This is the twenty-eighth in a series of examinations of legends from movies and the people who make them and whether they are true or false.
Click here to view an archive of the previous movie urban legends.
MOVIE LEGEND: Robin Williams had a major dispute with Walt Disney over how big his character was drawn on the poster for Aladdin.
STATUS: True (but there’s a lot more to it)
The story of Robin Williams’ problems with Walt Disney contain a whole lot of “he said/they said,” so it’s an interesting case to try to break the situation down. First off. what everyone can agree on is that at one point Robin Williams was very, very happy with Walt Disney’s movie business. It was while working for Disney that Williams rescued his faltering movie career in 1987 with the hit film, Good Morning, Vietnam, which also netted Williams his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
He then followed that up with ANOTHER hit film for Disney, and ANOTHER Oscar Nomination for Best Actor with 1989′s Dead Poets Society…
So by the early 1990s, he and the folks at Disney were happy with each other. So it was with this in mind, along with the fact that he just has his third child in 1991 (after his first child in 1983 and his second in 1989) and wanted something for his kids, that Williams agreed to voice the Genie in Disney’s new film, Aladdin.
Here’s where one of the first bit of “depends on how you look at it” issue comes up. When Williams’ side of the story is told, the fact that he voiced the Genie for essentially scale (rather than his normal high salary in the millions of dollars, so he only got $70,000 for doing the character) is offered up as “Williams did the role for scale as a personal favor to Disney because of the success of his previous films for Disney. However, while it’s true that Williams took scale, that is also typical when it comes to celebrities lending their voices to cartoon characters in Disney films. They usually work for roughly scale. However, there were certainly mitigating factors in the Williams situation. When he signed on for the role, he thought it was going to be a small character, but after Williams came in to lay down his lines, he ended up improvising so much extra material that the animators expanded the role of the Genie to make room for Williams’ improvised jokes. So that brings us to the major issue for Williams. He asked (and Disney executives agreed) that they not use his voice to promote the film and he also asked that his character not be used excessively to promote the film. To wit, the request was “not more than 25% of the promotional poster for the picture.” This was due to the fact that Williams had a new picture coming out around the same time for another studio, Toys, and he did not want to be competing with his own work, especially as one film would be “his” film while the other was a glorified cameo…
Disney attempted to comply with the poster requirement, but simply by reducing the size of all the OTHER characters in the poster so that the Genie was still the focus of the poster…
As for the voice thing, well, Disney just flat out decided to ignore that aspect of the agreement. They did not use Williams’ NAME in commercials, as it wasn’t “Aladdin starring Robin Williams!” but they definitely used his voice in the commercials (prominently so, from the dozen or so commercials I’ve viewed from the time of the movie’s release). So Williams was quite irked by Disney. It did not help, I am sure, that Toys was a flop while Aladdin was a blockbuster hit. Disney attempted to assuage Williams a bit by sending him a Pablo Picasso painting worth over $1 million at the time, but by this time, Williams was past the point of being soothed. He was done with the Mouse, as it were. So when Aladdin 2 came out, Dan Castellaneta voiced the genie…
Fox executive Joe Roth tried pitching Williams a project early in 1993 that was partially financed by Disney, but Williams turned it down because of the Disney connection. Ultimately, Roth and Williams DID get together on a film, the blockbuster Mrs. Doubtfire…
Soon afterward, Roth moved to Disney to replace the departing Jeffrey Katzenberg (who had recently left Disney to form Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen) and organized a public apology to Williams. So, even though Castellaneta has already finished recording his lines for the 3rd Aladdin film, Williams agreed to return to the role and dubbed over Castellaneta’s dialogue.
And Williams returned to Disney to star in the 1996 live action film, Jack…
Amusingly enough, Williams later got into ANOTHER argument with Disney over financing of a film, and as a result, he was not involved in doing the Genie’s voice for other projects, such as the Kingdom Hearts video game…
Although, once again, Williams appears to have kissed and made up with Disney, as he was named a “Disney Legend” in 2009.
Time really DOES heal all wounds, eh?
Thanks to Jesse Kornbluth’s excellent 1993 feature on Williams for New York Magazine for a lot of the information for this piece!
MOVIE LEGEND: The plot of the film adaptation of The Big Sleep was so convoluted that not even the screenwriters fully understood the plot.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Howard Hawks’ 1946 film version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is an excellent film…
The original novel is quite good, as well..
Right from the start, it’s worth noting that the film IS very convoluted (I suppose a kinder word is that it is “complex”).
However, the degree to which the film is convoluted has been overstated over the years to the point where it is just, well, false.
