It’s often been said that success has many fathers.
Well, if that’s really the case, one can’t help but wonder if former Disney CEO Michael Eisner feels like a proud papa as he looks upon this new version of “King Kong.” After all, this Peter Jackson-directed remake has been greeted with great acclaim. And — given this Universal Pictures release is almost certain to do huge at the box office this holiday season — Michael must be getting some satisfaction out of the success of this motion picture.
What’s that you say? “Why would the former CEO of the Walt Disney Company be getting any satisfaction out of the success of a Universal Studios film?” Well, this version of “King Kong” probably wouldn’t have even been produced if it weren’t for the actions of Michael Eisner.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s remember that one of Peter Jackson’s chief motivations for making this new version of “King Kong” was that he wanted to erase all memory of the first remake of this classic motion picture. You know, that train wreck of a motion picture that Paramount Pictures released back in 1976?
And just who was the guy who originally came up with the idea of Paramount producing this initial “Kong” remake? You guessed it. Michael Eisner.
As the story is told in Ray Morton’s excellent new book, “King Kong: The History of a Film Icon — From Fray Wray to Peter Jackson,” Michael (who was still an ABC executive at the time) initially got this idea of remaking “King Kong” back in December of 1974 after catching the original Merian C. Cooper movie on late night TV. So he pitched the idea of redoing “Kong” to his friend, Barry Diller. Who was then the chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures.
Diller initially seemed indifferent to Eisner’s idea. Which is why Michael then walked across the street and pitched his idea for a “King Kong” remake to Sidney Sheinberg. Who was then the chief operating officer of MCA-Universal Pictures.
Now what Eisner didn’t know was that Universal Pictures was finishing up post production on “Jaws.” And given that this Steven Spielberg film was expected to do really well when it was finally released to theaters in June 1975, Universal was already on the lookout for some sort of monster-based horror movie to serve as a follow-up to this project.
So when Michael suggested remaking “King Kong” to Sidney, Sheinberg immediately jumped on the idea. I mean, here was the perfect project to follow-up “Jaws.” Not to mention that this new version of “Kong” could be the very next Universal Pictures production to make use of Sensurround, that bold new in-theater sound system that literally had movie-goers shaking in their seats.
This is why Sidney immediately put a “King Kong” remake on Universal’s production fast track. Sheinberg
quickly contacted RKO-General (I.E. The studio that produced the original film) and offered them $200,000 plus 5% of the net profits to remake “Kong.” Sidney also hired noted screenwriter Bo Goldman (Best known for his work on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“) to produce a screenplay for the motion picture.
Of course, what Sheinberg didn’t know was that — back over at Paramount — Barry Diller was beginning to warm to Michael Eisner’s idea of remaking “King Kong.” Diller then contacted colorful independent producer Dino De Laurentis and asked him if he’d been interested in bringing the big ape back to the big screen.
Dino immediately jumped at Barry’s suggestion. So — while Paramount Pictures also began pursuing the remake rights to “King Kong” — De Laurentis quickly hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who was then best known as the screenwriter of “Papillon” and “Three Days of the Condor“) to produce a script for this motion picture.
So here you have two major motion picture studios quickly gearing up to produce big budget remakes of “King Kong.” With both Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures planning on releasing this movie during the 1976 holiday season.
So (as you might have already guessed) when Universal officials found out that Paramount Pictures execs had gone behind their backs and snagged the “Kong” remake rights from RKO … Well, that’s when the lawsuits began flying.
It took numerous trips to Los Angeles Superior Court to finally sort out all the details. With Universal Studios trumpeting about how their “The Legend of King Kong” would obviously be the superior motion picture. A full-color remake that would retain much of the charm of the original “King Kong” (I.E. The story would still be set in the 1930s, all the monsters featured in the film would still be created by using stop motion animation, etc.) with the added plus of Sensurround.
Whereas Paramount Pictures … Well, Dino De Laurentis had fallen in love with the idea of doing a modern day version of “King Kong” (Which was why the very first version of the film’s screenplay that Semple turned out was entitled “Kong ’76”). Which meant that — when Kong finally got loose in Manhattan — he wouldn’t automatically head for the Empire State Building. But — rather — NYC’s newest, tallest structure: The World Trade Center.
As you can see by this teaser poster that Dino had created …
… In Paramount’s proposed version of “King Kong,” the giant ape was to have straddled the two towers as he battled jet fighters. However, by the time the finished version of this John Gulliermin film hit theaters in December of 1976 … Well, as you can see, the studio made a few adjustments to “King Kong” ‘s poster …
… dropping most of the jets that had originally been pictured on the poster in favor of helicopters. Which Paramount studio execs felt would make for a fairer fight.
Anyway … Getting back to Paramount Pictures’ proposed “King Kong” remake: Dino wanted this fantasy film to be loaded with realism. So it would be shot on location in modern day Manhattan. And stupid little stop motion puppets simply wouldn’t do for Mr. De Laurentis. Which is why the flamboyant Italian producer ordered that a 42-foot-tall mechanical version of the monster be created. So that a full-sized version of Kong could be seen interacting in real time with actors in this film.
Well, that was the plan, anyway. The fact of the matter is that — in spite of the $1.7 million that was spent on the creation of this “Big Kong” figure — the giant robotic ape never really worked properly. Which is why it was only used in a handful of shots in the finished film.
As for the rest of the shots in that picture that feature King Kong … They were performed by noted make-up effects artist Rick Baker. Who worked for hours in front of miniature sets while he sweated inside of a King Kong suit that featured five interchangable heads.
