2017 marks the anniversary of a beloved sci-fi movie. A film that has a massive audience and still elicits joy whenever it airs. No, not the 40th anniversary of Star Wars. The 30th anniversary of Spaceballs. Mel Brooks had been well known for the master of movie parodies. From The Producers to Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Brooks brought his movies to life with plenty of great jokes and breaking the fourth wall. Made for $22 million dollars in 1987, the movie brought in $38 million. However, it became a huge hit on home video and has attained a beloved cult audience who cite it as one of Brooks’ best films. To this day, fans love to see Lone Starr and Princess Vespa try to stop Dark Helmet and the Spaceballs from sucking away all the air from Planet Druida amid some wild humor.
There has been talk for years of a possible sequel with Brooks willing to do it and most of the cast open to it. There was an animated series that spoofed the Star Wars prequels but sadly not much more coming. However, despite all the love for Spaceballs, there’s quite a lot about the movie some fans may be unaware of. From the original casting ideas to the special effects and even some surprising connections, Spaceballs has a lot more history than one would expect. To help celebrate its upcoming 30th anniversary, a look back at arguably the best sci-fi comedy ever and 15 things about Spaceballs to make a second (or fiftieth) re-watch all the better.
15. Some Major Bits Aren’t In The Movie
The movie is packed with jokes, some good, some bad and various fun bits (like the hysterical “watching now” scene). But the original script and novelization show several gags that didn’t make it into the final film. Originally, Vespa was to talk of the perfect man being “out there somewhere.” It would then cut to Lone Starr’s ship under a set of stars spelling out “Somewhere.” A running gag would be Barf trying to avoid admitting he has fleas. During the “ludicrous speed” segment, Dark Helmet’s helmet would be pulled off to reveal patent-leather hair. The biggest would be near the end, Vespa about to confess her love for Lone Starr only to hear him talking to Barf about being glad to get rid of her and get the money. As she leaves heartbroken, Lone Starr would say it’s better for Vespa to marry a prince than a poor pilot like him. That’s why Vespa is surprised to hear Lone Starr didn’t take the money at her wedding to set up the finale. While the final film is good, it’s notable how a few bits were dropped.
14. It Was Originally Called ‘Planet Moron’
Spaceballs wasn’t the first Star Wars parody as Hardware Wars had hit smaller screens years before. Even George Lucas liked it and was open to some more films like it. Brooks originally wanted to call the movie ‘Planet Moron’ to exemplify that the bad guys were less villains and more total idiots. Indeed, he came up with the title on the spot in 1984 when someone at the studio commissary asked what his next project was and he blurted it out. But, in one of those “only in Hollywood” stories, it turned out that someone released a sci-fi comedy called Morons From Outer Space. So Brooks settled on Spaceballs, not (as one might assume) because of the innuendo of the title but because he wanted a “screwball” comedy feel to it. It turned out for the best as ‘Planet Moron’ doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.
13. Actors Were Worried The Green Screen Would Hurt Their Eyes So They Wore Sunglasses
Back in 1986, special effects were nowhere near as advanced as they are today. Forget CGI, even using a green screen was a tricky thing and Brooks wasn’t used to making a movie with such a relatively huge budget ($22 million meant a lot back then). A lot of green screen stuff was used for the effects and the actors were worried that hanging around a screen of that color so much might actually hurt their eyes. It was unfounded but it wasn’t that well known back then and so the cast took to wearing sunglasses in between shots.
A funny bit was that as part of an agreement with George Lucas, Brooks was able to get an unused shot of an escape pod being launched from Star Wars to use. Also, the special effects crew was all former members of the original Oscar-winning team from Star Wars under a different branch of Lucasfilm. All that experience didn’t keep the actors from wrongly worrying about the damage of a green screen.
12. The Millennium Falcon Makes A Cameo
Unlike many of his movies, Brooks decided not to overload Spaceballs with big-star cameos. That doesn’t mean he didn’t work in some rather familiar faces. The sexy nurse who helps out the plastic surgeon was played by Brenda Strong, best known today as Mary Alice on Desperate Housewives and the evil Lillian Luthor on Supergirl. A pre-Saturday Night Live Phil Hartman voiced one of the Dinks. For the finale where Skroob, Helmet and Sandurz land on the Planet of the Apes, one Ape is played by Michael York (“Oh sh—, there goes the planet.”) The most famous, of course, is John Hurt who reprises his infamous chest-bursting scene from Alien at a dinner. But keep a close eye on the shot of the dinner outside and you’ll see the Millennium Falcon parked outside. Some of the ILM guys tossed it in at the last minute and Brooks didn’t realize until the final film. Just something to keep your eye out for the next time you watch it.