To wit, Allmovie.com‘s review of the film states:
Any further attempts to outline the plot would be futile: the storyline becomes so complicated and convoluted that even screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthmann were forced to consult Raymond Chandler for advice (he was as confused by the plot as the screenwriters).
(As a quick aside, yeah, it’s pretty cool that William Faulkner co-wrote such a great film).
That is just not true.
It’s really a pretty straightforward case of a simple tale getting exaggerated over the years until it sounds a lot bigger than it really was.
Chandler WAS consulted during the filming of the movie, but not by the screenwriters, but rather by the director Hawks and the star, Humphrey Bogart (playing Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe).
Bogart and Hawks sent Chandler a telegram telling him that they had been arguing over whether a particular character had been murdered or committed suicide, so they figured they’d ask Chandler, who told a friend in a letter that he told them “dammit I didn’t know either.”
From the tone of Chandler’s letter (which was collected in Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane’s The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959), it does not appear as though Chandler was giving a serious answer, but rather a sort of “Why are you bothering me with such a question?” In the very same letter, he tells his friend that apparently a studio executive found out how much the telegram had cost to send and drilled Hawks over wasting studio funds on such a frivolous pursuit.
But even if he was being serious, he was not corresponding with the screenwriters, and there is no record of any other such correspondence. And since the story about Hawks and Bogart telegraming him is pretty much exactly the story that has been told about the screenwriters asking him, and it seems pretty darn likely that the one is being confused/conflated with the other.
So I’m going with a general false on the whole “the screenwriters did not understand their own film,” although it is a lot more believable knowing that the script had multiple writers working on it over the course of the writing of the film (as opposed to a team of writers working together).
MOVIE LEGEND: James Dean not only was a “Stunt Tester” for Beat the Clock, but he was fired from the gig for an amusing reason.
James Dean is one of the most iconic movie stars in the history of film, highly recognizable and popular while only starring in three films.
What’s interesting is that for a guy who broke into the industry at a young age, he still spent a sizable amount of time trying to GET that break.
Dean acted while in school in Los Angeles, but dropped out just a little shy of his 20th birthday, in 1951, to fully concentrate on acting.
He got a role in a commercial and had a few walk on roles in films, but he was making a slow go at it as an actor, so in the fall of 1951, at the urging of a few of his acting acquaintances, Dean headed for New York City, where most television work (and practically all notable theater work) took place.
It was while in New York as a struggling actor that Dean took part in the amusing situation that is at the heart of this legend.
Before he left for New York, Dean befriended a radio executive named Rogers Brackett. Brackett was a big supporter of Dean, and he hooked Dean up with some contacts while in New York while Dean was trying to get that one “big break.”
The first job Brackett helped him out with was a job on Beat the Clock.
Beat the Clock was a popular game show during the 1950s that was hosted by the great Bud Collyer (voice of Superman on the radio!).
You see, game shows were a very popular place for struggling actors to find work. First of all, they all filmed in New York, which was thick with unemployed actors. Secondly, the hours were flexible. Third, often the companies that made game shows also had interests in scripted dramas, so it was a good place for contacts. And finally, it was an actual job on a television show!
So a good deal of young actors who later became famous worked for game shows during the 1950s. Robert Redford, for instance, was a presented on a game show.
But Dean’s job, it was a lot more fun – he was a “stunt tester.”
You see, the concept behind Beat the Clock would be that contestants were given ridiculous tasks to perform, only they also had to do the tasks within an allotted amount of time.
So naturally, if the show was to tell someone “Dig three balloons out of a vat of whopped cream using a spoon held in your mouth,” they had to be able to know how long such a task would take so that they could fairly challenge someone to do it. Heck, they had to know that the task could be performed PERIOD!
So they would hire “stunt testers,” people who would perform the stunts so they could figure out how long each stunt took.
And that was what James Dean did for them.
But here’s the twist.
The young, athletic Dean (who was just about 21 at the time) was way too good at stunts. SO good that they ultimately had to let him go as he was doing the stunts so quickly that they couldn’t accurately gauge how an “average” person would perform them.
Luckily, by this time, Dean was starting to get small roles on television and in 1952, he gained admission into the Actor’s Studio to work with Lee Strasburg. At this point, it was pretty clear that he was going to make it as an actor, and by the next year, he was starring in his first film, East of Eden.
Another young actor later in the 1950s had better luck sticking with Beat the Clock while HE was trying to find work as an actor.
That was the great Warren Oates, star of a great many awesome westerns (plus a great turn in Stripes as Sgt. Hulka)…
Okay, that’s it for this week!
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