Anywho … Getting back to all the legal posturing: Dino trumpeted that Paramount’s film would be called “King King: The Legend Reborn.” And that — in order to get the jump on Universal’s “The Legend of King Kong” — that his production would begin shooting on January 15, 1976. To which Universal execs responded: “Well, we’ve already hired Joseph Sargent to direct our version of ‘King Kong.’ And we’re going to start shooting on January 5, 1976.”
So — as the suits and the counter-suits continued to fly — this literally became a game of chicken between two major Hollywood studios. All because Michael Eisner had pitched his idea for a “King Kong” remake to both Barry Diller & Sidney Sheinberg.
In Eisner’s defense, it should be noted here that Michael didn’t approach both Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures with his “King Kong” remake idea out of any form of malice. But — rather — because Eisner just thought that this was a really great concept for a brand-new motion picture. Which is why he pitched his “King Kong” remake idea to any studio exec that would listen.
But in the end, it was Barry Diller who ultimately ordered Dino De Laurentis to stop with all the silly lawsuits and find a way to settle with Universal Pictures. (“Why did Barry order Dino to do this?,” you query. Well, it seems that Paramount & Universal were actually partners in the Cinema International Corporation, which was a European film distribution company. And Diller was reluctant to bring suit against a corporation that his studio was already doing business with).
Which is why — in the end — Paramount & Universal eventually came to a mutually beneficial agreement concerning “King Kong.” In return for a share of Paramount’s profits on this John Guillermin film, Universal would let Joseph Sargent go and shut down production of its own “The Legend of King Kong.”
However, as part of this agreement with Paramount, Universal Studios retained the right to use the King Kong character as part of an attraction that could be added to its Hollywood tram tour. And — indeed, some ten years later — Disney Legend Bob Gurr led a team of designers & engineers to create a 30-foot-tall Kong figure that would regularly menace tourists as they explored USH‘s backlot. Four years later, a “Kongfrontation” ride became one of the signature attractions of Universal Studios Florida when that theme park first opened back in May of 1990. (Sadly, this USF attraction closed in September of 2002 to make way for that theme park’s “Revenge of the Mummy” ride.)
And one of the other aspects of Universal’s peace accord with Paramount Pictures is that MCA retained the right to make its own “King Kong” movie further on down the line.
Anyhow … Paramount’s “King Kong” (which wound up costing that studio over $23 million to produce, making “Kong” the most expensive motion picture that Paramount had produced up until that time) sold $90 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which meant that this Dino De Laurentis production wasn’t quite the blockbuster that Paramount Pictures had been looking for.
In fact, Charles Bludhorn — the then-chairman of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf & Western — was said to be have been sorely disappointed with the box office performance of John Guillermin’s “King Kong.” Bludhorn reportedly openly disparged the film in front of the company’s shareholders while attending Gulf & Western’s annual meeting in the spring of 1977.
Of course, one of the other people who was said to be sorely disappointed with Paramount’s “King Kong” was director Peter Jackson. Who had fallen in love with the Merian C. Cooper version of the film when he was just eight years old. And — from that day forward — Jackson had dreamed of shooting his very own version of “King Kong.” Both as a tribute to Cooper and Willis O’Brien (I.E. The stop motion master who got Kong to move in the first film) as well as in an effort to erase all memories of that god-awful 1976 remake.
Speaking of Paramount’s version of “King Kong” … Given the universally poor reviews that this picture recieved back in 1976, it’s easy to understand why this John Guillermin film is rarely shown nowadays. Of course, when you factor in the whole filmed-on-location-at-the-World-Trade-Center aspect of the production …
… it’s easy to understand why the 1976 version of “King Kong” hasn’t been seen recently.
Anyway … Getting back to the Peter Jackson-based portion of this story. Back in 1995, Jackson directed and co-wrote the Michael J. Fox horror comedy, “The Frighteners” for Universal Studios. Universal execs were so enthusiastic about the work that Peter had done on this motion picture that they asked him: “What other motion picture would you like to make for our studio? How about a remake of ‘The Creature of the Black Lagoon‘?”
Jackson politely demurred. Insisting that there was only one motion picture that he really wanted to remake. And that was Merian C. Cooper’s “King Kong.”
Of course, Universal executives were thrilled to hear Peter’s comments. Given that the studio had been sitting on those “King Kong” remake rights since 1976. And now finally here was a filmmaker with the passion and the talent to actually make this picture happen.
Mind you, Jackson wasn’t interested in shooting Bo Goldman’s old script. Which is why he and his longtime collaborator Fran Walsh hammered together an entirely new “King Kong” screenplay. Which — while it was very respectful of the original Merian C. Cooper film (I.E. The movie’s story was still set in the 1930s, it would still end with Kong at the top of the Empire State building battling biplanes, etc.) — the script still featured lots of new sequences that were obviously inspired by hit films of the 1980s & 1990s (EX: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” & “Jurassic Park“).
The screenplay that Jackson & Walsh turned in absolutely thrilled Universal executives. Here finally was a version of “King Kong” ” that was sure to connect with modern moviegoers. The only problem was — with the picture’s trio of attacking tyranosaurs and that herd of stampeding apatosaurs — this was sure to be one motion picture that would be prohibitively expensive to produce. Early internal estimates suggested that it could cost Universal Pictures as much as $200 million to bring Peter Jackson’s vision of “King Kong” to the big screen.
Add to this the fact that — when “The Frighteners” finally rolled into theaters in July 1996 — this Michael J. Fox film didn’t do all that well. “The Frighteners” pulled in a mere $16 million during its domestic release. Which meant that this Peter Jackson motion picture didn’t even come close to cover its promotion & production costs.
