In 1988, Brad Pitt was a 24-year-old wannabe actor scraping by with uncredited bits in Less Than Zero, tiny guest roles in Head of the Class, Growing Pains and Dallas, and a side gig wearing a chicken mascot costume outside El Pollo Loco. He needed a memorable starring role. And he got one in the Yugoslavian drama The Dark Side of the Sun, his first (and forgotten) film.
Pitt was desperate to beat out River Phoenix for the role of Rick, a rich kid with a fatal allergy to the sun. If his skin gets in the light, he'll be dead in three days. And so his father (TV actor Guy Boyd) forces him to wear a head-to-toe black leather gimp costume with a zip up the back of his skin-tight mask, while relocating the family to the coast of then-Yugoslavia where he pays a faith healer to slap Rick with branches. But under the mask, we can tell Rick is a lovely boy - right after this opening scene, he pulls over his bike to rescue a puppy.
When Pitt found out he got the part, rumor is he did somersaults on the sidewalk outside producer Andjelo Arandjelovic's office. The role had everything: tragedy, romance, sacrifice, and shirtlessness. Plus, he'd get to ride a Kawasaki KLR650 all over Budva, Yugoslavia (now part of Montenegro). Pitt didn't even have a passport. He'd only once before flown on a plane. But the Oklahoma-born, Missouri-raised kid was thrilled for the adventure - and he'd get paid $1,523 a week for seven weeks.
Yugoslavia was on the brink of a decade-long civil war. Tension surrounded the set. "They were talking about it and you could see the hatred," Pitt later told the Hollywood Reporter. "It was like the Hatfields and McCoys - as soon as they heard a name, it put them on the other side of the fence, and that left an indelible mark on me." Still, Pitt stayed focused on his big break. He was punctual and enthusiastic, an adorable American goober both on-set and on-screen, where he chirps lines like, "God bless Captain Crunch!"
Prehistoric Pitt, a kid who'd never done a press tour, is at once preternaturally comfortable in front of the camera, and jumpy with nervous energy. When a housemaid reaches over him to hand his father a package, he impulsively nips at her wrist. And when the time comes where Rick must brave a masquerade ball - just one of the film's Fellinisque foreign touches - to woo a traveling actress (Melrose Place's Cheryl Pollak), he woos away, despite being handicapped by having to hide his glorious assets.
Perversely for young Pitt, still three years away from the Thelma & Louise breakout role that would crown him the '90s' biggest stud, he has to keep his face and body hidden. He's both Beauty and the Beast. Here, he begs his father to let him take off his protective mask. You can hear how hard it is for him to talk through his leather fetish wear - and hear how high his voice used to be, like modern Pitt crossbred with the Chipmunks.
At minute 29, we get a glimpse of his right hand. At minute 35, we finally see his face - in a big Hollywood reveal, the world gets its first glamour shot of Brad Pitt's beauty. He's so deliriously handsome that the shock is twice as shocking: Like Snow White, he's all red lips and pale skin and big (um, brown?) eyes.
The rest of the flick is a love triangle between the actress, au natural Rick and his masked identity, who she dubs The Dark Knight. (Like Lois Lane, she's too daft to guess they're the same person - was rural Yugoslavia swarming with nasal-voiced 5'11" Yanks?) Bizarrely to women of all countries and eras, she prefers her Pitt sheathed and totally friend-zones the normal-looking hottie, which makes his sacrifice doubly painful. Back in his family mansion, he programs her name - "Frances" - to repeat over and over on his computer in BASIC.
At least this dolphin loves him. As Rick ventures into the sea for the first time, watch it swim up and smack him in the face.
"This was not in the script!" explains co-screenwriter Andy Horton, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, who's just written a chapter on the film for an upcoming anthology on Brad Pitt. "After the dolphin hit Pitt, they stopped the shot and Bozidar [Nikolic, the director] discussed the situation with Pitt, explaining that dolphins are very much a part of that bay, but that they could reshoot the scene waiting for the dolphins to pass. But Pitt made it clear he was up for going back out into the sea and playing with them." You can see his joy, confusion and determination to turn the accident into a Big Moment. Most of all, you see a young man learning that his good looks are powerful - a lesson Pitt-the-heartthrob treasured until he decided he didn't want to be just another pretty face. At least we can still grok this early shot of his six-pack abs.
What actually was in the script is the stuff of lore. According to legend, the never theatrically released The Dark Side of the Sun was a casualty of the Yugoslavian war. The reels were lost and Pitt wouldn't star in another film until 1991's Johnny Suede. Finally, the film resurfaced in 1997, when it was given a home video release in the States. (Hence the older, goateed Pitt on some of the marketing posters.) Some think the ending, in which Rick, now disfigured, literally rides his Kawasaki into the sunset was merely the best they could do with what footage they had, though Horton says the final cut is very close to his script.
"I don't think it was shelved because of [the war]," Pitt told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. "I think it was shelved because it was lacking in entertainment value." Ouch.
At least Pitt was proud of The Dark Side of the Sun in 1988. Let's close with a thank-you poem he wrote to Bodizar Nikolic before flying home to the bright future that (eventually) awaited him.
Follow the brilliant man
Above men and make-believe
How his followers crowd
Yet the prophet moves on.
Such deep, confident foot prints
Could I dare trace his steps,
Scaling mountains with dreams
Across finish lines of gold.
Oh, where does he go?
And I climb
And I seek.
And in our world
Where endangered is his species
Is it any wonder
I should study him so
To learn from this man
To become a brilliant man
As a boy longs of his father
To be just like him
And I shall be brilliant
Just like him.
Make it so, Baby Pitt. Make it so.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Amy Nicholson on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: