When FedEx employee Chuck Noland’s plane crashes, he ends up stranded on a deserted tropical island for four years, with an inanimate volleyball named Wilson as his only friend. Deemed an “existential blockbuster” for the 21st century, not a whole lot of action occurs during Cast Away’s 143-minute running time. But Hanks’s long beard and survival scenarios generated an iconic character and film.
It took Apollo 13 screenwriter William Broyles Jr. six years to shape the story with Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, to a Method degree: filming halted for a year so that Hanks could shed 50 pounds as real time passed in the movie. The movie was released on December 22, 2000, and became a huge hit, grossing $429,632,142 worldwide on a $90 million budget. Here are some facts about the film.
1. Tom Hanks didn't want to tell a standard story with Cast Away.
In an interview with The Guardian, Tom Hanks explained, “Because there is a standard way of telling this story, and that’s to have a rich, snotty guy who’s obviously not in touch with what’s important and blah, blah, blah, and then he learns a lesson and he’s not like that anymore. But Chuck learns no great lessons.” The basic themes of the film are of physical and spiritual survival, and as Hanks told the Los Angeles Times, “I didn’t want to show a man conquering his environment, but rather the effect the environment has on him. I wanted to deal with subject matter that was largely verboten in mainstream movies, taking the concept of a guy trapped against the elements, with no external forces, no pirates, no bad guys, and tell it in a way that challenged the normal cinematic narrative structure.”
2. Cast Away screenwriter William Broyles Jr. stranged himself on an island, for research purposes.
William Broyles Jr. spent several days alone in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez trying to fend for himself. He speared and ate stingrays, learned how to open a coconut, befriended a washed-up Wilson-brand volleyball, and tried to make fire, which ended up in the movie. His experiences led to an epiphany regarding the Chuck character: “That's when I realized it wasn’t just a physical challenge,” Broyles told The Austin Chronicle. “It was going to be an emotional, spiritual one as well.”
3. The entire theme of Cast Away comes from two words.
Broyles told the Los Angeles Times the last two words Noland utters—“thank you,” to a woman in a truck—sum up the movie. “The idea of acceptance [of his fate], that there is no rationale for some of the things that happen to us. But finally there is gratitude.” The film ends on an ambiguous note, with Noland at the literal crossroads in Canadian, Texas, attempting to make a decision to either follow the woman or go down a different path toward a new city.
4. FedEx was cool with the free product placement in Cast Away—and the plane crash.
At the time of filming, a FedEx plane hadn’t actually crashed like that in real life—though in 2009 two crew members died in a crash and in August 2015 a plane crashed into the Caribbean Sea—but the company didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that it could happen. FedEx provided filming locations at their hubs in Memphis, Los Angeles, and Moscow, and helped with logistical support.
“As we stepped back and looked at it, we thought, ‘It’s not product placement, we’re a character in this movie,’” Gail Christensen, managing director for global brand management at FedEx in 2000, told the Chicago Tribune. “It transcends product placement.” FedEx had a sense of humor when they made a Cast Away-themed commercial for the 2003 Super Bowl. Basically, a Tom Hanks-esque character finally drops off a package to a customer and asks what’s in it. “Nothing really. Just a satellite phone, GPS locator, fishing rod, water purifier, and some seeds. Just silly stuff.”
5. Tom Hanks almost died while filming Cast Away.
Hanks recalled how before he left the production in Fiji, he received a cut and it got infected. Turns out he had a staph infection in his leg and it almost gave him blood poisoning. “The doctor said to me, ‘What’s the matter with you, you idiot? You could have died from this thing!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ But they literally had to take out a big chunk of the stuff in my leg.” The infection was so severe that Hanks stayed in a hospital for three days. “Then we had to shut down production for three weeks because the doctors said, ‘No way is this kid getting in the water.’”
6. Tom Hanks went through several different ending scenarios for his character.
In an audio interview, Hanks talked about how he “went down so many bad tributaries” in figuring out what should happen to Noland. “It was really called Chuck of the Jungle, and we did all of those scenarios of what happens to him when he comes back to the world: He was loaded with self pity; he was loaded with Rip Van Winkle, kind of like jeepers creepers, look how small the computers are, all of that kind of stuff. We thought, look, he’d probably be turned into some media celebrity and what’s he going to do? Be sitting in the secret square [Hollywood Squares] with Susan Anton right next to him?”