Now add to this the fact that Sony Pictures had just announced its plans to produce its own big budget version of that classic Japanese monster movie, “Godzilla.” And the news that Michael Eisner had just greenlit Disney’s planned remake of Merian C. Cooper’s other giant ape movie, “Mighty Joe Young.” And you can understand why Universal executives might suddenly get cold feet.
I mean, here was Peter Jackson, a director whose first working-within-the-studio-system film had seriously under-performed at the box office. And yet he wanted Universal Studios to commit $200 million to a remake of “King Kong.” A film classic that hadn’t performed all that well the last time it got remade.
So — given these circumstances — is it any wonder that (in spite of the eight months of pre-production that Jackson and his wizards at Weta had already put into “King Kong”) that Universal execs finally pulled the plug on this project in January of 1997.
As you might understand, given his love of the original film, Peter was absolutely devastated to lose what he thought would be his one-and-only chance to produce a new version of “King Kong.” Still, as one of Jackson’s dream project dies, another film fantasy that this director had been hoping for decades that he’d get the chance to produce came into being: “The Lord of the Rings.”
Of course, I don’t need to tell you folks about the crucial role that Michael Eisner played in the creation of that Academy Award winning trio of films. How the head of the Walt Disney Company first insisted that Peter Jackson try & tell all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy in two films, rather than three. Then how Michael — concerned about the high costs of producing these motion pictures — abruptly pulled the plug on this Miramax Pictures production. Which left Jackson scrambling to find a studio that would actually fund his vision for these films.
Which — luckily — led Peter to New Line Studios. A company that actually had executives who were bold enough to embrace Jackson’s vision. Who were willing to pony up $300 million to see if there actually was an audience out there for a big screen version of the “Lord of the Rings” book.
So — as you can see — from 1974 on forward, Michael Eisner has been a factor in the “King Kong” saga. First as the guy who initially proposed that this classic motion picture be remade, then as the studio exec who — by inadvertently delaying Peter Jackson’s first attempt to get “King Kong” remade — helped us get the film that’s now being screened at multiplexes all around the world.
Now some people might wonder why Michael Eisner feels such a kinship to a character like King Kong. But — me personally — I can’t help but notice that there’s a bit of a resemblance between these two entertainment industry giants.
Anyway … Let me wrap things up here by mentioning two other weird little bends to this story. When asked if he was bitter that he didn’t actually get a chance to remake “King Kong” back in 1997, Peter Jackson said “No.” That — while the cancellation of that production may have seemed to be a huge blow back then — it actually turned out to be a blessing. You see, the years that he spent working on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy made Jackson made a better director. More to the point, CG technology has now greatly improved. Which allowed Peter to bring much more of his original vision to the big screen.
(FYI: Remember how Universal Studios execs shut down production of Jackson’s “King Kong” back in January of 1997 because that version of the film was projected to cost $200 million. Care to guess how much the 2005 version of “Kong” cost? Would you believe $207 million?)
Getting back to the differences between the 1997 and 2005 version of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” … The intervening years also gave Peter the chance to review the screenplay that he and Fran Walsh had originally written. Which made Jackson realize that the scope of his “King Kong” film needed to be tightened. That there was really no room for prologues set during World War I with flying aces who played baseball high over the trenches. That — in order for this picture to play to modern moviegoers — that film’s title character had to be someone that audiences could really relate to.
Well, as those of you who have already seen the new version of “King Kong” know, Peter Jackson succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. This new Universal Pictures release is really a landmark motion picture. It’s actually no faint praise to say that Jackson’s “King Kong” is almost as good as Cooper’s original. If you haven’t seen it yet, go check out this movie ASAP. You’ll be glad you did.
Also … Just to demonstrate how everything in Hollywood seems to work in cycles and/or circles: Do you remember the project that Universal Studios execs originally offered Peter Jackson as a possible follow-up to “The Frighteners”? That’s right. A big screen remake of that 1954 horror classic, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
Well, Universal Studios just announced that they’re finally going forward with production of a “Black Lagoon” remake. And guess who they just hired to helm this picture? Michael Eisner’s son, Breck Eisner.
And — to add to the irony of this whole situation — one of the main reasons that Breck actually got this job wasn’t because of Daddy’s connections (Eisner’s son is already quite an accomplished director. Earlier this year, he earned some great reviews for “Sahara.” The big screen version of Clive Cussler’s best seller that Breck directed for Paramount Pictures). But — rather — because Universal Studios was looking for another monster movie to follow-up what they thought would be the smashing success of “King Kong.”
So — as you can see — it’s 1975 all over again, folks. With the execs at Universal looking for a film that would be a worthy follow-up to “Jaws.”
Anywho … That’s the protracted version of the impact that Michael Eisner had on the production of two “King Kong” remakes. Which I hope you found somewhat entertaining.
“Indiana Jones and the Search for Indiana Jones”
News came late last week that NBC was cancelling the “Magnum PI” remake. This series (which obviously took its inspiration from the Tom Selleck show that originally debuted on CBS back in December of 1980 and then went on run on that network for 8 seasons. With its final episode airing on May 8, 1988).
Anyway … Over 30 years later, CBS decided to remake “Magnum.” This version of the action drama debuted on September 24, 2018 and ran for four seasons before then being cancelled. NBC picked up the “Magnum” remake where it ran for one more season before word came down on June 23rd that this action drama was being cancelled yet again.
FYI: The second half of Season 5 of “Magnum” (10 episodes) has yet to air on NBC. It will be interesting to see when that final set of shows / the series finale gets scheduled.
