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Spacewreck: The Captain EO Story

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joesmedia2012 via eBay

After months of production delays and millions of dollars spent covering budget overruns, the film editors working on the "4D" Disney theme park attraction dubbed Captain EO began to get frantic feedback from company executives who had seen some of the film's early footage: Michael Jackson was grabbing his crotch way too often.

The star of EO, Jackson was just three years removed from one of the biggest albums in music history, 1982’s Thriller. Disney had approached him with the idea of helping to create an exclusive, ambitious film with in-theater effects like fog and lasers that could be experienced only in Disney-branded theme parks. With the assistance of George Lucas, the production had created a 17-minute space musical, nearly seven minutes of which featured Jackson performing while frequently putting his hands in places Disney would never approve of.

The footage was zoomed, edited, or clipped to remove the gestures. But a bigger problem remained: Would enough people show up to justify Disney’s $20 million investment—on a per-minute basis, the most expensive film ever made at the time?

Meredith P. via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Disney of today is a monolithic enterprise, one that seems to be able to print money as quickly and easily as the U.S. Treasury. They own a sizable portion of pop culture’s most appealing brands—Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars—and reap billions from merchandising and films.

But the Disney of the 1980s was operating under markedly different circumstances. It would be years before their animated films experienced a resurgence, first with 1989's The Little Mermaid, and decades before they began to acquire other character libraries. One of their largest assets of the era was their theme park division—Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with a satellite park in Tokyo and one planned for Paris. The continued success of those parks was crucial to their business as a whole.

In 1984, newly installed Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided to pursue an attraction that would blend Disney’s resources in both live entertainment and film. His idea was to approach Michael Jackson, a recording artist who was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world at the time. Jackson’s second solo album, Thriller, had been released in two years prior and went on to sell 30 million copies in the U.S. alone. With director John Landis, he had proven himself to be a master of the music video form with an elaborate mini-movie of the title track. Most importantly, Jackson was a tremendous fan of Disney, often visiting their parks in disguise so he could enjoy the rides without being solicited by fans. He traveled there so often he bought his own private suite at Disney World.

Eisner asked Jackson if he’d be interested in appearing in a short film shot in 3D and accompanied by lights, smoke, lasers, and other sensory effects that would be accomplished live in the theater. He also assured Jackson that the production would be overseen by George Lucas, the filmmaker behind Star Wars, who had a working relationship with Eisner thanks to the numerous park attractions based on his space saga.

Jackson was enthusiastic for two reasons: He loved Disney, and he was eager to explore acting. He agreed to star in the project and provide the original music if Eisner could convince Steven Spielberg to direct it.

Eisner couldn’t; Spielberg’s schedule didn’t allow for it. But he and Lucas did enlist Francis Ford Coppola, the Oscar-winning director of the Godfather films. While Coppola didn't usually go for elaborate, effects-heavy fantasy flicks, he and Lucas were close friends; he also perceived EO to be a possible way of rebounding from various setbacks he had suffered early in the decade. Films like The Cotton Club had put his production company, American Zoetrope, in financial turbulence.

With Lucas, Coppola, and Jackson in place, four of Disney’s brainstorming Imagineer employees were asked to come up with a premise that incorporated music, outer space, and 3D effects. The result was The Intergalactic Music Man, a parable about an interstellar performer who can "heal" distressed civilizations with song. That morphed into Space Knights, which kept the weaponized music angle but was less of a fantasy.

After the Imagineers pitched Eisner, Lucas, and Jackson, the story settled into a kind of space saga that would feature Jackson as the captain of a starship that harbored alien life forms, including a flatulent, elephant-snouted creature named Hooter. When they crash-land on a planet ruled by an evil queen, Jackson’s performance art helps to break her influence over the population. It was Coppola who suggested the title be changed to Captain EO, after the Greek word eos, or "dawn."

Captain EO began production in the summer of 1985 and was conceived as a 12-minute film with a budget of $11 million. As the production dragged on, it became apparent that was an absurdly optimistic figure. Disney believed Lucas would help keep the film on schedule, but his work prepping Howard the Duck and various Lucasfilm projects meant he only checked in periodically. Coppola and his director of photography also had no experience shooting footage in 3D, which required deliberate lighting and camera set-ups. Learning on the job led to overruns, which Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to control. But Coppola found an ally in Lucas, who wasn't involved in day-to-day decisions but backed extravagant spending on things like the installation of a giant gimbal that could shake the spaceship set on command.

The problem grew larger after principal photography had finished. The planned 40 effects shots grew to 140; editors spent time avoiding Jackson making any dance gestures parents visiting the park would find objectionable; the Magic Eye Theater, which was being constructed to incorporate the live effects, suffered from delays. Executives even toyed with modulating Jackson’s speaking voice, since they considered it too high-pitched. (Since no one wanted to confront the issue with Jackson directly, the concern was dropped.)

Originally planned for a spring 1986 launch, EO was pushed to September. In the industry, the soaring budget, nine-month post-production schedule, and number of high-ranking entertainment names involved led to a new working title. In Hollywood, the lavish effects film was being referred to as "Captain Ego."

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With a minimum of $20 million spent on the production, there was little point in sparing any expense for the premiere of Captain EO on September 13, 1986. Disney hosted a screening at Epcot Center in Orlando, inviting the film’s stars and other celebrities. Anjelica Huston, who played the Supreme Leader in the film, rode in a motorcade with her then-partner Jack Nicholson and waved to park guests; Lucas put in an appearance. Jackson’s sisters La Toya and Janet were also photographed at the event, along with Dolph Lundgren and O.J. Simpson.

Curiously, Jackson himself was nowhere to be found. Eisner joked he was probably there in disguise "as an old lady"—something Jackson had actually done at one point in order to meet with the Imagineering team without drawing attention. But the more likely explanation was that Jackson had been embarrassed by the reaction to pictures of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, a publicity stunt he had orchestrated earlier that week that had gotten negative attention.

If the crowd was bummed by Jackson’s absence, they didn’t take it out on the film. Using fog machines, twin 70 mm film projectors, and 3D glasses for dramatic effect, EO debuted to hugely positive reviews from those in attendance and grossed an estimated $2 million its first weekend, confirming Eisner’s theory that original theme park attractions would help populate their front gates. In one poll, 93 percent of attendees listed EO as a main reason for wanting to visit.

 
Captain EO ran at Epcot until 1994 and in Anaheim until 1997, when it was replaced by a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids attraction. In 2010, the Disney parks revived the film following the outpouring of sentiment that accompanied Jackson’s death the previous summer. It ran until December 2015, at which point Disney announced it would be closing the attraction for good.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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