In 1987, Rob Reiner conceived the inconceivable: A big-screen version of William Goldman’s fairy tale/love story/adventure/comedy mash-up The Princess Bride. The script had been languishing for years because nobody knew how to make a movie about a princess, a six-fingered villain, a giant, wizards and oversized rodents. After a decade or so, the director finally got the project off the ground, only to enjoy moderate box office success.
More than 25 years and a new generation later, that modest hit has become a beloved and endlessly quotable pop-culture phenomenon: “Inconceivable!” “Have fun storming the castle.” “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Cary Elwes was inspired by write his new memoir As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (the title a reference to his own famous line) in 2012 after taking part in a 25th anniversary screening at the New York Film Festival moderated by former L.A. Weekly film editor Scott Foundas. “We were all asked what was our favorite part of the film,” Elwes says during a phone conversation from his L.A. home, “and I said I didn’t have a sufficient amount of time to share how much I enjoyed making the film. Everyone is always asked if it was as fun to make the film as it looked, and I always tell them it was more fun than it looked. It really was. So I wanted to share these memories and stories that I had with the fans, and get it down on paper before my memory started to fail.”
Back in June 1986, after turning down a residency at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Elwes was in Berlin filming when he met Reiner and his producing partner Andy Scheinman. Reiner had seen Elwes in the 1984’s Lady Jane. He was looking for a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. type to cast in the Westley/Man in Black role, and Elwes had read the novel version as a kid.
“What resonated with me was the wonderful sense of humor,” says Elwes. “I thought, this is so wonderful and weird, just really oddball. It’s a very sweet story. It’s very unashamedly about true love. It’s also a fun story. Adults can appreciate it while watching it with their kids. That's a rare thing today.”
In his book, Elwes recalls how nervous Goldman was at the table read. The Oscar winner had penned the screenplays to Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, but The Princess Bride, a fairy tale originally written as a novel as a gift for his daughters in 1973, was his favorite. Various studios had tossed around the idea for a movie with Francois Truffaut, Robert Redford, Norman Jewison and Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!) attached to direct at different times, and Colin Firth, Christopher Reeve, Danny DeVito, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Sting in consideration for the roles. But the film wasn’t realized until Goldman met Reiner, whose father, Carl, had given him a copy of the book.
“Rob went over to his apartment, took Andy Scheinman, sat down and just convinced him,” says Elwes. “I think they just hit it off. It was a friendship and bond that proved quite fruitful for the both of them because they ended working on number of projects together, including Misery. So it was a fortuitous meeting for all of us.”
For the book, Elwes interviewed co-stars Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane and Fred Savage. Wright, too, was a relative newbie; at 19, she was plucked from obscurity, namely the ‘80s soap Santa Barbara. Elwes writes that he was instantly smitten with his love interest, but their relationship was purely professional.
With Patinkin, Elwes spent months learning how to fence (both right- and left-handed) for their famous sword-fighting scene. He went to the hospital twice during the filming: once for breaking his toe trying to operate an ATV, and another during a scene with Guest, who accidentally cut open Elwes’ head with his sword. And when it comes to the movie’s memorable scene with Crystal, Elwes admits the comedian had him laughing so hard he was replaced with a dummy during certain moments, though he doesn’t point out which. (“Just go back and watch. You’ll be able to see.”) Not surprisingly, much of Crystal and Kane’s dialogue was ad-libbed; some of Crystal’s more off-color jokes that were cut are floating around YouTube.
Though he heaps praise on the entire cast, Elwes was particularly fond of Andre the Giant, whom he calls “a beautiful soul and a real gentle giant, who would give you the shirt off his back, which would be enough for five people.” Plagued by back problems, the 540-pound Andre couldn't perform any of his physically demanding scenes, and his drinking was legendary. Elwes recounts the time he passed out at the Dorchester hotel in London during filming, and had to be barricaded with velvet rope until he woke up the next day.
“This massive icon of a man taught me a lot about appreciating the small things in life and about living in the moment, and I am more that grateful to have known him,” writes Elwes.
Elwes also recalls the moment on set when the wrestler let out a massive fart, which he vividly describes as “so intense I even observed our soundman remove his headphones to protect his ears.” A more surprising tidbit on Andre the Giant was his friendship with Samuel Beckett. Turns out the Irish playing once lived in the same French village and chauffeured the young Andre to school in his convertible.
“When he told me that story I just about fell out of my chair,” remembers Elwes. “I asked him, ‘So what did you guys talk about?’ And he said, ‘Mostly cricket.’ I just thought, gosh, Andre playing cricket. If only he'd played baseball. If anyone had given him a bat, he would’ve been Babe Ruth.”
Upon its release in 1987, The Princess Bride didn't become the box office bonanza everyone had anticipated, which Elwes mostly attributes to Fox’s lackluster publicity, the movie’s trailer and poster. “One of the reasons Goldman couldn’t get the movie made for ten years is that no studio had any idea what the demographic was,” he says. “Studios aren’t used to having multiple genres to pitch to their marketing department. So naturally they were stumped. They decided to focus on the image of the grandfather reading to his grandson, which is a beautiful image, but it really didn’t give an insight to the story.”
But thanks to home video, the film took on a new life, becoming the cult classic it is today. In 2011, Jason Reitman directed a staged reading at LACMA that included Elwes, Reiner, Mindy Kaling, Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt and Nick Kroll. And the following year, Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse unveiled a movie-inspired line of wine to mark the 25th anniversary.
Elwes realized the movie had caught hold with the public when he stared hearing fans spouting lines.
“It was maybe a decade later that was in a restaurant and I was ordering food,” Elwes recounts, “and the waitress asked how I wanted my meat cooked, and I said medium rare, and she winked and said, ‘As you wish.’ That was the first time anyone had said that to me.”
Now that he’s stepping behind the camera to direct an upcoming biopic on the Who manager Kit Lambert, Elwes shares what he learned from Reiner: “He was incredibly collaborative, very nurturing to the actors and very decisive about what he wanted. He was clear on his vision. You're lucky if you work with directors like that. It makes your job as an actor so much easier.”
Cary Elwes discusses his book (with Jon Lovitz) at Barnes & Noble at the Grove at Farmers Market, Oct. 23, and at Book Soup, Nov. 17.
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