This all comes to mind this week – out ahead of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” because … Well, if CBS execs had been a bit more flexible back in 1980, the star of the original version of “Magnum PI” (Tom Selleck) would have played the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Which was released to theaters back on June 12, 1981.
That’s the part of the Indiana Jones story that the folks at Lucasfilm often opt to skim over.
That Harrison Ford wasn’t George Lucas’ first choice to play Doctor Jones.
Auditions for Indiana Jones – Harrison’s Not on the List
Mind you, Steven Spielberg – right from the get-go – had pushed for Ford to play this part. The way I hear it, Lucas showed Spielberg a work-in-progress cut of “The Empire Strikes Back.” And Steven was so taken with Harrison’s performance as Han Solo in that Irwin Kershner film that he immediately began pushing for Ford to be cast as Doctor Jones.
Whereas Mr. Lucas … I mean, it wasn’t that George had anything against Harrison. What with Ford’s performances first in “American Grafitti” and then in “A New Hope,” these two already had a comfortable working relationship.
But that said, Lucas was genuinely leery of … Well, the sort of creative collaboration that Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro. Where one actor & one director repeatedly worked together. To George’s way of thinking, that was a risky path to follow. Hitching your wagon to a single star.
Which is why – when auditions got underway for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1979 — Mike Fenton basically brought in every big performer of that era to read for Dr. Jones except Harrison Ford. We’re talking:
- Steve Martin
- Chevy Chase
- Bill Murray
- Jack Nicholson
- Peter Coyote
- Nick Nolte
- Sam Elliot
- Tim Matheson
- and Harry Hamlin
Casting a Comedian for Indiana Jones
Please note that there are a lot of comedians on this list. That’s because – while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in development — Spielberg was directed his epic WWII comedy, “1941.” And for a while there, Steve & George were genuinely uncertain about whether the movie that they were about to make would be a sincere valentine to the movie serials of the 1930s & the 1940s or more of a spoof.
It’s worth noting here that three of the more ridiculous set pieces found in “Temple of Doom” …
- the shoot-out at Club Obi Wan in Shanghai
- Indy, Willie & Short Round surviving that plane crash by throwing an inflatable life raft out of the cargo hatch
- and that film’s mine cart chase (which was not only inspired by Disney theme park favorites the Matterhorn Bobsleds & Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but some of the sound effects that you hear in this portion of “Temple of Doom” were actually recorded after hours at Disneyland inside of these very same attractions)
… all originally supposed to be in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ve actually got a copy of the very first version of the screenplay that Lawrence Kasdan wrote for the first “Indy” movie where all three of these big action set pieces were supposed to be part of the story that “Raiders” told. And I have to tell you that this early iteration of the “Raiders” screenplay really does read more like a spoof of serials than a sincere, loving salute to this specific style of cinema.
Casting Indiana Jones – Jeff or Tom
Anyway … Back now to the casting of the male lead for “Raiders” … After seeing virtually every actor out in LA while looking for just the right performer to portray Indiana Jones, it all came down to two guys:
- Jeff Bridges
- and Tom Selleck
Jeff Bridges as Indiana Jones
Mike Fenton was heavily pushing for Jeff Bridges. Having already appeared with Clint Eastwood in 1974’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (Not to mention that “King Kong” remake from 1976), Bridges was a known quantity. But what Fenton liked especially liked about Bridges when it came to “Raiders” was … Well, at that time, Jeff was just coming off “Heaven’s Gate.”
Mind you, nowadays, because we’ve all now had the luxury of seeing the director’s cut of this Michael Cimino movie, we recognize “Heaven’s Gate” for the cinematic masterpiece that it is. But 40+ years ago, that honestly wasn’t the case. All audiences had to judge this movie by was the severely truncated version that United Artists sent out into theaters. Which – because “Heaven’s Gate” had cost $44 million to make and only sold $3.5 million of tickets – then became the textbook example of Hollywood excess.
Long story short: Given that being associated with “Heaven’s Gate” had somewhat dinged Bridges’ reputation for being a marketable star (i.e., a performer that people would pay good money to see up on the big screen), Jeff was now looking to appear in something highly commercial. And the idea of playing the lead in a film directed by Steven Spielberg (the “Jaws” & “Close Encounter” guy) and produced by George Lucas (Mr. “Star Wars”) was very, very appealing at that time. Bridges was even willing to sign a contract with Spielberg & Lucas that would have then roped him into not only playing Indiana Jones in “Raider of the Lost Ark” but also to appear as this very same character in two yet-to-be-written sequels.
Better yet, because “Heaven’s Gate” had temporarily dimmed Bridges’ star status, Jeff was also willing to sign on to do the first “Indy” film for well below his usual quote. With the understanding that – should “Raiders of the Lost Ark” succeed at the box office – Bridges would then be paid far more to appear in this film’s two sequels.
That seemed like a very solid plan for “Raiders.” Landing a known movie star to play the lead in this action-adventure at a bargain price.
Ah, but standing in Mike Fenton’s way was Marcia Lucas.
Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones
Marcia Lucas, who had seen Tom Selleck’s audition for “Raiders” (And you can see it as well. Just go to Google and type in “Tom Selleck” and “Indiana Jones.” And if you dig around for a bit, you’ll then see a feature that Lucas & Spielberg shot for “Entertainment Tonight” back in 2008 [This story was done in support of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”]. And as part of this piece, George and Steve share Tom’s original audition for “Raiders.” And what’s genuinely fascinating about this footage is that Selleck’s scene partner is Sean Young. Who – at that time, anyway – was up for the role of Marion Ravenwood) and kept telling her husband, “You should cast this guy. He’s going to be a big star someday.”
