A book? In The Princess Bride, Fred Savage wasn't into them, forcing his grandfather (Peter Falk) to explain, “When I was your age, television was called books.” But The Princess Bride star Cary Elwes has written a book about the making of his most famous movie, called As You Wish, and it's a special book with fencing, fighting, torture, giants, chases, escapes, true love and miracles, plus nuclear explosions, drunk driving and a blast of flatulence that, since the invention of flatulence, left all others behind. Here are a dozen of the best Princess Bride fun facts that Elwes reveals, including the time the film was sanctified in Vatican City, what other famous strongman was almost Fezzik, the movie's unknown Star Wars connection, and the amount of booze Andre the Giant pounded every day, which is truly, yes, inconceivable.
The Princess Bride was an unfilmable jinx.
“It was in one of those cinema books as one of the greatest screenplays ever written that had never been produced,” director Rob Reiner groans. Author William Goldman published the original The Princess Bride novel in 1973 and Fox immediately bought the movie rights for $500,000. That's a lot of ducats, but they still couldn't get the film made. Every director wanted to do it — some who make sense, like Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, Fiddler on the Roof) and John Boorman (Excalibur), and some you'd never suspect, like Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night) and Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim). Even Robert Redford threw his name in the ring, and could have done double duty as Westley. (Another almost-Westley: Christopher Reeve.) Reiner knew it'd be a struggle but he managed to get Goldman's blessing. Shrugged the novelist, “I mean, he wasn't Alfred Hitchcock, but he's a great director.”
Chernobyl could have cost Cary Elwes the part.
The nuclear power meltdown happened just before Elwes — a handsome newbie who'd just turned down an offer from London's Royal Shakespeare Company — flew to East Germany to shoot Maschenka. The danger zone was eight hours away, near enough that Elwes was warned not to drink the local milk. Co-producers Andrew Scheinman and Rob Reiner were almost too spooked to visit Elwes on set for his final audition. Scheinman was so afraid of radiation that he sprinted from the taxi to the hotel lobby, forgetting his $1,000 jacket in the cab, and once inside he refused to touch even the bottled water. The pedigreed Elwes knew he looked the part — now he had to convince them he was funny. “Here I was, a British actor working in Berlin, and our conversation revolved largely around my recounting my favorite episodes of All in the Family,” he jokes. What sealed the deal: Elwes' Fat Albert impression. No kidding.
Buttercup and Westley were totally hot for each other in real life.
Here's Elwes remembering the first time he met then-20-year-old Robin Wright, then a soap opera star: “It was as if I were looking at a young Grace Kelly, she was that beautiful,” Elwes writes. “I couldn't concentrate on much of anything after that first encounter with Robin.” It was mutual. “I was absolutely smitten with Cary,” Wright confesses. “So obviously that helped our on-screen chemistry.” Santa Barbara added a year to Wright's contract in exchange for freeing her to do the movie, which Elwes thought was “kind of rotten, but she didn't complain.” Well, yeah.
Author William Goldman was so nervous the film would suck that he ruined the first day of filming.
The Princess Bride was his favorite of his books, and Goldman was scared the studio would screw it up. On day one, while shooting Buttercup and Westley in the Fire Swamp, the sound engineers noticed some bizarre background noise on the tapes. “It sounded like some strange incantation,” Elwes says. Goldman had been chanting prayers that the movie wouldn't suck. Reiner gave him a hug and told him to relax. But Goldman forgot that in the next scene, Wright's red dress had to deliberately catch fire. As soon as the gas geyser lit up her dress, Goldman burst out screaming, “OH, MY GOD! HER DRESS IS ON FIRE! SHE'S ON FIRE!!!” Later, he scolded Reiner: “You're setting fire to Robin on the first day?! What are you, nuts? It's not like we can replace her!”
The Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times is actually The Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times
Goldman spent months researching 17th-century swordfight manuals to craft Westley and Inigo's bravura fencing battle. Then Elwes and Mandy Patinkin spent more months perfecting it — right- and left-handed. Reiner hired the best coaches in Hollywood: Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson. Not only did both men train the original swashbuckler, Errol Flynn, they both worked on Star Wars, Diamond as the Tusken raider who surprises young Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, Anderson as the stunt double for Darth Vader.
But Elwes almost didn't get to fight a Rodent of Unusual Size.
