in smaller neighborhoods, so I put a few of them together and [came] up with Vinny,” Pesci, who grew up in New Jersey, told The Movie Show in 1992.
6. THE STUDIO INITIALLY WANTED TO CUT MONA LISA VITO FROM THE FILM.
In 2007, Launer told Writer Unboxed that the studio had wanted to get rid of Vinny’s Chinese-food-loving, unemployed hairdresser/car expert girlfriend. To keep the character, Launer reluctantly added a scene, requested by the studio president, to the second draft: “He wanted Vinny’s girlfriend to complain that he’s not giving her enough attention,” Launer said. “You often see movies where some guy is hell bent on accomplishing something, and you’re on the ride with him—and his wife/girlfriend/mother is feeling neglected. And she complains. And I HATE this! ... Watching those scenes is simply boring. You want to fast forward it. Awful.”
Eventually, he said he “figured out a way where they’d HAVE to keep her and embellished her character ... she does complain, but at least apologizes for bringing it up, and you don’t hate her for bringing it up largely because it’s funny. ... Now, I thought if she brought this up at this point where he is simply going through hell—he should be pissed off. And he is. So he kinda tears into her.” Mona Lisa’s “biological clock” rant (above) became one of his favorite scenes in the script.
7. WILL SMITH WAS UP FOR THE ROLE OF STAN ROTHENSTEIN.
Mitchell Whitfield had just moved to Los Angeles from New York when he got word about the My Cousin Vinny auditions—which were taking place in New York. So he flew back to do the screen test. “Believe it or not, Will Smith was also up for the role,” Whitfield told Abnormal Use. “So, clearly, they didn’t know exactly which way they were going to go with the part. ... I think it could have been funny either way.” Whitfield ended up having to lose 25 pounds to play Stan.
8. THE STUDIO TOOK A CHANCE ON MARISA TOMEI.
Tomei didn’t have a lot of film experience when she landed the part of Mona Lisa Vito. “I’d seen her [on the set of Oscar] working with John Landis and [had] gone with [him] to the cutting room to look at her performance,” Lynn said in DVD commentary.” She was playing a 1920s blonde flapper, very different, but I could see how funny and talented she was. And we got her in to read. She read wonderfully and we persuaded the studio to let me go with this unknown actress in the role. It was the best decision I ever made.” Lynn said he knew they’d gotten the right actress for the part when he saw the dailies from the first scene they shot with her—Mona Lisa and Vinny’s arrival in Alabama, when she tells him, “Oh, yeah, you blend.”
9. TOMEI IS FROM BROOKLYN, BUT SHE DOESN’T SOUND LIKE HER CHARACTER.
Tomei grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, so “I really knew the neighborhood,” she told The New York Times in 1992. But that doesn’t mean she sounded just like Mona Lisa. “I don’t think that extreme, but I could be wrong,” she told NPR’s Fresh Air in 2010. “My mom was an English teacher, and she was on my butt about that kind of thing and correcting my speech from a young age.”
10. THE LEGAL SYSTEM IS PORTRAYED VERY ACCURATELY.
Lynn has a law degree from Cambridge University, and, he said in DVD commentary, “I get terribly irritated when I see films in which the legal procedure is obviously wrong.” In addition to Launer’s research, Lynn made adjustments to make sure the legal proceedings were correct. “I’m very pleased with the fact that, although this is heightened for comedic purposes, everything you see legally in this film could happen and is approximately correct,” he said. “Which, by the way, makes it the more frightening.” Lynn even sat in on a murder trial in the Monticello, Ga. courtroom that served as the inspiration for the Vinny courtroom set. “Some of the lines in the [Vinny trial] came directly from that trial,” he said, including Lane Smith’s pronunciation of heinous (“high-a-nus”) and his line about “our little old ancestors” in the opening remarks.
