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12 Surprising Facts About Mel Brooks

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI

Born in Brooklyn on this date in 1926, Mel Brooks has been cracking people up since he was a teenager. A 10,000-trick pony, he has made us laugh as a performer, writer, musician, and, of course, a director. Through it all, Brooks has found humor in places where most people wouldn’t dare to look for it. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we’ve dug up a few things that you might not have known about one of the greatest comedic minds of our time.        

1. HE CHANGED HIS LAST NAME BECAUSE OF A FAMOUS TRUMPETER.

Mel Brooks’ given name is actually Melvin James Kaminsky. The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, along with three older brothers. At age nine, Brooks’ uncle took him to see his very first Broadway musical: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. He was mesmerized. “I fell in love forever with Broadway,” Brooks said. Determined to make it in show business, the youngster started taking drum lessons from a neighbor. From there, Brooks’ career really took off.

By his the time he turned 14 years old, Brooks was already earning money as a percussionist. Soon, his talents took him to the Catskills, where the teenager played for various clubs in the Borscht Belt. Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, this area was also the home turf of Max Kaminsky—an acclaimed trumpet player. To avoid confusion, the drummer started calling himself Mel Brooks, a nod to his mother’s maiden name, Brookman

2. BROOKS’ KNACK FOR BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL IS DEEPLY ROOTED.

Igor literally winks at the audience in Young Frankenstein; Darth Helmet fast-forwards through his own movie in Spaceballs; the camera shatters a windowpane in High Anxiety. Just about every Mel Brooks picture is chock full of gags like these. The man’s undying love for fourth wall jokes began in the Catskills. One of his first jobs there was doing maintenance work at the Butler Lodge, an Ellenville resort that put on the occasional play. Brooks got a big break (of sorts) when their production of the melodrama Uncle Harry ran into trouble.

Midway through the run, a supporting actor fell ill. Brooks agreed to take his place, but ended up flubbing his first scene. On stage, he was supposed to offer Harry a glass of water. But as Brooks poured, the cup slipped through his fingers and shattered into pieces. There was an awkward silence. Not knowing what to do, Brooks wandered down to the end of the stage, took off his character’s wig, and shouted “I’m 14. I’ve never done this before!” The crowd howled with laughter. From that moment on, Brooks said, he knew he’d be a comic for the rest of his life—even though the director threatened to kill him.

3. HE SERVED IN WORLD WAR II.

The year 1944 was a pivotal one for Brooks. Upon graduating from high school, Brooks (who still went by Melvin Kaminsky) joined the U.S. Army. After getting some training in Virginia and Oklahoma, he was sent off to Europe. As a member of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, the Brooklynite saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. However, Brooks’ unit spent most of its time away from the battlefield. Instead, a normal day’s work for Brooks and his unit involved building bridges or poking around for buried landmines with their bayonets.

4. HIS 2000 YEAR OLD MAN CHARACTER WAS INSPIRED BY A RECURRING NEWS PROGRAM.

After the war, Brooks was hired as a writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows (1950-1954). He immediately hit it off with a co-worker named Carl Reiner, who would become a longtime friend and partner. One night, Reiner happened to catch a news show entitled We The People Speak. Hosted by Dan Seymour, the weekly program dramatized recent events with a team of actors. Reiner thought that this premise would make for a great skit on Your Show of Shows, but Caesar vetoed the idea. Nevertheless, some good still came of it.

During a lull in the writer’s room, Reiner put on his best Seymour impression, turned to Brooks and said “Here’s a man who was actually seen at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.” With a thick Yiddish accent, Brooks replied “Oooh, boy.” Staying in character, Brooks went on to add, “Thin lad, wore sandals, long hair, walked around with 11 other guys.” Thus, the 2000 Year Old Man was born.

Reiner and Brooks put together several popular albums’ worth of interviews with this character, who supposedly danced with Marie Antoinette and fathered over 42,000 children (“Not one comes to visit me,” he lamented). In 1998, the duo’s fifth album, The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000, earned a Grammy.

