14 Things You Might Not Know About Spaceballs

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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 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.

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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.

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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.


© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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.

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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.


© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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.

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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.

Additional Sources:
Starlog #119; Starlog #121.

Orson Welles's Former Hollywood Hills Estate Is Taking Vacation Reservations

Fred Mott, Getty Images
Fred Mott, Getty Images

Orson Welles's former Hollywood Hills estate is a perfect place to get away from society, grow a bushy beard, and brood over a bottle of whiskey.

Interested? The late Hollywood icon's 3000-square-foot home is available to rent for about $755 a night through HomeAway. The house, which sits on its own private 15,000-square-foot knoll, was home to Welles at the very beginning of his career and is where he wrote the screenplay for 1941's Citizen Kane. Bring along your typewriter and try to channel some of his greatness.

Quite a few other celebrities have inhabited the house as well, including Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. Features of the grand four-bedroom mansion—built in 1928—include a lagoon pool, Jacuzzi, deck, and both canyon and city views.

There's never been a better time to rent Welles's abode: his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is set to premiere at this month's Venice Film Festival before arriving on Netflix. The unfinished flick, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, has been completed and restored for its much-anticipated release. (Of course the mansion has plenty of TVs for your viewing pleasure.)

The property has a three- to five-night stay minimum, depending on the season. For more pictures, see below or head to HomeAway. And since you're already in vacation-planning mode, another creative celebrity abode to consider is F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's Montgomery, Alabama home, which is available to rent via Airbnb.

Orson Welles' house
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles mansion
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

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