Whether you think of it as a statement on female empowerment or simply a fun workplace comedy, the 1980 hit 9 to 5—which featured Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton as a trio of secretaries who turn the tables on their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" boss (Dabney Coleman)—is a bona fide comedy classic. In honor of its 40th anniversary, here are 14 things you might not know about the Oscar-nominated film.
1. The concept for 9 to 5 began with Jane Fonda.
9 to 5 was produced by Jane Fonda’s company, IPC Films, and the idea originated from a real-life organization. “My ideas for films always come from things that I hear and perceive in my daily life,” Fonda told The Canberra Times in 1981. “In that case, a very old friend of mine had started an organization in Boston called 'Nine To Five,’ which was an association of women office workers. I heard them talking about their work and they had some great stories. And I've always been attracted to those 1940s films with three female stars.”
2. 9 to 5 was originally intended to be a dram.
Though it’s ranked number 74 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time, 9 to 5 didn’t start out as a comedy. "At first we were going to make a drama,” Fonda explained. “But any way we did it, it seemed too preachy, too much of a feminist line. I'd wanted to work with Lily [Tomlin] for some time, and it suddenly occurred to [producer] Bruce [Gilbert] and me that we should make it a comedy. It remains a ‘labor film,’ but I hope of a new kind, different from The Grapes of Wrath or Salt of the Earth. We took out a lot of stuff that was filmed, even stuff the director, Colin Higgins, thought worked but which I asked to have taken out. I'm just super-sensitive to anything that smacks of the soapbox or lecturing the audience.”
3. 9 to 5 was a black comedy before it was a broad comedy.
“I had written a very dark comedy in which the secretaries actually tried to kill the boss, although they tried to kill him in sort of funny ways,” screenwriter Patricia Resnick told Rolling Stone. “Originally, Jane had been concerned that would be too dark. I screened an old Charlie Chaplin film called Monsieur Verdoux for her. In it, Chaplin's wife is blind and he has a child. He's kind of a Blackbeard, he romances a series of woman through the course of the movie and murders them in order to get money and support his family. It is a comedy, but at the end they hang him. I turned to Jane at the end of the movie and tears were rolling down her cheeks—but she was concerned the women wouldn't be sympathetic enough. I said, ‘He really killed all these women and you're crying. I just want them to try! They won't be successful.’ And she said OK. But then when Colin came in, he was very influenced by Warner Bros. cartoons and things like that, and so their attempts to kill him became the fantasy scenes, and he made it a much broader comedy.”
4. The lead roles in 9 to 5 were written specifically for Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton.
Just because a writer has a particular actor in mind when writing a script doesn’t mean he or she will end up playing the part. In fact, it’s a rarity. But Resnick lucked out with 9 to 5. “We had Jane for sure, because it was her idea to do the film and it was her production company,” Resnick told Rolling Stone. “It was written for Dolly and Lily, but we did not have them under contract. We really wanted them, but we did have some backup ideas in case they turned us down. For Lily, it was Carol Burnett, and for Dolly, it was Ann-Margret. But I had Dolly, Lily and Jane in my head the whole time, and we were really hoping that's who it was going to be.”
5. Lily Tomlin initially turned down her role in 9 to 5.
Though the role of Violet Newstead was written specifically for Tomlin, the legendary actress and comedian turned down the part when it was first offered to her. “I was shooting The Incredible Shrinking Woman and I was so overworked,” Tomlin explained to the Evening Times. “I'd worked for seven months on that movie, so I was ready to just shut my eyes to anything else.” It was Tomlin’s wife, Jane Wagner, who changed her mind. “My partner Jane said to me, ‘This is the biggest mistake of your life.’ She said, ‘You've got to get on the phone and tell Jane Fonda you want to take back the resignation … And I am grateful that I did it. They became two of my good friends, you know.”
6. 9 to 5 was Dolly Parton's movie debut.
When 9 to 5 premiered on December 19, 1980, Dolly Parton was already a major country music star, but she was a Hollywood newcomer. In a 1980 interview with Today, Fonda shared that when the film’s tone shifted from drama to comedy, the idea of casting Parton arose. And part of what made her perfect for the role was “her music. But particularly the songs that she writes—she’s a great songwriter—and the songs have a kind of depth and humanity that made me feel that she could act.”
7. Dolly Parton memorized the entire 9 to 5 script.
In the same interview with Today, Parton admitted that the closest she had come to a movie set before shooting 9 to 5 was taking the Universal Studios tour. So when she got the script for the film, she assumed that she had to memorize every word of every character’s part. “I memorized it,” said Parton. “I just assumed that you had to. My part and [Lily’s] part and [Jane’s] part and Dabney’s part. But I just knew the script back and forth and every week I would read it … I would practice.”
8. Dolly Parton would only agree to star in 9 to 5 if she could write the theme song.
Parton may have been a Hollywood newcomer, but she was savvy. She agreed to take the part in 9 to 5, but only if she could write the theme song as well. Fonda agreed, and Parton wrote the song while the movie was filming. In 1981, she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “9 to 5.”
9. Dolly Parton's fingernails made a cameo in the 9 to 5 song.
During a 2009 appearance on The View, Parton shared that she composed the song using her fingernails, which to the singer-songwriter sounded like a typewriter. In the final version of the song, you can hear her acrylic fingernails as part of the percussion section.
Parton’s fingernails also became part of her defense when she was sued by Neil and Janice Goldberg in 1983, who claimed that the singer copied their 1976 song, “Money World.” “I worked on the song at my hotel,” Parton testified in 1985. “On the set, I'd rub my fingernails together like this,” she continued, demonstrating her composing technique.
10. Sheena Easton had a song called "9 to 5" come out at the same time.
In the spring of 1980, seven months before the debut of 9 to 5, Sheena Easton released a song titled “9 to 5” in the U.K. By the time the song made its way to American radio listeners in February of 1981, its title had been changed to “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” in order to avoid any confusion with Parton’s song. The song was Easton’s biggest hit.
11. 9 to 5 was the second highest-grossing film of 1980.
The workplace comedy was a hit with audiences, earning more than $100 million at the box office—a grand total that made it the second biggest hit of 1980 (only The Empire Strikes Back made more).
12. The studio wanted a 9 to 5 sequel.
Considering its popularity with audiences, it’s hardly surprising that studio heads were interested in prepping a sequel. For years, the proposed follow-up was on the table. “We tried for a long time for a sequel," Tomlin told Buzz Worthy in 2012. "There were two or three scripts but they weren't what we wanted."
“People would love to see the three of them together again,” Resnick told Rolling Stone. “For years there was talk of a sequel or a remake, but as Dolly always says, ‘It's 9 to 5, not 95!’ Doing a remake with them, that ship has probably sailed.”
13. There was a 9 to 5 sitcom.
Though it wasn’t nearly as popular as the film, 9 to 5 was adapted for the small screen with a sitcom that ran from 1982 to 1988. It didn’t feature any of the original actresses, but Dolly Parton’s younger sister, Rachel Dennison, played Doralee (Parton’s character in the film).
14. 9 to 5 was also turned into a Broadway musical.
On April 7, 2009—nearly 30 years after the film’s release—9 to 5 made its debut as a Broadway musical. Allison Janney played Tomlin’s part, Stephanie J. Block took over for Fonda, and Megan Hilty filled Parton’s shoes. The show closed five months later.
This story has been updated for 2020.