15 Facts About 'Men in Black'
By Garin Pirnia
On July 2, 1997, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones teamed up as Agents Jay and Kay, respectively, to quietly control the large alien population living in New York City. The comic book-adapted buddy comedy spawned three sequels, which as a franchise went on to gross more than $1.9 billion. The original film in the series—which was released nearly 25 years ago—was the second-highest-grossing film of 1997, only overshadowed by Titanic’s immense success. Here are some intergalactic facts about the series.
1. Will Smith used to be known as “The King of the 4th."
Smith had back-to-back number one Fourth of July weekend hits in the mid-1990s: In 1996, Independence Day dominated the box office, and the next year Men in Black opened in first place. Though 1999’s Wild Wild West was one of Smith’s lowest openings, bringing in just $27,687,484 during its opening weekend, it was a strong enough total to top the box office charts. In 2002 and 2008, Men in Black II and Hancock, respectively, solidified Smith’s moniker.
2. Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld got his start as a cinematographer for the Coen brothers.
Sonnenfeld cut his teeth as a director of photography on the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing; he also worked with Penny Marshall on Big and Rob Reiner on When Harry Met Sally… and Misery before segueing into directing the Addams Family films and Get Shorty. Besides all three Men in Black films, Sonnenfeld also directed Smith in 1999’s Wild Wild West.
3. Sonnenfeld didn’t want to work with Tommy Lee Jones because of his alleged temper.
Before Sonnenfeld signed on to direct Men in Black, a director by the name of Les Mayfield was originally hired. Tommy Lee Jones joined the cast in the beginning, back when Chris O’Donnell was being considered for what eventually became Will Smith’s role. Much to Sonnenfeld’s surprise, he loved working with Jones. “I saw Tommy do a TV interview a few years ago, and he was so mean I remember thinking, ‘Thank god I never have to work with this jerk,”’ Sonnenfeld recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “But I ended up loving every minute of it. He can be difficult if you don’t have clear opinions, but we got along extraordinarily well.”
4. Some people think the Men in Black really exist.
Going back to Ufology in the 1940s and ’50s, several people wrote accounts and books about these so-called "men in black." The Mothman Prophecies author John Keel was the first person credited with using the "MIB" abbreviation in his writings. Albert K. Bender claimed “he was visited by three men in dark suits who threatened him with imprisonment if he continued his inquiries into UFOs,” and Gray Barker wrote several nonfiction books featuring the men in black, including 1956's They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers and 1984's MIB: The Secret Terror Among Us. Barker’s sister, Blanch, recalled how he once told her why he wrote the books: “There’s good money in it.”
5. The Men in Black comic book writer also thinks they’re real.
In the early ’90s, Lowell Cunningham penned the Men in Black comic book series, which was based on his own ideas of the men in black agents. “I was taken with the whole idea of these powerful men who show up and keep the peace,” Cunningham told The New York Times in 1997. “I shaped the men in black to be active agents, out there responding to threats, cleaning them up if they’ve already occurred. They describe themselves as the thin black line between reality and chaos.” He goes on to say one day he saw a black car drive by him and thought, “That’s the kind of car the men in black would drive.”
6. Frank the pug got the diva treatment.
In real life, Frank was a pug named Mushu, who appeared briefly in the first film but had a more expanded role in the sequel. “I had to find a pug for the original Men in Black," Mushu’s owner, Cheryl Shawver, told The National Enquirer in 2002. "I saw an ad in the paper and bought Mushu for just a few hundred dollars. He travels by crate in business class with Cristie [the trainer]. He goes under the seat. He stays in the hotel room with her, sleeps on her bed. She orders his meals from room service: steak, chicken. He drinks only bottled water when he’s on the road. He’s a VIP!”
7. A Men in Black /21 Jump Street mash-up was discussed.
In the wake of the 2014 Sony hack, reports surfaced that among the leaked documents was an e-mail from former Sony studio head Amy Pascal stating that the studio was planning on mashing up the 21 Jump Street and Men in Black franchises for one star-studded movie. The premise would entail Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum playing cops, but it’s unclear if Jones and/or Smith would reprise their roles. In an e-mail to Pascal, Hill said: “Jump Street merging with MIB—I think that’s clean and rad and powerful.”
Back in 2013, it was reported a Men in Black 4 was in the works, with 22 Jump Street scribe Oren Uziel writing the script. Though a fourth installment led by Smith and Jones hasn't materialized yet, 2019 did see the release of Men in Black: International with Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as the leads.
