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Halt, Citizen! 15 Facts About RoboCop

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People walking into Paul Verhoeven's bombastic action film RoboCop expecting an opera of exaggerated violence were not disappointed. But that’s not all audiences got: A sharp observation on militarized law enforcement and corporate excess, RoboCop—which hit theaters 30 years ago today—executed satire with as much skill as it had explosions. Check out these 15 facts (or there will be trouble).

1. ROBOCOP EXISTS BECAUSE A GUY NAMED ED HATED HIS JOB.

Ed Neumeier was so restless as a Universal Pictures story editor that he began to toy with an idea of his own about a robot police officer. Film student Michael Miner had a similar notion that he called SuperCop; the two brought their ideas together on a script, RoboCop: The Future of Law Enforcement. Despite its satirical bent, the title was so ludicrous they had trouble garnering interest until Orion Pictures—which had just had a hit with The Terminator in 1984—decided to run with it.

2. JUDGE DREDD WAS A MAJOR INFLUENCE.

While Neumeier has said that being on the set of Blade Runner gave him inspiration for the idea of robots in law enforcement, RoboCop’s stoic mannerisms and single-minded action owes a considerable debt to Judge Dredd, the British comic book cop who presides over a diseased urban landscape. Production artists even borrowed heavily from Dredd’s helmet (above) before settling on the sleek suit seen in the film.

3. STAN LEE TURNED IT DOWN.

In 1984, Neumeier decided to see if he could spin the RoboCop script into a comic book to use as a launching pad for a feature. He ran the idea by Stan Lee; before Lee could commit one way or the other, he and Neumeier attended an early screening of The Terminator, which also had a humanoid as the main character. An impressed Lee told the writer, “Boy, you’re never going to top that!” and passed.  

4. PETER WELLER BECAME A MIME FOR THE ROLE.

Knowing the suit (which was still being fabricated) would limit his facial expressions, Orion Pictures head Mike Medavoy suggested to lead actor Peter Weller that he seek out a mime coach in order to become more physically expressive. After interviewing several in what amounted to a mime-off, Weller settled on Moni Yakim, a performer who taught at Juilliard. The two worked for months on fluid, balletic movements that incorporated dance training; Weller even suited up in football gear and walked around Central Park to get a feel for moving with added bulk. Unfortunately …

5. WELLER COULD BARELY MOVE IN THE ROBOCOP SUIT.

After protracted design debates with director Paul Verhoeven, effects artist Rob Bottin was unable to deliver the suit until the day they were to begin shooting with it. It took Weller nearly 11 hours to squeeze himself into it, at which point he spent an hour trying to catch a set of car keys for a fleeting shot. Cumbersome beyond his expectations, all of Weller’s mime work had gone out the window; Yakim took the frustrated actor aside and told him to begin thinking of himself as a "beast." Production was halted for several days so that Weller could grow comfortable with his movements.

6. THE HEAT ON THE SET WAS EXCRUCIATING.


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While the film was set in Detroit, Michigan to reflect the industrial collapse of the city’s automobile industry, it didn’t do much shooting there, as location scouts determined the Motor City's skyline didn’t look appropriately futuristic. Instead, the production was based primarily in Dallas, where summer temperatures regularly exceeded 100 degrees. Weller could lose eight pounds in a day; much of his time between takes was spent re-hydrating or having cool air hoses stuffed into the suit.

7. WELLER REFUSED TO ANSWER TO HIS REAL NAME.  

According to co-star Miguel Ferrer, Weller instructed the producers to issue a memo to the cast and crew advising that no one should refer to him by his real name; he preferred to be called by his character’s name, Murphy, or “Robo.” Ferrer went on to say that, having known Weller for years prior to the film, he enjoyed greeting him with “Hey, Pete.” Weller ignored him.

8. ROBOCOP'S GUN NEEDED FBI APPROVAL.

According to Weller, the modified 9 millimeter Beretta automatic sidearm that RoboCop keeps in his thigh had to be approved by the FBI for entry into the United States. The actor, who had handled weapons as a teenager and was able to twirl handguns, said trying to spin the piece was like “trying to twirl half of a baseball bat.”

9. WELLER WAS WEARING A WALKMAN UNDER THE ROBO-HELMET.

In addition to having a very narrow field of vision and practically sautéing in his own sweat, Weller also had trouble hearing in the suit. For a shootout with drug dealers, Weller decided to set the mood by putting on headphones attached to a Walkman and playing Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain.” Weller called the moment “wildly, psychotically enjoyable.”  