7. Tom Hanks felt that the plane crash was the "best thing that ever happened" to Chuck in Cast Away.
In the same audio interview, Hanks discussed Noland post-ordeal and him standing at the fork of the road in Texas. “Somehow, at the end of the movie, you can stand on the crossroads and it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be alright, as long as you keep breathing and have a certain kind of perspective and proportion to your life. And that’s not a huge shift for Chuck to have gone through even if he hadn’t been lost. People do that all time. ‘I quit, I don’t want to do this job anymore, I’m gonna go figure out what I want to do and I’m going to be okay.’ That’s interesting. It’s almost as though Chuck can say the best thing that ever happened to him was, ‘I was in this plane crash in which five people got killed and I survived for four years and I came back and I lost the woman I love.’”
8. Survivor beat Castaway to the punch.
The reality show debuted on May 31, 2000, about seven months before Cast Away was released. In similar fashion, a group of people are stranded in an exotic location and must compete against each other, and the show became an immediate hit for CBS. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hanks said he was “spooked by the show’s like-minded theme” but he knew “we didn’t have a trivial film. Good or bad, we always had something that was much more substantial than what is essentially a game show that is a television phenomenon.”
9. Cast Away led to the creation of Lost.
Lloyd Braun, who was the chairman of ABC Entertainment in the early aughts, wanted a writer to come up with a pitch based on his favorite film from 2000, Cast Away. According to Chicago magazine, in 2003 Chicagoan Jeffrey Lieber was picked to write the pilot for Cast Away-the Series, which centered around eight to 10 characters stranded on a Pacific island. Lieber named the pilot Nowhere, but Braun passed on Lieber’s script and gave the project to J. J. Abrams, who added the supernatural element to the plot. However, Lieber, the WGA, and the studio went to arbitration in order for Lieber to receive partial credit for creating the show, and he eventually won 60 percent of the “created by” credit. In 2005, his pilot received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, and for the entire run of the show Lieber was listed in the credits.
10. One of Cast Away's original Wilson balls made a fortune at auction.
In January 2001, one of the three original Wilson volleyballs featured in the film was sold on an online auction. According to the Los Angeles Times, it sold for $18,400. But for a much cheaper $19.99, you can buy a replica ball on Wilson Sporting Goods’ website.
11. In 2015, Tom Hanks was reunited with Wilson.
While attending a hockey game in New York City in February 2015, Hanks was being featured on the big screen when someone suddenly tossed him a Wilson Cast Away ball. Hanks held onto the ball and smiled at his long lost pal.
12. Some critics have described The Martian as "Cast Away in space."
When the Matt Damon film The Martian came out, critics immediately compared it to Cast Away and wrote “The Martian is Cast Away in space,” especially because both films featured men marooned, alone, and trying to survive, and both movies were distributed by Fox. The difference is Matt Damon’s Mark Watney had the ability to communicate with people. In a USA Today profile, Damon disagreed with the comparisons. “It’s not Cast Away in the sense that it’s actually a guy who is behaving with the expectation that people are watching him. He’s on video all the time on these GoPros. Nobody’s seeing the video feed live, but he’s behaving as if someday someone might.”
13. Cast Away was depicted in an unauthorized parody film.
In 2004, a filmmaker parodied Miss Congeniality, Cast Away, and Jurassic Park in the film Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls, starring none other than Michael Jackson in his last scripted performance. The film centered around beauty pageant contestants whose plane crashed on an island. Fox wasn’t happy about the Cast Away usage and sent filmmaker Bryan Michael Stoller a cease and desist letter. “I can't afford a lawyer right now,” Stoller said in an interview with The New York Times. “I can’t get errors and omissions insurance. No distributor will pick it up. They’ve pretty much killed the movie unless I change the title.” A year later the film was released on DVD, and in 2011 it was released on TV.
This story has been updated for 2020.