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18 Epic Facts About Dances With Wolves

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The prevailing logic in Hollywood 25 years ago was that Westerns, while long on history and sometimes successful, were not a genre moviegoers were clamoring to see. Any filmmaker who did get the green light would need to keep the project within budget, under two hours, and, of course, keep all the dialogue in English. Dances With Wolves defied all of that.

Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, the 1990 epic about a disillusioned Civil War lieutenant who travels west and befriends a tribe of Sioux Indians clocked in at three hours long, came in millions of dollars over budget, and included a cast full of unknown Native American actors speaking a language most audiences had never heard. In the end, the film—“a journey movie,” as Costner has called it—won seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and grossed more than $400 million. On the 25th anniversary of its release, here are a few things you might not know about Dances With Wolves.

1. IT STARTED AS A NOVEL THAT NOBODY WANTED TO PUBLISH.

Inspired by books he’d read about the Plains Indians, screenwriter Michael Blake (who died earlier this year) pitched Costner on the idea for Dances with Wolves. Costner told Blake, whom he’d met in a Los Angeles acting class, to write a novel instead of a screenplay, reasoning that a novel could generate studio interest more effectively than a cold script. So Blake spent months writing and sleeping on friends’s couches (including Costner’s). “I wrote the entire book in my car, really,” Blake said in a behind-the-scenes feature. Once finished, Blake submitted Dances with Wolves, to numerous publishers, all of whom passed on his manuscript. Finally, after more than 30 rejections, a small publisher called Fawcett accepted it.  

2. IT BECAME THE FILM THAT NO STUDIO WANTED TO FINANCE.

Turned down by American studios, Costner looked abroad for help, eventually securing startup funds from a handful of foreign investors. With only a fraction of the movie’s $15 million budget secured, he began filming. Orion Pictures eventually stepped in with $10 million, but Dances with Wolves ended up going more than $3 million over budget. Costner covered the overage out of his own pocket.

3. COSTNER AND HIS SCREENWRITER HAD A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP.

Before Blake began working on Dances with Wolves, Costner tried to get work for his friend by arranging numerous interviews with studio representatives. But as Costner told Tim Ferriss on a recent podcast, Blake spoiled every opportunity by arguing with the reps. “I really started to lose patience with him,” Costner said. The two became increasingly at odds, culminating in a physical confrontation that had Costner pinning Blake against a wall. “I said, ‘Quit pretending you want to be in Hollywood,’” Costner told Ferriss.

Blake stayed with Costner while writing Dances with Wolves, all the while pestering Costner to read his work in progress. Costner refused, and Blake quickly wore out his welcome. He eventually moved down to Arizona, where he washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant for $3.35 an hour. He called Costner asking for money, so Costner mailed him a sleeping bag and a portable stove. Blake pestered Costner again to read the book, which he’d since finished. After months of refusing, Costner finally gave in and was stunned. “It was the clearest idea for a movie that I’d ever read,” Costner recounted.

4. COSTNER TRIED TO FIND ANOTHER DIRECTOR BEFORE TAKING THE JOB HIMSELF.

After deciding to go ahead with the project, Costner gave the script to three prominent directors (he won’t name names, unfortunately), hoping that one of them would be a good fit. But each of them had parts they wanted to cut that Costner considered crucial. “Some wanted to get rid of the opening Civil War sequence,” Costner told Tim Ferriss. “Some thought it was too long. Somebody thought it shouldn’t be a white [love interest], that that would be cliché.” So the actor decided to step in and do the job himself.

5. A COMMUNITY COLLEGE TEACHER SERVED AS THE FILM’S DIALOGUE COACH.

More than a quarter of Blake’s script had to be translated into the Sioux Lakota dialect. This was admirable, considering most Westerns made Native American actors spout their lines in English. But there was one problem: Few people could speak Lakota, much less translate it. Costner heard about a teacher at South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University named Doris Leader Charge, who taught the Lakota language and culture. He sent the script to her and got it back three weeks later, fully translated.

“I’d never even seen a script before then,” the then-60-year-old teacher said in the behind-the-scenes feature. Since none of the actors spoke Lakota, Costner brought Leader Charge onto the set for further guidance and even offered her a speaking role as Pretty Shield, the wife of Ten Bears. Leader Charge initially declined, saying she needed to return to work. So Costner called up the president of the college and got her stay extended.  

6. THE LOGISTICS WERE DAUNTING.

In addition to filming at more than 30 locations throughout South Dakota and Wyoming, the shooting script called for 3500 buffalo, three dozen teepees, 300 horses, two wolves, and a small army of Native American extras. Add in budget headaches and complications with the weather, which ranged from 20 degrees to over 100 degrees across the July-to-November shoot, and it’s a wonder the film got made at all.

7. THE BUFFALO HUNT WAS PARTICULARLY COMPLICATED.

There were no trick shots or CGI wizardry behind the film’s centerpiece: That really is a herd of 3500 buffalo storming across the prairie. The crew got only one shot at filming the stampede each day, since the animals had to first be rounded up and then, once they started running, would go for miles before stopping. “The trucks began herding the buffalo at five o’clock in the morning in hopes that they would be in position by 11,” producer Jim Wilson told Entertainment Weekly. Capturing the sequence took eight days and involved 20 wranglers, a helicopter, and 10 pickup trucks with mounted cameras.