And given that George was smart enough to regularly heed Marcia Lucas’ advice (She had made invaluable suggestions when it came to the editing of “American Graffiti” and the original “Star Wars.” Not to downplay George Lucas’ cinematic legacy, but Marcia Lucas was a world-class storyteller in and of her own right), Lucas then reached out to Spielberg and persuaded him that they should cast relative unknown Tom Selleck as Doctor Jones over the already well-known Jeff Bridges.
Now don’t feel too bad for Jeff Bridges. When he lost out on playing the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Jeff then accepted a role in the very next, high profile, sure-to-be-commercial project that came along. Which turned out to be Disney’s very first “TRON” movie. Which was eventually released to theaters on July 9, 1982.
Back to Tom Selleck now … You have to remember that – back then – Selleck was the handsome guy who’d already shot pilots for six different shows that then hadn’t gone to series. Which was why Tom was stuck being the guest star on shows like “The Fall Guy” and “Taxi.” Whereas once word got out around town that Selleck was supposed to play the lead in a project that Spielberg was directed & Lucas was producing … Well, this is when CBS decided that they’d now take the most recent pilot that Tom had shot and then go to series with this show.
That program was – of course – the original “Magnum PI.” And it’s at this point where our story started to get complicated.
“Magnum PI” – Two Out of Three Say “Yes”
Okay. During the first season of a TV show, it’s traditionally the network – rather than the production company (which – in this case – was Glen A. Larson Productions. The company behind the original versions of “Battlestar Galactica” & “Knight Rider”) or the studio where this series is actually being shot (which – in this case – was Universal Television) that has all the power. And in this particular case, the network execs who were pulling all the strings behind-the-scenes worked for CBS.
And when it came to the first season of “Magnum PI,” CBS had a deal with Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television which stated that the talent which had been contracted to appear in this new action drama would then be available for the production of at least 13 episodes with an option to shoot an additional 9 episodes (This is known in the industry as the back nine. As in: the last nine holes of a golf course).
Anyway, if you take those initial 13 episodes and then tack on the back nine, you then get 22 episodes total. Which – back in the late 1970s / early 1980s, anyway – was what a full season of a network television show typically consisted of.
Anyway … The contract that Selleck had signed with Glen A. Larson Productions, Universal Television & CBS stated that he had to be available when production of Season One of “Magnum PI” began in March of 1980. More to the point, Tom also had to be available should CBS exercise its option to air 22 episodes of this new series on that television network over the course of “Magnum PI” ‘s first season.
Which then made things complicated for George Lucas & Steven Spielberg because … Well, in order for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to make its June 12, 1981 release date, that then meant that production of the first “Indy” movie would have to get underway no later than June 23, 1980.
But here’s the thing: Production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was scheduled to run through the first week of July of that same year (1980). So in order for Tom Selleck to play Indiana Jones in “Raiders,” he was going to need to be wrapped on production of “Magnum PI” by June 22, 1980 at the absolute latest.
So Spielberg & Lucas went to Glen A. Larsons Productions and asked if Selleck could please be sprung from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligations by June 22nd. And they said “Yes.” Then Steven & George went to Universal Television and asked executives there for their help in clearing Tom’s schedule so that he’d then be available to start work on “Raiders.” And they say “Yes” as well.
Spielberg & Lucas now go to CBS. But instead of the quick “Yeses” that they got from officials at Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television, it takes those suits at the Tiffany Network weeks before they then decided to say “No, they couldn’t release Tom Selleck early to go work on ‘Raiders’ “ because …
I’ve never really been able to get a straight answer here as to why CBS execs dug in their heels here. Why they flat-out refused to release Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation and allow him to go shoot “Raiders.”
Payback from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” Trash Talk
That said, it is worth noting that “The Star Wars Holiday Special” aired on CBS back in November of 1978. And given that – in the years that followed — Lucas wasn’t exactly shy when it came to saying how much he hated that two hour-long presentation (Or – for that matter – how George really regretted caving into the requests of CBS execs. Who had insisted that television stars long associated with the Tiffany Network – people like Art Carney, Harvey Korman & Bea Arthur – be given prominent guest starring roles in “The Star Wars Holiday Special”). And I’ve heard whispers over the years that CBS executives preventing Tom Selleck from appearing in “Raiders” could be interpreted as the Tiffany Network getting some payback for what George had said publicly about the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”
Harrison Ford Comes to Rescue “Indiana Jones”
Anyway … It’s now literally just weeks before production of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is supposed to begin and Spielberg & Lucas have just learned that that they’ve lost their film’s star. CBS is flat-out refusing to release Tom Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation. So Steven & George now have to find someone else to play Indy … and fast.
The real irony here is … The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists would go on strike in the Summer of 1980. Which then shut prematurely shut down production of the first season of “Magnum PI.” (As a direct result, the first full season of this action drama to air on CBS only had 18 episodes, rather than the usual 22). And because this job action lasted ‘til October 23rd of that same year … Well, this meant that Tom Selleck would have actually been free to start shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on June 23, 1980 because production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was already shut down by then due to that AFTRA strike.
But no one knew – in May of 1980, anyway – that this job action was going to happen in just a few weeks. All that Steven Spielberg & George Lucas knew was that they now needed a new lead actor for “Raiders.” And circling back on Jeff Bridges was no longer an option. As I mentioned earlier, Jeff had agreed to do “TRON” for Disney. And – in the interim – Bridges gone off to shoot “Cutter’s Way” for MGM / UA.