10. IT RECEIVED AN X-RATING—EIGHT TIMES.

Verhoeven thought he had sensationalized the violence to a comedic degree, particularly in a scene where an office executive is the victim of a “glitch” in law enforcement machine ED-209. The robot essentially tears him to shreds by firing high-caliber ballistics, at which point someone asks for a medic. The MPAA did not find this as amusing as Verhoeven did and asked him to cut down the scene, as well as the murder of Weller’s Officer Murphy. In all, Verhoeven submitted the film eight times before finally receiving an R rating.

11. SOME OF THE ACTORS GOT UNSOLICITED STUNT PAY.

Kurtwood Smith and Ray Wise had been standing in such close proximity to a building explosion that the production—without any sense of humor—paid both men for “stunt work,” which amounted to roughly $400 apiece for the scene. But the actors didn’t feel their pay justified the risk to their lives; neither was aware the explosion would be that big, and Smith’s coat ended up catching on fire.  

12. IT BESTED SNOW WHITE AND JAWS AT THE BOX OFFICE. BARELY.

RoboCop opened in theaters on July 17, 1987, with the only other new release being Jaws: The Revenge, the fourth entry in the shark franchise. RoboCop won the weekend with just over $8 million, slightly more than third-place Jaws and Disney’s reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When all tickets were counted, the film made roughly $53 million—enough to crack the top 20 for the year, coming in at number 16, but still not enough to topple the 15th highest-grossing movie of the year: La Bamba.  

13. ROBOCOP SOLD FRIED CHICKEN IN KOREA.

While he may not actually possess a stomach, there’s just no killing RoboCop's appetite for chicken: RoboCop shilled for a Korean frozen food company in the 1980s, terrorizing a housewife before making off with the entire refrigerator. In a noodle commercial, RoboCop can be seen exercising his nonexistent abdominal muscles on a beach.

14. ROBOCOP ALSO DID A LITTLE PRO WRESTLING.

As the years went on, RoboCop’s place as social satirist gave way to a more one-dimensional portrayal of the character as a shellacked action hero in sequels, animation, and television. His nadir probably came in 1990, when an actor in the outfit emerged from backstage to assist professional wrestler Sting for a World Championship Wrestling pay per view event. Fortunately, he was able to restore order without opening fire.

15. A ROBOCOP STATUE WILL BE ERECTED IN DETROIT. SOMEDAY.

In 2012, word began to spread about a campaign to erect a RoboCop statue in Detroit—this despite the fact that the city was not exactly portrayed in the most flattering way in the films. A Kickstarter campaign was successful, and work on the statue has begun, but there’s still no ETA for the unveiling.

Additional Sources:
“On the Beat with RoboCop,” Starlog #117; “RoboCop: The Strong Arm of the Law,” Starlog #123; Flesh + Steel: The Making of RoboCop.

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John P. Johnson, HBO
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Charles Dickens Wrote His Own Version of Westworld in the 1830s
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

Charles Dickens never fully devoted himself to science fiction, but if he had, his work might have looked something like the present-day HBO series Westworld. As The Conversation reports, the author explored a very similar premise to the show in The Mudfrog Papers, a collection of sketches that originally appeared in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1838.

In the story "Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything," a scientist describes his plan for a park where rich young men can take out their aggression on "automaton figures." In Dickens's story, the opportunity to pursue those cruel urges is the park's main appeal. The theme park in Westworld may have been founded with a slightly less cynical vision, but it has a similar outcome. Guests can live out their heroic fantasies, but if they have darker impulses, they can act on those as well.

Instead of sending guests back in time, Dickens's attraction presents visitors with a place very similar to their own home. According to the scientist's pitch, the idyllic, Victorian scene contains roads, bridges, and small villages in a walled-off space at least 10 miles wide. Each feature is designed for destruction, including cheap gas lamps made of real glass. It's populated with robot cops, cab drivers, and elderly women who, when beaten, produce “groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect.”

There are no consequences for harming the hosts in Westworld, but the guests at Dickens's park are at least sent to a mock trial for their crimes. However, rather than paying for their misbehavior, the hooligans always earn the mercy of an automated judge—Dickens's allegory for how the law favors the rich and privileged in the real world.

As for the Victorian-era automatons gaining sentience and overthrowing their tormenters? Dickens never got that far. But who knows where he would have taken it given a two-season HBO deal.

[h/t The Conversation]

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Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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