11. Moranis Improvised The Best Parts
Rick Moranis seemed an offbeat choice for the role of Dark Helmet but Brooks thought it was brilliant. Having the evil Darth Vader take-off be played by a short nerdy guy was just the sort of thing Brooks would think up and Moranis made the most of the part. It was Moranis’ idea to shift his voice for Helmet when his face mask was down, trying to sound more intimidating as he knew it would make it even funnier when he lifted the mask up to talk normally.
Moranis also came up with one of the funnier parts of the movie. When he saw some of the dolls that were made up for the “merchandising” scene, Moranis started to play around with them, doing goofy voices for the characters. Brooks saw it and loved it so much that he shot a scene in the film of Moranis doing it. He wasn’t alone as the bit where Barf gets up without undoing his seatbelt (“Ooooh that’s gonna leave a mark”) was an on-set accident by John Candy but Brooks left it in. Casting Moranis ended up being one of the best moves for the entire movie.
10. Brooks Played Skroob (‘Brooks’ Backwards) And Yogurt
Brooks didn’t just write, direct, and produce the film. He also starred in not one but two roles as he just felt no one else could do them justice. The first was President Skroob, the leader of the Spaceballs. Brooks even laughs on how so few people realize that “Skroob” is an anagram for “Brooks.”
Obviously, Brooks also played Yogurt, the take-off on Yoda that had him mostly on his knees (A deleted scene would have Yogurt rising up to full height as a gag) and thus suffering scrapes and aches. Brooks had gold paint on but the makeup crew didn’t realize it was the wrong type of paint. Instead of being easily washable, it clung to Brooks, making him break out in severe rashes and a severe allergic reaction that nearly put him in the hospital. Never let it be said that Mel Brooks doesn’t suffer for his art.
9. Barf Was A Nightmare To Make Work
Rick Moranis suggested John Candy for the role of Barf, having worked with him on the classic SCTV comedy show. Brooks agreed but trying to find the right look for a half-man/half-dog was trying. The first attempt was a full-on face mask that rendered Candy totally unrecognizable. When he saw it, Brooks joked that if he was going to cover up the face of a major star, “I might as well hire someone cheaper.” They finally settled on the idea of a spot around Candy’s eye. Meanwhile, the dog ears Candy wore as well as his tail ended up being a lot more distracting than intended. Brooks openly told the SFX crew they didn’t need to move the ears so much as they took attention away from Candy’s performance. Candy meanwhile had to walk around with a 40-pound battery pack strapped to him to control the animatronics. Next time you see the movie, reflect on how much effort it took to make Barf look right.
8. Pizza The Hut Was Real Pizza… And Hot
One of the most obvious Star Wars shots made in the movie is Pizza the Hut. A takeoff on Jabba the Hut, the obese gangster was just living pizza who threatens Lone Starr and Barf to pay up a debt or “else Pizza is gonna send out for you.” Dom DeLuise voiced the character but he wasn’t on set to play the part. And it’s doubtful he would have because the special effects crew’s solution to how to make Pizza look believable was simple: Have him be actual pizza. Richard Karen was the “lucky” guy to don a suit and covered in several pounds of pizza, which had to be hot in order to be believable on screen. Karen was absolutely miserable in the get-up, suffering a couple of burns and nearly collapsed from the heat. When some knew scenes had to be shot, Karen adamantly refused to go back into the suit so editor Rick Lazzarini had to take his place. It was a memorable bit in the movie but was a nightmare on set.
7. Michael Winslow Saved A Grand By Using His Voice For Sound Effects
One of the most popular parts of the movie has to be when a radar technician reports the radar is (literally) jammed. The small role was played by Michael Winslow, best known at the time as Larvelle Jones from the Police Academy movies and nicknamed “the man of 10,000 sound effects.” The actor was famous for being able to use his voice to replicate everything from an airline jet to various animals and used it well in commercials as well as films.
He utilized his skill for the scene, imitating a variety of fun effects in a conversation. It wasn’t just funny however, it was also important to the film. Apparently, Winslow provided a few additional effects for the film besides just that one scene, adding in some bits for laser blasts and engines. Brooks ended up using them and went on record saying Winslow saved the budget a thousand dollars. Leave it to Brooks to turn a comedy bit into economic sense.
