The 80s was a fun time for moviegoers. For a successful comedy, sometimes all you needed was a group of employees at a specific job, they butt up against whatever authority is in place, and get into hijinks. There is no better example of this than the recruits at the Police Academy. A group of misfits that are thrown together and given guns. The making of the film had its ups and downs but the whole thing ended up with a whole of laughs and creating a franchise that would spawn seven films, a TV series, and a Saturday morning cartoon. Let’s find out exactly what happened to Police Academy here on WTF Happened To This Movie?
Producer Paul Maslansky was in the middle of production on the film The Right Stuff. They were about to film a scene on the street and had called into the local police for some help with crowd control. To his amazement, a couple of buses showed up with some trainees from the San Francisco Police. What he saw was a collection of recruits that incorporated people from just about every walk of life.
There were men, women, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, white, tall, short, skinny, overweight . . . you get the picture. As he watched they began to take their positions but a red-faced superior officer had to bark orders and looked just miserable and fed up with the group. When he would yell at some of the trainees they would begin to get flustered and try to explain their way out of their tongue-lashing.
Maslansky would ask the exasperated officer if these recruits would end up becoming full police officers. He sighed and said that San Francisco had an equal opportunity enrollment policy meaning that they had to accept anyone that applied. They were allowed to flunk them after two weeks but had to let them try until that point. Maslansky immediately had an idea. What if the person didn’t want to be flunked out and did everything they could to stay in the program? That night he wrote up a two-page treatment and gave it to his executive producer Alan Ladd Jr. He loved the idea and they hired Neal Israel and Pat Proft to write a script based on the treatment.
When they began looking for a director, they actually wanted Dom DeLuise to direct the film. He had directed a film about goofball cops five years earlier called Hot Stuff. Unfortunately, his schedule was full so he had to pass on the opportunity.
Their attention then turned to Hugh Wilson. He had created, written, and directed several episodes of WKRP In Cincinnati. He came aboard but was unfamiliar with the type of comedy that the film was going for. The script was more interested in reveling in the juvenile comedy that had started to become popular at the time. He watched some of the films that were among the same subgenres and the first thing he wanted to do was to rewrite the script.
After watching so many comedies the first thing Wilson wanted to do was cut down on the sleaze. He wanted to go for real laughs rather than nothing but sex jokes and crude humor. Maslansky could see that some of the humor that would give the film its edge was being erased. He was worried it was becoming homogenized. Before Wilson turned in the new draft, he tried to get him to keep some of the original humor in it.
When the new draft was turned in, the production company rejected it. The film was almost shelved completely since it looked like the things that had made the film shine had been taken out of the script. Wilson agreed to put some of the lost elements back into the film and knew he would have to find a way to make the jokes as artistic as possible to make them work more to his liking.
In the film, a newly elected mayor decides to do away with restrictions for people who want to apply to the local police academy. They can no longer turn people away and have to keep them as long as they can graduate. The police chief hates this and recruits Lieutenant Harris to force the undesirable cadets to quit by making the training miserable.
Little do they know that new recruit Mahoney has other plans and decides to do what he can to make sure he and his fellow misfits graduate. This leads to numerous attempts at making Lieutenant Harris’ life as miserable as possible. As the group moves through training, they develop a bond that helps push all of them through to become respectable police officers. They get their first real taste when the cadets are asked to help with crowd control during a dangerous riot.
One change from the original script that no one argued with was including the actor Michael Winslow in the film. Wilson and the casting directors went out to see Count Basie perform one night. He opened for singer and they were blown away by his abilities. They immediately created a character just for him and put it into the film. Now, it was time to find the rest of the unruly recruits.
For the role of Mahoney, producers wanted someone who could really carry the film and began auditioning some bigger names in Hollywood at the time. Some of the actors considered for the part were Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Bill Murray, and John Travolta. None of the actors seemed to really have the vibe they wanted for the character so they kept looking. Some actors who auditioned but were passed up included Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Michael Keaton. Little did they know they could have had future giant movie stars in their movie.
One actor walked into the audition wearing a regulation police uniform and the producers were impressed enough with his audition to offer him the part. Steve Guttenberg’s father was a retired New York police officer and he had borrowed his old police shirt. He seemed to understand the character but would later say that Mahoney wasn’t that hard to get.
He said “I think he’s a party guy. He doesn’t really know what he is going to do with his life. But it is kind of hard to talk about him because he is not exactly a deep character. I really hate when actors get interviewed, and they have just starred in The Love Boat (1977) or something, and they go on for a month about motivation and character analysis. ‘Police Academy‘ set out to be light entertainment, and that is what it is.”
One person who loved Guttenberg’s Mahoney was former US President Bill Clinton. Really this makes complete sense considering what his reputation is. Seeing a character that is running around causing hilarious hijinks and trying to score with the hot girls seems like something he would be into. Rumor has it he showed his daughter Chelsea 6 of the films in a single Police Academy marathon (you can have your own marathon when the series hit Blu-ray this fall).
When it came time to look for someone to play the imposing Moses Hightower, the production started to look at other actors who had a tough screen presence. There were thoughts to bring in actors such as Mr. T, Carl Weathers, or even O.J. Simpson. Instead, the role would go to former football player Bubba Smith.
His large size would give Hightower an intimidating look among the rest of the cast. Having Smith play the character very low-key and quiet made him even more threatening. After leaving football, Smith had racked up a lot of roles usually playing the henchmen in shows like Charlie’s Angels, B.J. And The Bear, and Hart To Hart. Here he got to show a softer side that also had some power to it. When the movie was screened before test audiences, they liked the character of Hightower so much that Bubba Smith got second billing.