11. VINNY WAS SUPPOSED TO BE DYSLEXIC.
In the original script, when Vinny is asked why it took him six times to pass the bar, he says, “I’m a little dyslexic.” Viewers would have experienced it themselves while watching Vinny attempt to read the huge book of Alabama Criminal Court procedure; Launer envisioned that the camera would show a close shot of a word jumbled up, gradually becoming less so until Vinny could read it—and the pattern would repeat itself as Vinny moved to the next word.
Ultimately, the idea got cut because Lynn “said he did not know how to portray dyslexia,” Launer told Abnormal Use. The screenwriter was very unhappy about the omission because it made Vinny seem “not so bright. You don’t know why it took him so long to get through the bar. And then suddenly he starts acting smart. What you have to do is make assumptions that he is actually a smart guy, and the law is just complicated and boring. And for some reason, he didn’t pay attention. ... I don’t know if there is any other conclusion than that.” In the final film, there’s no reason given for why it took Vinny six times to pass the bar.
12. ONE SCENE WAS LIFTED FROM A BOOK ABOUT COMEDY AND THE LAW.
The book featured real moments from actual courtrooms. Launer lifted the memorable voir dire scene of a potential juror for Vinny. The lawyers “ask them their opinion on capital punishment, and they said something like, ‘I think it should be left up to the victims' families,’” Launer told Abnormal Use. “Then they then described exactly what the murderer did, and then that the juror actually said, ‘Fry them.’ So I put that right in the movie.”
13. THEY SHOT IN AN ACTUAL PRISON ...
The cast and crew shot for several days in a state prison in Gainesville, Georgia, in the wing where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. “It does have a death row, right beside the wing where we were shooting, and I looked all around death row,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “It was a very frightening building, and we were all pretty scared when we were there, even though we had guards with us at all times.”
It took up to 40 minutes to get from the outside of the building to where they were shooting inside. Whitfield told Abnormal Use that “When Ralph and I were walking through the prison the first time like holding our blankets and walking to our cell and you hear the prisoners screaming at us. Those are real prisoners, and they really were yelling at us. ... They had to tone it down with what they put in the movie because they were saying some horrible stuff. Ralph and I were petrified.”
14. … AND THE MOVIE’S PRISON GUARDS AREN’T ACTORS.
The guards in the movie were real prison guards. The production used real prisoners as extras twice: once in the background when Stan and Bill are being brought into the prison, and during a short scene where the duo plays basketball during exercise time. “The prisoners were all extremely cooperative and did exactly what we asked,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “I don’t know what incentives or threats were made in order to achieve that.”
15. THE SCENE WHERE VINNY AND STAN HAVE A MISUNDERSTANDING WAS CUT FROM THE SCRIPT.
The scene had appeared in the script Lynn initially read, but had been cut from the shooting script. Everyone agreed that it had to go back in, and it garnered some of the biggest laughs from audiences. The scene, of course, could never have really happened; any interaction between the accused and their lawyers would have to take place in an interview room—an issue the filmmakers discussed at length. Making it factually accurate, Lynn said, “would have meant losing that extremely funny scene, and we decided to bet that nobody noticed that it should have taken place in an interview room—and, in fact, nobody ever did.”
16. PESCI LEARNED HOW TO DO A CARD TRICK FOR THE FILM.
In the scene where Vinny is convincing Bill to let him represent him, Vinny does a card trick. “It was important to me that the card trick wasn’t faked,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “Of course you can fake anything by cutting and showing another shot, but I talked about this to Joe before we started shooting, and he learned how to do this card trick. So the scene in which he does it does not have any cuts in it. He actually fools the audience before their very eyes. He did it beautifully. I thought Vinny’s argument would be much less powerful if the audience could say oh well that was just faked by the way the scene was cut.”