6. You Won’t Believe Who Could Have Been Lone Starr
Bill Pullman has made Lone Starr his most iconic role, even more so then Independence Day. Fans love his gruff take on Han Solo and handling the funny lines and crazy antics of the movie. But he wasn’t Brooks’ first choice. In fact, Brooks had actually considered Tom Cruise. To be fair, at the time, Cruise was just coming off Top Gun and not quite the mega-watt star he would soon become so it was possible. The next choice was Tom Hanks who was still known best at the time as “the guy from Bosom Buddies” and would have been an interesting pick as the macho hero. James Caan was nearly cast but his drug issues at the time made him too much of a risk. So, Brooks went to Pullman, a total unknown who made his mark with the part and casting him freed the budget to get better known actors like John Candy and Rick Moranis. Still notable to think on whom could have been Lone Starr instead.
5. It Was Shot Over A Swimming Pool
The majority of the movie (sans the desert scenes) was shot at the classic MGM lot. At the time, the lot was still one of the busiest in Hollywood and had stages and areas going back decades. The biggest set was the bridge of Spaceball One with smaller sets for Lone Starr’s Eagle One ship and the dinner from near the movie’s end.
To hold the sets, the studio set the stages up on top of a massive “dunk tank.” The tank had been used for the dozen “aquatic musicals” made in the 1950s for swimming star Esther Williams. While long drained, the pool was still a stop for studio tours and a large space. Not only that but another stage was built on the same sound stage used for the classic The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, crew members could still see segments of the Yellow Brick Road about fifty years later. Funny how a movie set in the future used some of Hollywood’s classic past.
4. R.L. Stine (Goosebumps Creator) Wrote The Novelization
It was pretty common in the 1980s that movies get novelizations, whether for adults or kids. You wouldn’t think Spaceballs would be that kind of movie but sure enough, it had one. Written by “Jovial” Bob Stine and entitled Spaceballs: The Book, the novelization got totally in the spirit of the movie. It starts off describing Spaceball One by using the “section” line roughly seventeen times and adding “it’s too long for a book this short.” This sort of fourth-wall breaking was perfect for the movie and carrying throughout the book.
The author was just another struggling writer at the time, Stine not known for other works. But he then decided to change his name to one you’ll surely recognize: R.L. Stine. That’s right, the creator of the smash hit Goosebumps series and slews of YA thrillers did the novelization for Spaceballs. It shows how even the famous writers have to get their starts in unique places.
3. Dot Was A Mime Actress… Joan Rivers Only Did The Voice
When one mentions Dot Matrix, the robot aid for Princess Daphne, they immediately think of Joan Rivers. The groundbreaking comedienne was a long-time friend of Brooks who had always wanted to put her in one of his movies. However, Rivers only did the voice while the on-set Dot was someone rather famous. Lorene Yarnell had come to fame in the 1970s with her real-life husband Robert Shields as mimes, complete with a TV variety show.
A recurring sketch was the Clinkers with the two acting out living robots. That made Yarnell a key candidate to take on Dot and she handled the role well. Indeed, she would even improvise a few bits that Rivers had to make up new jokes to react to. There were six Dot outfits, all of which were worn down on set and the feet were set up as roller skates. Yarnell (who passed away in 2010) didn’t get as much recognition as Rivers but was a key reason Dot turned out as well as she did.
2. Steve Martin Could Have Been Sandurz
Colonel Sandurz was always intended to be a nice send-up of the henchmen characters from various sci-fi films with the typical Brooks touch. George Wyner (a master of playing slimy scumbags) was well cast in the part, handling the various antics and easily switching from authority to playing up the comedy. However, the part could have been played by a true comic legend.
Originally, Brooks wanted none other than Steve Martin in the role and even tailored the script for some of Martin’s trademark high-stressed antics. The idea of Martin pulling off bits like the “instant replay” scene or “What’s the matter, Colonel Sandurz? Chicken?” line is interesting to imagine. Sadly, Martin was way too busy with other projects to take part, so Wyner was cast. Too bad as Martin’s turn would have made Sandurz even funnier and mixed in with the comic stylings of Brooks and Moranis well.
1. Lucas Gave His Blessing But Not Merchandise
The reason parody films are around a lot is because satire is free from litigation as you can’t sue over a parody. However, Brooks respected George Lucas and was wary of offending him with a comedy sending up his biggest hit. So he went to Lucas and asked permission, showing a copy of the script. Lucas liked it and agreed to give Brooks his blessing. However, Lucas made one very clear point: He wanted no actual merchandising of the movie to distract from real Star Wars toys. Brooks agreed but naturally couldn’t resist taking a shot with the now-iconic scene from the movie where Yogurt shows off the mass “merchandising” Spaceballs can do. Lucas ended up enjoying the final film and as time has gone on, lifted the restriction a bit to allow posters and t-shirts. However, he still refuses to have a company put out the official action figures fans want so desperately. Still, for Lucas to give his okay to the movie before it started shows he has a good sense of humor about his creation.