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

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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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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MGM Home Entertainment
11 Fun Facts About A Fish Called Wanda
MGM Home Entertainment
MGM Home Entertainment

In 1988, the British heist comedy A Fish Called Wanda had audiences in the UK and across the pond rolling in the aisles. Thirty years later, the Oscar-winning ensemble movie about a clueless (but don’t call him stupid) weapons expert, a bumbling barrister, a quick-witted femme fatale, and a stuttering con artist remains a cult favorite. Starring John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and of course, the eponymous fish, the film is packed with smart writing, silly slapstick, and some of the strongest comic performances of its starring actors’ careers. Here are 11 facts about A Fish Called Wanda for your unreserved enjoyment (just don’t ask us to repeat the part in the middle).

1. IT WAS DIRECTOR CHARLES CRICHTON’S FIRST FILM IN TWO DECADES.

Back in the 1950s, Charles Crichton was a famous director of Ealing Comedies—a series of comedy films produced by London’s Ealing Studios—who was known for his work on films like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), Hue and Cry (1947), and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). By 1988, however, he hadn’t directed a feature film in two decades (though he had worked on TV shows and documentary shorts). He came out of semi-retirement to work on what would become his final film at the behest of John Cleese.

2. CRICHTON AND JOHN CLEESE SPENT FIVE YEARS WRITING THE FILM.

A Fish Called Wanda was years, even decades, in the making. Cleese and Crichton first met and began discussing ideas for a comedy heist film, inspired by The Lavender Hill Mob, all the way back in 1969. Though they parted ways professionally, Cleese continued to look for opportunities to collaborate on a film with Crichton. More than a decade later, he finally got his chance when he found himself working with Crichton on a series of business management training videos.

Though Crichton was already in his late seventies, Cleese managed to convince the semi-retired director to brainstorm ideas for a feature film with him. For the next few years, the two met periodically to throw around ideas and work on the script. All in all, the entire scriptwriting and pre-production process took more than five years and cost $150,000 of Cleese’s own money.

3. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE EALING COMEDIES.

Unsurprisingly, A Fish Called Wanda was heavily indebted to the Ealing Comedies, especially Crichton’s own The Lavender Hill Mob, a heist comedy which starred Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway as a pair of bumbling bank robbers. Cleese, however, claimed the parallels between the Ealing Comedies and A Fish Called Wanda were unintentional, but embraced the comparison.

“I knew that my memory of all these great Ealing films was very present, although I wasn’t consciously trying to write an Ealing comedy,” Cleese explained. “But I do remember when we interviewed Johnny Jympson when we were looking for an editor, and Johnny’d read it, and he came in and sat down, and Charlie said, ‘What’d you think?’ and Johnny was almost nervous and he hemmed and hawed a little bit and then he said very uncertainly, ‘Well, it’s an Ealing comedy, isn’t it?’ and we both said, ‘Yes!’”

4. THE ACTORS HELPED SHAPE THEIR CHARACTERS.

Cleese encouraged Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, and Jamie Lee Curtis to contribute ideas and help develop their characters. Curtis, in particular, was responsible for major changes to Wanda’s personality. "She was a sexually brazen, cold-hearted manipulator, who simply wanted money,” Curtis told The New York Times. “I didn't find that real. I decided she didn't altogether know what she wanted, but finds a wonderful power in manipulating people and feels personal satisfaction in trying to fool them. She plays a slightly different role for each man, yet she enjoys being herself, and she's not cold-hearted, not vicious.''

Curtis told The New York Times she reveled in the rare opportunity to shape her own character: ''Most films, one person is in charge, and you're afraid even to raise your hand with a suggestion,'' she explained. ''That's frustrating if you're a bright person and trust your instincts. But this was totally a collaborative effort, and I'm afraid it's spoiled me.'' She was, apparently, so enthusiastic a contributor over the course of a two-week rehearsal period that Palin gave her a shirt that read, “Wait, I have an idea.”

5. KEVIN KLINE’S CHARACTER WAS INSPIRED BY A LOS ANGELES SELF-HELP GURU.

In A Fish Called Wanda, Kline’s Otto is a pseudo-intellectual who constantly misinterprets everything from the teachings of Buddhist philosophy to the writings of Nietzsche. According to Cleese, his character was inspired by the real-life self-help guru Zen Master Rama, sometimes called the “yuppie guru.”

“I got the real key to the character out of Los Angeles Magazine,” Cleese explained in an interview. “I found a double-page spread for a guru, and I’m pretty sure his name was Zen Master Rama, and he looked about 32 and very unsure of himself, and he had a funny sort of hairstyle like a dandelion at the end of September. But the key thing was the line across the top of this two page advertisement for the seminars he ran at weekends, which was ‘Buddhism gives you the competitive edge.’ And I thought this was unbelievably funny.”

6. CLEESE’S CHARACTER WAS NAMED AFTER CARY GRANT.

Cleese named his character Archie Leach after movie star Cary Grant, who was born Archibald Leach. Though Cleese’s bumbling lawyer has little in common with the famously debonair Grant, Cleese explained that he chose the name because he and Grant shared a hometown, and because it was the closest he would ever get to “being Cary Grant.”

7. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH DARKER.

A Fish Called Wanda started off as a much darker comedy, but test audiences in America were apparently uncomfortable with the film’s cruelty, and lack of romantic payoff, so Crichton and his cast went in for a few re-shoots. In addition to softening Palin’s character a bit, they ended up re-shooting the film’s ending three times.

“We played the whole movie with this very sort of dark intent—it was a very black comedy—and of course, when they tested the movie in America, it tested very funny, except that people didn’t like that there was no real love story,” Curtis said, further explaining:

“The original ending of the movie was much darker. The costume designer and I had a really great time costuming this character, and in a department store in London on sale, we found a pair of shark shoes, and we bought them because we just thought, ‘Well, she’s just a shark.’ And we wore them in that last scene, and literally the last shot of the movie was going down my leg and freeze framing on the shark shoe. And right then, you knew she was going to take him for everything. The minute they got off the plane, she was going to bop him on the head, take the stuff, and leave.”

8. CLEESE CUT A BIG CHUNK OF THE CATHCART TOWERS SCENE.

In addition to changing the ending, Cleese cut several minutes from the film’s penultimate scene, in which Archie tries to get the stuttering Ken (Palin) to telling him where Wanda, Otto, and the diamonds are. Ken, whose stutter gets worse under pressure, can’t seem to utter the two words “Cathcart Towers.”

Initially, the scene was a Monty Python-esque series of increasingly absurd stunts—Ken attempting to sing the words (which remains in the final film), Archie trying to feed a tissue through a typewriter, Ken writing in toothpaste on a window—but Cleese worried the scene, which arrives at the climax of the film, was overly long and dragging the plot down, and so deleted most of it.

9. ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER LAUGHED HIMSELF TO DEATH.

Ole Bentzen, a Belgian audience member, was so tickled by the scene in which Ken has French fries stuck up his nose, that he actually laughed himself to death. The scene reminded him of a similar experience at a family dinner, in which his family had shoved cauliflower up their noses to great comic effect. He began laughing so hard, his heart rate escalated dangerously, causing a fatal heart attack.

10. IT WAS NOMINATED FOR THREE OSCARS.

Comedy movies rarely fare well at the Oscars, but A Fish Called Wanda was an exception. The film was nominated for three awards: for Best Original Screenplay (for Cleese and Crichton), Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Kline, who took home the statuette.

11. IT WAS THE TOP VIDEO RENTAL OF 1989.

A Fish Called Wanda beat a number of higher-budget blockbuster movies, including Die Hard (1988) and Coming to America (1988), as well as the Oscar-winning Rain Man (1988), to become the top video rental of 1989. Its success was due, in part, to an advertising partnership with Cadbury Schweppes, which plastered grocery stores for weeks with ads for the film.

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