So this is where Harrison Ford enters the equation. As he recalls:
In May of 1980, I get a call from George Lucas. Who says ‘I’m messaging a script over to you this morning. As soon as it gets there, I need you to immediately read this script. Then – as soon as you’re done – I need you to call.
So the script arrives and it’s for ‘Raiders.’ I read it and it’s good. So I call George back and say ‘It’s good.’ And he then says ‘Would you be interested in playing Indy?’ I say that it looks like it would be a fun part to play.
George then says ‘ That’s great to hear. Because we start shooting in four weeks. Now I need you to meet with Steven Spielberg today and convince him that you’re the right guy to play Indy.’
Of course, given that Spielberg had been pushing for Ford to pay Indy ever since he had first seen that work-in-progress version of “The Empire Strikes Back” … Well, Harrison’s meeting with Steven was very, very short. And just a few weeks later, Spielberg, Lucas & Ford were all at the Port de la Pallice in La Rochelle. Where – on the very first day of shooting on “Raiders” (which – again – was June 23, 1980)– the scene that was shot was the one where that Nazi sub (the one that Indy had lashed himself to its periscope by using his bullwhip as a rope) was arriving at its secret base.
And all of this happened because Harrison immediately agreed to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the part of Indy was first offered to him in mid-May of 1980.
Before “Star Wars” was “Star Wars”
So why such a quick yes? Well, you have to remember that “Empire Strikes Back” wouldn’t be released to theaters ‘til May 21, 1980. And no one knew at that time whether this sequel to the original “Star Wars” would do as well at the box office as “A New Hope” had back in 1977 (FYI: “Empire” would eventually sell over $500 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which is roughly two thirds of what the original “Star Wars” earned three years earlier).
More to the point, the four films that Harrison had shot right after “A New Hope” / prior to “Empire Strikes Back” (i.e., “Heroes” AND “Force 10 from Navarone” AND “Hanover Street” AND “The Frisco Kid”) had all under-performed at the box office. So to Ford’s way of thinking, taking on a role that Tom Selleck was no longer available to play – one that had the potential of spawning two sequels – seemed like a very smart thing to do. Especially after three years of cinematic stumbles.
By the way, whenever this topic ever comes up, Harrison Ford is very gracious. He always makes a point of saying that he’s grateful to have gotten this career opportunity. More to the point, that he still feels kind of bad that Tom Selleck never got the chance to play this part.
Tom Selleck After “Indiana Jones”
That said, we shouldn’t feel too bad for Tom Selleck. After all, the original “Magnum PI” proved to be a long running hit for CBS. And in an effort to smooth over any residual bad feelings that may have resulted from Tom being forced to give up “Raiders” back in May of 1980, Selleck was eventually allowed to create his own production company (i.e., T.W.S. Productions, Inc. As in Thomas William Selleck Productions). Which – after the fact – was then cut in on some of those “Magnum PI” -related revenue streams.
More to the point, while “Magnum PI” was on hiatus following its second year in production, Selleck flew off to Yugoslavia. Where he then shot his own Indiana Jones-esque film for theatrical release. Which was called “High Road to China” in the States, but – overseas – was promoted as “Raiders of the End of the World.”
FYI: Warner Bros. released “High Road to China” stateside 40 years ago this year. On March 18, 1983, to be exact. It didn’t do all that great at the box office. $28 million in ticket sales versus $15 million in production costs.
And over the years, there’s even been some talk of finding a way to maybe set things right here. By that I mean: Finally finding a way to officially fold Tom Selleck into the world of Indiana Jones.
Could Tom Selleck Work with Indiana Jones?
The way I hear it, between the time when “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was theatrically released in May of 1989 and when “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” debuted in May of 2008, there were a number of ideas for Indiana Jones sequels tossed around. And from what I’ve been told, there was at least one treatment for a fourth Indiana Jones film written that proposed pairing up Harrison Ford & Tom Selleck. With the idea here being that Selleck was supposed to have played Ford’s brother.
Obviously that film was never made. And – no – I don’t know what state Indiana Jones’ brother was supposed to be named after.
Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – Ever Get Made?
First came “Cars” in June of 2006.
This Pixar Animation Studios production did so well (Of all the high grossing films released that year, “Cars” was No. 2 at the box office. Only “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” sold more tickets in 2006) that Disney execs asked John Lasseter to develop a sequel.
“Cars 2” came out in June of 2011 and also did quite well at the box office (It took the No. 7 slot in the Top-Ten-for-ticket-sales that year). Which is why Disney then asked Pixar to prep a follow-up film.
“Cars 3” would eventually arrive in theaters in June of 2017. But in the meantime, Disney & Pixar began exploring the idea of expanding this film franchise. Largely because the amount of money that the Mouse was making off of the sales of “Cars” -related merchandise was … To be blunt here, mind boggling.
Don’t believe me? Well, then consider this: In just the first five years that the “Cars” film franchise existed, global retail sales of merchandise related to these Pixar movies approached $10 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”
So is it any wonder that – while Pixar was still trying to get a handle on what “Cars 3” would actually be about – the Mouse (through its DisneyToon Studios arm. Which produced home premieres like those “TinkerBell” movies) began actively looking into ways to expand this lucrative franchise?
“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off
The first “Cars” spin-off to arrive in the marketplace was “Planes.” This Klay Hall film (which was set in “The World Above Cars”) was released theatrically in August of 2013, with the Blu-ray & DVD version of “Planes” hitting store shelves in November of that same year.