5. ABC REJECTED HIS GET SMART TV SERIES BECAUSE IT SEEMED “UN-AMERICAN.”

Co-created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the hit series ran from 1965 to 1970. A spoof of the James Bond franchise, it starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, a U.S. secret agent whose enthusiasm didn't always match his competence. Before NBC picked it up, the show was pitched to ABC—whose executives wrote it off as “distasteful and un-American.” Note, however, that it has since developed quite a following around the CIA.  

6. THE PRODUCERS WASN’T HIS FIRST BROADWAY MUSICAL.

In 1957, Brooks teamed up with celebrated lyricist Joe Darion to write the book for Shinbone Alley. A twisted tale about a dead poet who has been reanimated as a cockroach, the musical flopped and only ran for 59 performances—although an animated movie version came out 14 years later. Brooks took another stab at the Great White Way in 1962, when he scripted All American. Modestly more successful, it garnered mixed reviews and two Tony nominations. By comparison, The Producers won 12 Tonys, setting a record that has yet to be broken.

7. ALFRED HITCHCOCK HELPED HIM WITH HIGH ANXIETY.

By the late 1970s, Brooks had established himself as one of the top comedy directors in Hollywood, with genre parodies as his bread and butter. After lampooning westerns in Blazing Saddles, horror movies in Young Frankenstein, and Keaton-esque cinema in Silent Movie, he chose the great Alfred Hitchcock as his next target.

Out of respect for the Master of Suspense, Brooks mailed him a rough story outline in advance with a note that read, “If any of this offends you, I won’t do [the movie].” In response, Hitchcock invited Brooks to his office, where the two would meet on a regular basis to develop what became 1977’s High Anxiety. “Every Friday, I’d come over,” Brooks said. “He was the most lovely, charming guy that ever lived.” The day after Hitchcock saw the final cut, he congratulated Brooks with a case of choice wine. “I’ve still got three [bottles] left,” said the funnyman in 2013.

8. BROOKS HAS PRODUCED SOME WELL-REGARDED NON-COMEDIES.

In 1980, Anne Bancroft—Brooks’ late wife—directed a dramedy called Fatso. Her husband wanted to produce the picture, but knew that if his name showed up on the promotional materials, people would assume it was some kind of zany farce. So he created Brooksfilms, a company that would later produce such movies as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

9. BROOKS WRITES A LOT OF THE ORIGINAL SONGS THAT APPEAR IN HIS MOVIES.

In the original, 1968 version of The Producers, we get two musical numbers: “Prisoners of Love” and “Springtime for Hitler.” Brooks came up with the melody and lyrics for both, though he had to ask a musicologist friend to convert these into actual sheet music. The director’s other songwriting credits include the titular track of Blazing Saddles and “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” from his second movie, The Twelve Chairs.

10. FOR TO BE OR NOT TO BE, BROOKS AND BANCROFT WORKED WITH A POLISH LANGUAGE TUTOR.

Although he didn’t direct it, Brooks regards To Be or Not To Be (1983) as his favorite of all the pictures he’s ever done. A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 masterpiece of the same name, it stars Brooks and Bancroft as the Bronskis—a married couple who head a theater company in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Early on, they take the stage for a Polish-language cover of the hit jazz song “Sweet Georgia Brown.” To pull this off, the pair recruited a language tutor. “There’s no greater joy than singing … with my wife in Polish,” Brooks once declared. In a 2013 interview with SirusXM, Brooks reminisced about the film—and Bancroft. “She was fun,” he says. “I liked her so much, I couldn’t get enough of her.”

11. HIS LEFT HANDPRINT ON THE HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME HAS AN EXTRA DIGIT.

On September 8, 2014, Brooks cemented his place in movie history—literally. As Hollywood looked on, the director left his foot and handprints on a new block of the Walk of Fame. In typical Mel Brooks fashion, he did so with a prosthetic eleventh finger.

