Mel Brooks hadn’t directed a movie in six years when he committed to 1987’s Spaceballs, a joke-saturated spoof of Star Wars and other popular genre films of the era. Critics speculated he was a little too late (Return of the Jedi had been released four years prior) and box office at the time was modest, but Spaceballs has since earned its reputation as a cult hit. Force yourself to check out these 14 facts about the Schwartz, robotic ears, and the search for Spaceballs II.
1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST STAR WARS PARODY FILM.
Amateur filmmaker Ernie Fosselius was so enamored with Star Wars in 1977 that he cobbled together a 12-minute short, Hardware Wars, which he shot for just $8000 in an abandoned laundromat. The film embraced its piddling budget by featuring toasters, flashlights, and bits of tin foil to substitute for space debris. Charmingly hokey, Hardware Wars became immensely profitable, earning roughly $500,000 in 1978, and was even declared a “cute little film” by George Lucas. Fosselius had offers to extend it to feature length, but passed; he would later seem slightly perturbed by Spaceballs, saying it "quoted" his efforts.
2. MEL BROOKS WANTED TO CALL IT PLANET MORON.
In the commissary at the 20th Century Fox lot in 1984, Brooks was sitting down to eat when a studio executive abruptly asked what his next project was going to be. “Planet Moron!” Brooks yelled back, possibly referring to his unsolicited interrogator. The title spurred Brooks and his collaborators to develop what would become Spaceballs. Planet Moron was abandoned when a film titled Morons from Outer Space was released; Spaceballs, despite the assumed innuendo, was a result of needing “space” in the title and Brooks considering it one of his trademark “screwball” comedies.
3. GEORGE LUCAS GAVE HIS (CONDITIONAL) BLESSING.
Satire is generally exempt from litigation, but Brooks was an admirer of Lucas’s work and wanted to get his permission before starting on the movie. Working on a “funny” film of his own with Howard the Duck, Lucas agreed—but only on the condition that no Spaceballs merchandising be made available. “The Lucas people were just upset about one aspect of Spaceballs,” Brooks told Starlog in 1987. “They didn’t think it was fair for us to do a take-off and then merchandise the characters.”
4. IT WAS SHOT OVER A GIANT SWIMMING POOL.
Michael Winslow, best known as the “sound effects guy” from the Police Academy series, said in 2012 that Spaceballs was shot on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. In the heyday of movies focused on swimmers like Esther Williams, the studio had constructed a giant pool that could be covered with retractable flooring. Spaceballs also used the same sound stage as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz; the crew would occasionally see stray pieces of the Yellow Brick Road when milling around.
5. BILL PULLMAN WAS BROOKS'S THIRD CHOICE.
According to Bill Pullman, the actor—who had not yet had a starring role—was approached by Brooks only after Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks turned down the role of Lone Starr, the Han Solo-esque lead of the film. Pullman said that hiring Rick Moranis and John Candy freed Brooks up to cast a relative unknown.
6. THE CREW THOUGHT WORKING WITH GREEN SCREEN MIGHT DAMAGE THEIR EYES.
Spaceballs took its effects seriously, and the cast and crew needed to spend a lot of time in front of a green screen. At the time, the process was still relatively new, and the production had a suspicion that the environment might be damaging to a person’s eyesight. With this (unfounded) concern in mind, Pullman and the cast wore sunglasses in between shots.
7. BROOKS HAD A BAD REACTION TO HIS YOGURT MAKEUP.
In addition to directing and co-writing, Brooks had two roles in the film: one as President Skroob and another as Yogurt, a diminutive Yoda equivalent. In 2012, Brooks told The A.V. Club that he had an allergic reaction to the latex, which created a rash that spread to his eyes. Brooks also only gave the team one hour to apply his make-up; if it took any longer, he insisted he'd get out of the chair and leave.
8. DOT MATRIX WAS A FAMOUS MIME.
Voiced by Joan Rivers, the service robot Dot Matrix was actually inhabited by Lorene Yarnell, one part of the largely-forgotten mime duo of Shields and Yarnell. The two had a variety show in the 1970s that featured a recurring skit called the Clinkers, a robot couple that allowed the performers to show off some impressively stilted moves. (In real life, Shields and Yarnell were married for a time; their ceremony was performed in pantomime.)
9. THE GUY PLAYING PIZZA THE HUTT REFUSED TO COME BACK.
Though Dom DeLuise voiced Jabba stand-in Pizza the Hutt for the film, he was not required—nor was he likely willing—to be covered in pounds of fake molten cheese. That honor went to actor/effects man Richard Karen. When additional shooting was required, however, Karen simply refused to climb back into the suit. Effects artist Rick Lazzarini took his place.
John Candy, who played half-dog/half-man Barf, was usually trailed on-set by Lazzarini and the effects crew, who had to control both his tail and his ears. At one point, Lazzarini was told by Brooks that he didn’t “have to move the ears so much!” They were too active in scenes focused on other characters. (Candy, incidentally, performed with a 40-pound battery backpack strapped to him to control the animatronics.)
11. LUCAS LOVED IT, PERHAPS BECAUSE BROOKS PAID HIM OFF.
One of Brooks’s strategies to ensure continued cooperation from Lucasfilm was to book their services for post-production work worth nearly $5 million. “You know what I did not to have any real trouble?” Brooks said. “I called Lucas and I said, ‘I want you guys up in San Francisco—at the ranch or whatever—to do all the post-production of the movie.’ And he said, ‘Oh, great, great.’” Lucas later wrote Brooks a note saying how much he loved the movie.
12. R.L. STINE WROTE A NOVELIZATION.
Film comedies—particularly those relying on broad, visual gags—are rarely fodder for tie-in novelizations, but perhaps that was the joke. To accompany the release of the film, a pre-Goosebumps R.L. Stine wroteSpaceballs: The Book, a young adult version of the story that substituted some of the stronger language and bits for child-friendly content. It remains the only exclusion to Lucasfilm’s “no tie-in” mandate.
13. THE ANIMATED SERIES SPOOFED THE PREQUEL TRILOGY.
While Spaceballs performed modestly during its initial release, it was “rediscovered” by audiences by following in the wake of persistent interest in all things Star Wars. When Lucasfilm’s prequel trilogy was wrapping up in 2005, Brooks produced and directed a 13-episode season of Spaceballs: The Animated Series; Daphne Zuniga (Princess Vespa) and Joan Rivers (Dot Matrix) were, along with Brooks, the only returning cast members.
14. RICK MORANIS WAS OFFERED A SEQUEL.
Rick Moranis, who played Dark Helmet, retired from acting in the 1990s to focus on his family and his musical career. In 2013, he toldHeeb magazine that Brooks was interested in a sequel, which Moranis suggested could be titled Spaceballs III: The Search for Spaceballs II. (The film had, by this point, done very well on home video.) Brooks was only lukewarm on the idea, and Moranis found the financial offer underwhelming.
Brooks, who has never done a sequel, joked during the film’s production that a follow-up would be titled Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money.
*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.
Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.
Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.
However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).
Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.
As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:
“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”
Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."
Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. Just ahead of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a new biopic in which Tom Hanks stars everyone's favorite "neighbor," here are 41 things you might not have known about Fred Rogers.
1. Fred Rogers was bullied as a child.
According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Massachusetts's Nantucket island—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and was regularly taunted by his classmates.
"I used to cry to myself when I was alone," Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano."
2. Rogers left Dartmouth College after one year.
Rogers was an Ivy League dropout. He spent his freshman year at Dartmouth College, then transferred to Rollins College, where he pursued a degree in music.
3. He was an accomplished musician.
Rogers transferred to Rollins College in order to pursue a degree in music and graduated Magna cum laude. In addition to his talent for playing the piano, Rogers was also an incredible songwriter.
4. He wrote the music for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Need proof of Rogers's songwriting prowess? He wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.
5. Playing the piano was his favorite stress-reducer.
Whenever Rogers began to feel anxious or overwhelmed, he would play the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood theme song on the piano as a way to calm his nerves.
6. He had a strict daily routine.
Rogers was a stickler when it came to his daily routine: He started his day at 5 a.m. and made time for a prayer as well as some studying, writing, phone calls, swimming, and responding to his fan mail.
7. He weighed himself daily.
Another part of Rogers's daily routine included a daily weigh-in. He liked to maintain a weight of exactly 143 pounds.