“Planes: Fire and Rescue” followed in the Summer of 2014. And while a “Planes 3” was definitely put in development (At the Disney Animation panel at the 2017 D23 Expo, John Lasseter not only shared a clip from this film. But he also revealed that this project – which, at that time, was entitled “Space” – was slated to be released theatrically in April of 2019) … This animated feature was abruptly cancelled when DisneyToon Studios was shuttered in June of 2018.
But wait. There’s more … In addition to the aborted “Planes 3,” Disney had other “Cars” spin-offs in the works. One was supposed to be built around boats. While yet another was supposed to have shined a spotlight on trucks.
“Metro” – The World Below Cars
And then there was “Metro.” Which was supposed to have been set in the inner city and focused on what went on in “The World Below Cars.” As in: Down in the subway system.
Just in the past week or so, a few pieces of concept art for “Metro” have surfaced online. Giving us all an intriguing look at what might have been. These preproduction paintings suggest that this “Cars” spin-off would be far grittier than … Say … the sort of adventures that Lightning McQueen & Mater would typically have out in Radiator Springs.
That said, it’s worth noting here that – just in the past year or so – we’ve seen Disney & Pixar attempt to expand the turf that these two characters could comfortably cover. Take – for example — “Cars on the Road,” that nine-part series which debuted on Disney+ back in September of last year. This collection of animated shorts literally sent Lightning McQueen & Mater off on a road trip.
So who knows?
Given that Bob Iger (at Disney’s quarterly earnings call held earlier this week) revealed that the Company now has sequels in the works for “Frozen,” “Toy Story,” and “Zootopia” … Well, is it really all that far-fetched to think that – at some point further on down the road – Disney & Pixar will put yet another sequel to “Cars” in the works?
One that might send Lightning McQueen & Mater off to explore the gritty inner-city world that we glimpsed in all that concept art for “Metro,” that never-produced “Cars” spin-off.
Time will tell.
Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland
This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Warner Bros. released this Harold Ramis movie to theaters back in July of 1983.
John Hughes adapted his own short story (i.e., “Vacation ’58,” which had run in “National Lampoon” magazine less than four years earlier. The September 1979 issue, to be exact) to the screen.
Key difference between “Vacation ‘58” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is that the movie follows the Griswold family on their epic journey to Walley World. Whereas the short story that Hughes wrote (i.e., “Vacation ‘58”) follows an unnamed family to a different theme park. The actual Disneyland in Anaheim.
Let me remove any doubt here. Here’s the actual opening line to John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58.”
What’s kind of intriguing about the plot complication that sets Act 3 of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in motion (i.e., that – just as the Grisworld arrive at Walley World [after a harrowing cross-country journey] – they discover that “America’s favorite family fun park” is closed for two weeks for cleaning and to make repairs) is that … Well, it’s based on something that Hughes learned about the real Disneyland. That – from 1958 through 1985 [a total of 27 years] the Happiest Place on Earth used to close two days a week during the slower times of year. To be specific, Mondays & Tuesday in the Fall & early Winter as well as in the late Winter / early Spring.
Want to stress here: Two days a week versus the two weeks each year in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?
It wasn’t ‘til February 6, 1985 that Disneyland Park formally switched to being a seven-day-a-week operation. This was just four months after Michael Eisner had become Disney’s new CEO. And part of his effort to get as much profit as possible out of Disney’s theme parks.
Which is a trifle ironic. Given that – back in December of 1958 – Disneyland deliberately switched over to an open-five-days-a-week-during-the-off-season schedule in an effort to get Anaheim’s operating costs under control. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths
So let’s start with the obvious: When Disneyland Park first opened in July of 1955, there had never been one of these before. So the Happiest Place on Earth was a learn-as-you-go operation.
So things that are now closely associated with a visit to Disneyland back in the day (EX: Having to purchase a book of tickets before you entered that theme park. Which then pushed Guests to go seek out various A, B, C & D Ticket attractions around the grounds) … Well, that form of admission media didn’t come online ‘til October 11, 1955. Some three months after Disneyland Park first open.
Prior to this, if you wanted to go on a ride at Disneyland, you had to first get on line at one of the Park’s omni-present ticket booth. Once you got to the front of that line, you then had to open your wallet and purchase enough tickets for your entire family to enjoy that attraction. Only then could you go over to the actual attraction and get in line for that experience. Where – just before boarding that ride – you then surrendered that ticket.
Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive
Interesting side note: It’s now an established part of the on-going Disney theme park narrative that “Going to the Parks has just gotten to be too expensive and/or complicated,” what with the institution of Lightning Lane and then forcing people to use virtual queues if they want to experience newer attractions at the Parks like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” at Epcot or “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” out in Anaheim.
Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression
What fascinates me about the parallels here is that … When Walt began to see the same thing bubble up in press coverage for his new family fun park (i.e., All of those Summer-of-1955 stories in newspapers & magazines about how expensive it was to visit Disneyland. How – whenever a Guest visited this place – they were constantly being forced to repeatedly open their wallet), his immediate reaction was “We need to fix this now. I don’t want people coming away from their visit to Disneyland with this impression.” And by October 11, 1955 (less than 3 months after Disneyland Park first opened), they had a fix in place.
Lightning Lane – Raising Prices
Counter this with Lightning Lane. Which was first introduced at Walt Disney World in October of 2021. Which has gotten miserable press since Day One (and is a large part of people’s growing perception that it’s just gotten too expensive to take their family on vacation to WDW). Disney Corporate knows about this (hence the number of times questions about this perception has bubbled up in recent surveys that Resort has sent out).
And what does the Company do with this info? During the 2022 holiday season, Disney Parks actually raised the prices on individual Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like “Rise of the Resistance” to $22 a person.
