14 Things You Might Not Know About Spaceballs
Mel Brooks hadn’t directed a movie in six years when he committed to 1987’s Spaceballs, a joke-saturated spoof of Star Wars and other popular genre films of the era. Critics speculated he was a little too late (Return of the Jedi had been released four years prior) and box office at the time was modest, but Spaceballs—which was released in theaters 30 years ago today—has since earned its reputation as a cult hit. Force yourself to check out these 14 facts about the Schwartz, robotic ears, and the search for Spaceballs II.
1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST STAR WARS PARODY FILM.
Amateur filmmaker Ernie Fosselius was so enamored with Star Wars in 1977 that he cobbled together a 12-minute short, Hardware Wars, which he shot for just $8000 in an abandoned laundromat. The film embraced its piddling budget by featuring toasters, flashlights, and bits of tin foil to substitute for space debris. Charmingly hokey, Hardware Wars became immensely profitable, earning roughly $500,000 in 1978, and was even declared a “cute little film” by George Lucas. Fosselius had offers to extend it to feature length, but passed; he would later seem slightly perturbed by Spaceballs, saying it "quoted" his efforts.
2. MEL BROOKS WANTED TO CALL IT PLANET MORON.
In the commissary at the 20th Century Fox lot in 1984, Brooks was sitting down to eat when a studio executive abruptly asked what his next project was going to be. “Planet Moron!” Brooks yelled back, possibly referring to his unsolicited interrogator. The title spurred Brooks and his collaborators to develop what would become Spaceballs. Planet Moron was abandoned when a film titled Morons from Outer Space was released; Spaceballs, despite the assumed innuendo, was a result of needing “space” in the title and Brooks considering it one of his trademark “screwball” comedies.
3. GEORGE LUCAS GAVE HIS (CONDITIONAL) BLESSING.
Satire is generally exempt from litigation, but Brooks was an admirer of Lucas’s work and wanted to get his permission before starting on the movie. Working on a “funny” film of his own with Howard the Duck, Lucas agreed—but only on the condition that no Spaceballs merchandising be made available. “The Lucas people were just upset about one aspect of Spaceballs,” Brooks told Starlog in 1987. “They didn’t think it was fair for us to do a take-off and then merchandise the characters.”
4. IT WAS SHOT OVER A GIANT SWIMMING POOL.
Michael Winslow, best known as the “sound effects guy” from the Police Academy series, said in 2012 that Spaceballs was shot on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. In the heyday of movies focused on swimmers like Esther Williams, the studio had constructed a giant pool that could be covered with retractable flooring. Spaceballs also used the same sound stage as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz; the crew would occasionally see stray pieces of the Yellow Brick Road when milling around.
5. BILL PULLMAN WAS BROOKS'S THIRD CHOICE.
According to Bill Pullman, the actor—who had not yet had a starring role—was approached by Brooks only after Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks turned down the role of Lone Starr, the Han Solo-esque lead of the film. Pullman said that hiring Rick Moranis and John Candy freed Brooks up to cast a relative unknown.
6. THE CREW THOUGHT WORKING WITH GREEN SCREEN MIGHT DAMAGE THEIR EYES.
Spaceballs took its effects seriously, and the cast and crew needed to spend a lot of time in front of a green screen. At the time, the process was still relatively new, and the production had a suspicion that the environment might be damaging to a person’s eyesight. With this (unfounded) concern in mind, Pullman and the cast wore sunglasses in between shots.
7. BROOKS HAD A BAD REACTION TO HIS YOGURT MAKEUP.
In addition to directing and co-writing, Brooks had two roles in the film: one as President Skroob and another as Yogurt, a diminutive Yoda equivalent. In 2012, Brooks told The A.V. Club that he had an allergic reaction to the latex, which created a rash that spread to his eyes. Brooks also only gave the team one hour to apply his make-up; if it took any longer, he insisted he'd get out of the chair and leave.
8. DOT MATRIX WAS A FAMOUS MIME.
Voiced by Joan Rivers, the service robot Dot Matrix was actually inhabited by Lorene Yarnell, one part of the largely-forgotten mime duo of Shields and Yarnell. The two had a variety show in the 1970s that featured a recurring skit called the Clinkers, a robot couple that allowed the performers to show off some impressively stilted moves. (In real life, Shields and Yarnell were married for a time; their ceremony was performed in pantomime.)
9. THE GUY PLAYING PIZZA THE HUTT REFUSED TO COME BACK.
Though Dom DeLuise voiced Jabba stand-in Pizza the Hutt for the film, he was not required—nor was he likely willing—to be covered in pounds of fake molten cheese. That honor went to actor/effects man Richard Karen. When additional shooting was required, however, Karen simply refused to climb back into the suit. Effects artist Rick Lazzarini took his place.
10. BARF'S EARS UPSTAGED THE ACTORS.
John Candy, who played half-dog/half-man Barf, was usually trailed on-set by Lazzarini and the effects crew, who had to control both his tail and his ears. At one point, Lazzarini was told by Brooks that he didn’t “have to move the ears so much!” They were too active in scenes focused on other characters. (Candy, incidentally, performed with a 40-pound battery backpack strapped to him to control the animatronics.)
11. LUCAS LOVED IT, PERHAPS BECAUSE BROOKS PAID HIM OFF.
One of Brooks’s strategies to ensure continued cooperation from Lucasfilm was to book their services for post-production work worth nearly $5 million. “You know what I did not to have any real trouble?” Brooks said. “I called Lucas and I said, ‘I want you guys up in San Francisco—at the ranch or whatever—to do all the post-production of the movie.’ And he said, ‘Oh, great, great.’” Lucas later wrote Brooks a note saying how much he loved the movie.
12. R.L. STINE WROTE A NOVELIZATION.
Film comedies—particularly those relying on broad, visual gags—are rarely fodder for tie-in novelizations, but perhaps that was the joke. To accompany the release of the film, a pre-Goosebumps R.L. Stine wrote Spaceballs: The Book, a young adult version of the story that substituted some of the stronger language and bits for child-friendly content. It remains the only exclusion to Lucasfilm’s “no tie-in” mandate.
13. THE ANIMATED SERIES SPOOFED THE PREQUEL TRILOGY.
While Spaceballs performed modestly during its initial release, it was “rediscovered” by audiences by following in the wake of persistent interest in all things Star Wars. When Lucasfilm’s prequel trilogy was wrapping up in 2005, Brooks produced and directed a 13-episode season of Spaceballs: The Animated Series; Daphne Zuniga (Princess Vespa) and Joan Rivers (Dot Matrix) were, along with Brooks, the only returning cast members.
14. RICK MORANIS WAS OFFERED A SEQUEL.
Rick Moranis, who played Dark Helmet, retired from acting in the 1990s to focus on his family and his musical career. In 2013, he told Heeb magazine that Brooks was interested in a sequel, which Moranis suggested could be titled Spaceballs III: The Search for Spaceballs II. (The film had, by this point, done very well on home video.) Brooks was only lukewarm on the idea, and Moranis found the financial offer underwhelming.
Brooks, who has never done a sequel, joked during the film’s production that a follow-up would be titled Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money.