8. NEIL YOUNG AND OREOS HELPED COMPLETE THE SEQUENCE.

Filming required a few domesticated buffalo for close-up shots. So the crew turned to singer Neil Young, who loaned them “Mammoth,” and to a South Dakota meat manufacturer, whose mascot “Cody” played the buffalo that charged a young brave who had fallen off his horse. To get Cody to run at the camera, his handler enticed him with his favorite treat: Oreos. “You could be 100 yards away, pull out an Oreo, and he’d take off like a bullet straight for you,” Wilson told Entertainment Weekly.

9. COSTNER DID MOST OF HIS OWN STUNTS.

Wilson estimates that Costner did 95 percent of his own riding, shooting, fighting and wolf-dancing in the film. All of which was impressive, but also kept the crew on edge. During the buffalo hunt sequence, a rider veered in front of Costner’s horse, throwing the star from his mount. “I was in the copter and all I heard was ‘Kevin’s down, Kevin’s down,’” Wilson recounted. While the crew held their breath, the star got up, dusted himself off, and hopped on his stunt double’s horse to finish the scene.

10. THE WOLVES WERE DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH, NATURALLY.

The crew employed two wolves—Buck and Teddy—to play Two Socks, the wolf that Costner’s Dunbar befriends. But even with trainers, so called “trained” wolves are notoriously temperamental. Lots of patience and meat scraps were required to get Buck and Teddy to cooperate. The filmmakers weren’t above humiliating themselves to get the shots they needed, either. Behind-the-scenes footage shows Wilson and Costner trying to get the wolves to howl by belting out their own calls of the wild.

11. COSTNER WANTED AN ACTRESS “WITH LINES ON HER FACE” TO PLAY STANDS WITH A FIST.

Going against the trend of pairing a leading man with a much younger love interest, Costner said he wanted a mature, more experienced actress to play Stands With a Fist, the white woman adopted by the Sioux tribe as a child who helps John Dunbar integrate with her people, and eventually falls in love with him. They handed the role to Mary McDonnell, a then-37-year-old stage actress who learned her Lakota lines quickly and deftly handled her character’s re-learning English. Her performance garnered an Oscar nomination—plus lots of compliments about her wind-blown hair.

12. HOLLYWOOD INSIDERS REFERRED TO IT AS “COSTNER’S LAST STAND.”

Hollywood insiders smelled blood after hearing about the film’s production difficulties. Some called the risky bet  “Costner’s Last Stand,” while others dubbed it “Kevin’s Gate,” in reference to Michael Cimino’s wildly over-budget Western flop Heaven’s Gate. In the end, they were all humbled by the film’s nearly $425 million box office haul.

13. THE STUDIO TAILORED SEPARATE MARKETING CAMPAIGNS TO MEN AND WOMEN.

Part of Dances With Wolves’ success was due to its appeal to both male and female moviegoers. To stoke interest, Orion took a unique step at the time by cutting separate trailers and print ads that played up different aspects of the film. The female-focused marketing played up the movie’s love story, while the male-focused campaign emphasized the gun-slinging, Wild West elements of the film.

14. IT BECAME THE HIGHEST-GROSSING WESTERN OF ALL TIME.

Over the course of six months in wide release, Dances with Wolves took in $184 million domestically, rocketing it past Young Guns, Silverado, and other Westerns to become the highest grossing film in the genre. Twenty-five years later, it’s still at the top of the chart, just ahead of 2010’s True Grit. Interestingly, in all its weeks in theaters, Dances With Wolves never topped the box office charts.

15. THE MOVIE GAVE ORION PICTURES A TEMPORARY BOOST.

The company that distributed RoboCop, Platoon, and Caddyshack rolled out a string of poor performers in the late 1980s. By the time Dances With Wolves came to theaters, Orion’s stock was down 50 percent and the company was $500 million in debt. “We needed a hit,” David Forbes, Orion’s president of marketing and distribution, told Entertainment Weekly. Unfortunately, not even the combined success of Dances with Wolves and Silence of the Lambs (which came out the following year) was enough to recoup Orion’s losses. A year later, the company filed for bankruptcy, emerging briefly in the mid-1990s before MGM bought it. In 2014, MGM released The Town That Dreaded Sundown under the Orion label.

16. THE FILM HAS ITS CRITICS.

More than a few reviewers wrote that the film was overly sentimental and romanticized the lives of the Sioux Indians. David Sirota, writing for Salon, recently called Dances With Wolves an example of a “white savior film” that tells a familiar story about a white hero who swoops in to save a helpless tribe from destruction. Native American actor and activist Russell Means, meanwhile, called the film Lawrence of the Plains, meant as a derogatory reference to Lawrence of Arabia, and pointed out that the film’s Lakota dialect is almost all wrong. “The odd thing about making that movie is, they had a woman teaching the actors the Lakota language,” Means told High Times. “But Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the Indians and Kevin Costner were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing.”

17. THE SIOUX NATION ADOPTED COSTNER AS AN HONORARY MEMBER.

Criticism aside, the Sioux were pleased with a portrayal that focused on the peaceful, day-to-day life of their tribe. So they honored Costner with official membership. The induction ceremony included tying an eagle feather in his hair and giving him a hand-woven quilt. A few years later, though, Costner lost some of those good vibes when he bought several hundred acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills—a land considered sacred by the Sioux—and announced plans to build a resort. Development proved difficult, however, and Costner finally abandoned the plan in 2013.

18. THERE’S A SEQUEL.

A sequel to the book, that is. In 2001, Blake published The Holy Road, which continues the story of John Dunbar, now a full-fledged Sioux warrior, as he tries to protect his tribe from encroachment by white settlers. Critics praised the novel for the ways it portrayed westward expansion and the plight of Native Americans without coming off heavy-handed. There have been rumblings about a possible miniseries, but nothing is confirmed at this time.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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