17. SCENES ABOUT BILL’S MOTHER WERE CUT.
In prep, someone at the studio pointed out what they thought was a big problem: What kind of Italian mother doesn’t come down to support her son when he’s on trial? “Well, that was a tough question, because the answer is, Mother ought to have been there,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “But she would just have been a damn nuisance. The script was already long enough ... and we didn’t want to introduce another character who had no other plot function.” To compromise, the filmmakers added some scenes where, after Vinny comes down to Alabama, Bill’s mother has a heart attack. “We had Bill trying to keep in touch with mother in hospital and getting messages and there were a couple of scenes to do with mother’s heart attack; we never saw her,” Lynn said. “When we started putting the film together in the cutting room, it was just obvious that these scenes were going to be in the way of the momentum of the film. And we said, ‘Why don’t we just try leaving them out and see if anyone notices that mother never shows up?’ Nobody ever noticed. So we took those scenes out and saved between 5 and 10 minutes of stuff we really didn’t need.”
18. THE FILMMAKERS USED AN ACTUAL SCREECH OWL IN ONE MEMORABLE SCENE.
One of the film’s running gags is the fact that Vinny is always awakened by something—a steam whistle, noisy pigs, and, finally, a screech owl. Lynn and his team used an actual owl for the scene, “which was probably a ridiculous chance to take,” he said in DVD commentary. “People … think it’s a Muppet because its behavior was so perfect. It screeched, it looked back at Vinny, and then it looked back at the camera and screeched again. We got amazingly lucky with that screech owl.”
The owl’s screeches were added later. To get the bird to open his mouth at the right time, they used a trick: “We discovered that if you put a little bit of meat into its beak, it half swallows [it] and then, approximately three seconds later, opens its beak as the meat goes down,” Lynn said. “So we fed it a little bit of beef just before the camera starting turning so that for its first screech, which is added afterwards, his beak opened at the right moment. Everything else he did in that scene was pure luck, and we couldn’t believe our eyes when he reacted so perfectly, and of course we never shot it again.” The owl was basically a wild animal, Lynn said, though it had been trained a little bit: “He had heard a lot of gunfire in the previous weeks so that he wouldn’t get frightened by it.”
19. AUSTIN PENDLETON HAD EVERYONE IN STITCHES.
Director Jonathan Lynn cast his friend, Austin Pendleton—who, Lynn said, has a stutter in real life—in the role of the tongue-tied public defender. “I knew he would be really funny in that part,” Lynn told Abnormal Use. “But I really didn’t quite imagine just how funny. And I had to literally hide behind the camera. I normally sit by the camera. But I had to hide because I was laughing so hard. I had to somehow stop myself from making a sound, and I couldn’t let Austin be put off by seeing me … That’s the funniest moment I’ve had on any film I’ve ever made.” Whitfield agreed, telling Abnormal Use, “if you watch the movie and you see us at the table when he’s stuttering, and my shoulders are going up and down like I’m crying, I was laughing. I couldn’t help it.”
20. “YUTES” CAME FROM A REAL CONVERSATION.
The conversation between Vinny and Judge Chamberlain Haller about “two yutes” became “perhaps the most quoted piece of dialogue from the film,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. It was inspired by a conversation that Lynn and Pesci had when they were prepping the film at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City. “He said something about ‘these two yutes’ who were on trial and I said ‘what?’ and he said ‘what?’ and I said ‘what’s a yute?’” Lynn recalled. “I realized as we were having that conversation that that was something that ought to happen between Vinny and the judge, so I simply wrote it in the way it happened naturally.”
21. PESCI’S OSCAR ALMOST MADE A CAMEO.
The night before they shot the scene where Vinny sleeps like a baby during a prison riot after being held in contempt of court, Pesci had won the Oscar for Goodfellas. “He flew in from Los Angeles, and on the first take, when we panned to him, he was clutching the Oscar in his arms,” Lynn said in DVD commentary, laughing. “We sent that to the studio as the dailies.”
22. YOU CAN VISIT MANY LOCATIONS FROM THE MOVIE.
Though the film is set in Alabama, the production actually shot in three separate small towns in Georgia. “Apart from the courtroom,” which was a set, “virtually everything was shot on location,” director Jonathan Lynn said in Vinny’s DVD commentary. “It wasn’t a very expensive movie, and that was the cheaper way to go. It also had more authenticity.” Which means you can visit a number of the film’s locations—including the newly reopened Sac-O-Suds convenience store, where you can pick up a can of tuna. (Just make sure you pay for it!)