12. HE’S AN “EGOT."

In showbiz, those that can pull off winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony are known as “EGOTs.” So far, only 12 individuals have earned the title. Brooks’ journey toward becoming the eighth EGOT in world history started in 1967, when his work with Sid Caesar netted him an Outstanding Writing Emmy. Two years later, Brooks accepted a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Producers. He then won three more Emmys en route to landing a Grammy with Carl Reiner for their aforementioned 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 album in 1999. Finally, Brooks personally took home a trio of Tonys after The Producers musical was released.

As if all this weren’t enough, he’s also been a Kennedy Center honoree and, in 2010, Brooks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he was given the latter, President Barack Obama delivered a memorable speech, noting: “By illuminating uncomfortable truths about racism and sexism and anti-Semitism, he’s been called our jester, asking us to see ourselves as we really are, determined that we laugh ourselves sane.”

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23 Things David Letterman Invented for Our Amusement
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This week, nearly three years after bidding farewell to Late Night, David Letterman is making his triumphant return to the small screen via Netflix with My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman (where he'll interview two people who need no introduction: Barack Obama and George Clooney). If the series is anything like Letterman's career thus far, you can expect plenty of innovation.

Here are 23 recurring bits, features, and moments that the former Indiana weatherman (and his writers) invented for our amusement.

1. THE SHORT, NON-TOPICAL MONOLOGUE

Carson Productions, as in Johnny Carson’s production company, co-produced Late Night with David Letterman, and as the upcoming lead-out programming for The Tonight Show, it was important to Carson’s people that Letterman not copy Carson. Letterman’s people were told that among other things, they couldn’t have a sidekick sitting next to the host like Ed McMahon, a band with horns like Doc Severinsen’s, or a monologue. So instead, Letterman opened his show by standing in front of the audience and viewers at home with “opening remarks,” a monologue consisting of just one or two jokes with weird imagery, like tattoos melting in warm weather.

2. POST-INTERVIEW INTERVIEWS

On February 3, 1982—his third-ever broadcast—Late Night conducted two interviews with baseball hall-of-famer Hank Aaron: One was a standard talk show back-and-forth between host and guest. The other occurred after that conversation ended, where NBC Sports reporter Al Albert (son of Marv Albert) asked Aaron how he felt his last few minutes with Letterman went, with the idea that it was the equivalent of a post-game interview.

3. STUPID PET TRICKS

“Stupid Pet Tricks” began on Letterman’s short-lived but Emmy-winning morning show, and was a consistently popular segment on both Late Night and The Late Show. The idea came from original head writer Merrill Markoe, who "remembered how in college my friends and I would be hanging around in the evenings, talking, and drinking. One form of constant entertainment was to put socks on this one dog. Everyone I knew did some version of a silly thing like that with their pets, so we ran an ad to see if we could pull a segment together like that."

4. WORLD’S LARGEST VASE CONTESTS

After questioning people who claimed to have the “world’s largest vase” over the phone in what New York Magazine described as a “longish” segment, the vase was brought into the studio and displayed on Late Night from May 30 through June 2, 1983. On its third night, a 35-inch radio transmitting tower was added to the case when it was discovered that it was shorter than one in Canada. On its final night of national exhibition, Letterman read alleged letters from children addressed to the Vase, and the vase “spoke” to wish for peace for mankind.

5. CATCHPHRASE CONTESTS

Two on-air catchphrase contests, which aired a little over a month apart in the summer of 1984, gave lucky studio audiences the power to make “They pelted us with rocks and garbage” the first rallying cry, before it was displaced by "I do and do and do for you kids, and this is the thanks I get!"

6. A CAMERA FROM THE HOST'S P.O.V.

The February 15, 1982 installment of Late Night began with one continuous five minute and 17 second take through Letterman’s P.O.V. called “Dave Cam.” Cameos included that night’s guest Andy Rooney, Merrill Markoe, and Calvert DeForest, who played Larry “Bud” Melman on Late Night, as “Bert the Human Caboose.”

