Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

12 Very Special Facts About Punky Brewster

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

Sitcoms about kids abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves are few and far between. Fortunately, Punky Brewster, which ran from 1984 to 1988, was able to fill that need. Starring Soleil Moon Frye as the aggressively optimistic Punky and George Gaynes as her adoptive father, Henry, the show was famous for Punky’s distinctive fashion palette and its obsession with Very Special Episodes. (In “Urban Fear,” Punky learns a serial killer is stalking her neighborhood; in another, Punky learns a valuable lesson about peer pressure and drug use.)

On the 30th anniversary of the series' finale, check out these 12 facts on alternative casting, a failed spinoff, and the real origin of the infamous refrigerator episode.

1. PUNKY IS A REAL PERSON.

Though she probably didn’t dress like a rainbow vomited on her. In the mid-1980s, the Federal Communications Commission insisted that networks use the 7 and 7:30 p.m. slots on Sunday for news or children’s programming. Instead of competing against CBS’s 60 Minutes with more topical content, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff decided to counter-program with a show about a spunky little girl. He wanted to name her after a teacher's daughter he knew in prep school, Peyton “Punky” Brewster: Peyton gave NBC lawyers her approval. As reported by Mental Floss's own Stacy Conradt, the "real" Punky even appeared in a later episode as a teacher.   

2. VICKI THE ROBOT AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE.

When NBC’s casting call went out for Punky, more than 3000 adorable, elfin actors campaigned for the role. Among them was Tiffany Brissette, who later appeared as the monotone Vicki in the kid-robot series Small Wonder; Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All) was also a contender. But producers knew the relatives of Soleil Moon Frye, a 7-year-old with three TV movies under her tiny belt, and decided she had sufficient Punky Power.

3. HERMAN MUNSTER WAS UP FOR THE HENRY PART.

Before actor George Gaynes (Police Academy, Tootsie) was awarded the role of Punky’s adoptive father, Henry, producers were fielding another possibility: Fred Gwynne, best known as Herman Munster on The Munsters. Gwynne was said to be eager to distance himself from Munster and agreed to audition with Frye. But when the actress asked if he was Herman Munster, a disappointed Gwynne slinked out.   

4. THE SHOW WAS KIND OF GRIM.

When Tartikoff had the idea for a kid show, he passed it along to writer David Duclon, a producer on the network’s hit series Silver Spoons. Duclon told TV Guide in 1986 that he researched topical issues and found an alarming number of girls were victims of abandonment. It was decided Punky’s parents would be deadbeats; future episodes threatened to have her locked away in an orphanage, helping Henry cope with a bleeding ulcer, and addressing his sleeping pill addiction—unless, of course, she was busy tending to her dog, Brandon, who was hit by a car.

5. COLUMBIA PICTURES SUED SOLEIL MOON FRYE FOR $80 MILLION.

Being precocious apparently isn’t enough to keep a battalion of lawyers from trying to devour you. According to the Associated Press, Columbia Pictures (which took over production of the show when it went into syndication for its third season) sued Soleil Moon Frye for $80 million in 1986. The reason? Frye failed to report to work. Her attorney, Dennis Ardi, asserted Frye was under no legal obligation to perform once the series left NBC. Since the show ran for two more years, it's safe to say things were worked out and no Punky punitive damages were assessed.

6. THE INFAMOUS FRIDGE EPISODE WAS THOUGHT UP BY A KID.


NBC

To help stir up publicity for the series, NBC ran a contest in 1985 that solicited story ideas from kids. The winner was Jeremy Reams, who submitted a premise that involved Punky having to perform CPR on her friend, Cherie, who had gotten trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator. While this was an actual danger for older appliances with latches that couldn’t be opened from the inside, by 1956 the government mandated magnetic handles. In New York State, it was also illegal to discard a fridge without removing the door.

7. SOME EPISODES WERE ONLY 15 MINUTES LONG. (THANKS, KNIGHT RIDER.)

While Punky usually occupied the normal 30-minute sitcom slot, the fall arrival of football on NBC prompted some format changes. Because games airing in the afternoon often run late, NBC decided to avoid joining a program in progress by scheduling 15-minute mini-Punky episodes to follow NFL broadcasts; it also guaranteed their hit Knight Rider would start on time at 8 p.m. Three episodes were structured to be “broken" in half, making for six truncated installments. It was the first time a major network had aired a 15-minute show since news programs in the 1960s.  

8. T.K. CARTER (A.K.A. “MIKE FULTON”) WAS ARRESTED FOR STEALING A CAR.

Fans may remember actor Thomas Kent Carter as Punky's “cool” teacher Mike Fulton. According to the Associated Press, Carter behaved in a very uncool manner when he approached a woman in December of 1991 and demanded her car. She refused; he allegedly punched her in the stomach before speeding away. Carter was arrested after a high-speed chase and having taken out two highway dividers. He was released on $10,000 bail.

9. PUNKY RETURNED AS A WEB COMIC.

Punky Power could not be suffocated for long: In 2014, publisher Lion Forge obtained the license to a number of 1980s series (Miami Vice, Airwolf) and began churning out a line of digital comics. The prequel sees Punky homeless in Chicago after being abandoned by her mother, “sleeping in empty apartments and mattress stores.” Eight issues have been released.   

10. IT ADDRESSED THE CHALLENGER EXPLOSION.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986—killing all seven people on board—it left a lot of people shaken. The producers of Punky Brewster quickly packaged an episode with the help of psychologists that depicted Punky watching the telecast with her classmates and then struggling to cope with her feelings over the tragedy. Buzz Aldrin appeared in the episode as himself.    

11. THERE WAS A SPINOFF ABOUT AN ORPHANAGE.

During Punky’s first season, NBC considered a spinoff, Fenster Hall, about an orphanage full of wayward kids. T.K. Carter was set to reprise his role as Mike Fulton; producers also invited a pre-Saturday Night Live Dana Carvey to join the cast. (He declined.) The series was considered for a fall 1985 premiere but never made it to air.

12. IN 2009, FRYE DRESSED AS PUNKY FOR HER TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

After hitting a milestone 1 million followers on her Twitter account in 2009, Frye celebrated by dressing in her signature Punky gear. The then-33-year-old filmed a five-minute video thanking her fans and pointed out that Punky’s many bandanas were “gangster before there was gangster.”

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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