Conclusion: Disney knows about all the bad press the Resort is getting lately but doesn’t care. They like all of the short-term money that Lightning Lane is pulling in right now and are deliberately overlooking all of the long-term implications of the narrative getting out there that going to WDW is getting too expensive.
“Spend Dollars to Get People Back” – Disney Cutting Corners on Projects
Which reminds me of something Walt once said when an Imagineer suggested that the Company could save a few bucks by cutting corners on a particular project: “If people ever stop coming to the Park because they think we cut corners on a project, the few cents we saved ultimately aren’t going to matter. We’re then going to have to spend dollars to get those people back.”
That’s what worries me about Disney’s current situation. What’s the Company ultimately going to have to do convince those people who now think that a trip to WDW has just gotten too expensive for the family to come back.
Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays
Back to Disneyland Park closing on Mondays & Tuesdays during the off-season … When did this practice start? Let me share something that I just found in the 1958 edition of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. This document (which was published on December 23, 1958) states that:
So – reading between the lines here – in Disneyland’s second year of operation (July 1956 – June 1957), the folks down in Anaheim experimented with keeping Walt’s family fun park open six days a week during the slower times of the year. Which – I’m told – resulted in all sort of angry people at the entrance of Disneyland’s parking lot. Who had to drive down to Anaheim for the day to experience the Happiest Place on Earth only to find said place closed.
Okay. So for Disneyland’s third year of operation (July 1957 – June 1958) on Walt’s orders, Disneyland is then kept open seven days a week all year long. Which proves to be a problem on the off-season, given that there are days in the late Fall / early Spring when there are more Cast Members working in the Park than there are Guests coming through the turnstiles.
Which explains this line in the 1958 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. Which – again – I remind you was published on December 23rd of that year:
So did this change in the way that Disneyland Park ultimately operated off-season ultimately work out? Let’s jump ahead to the 1959 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. In that document (which was also published on December 23rd of that year) states that:
Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel
Okay. So this change in the way that Disneyland Park operated during the off-season made things easier for Walt and Disney’s book-keepers back in Burbank. But what about Jack Wrather, the guy that Walt went to back in the Late Winter / Early Spring of 1955 and begged & pleaded for Wrather to build a hotel right next to Disneyland Park?
What happened to the Disneyland Hotel in late 1958 / early 1959 when – in the off-season – Disneyland Park goes to just a five-day-a-week operating schedule? At this point, the Disneyland Hotel is the largest hotel in all of Orange County with over 300 rooms.
It’s at this point that Walt personally reaches out to Jack and says “I know, I know. This operational change at the Park is going to affect your bottom line at the Hotel. Don’t fret. I’m definitely going to make this worth your while.”
Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel
And Walt followed through on that promise. In June of 1961, he extended Disneyland’s monorail system by a full 2 & a half miles so that this futuristic transportation system rolled right up to the Disneyland Hotel’s front door. Which was a perk that no other hotel in Orange County had.
And just in case you’re wondering: The cost of extending Disneyland’s monorail system over to the Disneyland Hotel was $1.9 million (That’s $19 million in 2023 money).
Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel
That very same year, Walt had some of his staff artists design a miniature golf course that could then be built on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. This kid-friendly area (called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course) featured elaborately themed holes with recreations of attractions that could be found right next door at Disneyland Park.
- Hole No. Three was Sleeping Beauty Castle
- Hole No. Five was Matterhorn Mountain
Other holes featured recreations of popular Disneyland attractions of the 1960s. Among them the TWA Moonliner, the Submarine Voyage, the Painted Desert from Frontierland (this is the area Guests traveled through when they experienced Disneyland”s “Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland” attraction), Tom Sawyer Island, the Fort in Frontierland, not to mention Skull Rock as well as Monstro the Whale from Disneyland’s Fantasyland.
This area was specially illuminated for night-time play. Which meant that the Magic Kingdom Golf Course at the Disneyland Hotel could operate from 10 a.m. in the morning ‘til 10 p.m. a night seven days a week.
Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings
It’s worth noting here that – from the moment the monorail was connected to The Disneyland Hotel – that hotel achieved 100% occupancy. Which is why – even after Disneyland Park switched to a 5-day-a-week operating schedule during the off-season – Disneyland Hotel launched into an aggressive expansion plan. With its 11 story-tall Sierra Tower breaking ground in 1961 (it opened the following year in September of 1962). Not to mention adding all sort of restaurants & shops to the area surrounding that hotel’s Olympic-sized pool.
All of which came in handy during those Mondays & Tuesdays during the Winter Months when people were staying at the Disneyland Hotel and had nowhere to go on those days when the Happiest Place on Earth was closed.
It’s worth noting here that the Disneyland Hotel (with Walt’s permission, by the way) on those days when Disneyland was closed would offer its Guests the opportunity to visit Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Universal Studios Hollywood. A Gray Line Bus would pull up in front of that hotel several times a day offering round-trip transportation to both of those Southern California attractions.
Likewise the Japanese Village and Deer Park over Buena Park. It was a different time. Back when Disney prided itself in being a good neighbor. Back when the Mouse didn’t have to have ALL of the money when it came to the Southern California tourism market. When there was plenty to go around for everyone.
Walley World Shooting Locations
And back to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”… The Walley World stuff was all shot at two Southern California attractions.
The scenes set in the parking lot at Walley World as well as at the entrance of that fictious theme park were shot in the parking lot & entrance of Santa Anita Race Track (Horse Track).
Any scene that’s supposed to be inside of the actual Walley World theme park was shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
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