7. A CAMERA FROM THE GUEST’S P.O.V.

Letterman favorite Tom Hanks was the first wearer of the “Late Night Guest-Cam.” Hanks was on the show the night of December 12, 1985 to promote The Money Pit, which was initially supposed to debut the next day, but would be delayed until the following March. “The Late Night Sky-Cam” makes a cameo.

8. A CAMERA FROM A MONKEY’S P.O.V.

After a false start with a 30-year-old chimp named Bo, who was too small to handle the camera, “Monkey Cam” got its start on March 19, 1986. Zippy, who was on the cover of The Ramones' Animal Boy album, would return on roller skates with the “Late Night Monkey Cam Mobile Unit.”

9. PURPOSELY FUNNY TOP 10 LISTS

The very first Top Ten—“The Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas"—aired on September 18, 1985, as a satire of the random lists publications like Good Housekeeping were starting to produce at the time. Credit for who thought up the idea for Late Night is disputed; over the years, head writer Steve O’Donnell, former head writer and longtime SNL scribe Jim Downey, Late Night writer Randy Cohen, and producer Robert Morton have all gotten some or all of the credit. Top Ten made it to the end of Late Show’s run, even though the writers were already tiring of it by the February 6, 1986 show, which had the Top Ten list “Top Ten Reasons to Continue the Top Ten Lists Just a Little Longer.”

10. WEARING SUITS OF VELCRO, ALKA-SELTZER, MAGNETS, SPONGES, SUET, AND FOODS

On February 28, 1984, Letterman slipped into a “Suit of Velcro” and ushered in an era of strange outfits including a magnet get-up, which Letterman wore to attach himself to a huge GE fridge. Lowering himself into a 1000-gallon tank of water, Letterman’s suit of Alka-Seltzer fizzed and vaporized. There were also suits of suet, marshmallows, chips, and Rice Krispies, the latter of which made David “snap, crackle, and pop” in a large tub of milk. An influence was Steve Allen, the original host of The Tonight Show, who threw himself into Jell-O vats on television. Allen’s “Man on the Street” interviews were also something Letterman took to new levels of absurdity.

11. HOSTING A SHOW ABOARD AN AIRPLANE

Late Night’s fourth anniversary was celebrated onboard a flight from New York City to Miami.

12. AN EPISODE THAT ROTATES 360 DEGREES

Writers Randy Cohen and Kevin Curran came up with the unique way to celebrate the 800th episode of Late Night. NBC received “several hundred” phone calls about the December 9, 1986 show from viewers complaining that it was giving them headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Carson Productions executives were apparently not informed of the stunt beforehand and were reportedly “furious.”

13. FEUDING WITH BRYANT GUMBEL

After Letterman interrupted an August 19, 1985 broadcast of Today co-hosted by Bryant Gumbel, Gumbel called out the Late Night host for being “unprofessional” and didn’t publicly forgive him for four years. (Letterman claimed it was a Today producer who invited him to pull the stunt.)

14. FEUDING WITH OPRAH WINFREY

In the 16 years between Oprah's 1989 appearance on Late Night and her December 1, 2005 Late Show interview, rumors swirled about a feud between Winfrey and Letterman. The reasons why—and even if—there was a “feud” at all remain unclear.

15. CO-HOSTING AN EPISODE WITH A CORNY MORNING SHOW THEME

On February 27, 1985, Letterman shared hosting duties with “Tawny Harper Reynolds,” with guests Michael Palin, a Pet Psychic, and an exercise segment with Carol Channing.

16. AN HOUR-LONG PARODY OF 1970s PRIMETIME VARIETY SHOWS

“Dave Letterman's Summertime Sunshine Happy Hour” graced the NBC airwaves on the night of August 29, 1985. Early in his TV career, Letterman wrote and was a part of the cast of The Starland Vocal Band Show.