Marion Ramsey was cast and found unique inspiration for the role of soft-spoken Hooks. She had been in a stage version of Little Shop Of Horrors and Michael Jackson had attended a performance. He came backstage and met the cast and told Ramsey he loved her performance. She remembered how soft-spoken he was and decided to use that as the soft-voiced part of her character. When it came time for Hooks’ big moment when she yelled “Don’t move Dirtbag!” the audio techs were not prepared. They had been used to recording her for the softer scenes and hadn’t adjusted their equipment. She was worried she had blown out their hearing.
David Graf showed up to his audition covered head to toe in camouflage. The producers knew this guy understood the role of Tackleberry completely. It was an easy hire for the production. Maybe even easier was the casting of Donovan Scott. When he entered the room for the audition he flipped forward into the room in a cartwheel and landed on his back. For a guy his size, it was good to see he was down for any piece of physical comedy. Director Hugh Wilson laughed and nodded to him saying “I think you got this.”
For the role of Commandant Lassard, they had Leslie Nielsen in mind. He passed so they then offered it to Robert Conrad. Unfortunately, he passed as well but would come to regret that decision when the film became a big hit. When the writer Neal Israel was making a film the next year called Moving Violations about a group of students at a driving school butting heads with their police officer instructors, he would jump at the chance of playing the police captain. It would not do as well as Police Academy.
The role would go to George Gaynes who wasn’t sure if he should take it. The humor was not something he was used to and felt he was a more serious actor. If he took this role he was afraid he wouldn’t be looked at for dramatic roles in the future. He went ahead with it and realized later on that it was probably the role he is most known for and ended up loving playing the character.
G.W. Bailey almost didn’t play the insufferable Lieutenant Harris. He was on the popular show St. Elsewhere. Yes, the show where in the last episode we learn that the entire series has taken place inside the mind of a young autistic boy. But that’s a video for another time.
Bailey had been on the show as Doctor Hugh Beale. During his time on the show, he had a hard time getting along with the show’s producer Bruce Paltrow. Because of their constant battles on set, Bailey decided to leave the show and would get cast in Police Academy not long after. If things had worked out on the show he wouldn’t have been available for the film. He became so tied with being the constant antagonist to Guttenberg’s Mahoney that it’s hard to even imagine someone else in the role.
While nothing controversial or shocking would happen during filming, making a movie is constantly full of difficult problems or fun mistakes that make the movie even better. During one scene Hooks says “I’ll bet there’s a back door to this place,” and then tries to open the door. The door was supposed to open right away but was legitimately jammed. She kept trying and finally after a few attempts it opened. When they went to edit the movie they found this take even funnier than the regular one. They sped the footage up a bit and kept it in the film.
The scene where Hightower is supposed to drive for the first time, the actor they cast as the angry driver was nowhere on set. The cast and crew spent time looking for him but couldn’t find him anywhere. As they were trying to figure out what to do a grip found him passed out drunk in one of the trailers. The director shrugged his shoulders and decided he would have to play the angry man that Hightower rear-ended. Unplanned director cameo but it works.
When the cadets were training on the obstacle course, the first man to scale the wall during the take threw himself over the top with so much force that when he landed he broke one of his legs. They had to halt production while he received medical attention.
During the filming of the rooftop scene where Mahoney and Harris as being held hostage, the director asked Bubb Smith to open his mouth wider when he delivered his line. They shot the scene again but Smith didn’t open his mouth much wider. When the director asked him why Smith told him that he had a gap between his teeth and that he was self-conscious about it.
The director then smiled and showed Smith that he also had a big gap between his teeth. His was almost double the size of Smith’s. This made him laugh and he told the director he would do it. Hightower’s gap in his teeth became part of the character’s signature look throughout the series.
One story point that got taken out during the editing process was that Hooks was supposed to lose weight by the end of the film. Marion Ramsey wore a fat suit for the duration of the shoot and during the cadet’s graduation, we were supposed to see that she had lost a lot of weight during their time at the academy. She would be shown at the graduation without the fat suit and would look a lot slimmer. Due to time constraints, this was cut out of the scene and it was decided that Hooks would remain a larger character. However one scene during the graduation march you can see the slimmed-down version of Hooks.
The film would go on to be an instant hit. It was released on March 23, 1984. With a budget of $4.5 million, it would earn over $81 million at the box office. Steve Guttenberg became a movie star overnight and almost didn’t come back for the sequel. He would stay with the series until the fourth entry in the series. The franchise would end up with seven films, a cartoon series, and a live-action TV show. Without a doubt, it became one of the most popular comedy franchises of all time. Nothing has been done with the property since 1997 and some wonder if it might be time for a reboot.
Bobcat Goldthwait would join the franchise in the second film and has said that he is asked about it all the time. One time he was questioned by TMZ about a reboot to which he responded that there didn’t need to be one. He said if they did, maybe it should be funny this time. He was obviously messing with the cameraman who was trying to get a rise out of him.
Then he said no and that it probably wasn’t the time for a wacky comedy about the police at the moment with so much unrest about police brutality. When the video was shown the last part was cut off.
Whether it’s time to revisit the franchise or not you can still go back to watch the original and enjoy it as a time capsule for a certain period of film comedies. Sometimes we all need a little laughter.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/wtf-happened-to-police-academy/