8. His weight had a special meaning.
Rogers's regular weight of 143 had special meaning to him. "It takes one letter to say I and four letters to say love and three letters to say you," Rogers once said. "One hundred and forty-three."
9. Pennsylvania celebrated 143 day in 2019.
In 2019, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf declared May 23 to be 143 Day in the state. Rogers was born near Pittsburgh and lived his whole life in the area. By honoring Rogers with his own holiday, the individuals behind the 143 Day campaign wanted to encourage people to be kind to their neighbors on May 23—and every other day of the year.
10. Rogers responded to every fan letter he received.
Rogers took time out of each day to respond to his fan mail, and he responded to each and every letter he received—approximately 50 to 100 letters per day. "He respected the kids who wrote," Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."
11. No feeling was too big—or small—for Mr. Rogers to talk about.
Over the many years he worked with children, Rogers spoke very openly about his and their feelings on every sort of topic, from why kids shouldn't be afraid of haircuts to divorce and war.
12. He spent five episodes talking about nuclear war.
Since its inception on Pittsburgh's WQED in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had informed its young audience about topical issues in subversive and disarming ways. When civil rights were discussed, host Fred Rogers didn’t deliver a lecture about tolerance. Instead, he invited a black friend, Officer Clemmons, to cool off in his inflatable pool, a subtle nod to desegregation.
Rogers conceived and taped a five-episode storyline on the subject in the summer of 1983, which wound up being prescient. In November 1983, president Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada to topple a Marxist regime.
“Little did I know we would be involved in a worldwide conflict now,” Rogers told the Associated Press. “But that’s all the better because our shows give families an opportunity for communication. If children should hear the news of war, at least they have a handle here, to assist in family communications.”
13. Rogers had a special way of talking to kids.
Mr. Rogers knew children well. He knew how they thought, what they liked, what they feared, and what they struggled to understand—and he went to great lengths to ensure he never upset or confused his devoted viewers.Mr. Rogers knew children well. He knew how they thought, what they liked, what they feared, and what they struggled to understand—and he went to great lengths to ensure he never upset or confused his devoted viewers.
Maxwell King, author of the forthcoming book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, wrote in The Atlantic that Mr. Rogers carefully chose his words while filming Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He understood that children think in a literal way, and a phrase that might sound perfectly fine to adult ears could be misinterpreted by younger audiences.
Rogers was “extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go,” King said, adding that Mr. Rogers wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew this might be a fear shared by many children.
14. Rogers used King Friday to make Friday the 13th less scary for kids.
King Friday XIII, son of King Charming Thursday XII and Queen Cinderella Monday, is an avid arts lover, a talented whistler, and a former pole vaulter. He reigns over Calendarland with lots of pomp and poise, and he’s usually correct.
Rogers explained that he wanted to give children a reason to look forward to Friday the 13th, instead of buying into the negative superstitions that surround the dreaded date. “We thought, ‘Let’s start children out thinking that Friday the 13th was a fun day,’” he said in a 1999 interview. “So we would celebrate his birthday every time a Friday the 13th came.”
15. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.
Rogers was an ordained minister who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a 6-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:
“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
16. Rogers was not a fan of foul language.
If Rogers used the word mercy, it probably meant that he was feeling overwhelmed. He was typically heard saying it when he sat down at his desk in the morning and saw the mountain of fan mail awaiting him. But mercy was about the strongest word in his vocabulary.
17. Rogers was not a fan of television, which is why he gravitated toward it.
Rogers’s decision to work in television wasn’t out of a love for the medium. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers toldPittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."
18. There's a reason why the stoplight is always yellow in the opening sequence to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
In the opening sequence of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the stoplight is always on yellow as a reminder to kids—and their parents—to slow down a little.
19. Rogers believed that patience was a virtue—even if it meant dead air time.
Rogers wasn't afraid of dead air: He once invited a marine biologist onto the show and put a microphone into his fish tank, because he wanted the kids at home to see (and hear) that fish make sounds when they eat. While taping the segment, however, the fish weren't hungry so the marine biologist started trying to egg the fish on. But Rogers just sat there, waiting quietly. The crew figured they'd need to re-tape it, but Rogers didn't want to. He thought it was a great lesson in teaching kids the importance of being patient.