17. AN HOUR-LONG PARODY OF CHRISTMAS SPECIALS

December 19, 1984’s "Christmas With the Lettermans," featuring Pat Boone, won Late Night a 1985 Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Program.

18. "CUSTOM-MADE" SHOWS

On November 15, 1983, Late Night relinquished control of the show to the audience, giving them a choice on everything from the furniture to the theme song. On March 27, 1984’s version, the show opened with the theme to Bonanza, the announcer was the New York Lieutenant Governor, and Jane Pauley was interviewed in a dentist's chair.

19. DUBBING A RERUN FROM ENGLISH TO ENGLISH

When the February 17, 1986 episode re-aired on September 25th of that year, 250 confused viewers called the network. After 60 hours and four professional dubbers, everyone on the episode (Raquel Welch was the main guest) magically had different voices. Even Letterman's voice was dubbed (by Speed Racer's Peter Fernandez).

20. 4 A.M. SHOWS

May 14, 2004’s Late Show was taped at four in the morning, on purpose. Amy Sedaris, rat expert Robert Sullivan, and Modest Mouse were the guests. Letterman rode a horse, Sedaris gave an unsafe late night tour of her neighborhood, and Modest Mouse played in their pajamas.

21. DEDICATING MOST OF AN EPISODE TO A DECEASED COMEDIAN AND HIS FAMILY

Letterman invited Bill Hicks’s mother, Mary, to appear on the January 30, 2009 episode to apologize face-to-face for not airing Hicks’s controversial October 1, 1993, stand-up performance. In February of 1994, Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 32. After talking to Mary, Letterman finally presented Bill’s set.

22. DEDICATING AN ENTIRE EPISODE TO A COMEDY HERO

On the first new Late Show after Johnny Carson's passing, Letterman's monologue was filled with jokes that the retired Carson had anonymously submitted to David over the years. Long-time The Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen were that night's only guests.

23. THE ‘WILL IT FLOAT?’ GAME

The first installment of “Will It Float?” was on February 6, 2002. A brick of Velveeta cheese sank. Dave got it right, whereas Paul got it wrong.

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15 Fun Facts About When Harry Met Sally
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Nora Ephron's most beloved romantic comedy opened in theaters more than 25 years ago. We'll (still) have what she's having.

1. HARRY AND SALLY WERE MODELED AFTER DIRECTOR ROB REINER AND SCREENWRITER NORA EPHRON—EXCEPT FOR THE FALLING IN LOVE PART.

Rob Reiner divorced fellow director Penny Marshall in 1981 after 10 years of marriage. When he met with Nora Ephron in the mid-1980s, he pitched a number of ideas for movies, including a comedy based on his dating experiences. Ephron agreed to write it after extensively interviewing Reiner. The two had many discussions about how men and women view sex, love, and relationships differently.

2. THOSE SWEET "HOW WE MET" INTERLUDES THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE ARE REAL LOVE STORIES.

Reiner interviewed elderly couples about how they fell in love in preparation for the movie. He hired actors to re-tell their stories on the big screen.

3. NORA EPHRON HATED THE TITLE.


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It was extremely difficult for Ephron to settle on a title for her screenplay. She tried several, including Boy Meets Girl, How They Met, and Harry, This Is Sally. Reiner eventually turned the naming process into a contest among the crew members. Whoever picked the title would win a case of champagne. We don't know who came up with When Harry Met Sally, but let's hope he or she shared all that bubbly.

4. IN THE SCRIPT'S FIRST DRAFT, HARRY AND SALLY DIDN'T END UP TOGETHER.

Ephron felt that was the most realistic ending, but hey, this is the movies!

5. REINER ALSO FELL IN LOVE BY THE END OF THE MOVIE.


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During filming, Reiner was introduced to photographer Michelle Singer by the film's director of photography. The two married in 1989, the same year When Harry Met Sally came out. Reiner has said that finding his own happy ending helped make one for Harry and Sally more believable.