23. THE MOVIE WAS PRAISED BY THE LAW COMMUNITY.
“The movie is close to reality even in its details,” lawyer Maxwell S. Kennerly wrote on his blog, Trial and Litigation. “Part of why the film has such staying power among lawyers is because, unlike, say, A Few Good Men, everything that happens in the movie could happen—and often does happen—at trial.” Professor Alberto Bernabe of The John Marshall Law School, who hands his students a list of law movies organized by category, puts Vinny under “Education,” not just because “it provides so much material you can use in the classroom. For example, you can use the movie to discuss criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge in a trial, efficient cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses and effective trial advocacy.” The film has also been praised by a Seventh Circuit Court Judge; referenced by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; used to teach young lawyers at legal conferences; and made it into a legal textbook.
24. IT EARNED A SPOT ON THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION’S LIST OF GREATEST LEGAL MOVIES.
Coming in at number three, “The movie packs in cinema’s briefest opening argument ('Everything that guy just said is bulls**t'), its best-ever introduction to the rules of criminal procedure, and a case that hinges on properly introduced expert testimony regarding tire marks left by a 1964 Skylark and the optimal boiling time of grits,” the journal writes. Launer said the honor was “like getting the Oscar. In some ways, better.” Vincent Gambini came in at Number 12 on the association's list of Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Aren't Atticus Finch).
25. TOMEI FOUND OUT ABOUT HER OSCAR NOMINATION IN AN UNLIKELY PLACE.
Tomei was sleeping on a friend’s couch—a friend who was pregnant and due at any moment—when she found out about her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Her friends were watching TV, and “there were shouts from the other room, and they awoke me,” she told David Letterman in 1993. “I didn’t know if she was going into labor or what.” Tomei would go on to win the Oscar—and yes, despite the urban legend that 74-year-old presenter Jack Palance announced the wrong name, the actress really did win.
26. THERE COULD HAVE BEEN A SEQUEL.
In 2004, Lautner’s bio noted that “Joe wanted to do it, but Marisa didn't. Now she does, and so does Joe, but the studio isn't terribly interested in the remake, feeling too much time has passed since the initial release. Perhaps everyone who liked it has passed on. Or changed their minds. Launer hopes they will see the light.” According to Whitfield, the sequel might have involved Vinny going to Europe.
27. JOE PESCI MADE AN ALBUM AS VINNY GAMBINI.
Before he was an actor, Pesci was a lounge singer; six years after My Cousin Vinny came out, he released an album called Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You. It features the songs “Wise Guy,” “Take Your Love and Shove It,” “Yo Cousin Vinny,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a duet with Tomei as Mona Lisa. It debuted at Number 36 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart.
28. THERE'S A BOLLYWOOD VERSION.
Banda yeh bindaas hai ("This Guy is Fearless") was directed by Ravi Chopra and starred Govinda, Lara Dutta, and Sushmita Sen. Chopra reached out to Fox in 2007 for approval to produce the remake, and was given permission to make a film loosely based on the original idea. But in May 2009, Fox sued Banda yeh bindaas hai's production company, B.R. Films, for $1.4 million, saying the remake had not been approved, and that a script review showed the film to be "a 'substantial reproduction' of the U.S. film" with an identical storyline, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. B.R. Films denied the claims, saying their version featured different characters and settings; the company eventually settled with Fox in August 2009, paying the studio $200,000.
29. PATRIOTS COACH BILL BELICHIK REFERENCED VINNY DURING DEFLATEGATE.
“I would not say that I am Mona Lisa Vito of the football world,” Belichik said when asked what he knew about football pressure. When she heard, Tomei texted Pesci. "We thought it was pretty funny," she told The Rich Eisen Show.
This post originally ran in 2015.