20. Rogers always made sure to announce that he was feeding his fish for a very specific reason.
Rogers always mentioned out loud that he was feeding his fish because a young blind viewer once asked him to do so. She wanted to know the fish were OK.
21. Rogers was not a fan of ad-libbing.
Rogers was a perfectionist, and very much disliked ad-libbing. He felt that he owed it to the kids who watched his show to make sure that every word on his show was thought out.
22. Kids who watched Mister Rogers' Neighborhood retained more than those who watched Sesame Street.
A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.
23. Animals loved Rogers as much as people did.
It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understood 2000 English words, was an avid fan, too. When Rogers visited once her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.
24. Rogers's mother knitted all of his sweaters.
If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he said.
25. One of rogers's sweaters lives in the Smithsonian.
26. Rogers's sweater collection was actually challenging to maintain.
Fred's mother, Nancy Rogers, died in 1981. Rogers continued wearing the sweaters she had made for years ... until it became obvious that they wouldn’t endure many more tapings of the show. Replacements were sought, but art director Kathy Borland quickly discovered that the search was not unlike trying to replace Superman’s cape. A Fred Rogers sweater needed a zipper with a smooth operation so it wouldn’t snag on camera. It also needed to be vibrant.
Nothing fit the bill until Borland saw a United States Postal Service employee walking down the street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—where the show taped—and took note of his cardigan. Borland phoned postal supply distributors and was able to secure a fresh inventory of sweaters (which she bought white, and then dyed) that kept Rogers looking like himself through the show’s final episode in 2001.
27. Rogers changed into sneakers as a production practicality.
According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a production-related consideration. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.
28. He invited the driver who took him to a PBS dinner to eat with them.
While being transported to a PBS executive's house, Rogers heard his limo driver say that he was going to have to wait outside for two hours while the party dined—so Rogers insisted that the driver join them for dinner.
On the ride back home, Rogers sat in the front of the car with the driver, who mentioned that they were passing his house on their way back to Rogers's home. So Rogers asked if they could stop in to meet the family. According to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life: Rogers played piano for the family and chatted with them until late into the night.
29. No, Rogers was never a sniper.
The internet has stirred up all sorts of bizarre rumors about Rogers, including one that he served in the army and was a sniper in Vietnam and another that he served in the army and was a sniper in Korea. As exciting as that might make an upcoming biopics, these are both untrue.
30. Rogers was partly responsible for helping to save public television.
In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.
31. Rogers also helped to save the VCR.
Years after he appeared before the Senate, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement. Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.
32. At least one professor believes that rogers's impact on kids wasn't all that positive.
LSU professor Don Chance is one of the few people who isn't 100 positive about Rogers's legacy: He believes that Rogers created a, "culture of excessive doting" which resulted in generations of lazy, entitled college students.
33. He was regularly parodied—and loved every second of it.
Rogers was regularly parodied, and he loved it. The first time Eddie Murphy met Mr. Rogers, he couldn't stop himself from giving the guy a big hug.
34. Rogers was colorblind.
Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettewrote that:
"Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup."
35. Michael Keaton got his start on MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD.
Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.
36. Rogers gave George Romero his first paying gig, too.
It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Night of the Living Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.
“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made."
37. Rogers paid a visit to Sesame Street in 1981.
Though Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were both PBS shows, they were technically competitors—though the show’s producers didn’t exactly act like it. As a result, Rogers made an appearance on Sesame Street in May 1981.
The video opens with Rogers wearing a suit and tie instead of his usual cardigan sweater. He's standing outside of a storefront when Big Bird approaches and asks if he’ll judge a race between him and Snuffy. (The theme of the segment was competition and, more importantly, maintaining friendships whether you win or lose.)
38. He made a guest appearance on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, too.
Rogers once played a pastor's mentor on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.
39. Many of the characters on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood were named after people in Rogers's life.
McFeely, for example, was Rogers's grandfather's name; Queen Sara was named for Rogers's wife.
40. Rogers got his own stamp in 2018.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with Rogers's image on it. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
41. He was turned into a Funko Pop!
Also in honor of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood 50th anniversary, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen was honored with a series of Funko toys, including a Funko Pop! figure.
Ready to learn more about Fred Rogers? Watch the video below, where John Green brings you a whole pile of things you should know about everybody's favorite neighbor.