6. BILLY CRYSTAL AND MEG RYAN WEREN'T THE FIRST CHOICES FOR HARRY AND SALLY.


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Albert Brooks turned down the role of Harry, because he thought the movie was too reminiscent of Woody Allen. (Brooks also turned down the lead role in Big and Pretty Woman. D'oh!) Rob Reiner initially wanted Susan Dey of the TV show L.A. Law to play Sally. He also considered Elizabeth Perkins from Big and Elizabeth McGovern from Ordinary People. John Hughes movie queen Molly Ringwald was nearly cast, but declined due to a scheduling conflict.

7. MOLLY RINGWALD DID EVENTUALLY PLAY SALLY ALBRIGHT, THOUGH.

In 2004, the popular film was adapted into an unpopular stage play on London's West End. Luke Perry (yes, really) and Alyson Hannigan from How I Met Your Mother played Harry and Sally in its first run and were later replaced by Michael Landes from Final Destination 2 and Molly Ringwald.

8. MEG RYAN SORT OF PAVED THE WAY FOR JULIA ROBERTS.


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Ryan's first leading role would've been as Shelby in Steel Magnolias, but she turned down the part to play Sally instead. Another up-and-coming actress named Julia Roberts took her place and later starred in Pretty Woman—another part Meg Ryan turned down.

9. BILLY CRYSTAL AND ROB REINER HAVE BEEN GOOD FRIENDS SINCE 1975.


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Reiner and Crystal met when they played best friends on All in the Family. Many conversations between Harry and his best male friend Jess, played by Bruno Kirby, were inspired by the friendship between Crystal and Reiner. So were the scenes in which Harry and Sally watch the same movie from different apartments. Bromance, anyone?

Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher, who plays Sally's best female friend Marie, was BFFs with Reiner's ex-wife Penny Marshall. Hmmm, wonder if that ever got awkward...

10. THE SPLIT-SCREEN SCENES ARE AN IRONIC HOMAGE TO 1959'S PILLOW TALK.

At the time Pillow Talk was made, the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, set moral guidelines for all the films released by major studios. Movies weren't allowed to show a couple in bed (or bath or beyond) together, or any sort of sexual relationship between unmarried partners. (The code was abandoned in 1968.) Harry and Sally were kept apart to show how close they were as "just friends.

11. REINER'S MOTHER, ESTELLE, HAD ONE LINE—AND IT WAS PROBABLY THE MOVIE'S MOST MEMORABLE.

She's the older woman who says, "I'll have what she's having" at Katz's Delicatessen. The American Film Institute ranked it #33 in its list of the top 100 movie quotations. The famous line wasn't in the original script. Crystal suggested it after he and Ryan improvised the entire scene. The two were originally supposed to discuss "faking it" without an actual demonstration.

12. KATZ'S IS PROUD OF ITS FAMOUS SCENE.

This sign appears above the table where it was shot:

13. CRYSTAL IMPROVISED THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE.

Watch closely at 0:29; Ryan laughs out of character and looks at Reiner off-camera. The director decided to keep the scene.

Crystal also improvised much of the scene when he admits he loves Sally, including the line, "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." Swoon.

14. THE REAL-LIFE BOOKSTORE WHERE HARRY AND SALLY MEET FOR THE THIRD TIME INSPIRED ANOTHER EPHRON MOVIE.

Harry and Sally finally become friends when they spot each other at Shakespeare and Co. on Broadway and 79th. When the store closed after a Barnes & Noble opened on the Upper West Side, Ephron was inspired to write a romantic comedy around the David and Goliath struggle between local stores and large national chains. You've Got Mail came out in 1998, nearly a decade after when Harry Met Sally.

15. NO ONE EXPECTED WHEN HARRY MET SALLY TO BE A HIT.

The film was up against the summer blockbusters Batman, Ghostbusters II, Licence to Kill, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When Harry Met Sally opened in just 41 theaters on July 12, grossing $1 million. It opened nationwide July 21. And the rest is romantic comedy history.

Additional Source: DVD Commentary by Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner

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