8. BadAstronomy.com laid out the film’s scientific accuracies and inaccuracies.
The scientific website BadAstronomy.com broke down all of the astronomical incidents in the first Men in Black film and discussed what was good (a.k.a. accurate) about the movie and what wasn’t. For instance, Agent Kay says, “You want to stay away from that guy. He’s, uh, he’s grouchy. A three-hour delay in customs after a trip for 17 trillion miles is gonna make anybody cranky,” but BadAstronomy corrects the error: “The nearest known star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, which is roughly 25 trillion miles away. So 17 trillion still falls a bit short. Still, I give them some credit.”
9. Men in Black is still the highest-grossing action buddy comedy of all time.
Rush Hour 2 almost dethroned Men in Black from the top spot in 2001, but with a gross of $250 million, Men in Black held onto its position. 22 Jump Street comes in third, and Men in Black II and Men in Black 3 rank fourth and fifth on the list, respectively.
10. Basketball braces inspired Vincent D'Onofrio’s bug walk.
The actor, who played a bug-like alien named Edgar, talked about how he came up with his distinct walk in the movie. While watching bug documentaries helped, there was another ingredient that put it over the top.
“I was walking by a sporting goods store one day, and I saw these braces that the basketball players wear,” he said. “I went in and I tried one on and I realized you could lock it off, you could tape the hinges so that you can’t bend either way. So I bought two of them and I took them home and I put them on. So, I slightly bent my leg and locked off the braces so I couldn’t move either way, but it was slightly bent and I taped off both my feet and I tried to walk and it created this restrained, physical odd thing.”
11. Will Smith came up with the plot for Men In Black 3 while filming Men in Black II.
One night while on the set of Men in Black II, Smith told Sonnenfeld his idea for a third film. “At the beginning, something has happened and Agent Kay is missing and I have to go back to the past to go try to save young Agent Kay,” Sonnenfeld recalled to CNN. “In doing so, myself and the audience find out all sorts of secrets about the world that we didn’t even know were out there.” All Sonnenfeld could muster was, “Can we just finish this one?” Over a decade later, the plot to Men in Black 3 did revolve around time travel and saving a young Agent Kay, played by Josh Brolin.
12. The Men in Black theme song was Will Smith’s first solo hit.
Smith previously experienced success with his rap-duo group DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, but co-writing and singing the Men in Black theme song was his first taste of solo success. The song was featured on both the film’s soundtrack (which sold more than 3 million copies) and Smith’s debut solo album, Big Willie Style, which was released a few months after the film came out. The theme song won Smith a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance, and cemented Smith as a triple threat: a bona fide television and movie star, and a rapper.
13. Men in Black makeup artist Rick Baker announced his retirement in 2015.
Rick Baker won seven Oscars for his makeup effects during his career, including one for his Edgar the Bug work on Men in Black. In 2015, Baker announced his retirement.
“I said the time is right, I am 64 years old, and the business is crazy right now,” Baker told 89.3 KPCC about why he was getting out of the biz. “I like to do things right, and they wanted cheap and fast. That is not what I want to do, so I just decided it is basically time to get out.”
14. Will Smith and Rip Torn reprised their roles for an amusement park ride.
In 2000, Men in Black Alien Attack replaced Back to the Future Part III Locomotive Display when it opened at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. Smith and Torn filmed a short video and supplied their voices, which play as the riders use laser guns to shoot animatronic aliens. At 70,000 square feet, it was the largest dark ride built for a Universal park at the time.
15. The Ray-Ban glasses worn in the movie almost didn’t get a shoutout.
The sunglasses Smith and Jones sport in the film are Ray-Ban Predator II glasses. According to a 1997 article in Promo magazine, a special coating was applied to the glasses to limit reflection, which meant removing the logo. Without the logo, nobody would know what type of glasses they were (Sonnenfeld edited out a previous line in the movie where Jones says “that’s why they call them Ray-Bans”).
Ray-Ban tried to convince the studio to reinstate the logo, but they refused. After some coercing, Smith compromised and name-dropped the company in the “Men in Black” song: “Black tie with the black attitude / New style, black Ray-Bans, I’m stunnin’, man.” The popularity of the movie and the song’s music video gave the $100 Predators a four- to five-fold increase in sales, and a boost to Ray-Ban’s entire catalog of shades.
This article was originally published in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.