Danny Blackner, a 4-foot-tall, heavily tattooed stunt guy, was hired to climb inside the 50-pound rubber rat suit and grapple with Elwes. But the night before, Blackner was arrested for drunk driving. Blackner begged the officer to let him go because he had a major job in the morning, but when he confessed what the job was, the cop sneered, “All right, I've heard enough, back of the van for you.” When no one could reach him in the morning, Elwes was told he'd have to wrestle a dummy. Finally, Blackner got sprung from jail, drove straight to set and climbed into the costume.
Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly played Fezzik the Giant.
The then-unknown bodybuilder was Norman Jewison's first pick. When Rob Reiner finally started making the film a decade later, he also considered Richard Kiel, James Bond's infamous Jaws.
Andre the Giant was the greatest human being on earth
At 7'4” and 540 pounds, Andre knew he was scary. (The first time Chris Sarandon's daughters saw him, they ran screaming.) To help people relax, Andre called everyone “Boss,” and when Robin Wright got the shivers between takes, he would warm her by resting a huge hand on her head, like a hat. One day, Andre casually mentioned that Waiting for Godot playwright Samuel Beckett used to drive him to school in rural France, after he grew too tall for the school bus. Beckett, who had hired Andre's father as a handyman, owned a convertible and took the top down to chauffeur Andre to class. Elwes asked what on earth the wrestler and the Nobel Prize winner talked about. Said Andre, “Mostly cricket.”
But, boy, could Andre the Giant drink.
In one night, Andre could polish off three bottles of cognac and 12 bottles of wine and feel only a little tipsy. He kept a flask of cognac in his costume, but his favorite drink was a monstrosity called “the American,” a 40-ounce beer pitcher filled with whatever booze he felt like that day: merlot, brandy, beer, vodka, whatever. The first time Andre the Giant and Robin Wright went out for dinner, he ordered four appetizers, five entrees and a case of wine. While bar-hopping with Elwes in New York, the two were politely tracked by an off-duty cop who was hired to keep an eye on Andre in case he fell over and hurt someone — again. (Andre generously bought the officer several drinks.) And the night of The Princess Bride's first script read-through, Andre got so drunk at the hotel bar that he passed out in the middle of the lobby. The hotel employees couldn't move him, so they put velvet ropes around his snoring corpse and told the maids not to vacuum until he woke up.
Naturally, Andre the Giant unleashed epic farts.
Elwes devotes three pages of his book to one truly memorable blast. Here's how he describes it: “A veritable symphony of gastric distress that roared for more than several seconds and shook the very foundations of the wood and plaster set where we were now grabbing on to out of sheer fear. … The sonic resonance was so intense I even observed our sound man remove his headphones to protest his ears.” Between giggling fits, Elwes spotted what looked like steam rising from Andre's toupee. “It's OK,” chirped Andre. “My farts always made people laugh.”
No one liked how the movie was advertised.
How do you get adults to buy tickets to what sounds like a girly kiddie flick? The studio had no idea. With a dozen memorable characters to pick from, the marketers foolishly decided on a poster with just Fred Savage and Peter Falk. Elwes was mystified. “Granted that relationship was an integral part of the story, but we all felt, including Rob, that perhaps it wasn't the best angle to promote the movie.” Then Fox did such a hatchet job on the trailer that it was pulled from theaters. The film languished. Groaned Reiner to Fox head Barry Diller, “This is terrible. We've got a movie that everybody loves but we can't get anybody to come.”
Luckily, now The Princess Bride has very unexpected fans.
There's no better proof of The Princess Bride's impact on popular culture than these three Cary Elwes encounters. One Iraq veteran told him that every day, when his commanding officer would send the men out on dangerous patrols, he'd wave goodbye with, “Have fun storming the castle!” The soldier told Elwes, “That did a lot for morale.” Bill Clinton beamed that he'd seen the movie a hundred times and was thrilled with Elwes' offer to send him and Chelsea a signed script. But the most startling fan of all: Pope John Paul II, who shook hands with Elwes and gushed, “You are the actor! The one from The Princess and the Bride!” Elwes was startled — his Holiness knew the film? “Yes, yes,” the pope smiled. “Very good film. Very funny.”
Read our interview with As You Wish author Cary Elwes.
Amy Nicholson on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter:
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.