Oral History: Punky Brewster's Refrigerator Danger

NBC
NBC

Like a pint-sized version of the search to find Scarlett O’Hara for 1939’s Gone with the Wind, they came by the hundreds—a steady stream of little girls flooding casting calls in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Be elfin, precocious, hit your cues, and you might wind up the star of a new primetime kids’ show on NBC titled Punky Brewster.

The story of an 8-year-old orphan abandoned by her mother and found by a cantankerous old apartment manager, Punky Brewster was not conventional network television fare. Paired with Silver Spoons in the fall of 1984, it was created to help satisfy a Federal Communications Commission mandate that early-evening programming be either news-oriented (60 Minutes) or somewhat educational. As a result, Punky’s adventures often involved the perils of sleeping pill addiction, missing kids on milk cartons, child molestation, or a rampaging serial killer. Barney this was not. 

Of Punky’s several run-ins with mortality, it was a second-season episode that aired on January 19, 1986 that stands as her most memorable. Titled “Cherie Lifesaver,” it involved a small child nearly suffocating to death in an abandoned refrigerator.

Laced with the show's surprising morbidity, it stands as a near-perfect example of the producers' ambition to inform their viewers—in this case, the rules of proper CPR technique—while disguising itself as a Grimm's Fairy Tale for a 1980s audience.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Punky’s infamous fridge incident, mental_floss asked some of the show's cast and crew to reminisce about what some fans came to view as a 24-minute mini-horror film about a dangerous antique appliance. Unlike most Internet references-to-be, this one was responsible for saving a life. 

I. PUNKY POWER

NBC

During the 1980s, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff had assembled a primetime schedule that had taken the network from last place to first: Cheers, Family Ties, Knight Rider, and Miami Vice had all been championed by the executive. Appointed at 32, he was the youngest network head in history.

Realizing that CBS’s long-running 60 Minutes was going to dominate ratings among adults in its 7 p.m. Sunday slot, Tartikoff decided to pursue another demographic: young children who had no interest in Andy Rooney. He approached Silver Spoons executive producer David Duclon and asked him to create a show that could be paired with the Ricky Schroder comedy. Tartikoff’s only suggestion was that the lead character be named after a teacher’s daughter, Peyton “Punky” Brewster, that he once knew in prep school. The rest was up to Duclon.

Rick Hawkins (Producer): It was really one of the first primetime shows geared especially toward children, and revolutionary for its time. This was the Reagan era of glamour, and David was a little like Charles Dickens, trying to show a different side of America from a kid’s point of view. From NBC’s perspective, dealing with the idea of an abandoned child—you know, that’s not a barrel of laughs.

Art Dielhenn (Director): I was an associate director on the pilot, which was directed by Jack Shea. He was busy with Silver Spoons. When it got picked up, David asked me to stay on. You’ve got one adult, a bunch of kids, and a dog. That’s challenging.

Hawkins: I think the premise came out of an actual story David read about a child who had been abandoned and left in the parking lot of a grocery store or mall. I think that kids have a primal fear of being left alone or losing their parents, but at the same time, it’s also what they long for. It’s why so many fairy tales are about being lost in the woods, and it’s why every Disney Channel show has kids missing parents or raising themselves.

Gene Doucette (Costume Designer): Punky, she was supposed to be a ray of sunshine. The main concept I got right off the bat, being as childlike as I was and am, is that grown-ups say “Why?” and kids say “Why not?” Where grown-ups wouldn’t put purple next to gold, kids use all of the colors in a 100-crayon box. A perfect example of that was [in the script] when someone asked her why she was wearing two different shoes, and she said “Why not? I have two different feet.”

Hawkins: Tartikoff said, “I want to do the kind of show I remember from my childhood.”

Cheryl Alu (Staff Writer): I remember early on TV Guide did a cover of Punky Brewster. It showed Punky reaching over Henry's shoulders and putting her fingers at the edges of his mouth, as if to make him smile. David Duclon felt this was, in a nutshell, the essence of the show. A little girl showing an old grouch how to find joy in life.

Dielhenn: When we started the casting process, it was very challenging. The character was written as so vibrant, so spunky, that you started to doubt the notion we could find an 8-year-old to pull it off. When Soleil came in, we realized we had found the impossible.

“Soleil” was Soleil Moon Frye, a 7-year-old neophyte actress who had been spotted by a casting director while visiting her older brother, Meeno Peluce, on the set of his NBC series Voyagers!. Frye was selected out of 1000 girls who auditioned for the title role.

Cherie Johnson (“Cherie Johnson”): Soleil and I actually went in together. I guess it was a chemistry read. I met her in the waiting room for the first audition. Being 6 years old, you meet a girl, and you’re friends already. To me, the show was just playing with my friend.

Dielhenn: Jack Shea and I were in the control booth when Soleil was testing. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh-huh.”

Soleil Moon Frye (via E!, 2000): Coming up in the elevator [to the audition], another little girl gets in and says “Don’t bother, I already got it.” I said, “No way, I’m going up there.”

Hawkins: Soleil was really gifted and had a great parental support system. They weren’t interested in her being a celebrity. They wanted her to have a normal life, and she was really grounded as a result.

Johnson: There was none of the child stigma stuff. Our stage manager would give money to whoever could stay on a Pogo stick the longest. We drove carts over to Johnny Carson’s studio. That was the hottest show. Cyndi Lauper let us on her bus. I think Johnny hated us.

Doucette: Before we shot the pilot, I was shown pictures of Soleil. What I did was go out and shop for some things, had sleeves cut off, dyed different colors, bought pins, came up with how she would wear her jeans, then presented it to producers. “This is where I want to go with Punky,” and they said yes to everything.

Johnson: David Duclon is my uncle. He was a lot like my father growing up. He created the show, but not for me to have a job. He just thought he’d use my name and that I’d be thrilled. I had a different idea. “Cool, my name is in it. When do we go to work?” He said he needed a real actress. After seven auditions, NBC finally said, “Give your niece the job.”

Hawkins: One of the interesting aspects of the series was that Punky’s best friend, Cherie, was African American, and no big deal was made about it. It wasn’t an issue. In the '80s, you had black shows or white shows or Spanish shows. I can’t think of another series where the lead and lead’s best friend were different ethnicities and it wasn’t addressed.

Doucette: We were about to go on camera. I don’t know what caused me to do [the bandana on the knee], I just did it. Or maybe what made me do that was that I think I was listening to the radio, one of Willie Nelson's songs came on ... And I thought, “I have to get a bandana on her.” It was one more little statement, living her life basically on the road.

Dielhenn: We were going to air starting Sunday night after football, which was interesting. For the first six episodes, we did two-part segments, each 12 minutes long. If football ran long, they could start with a shorter episode.

Hawkins: That way, the kids could still see an entire episode and the network could continue the rest of the night’s programming. It was pretty unusual.

Doucette: When we shot the pilot, they were about to trim her bangs. I said, “No, no, you can’t give her perfect little bangs.” The character had to do her hair by herself. She hadn’t been adopted yet.

Hawkins: I remember we got the real Punky Brewster to do a walk-on. I don’t know where her nickname came from. I think our Punky’s first name was Penelope, and if that’s your name, you’d welcome a change. It sounds like an aunt with stockings rolled up to her knees.

Doucette: Each time we got a script, I was there all night at NBC ordering pizza, sitting in the office and hand-painting [mismatched] shoes. Casey [Ellison], the boy [who played Allen Anderson], used to hide in my wardrobe room and play with cars and robots because he was surrounded by girls all the time.

Johnson: We ganged up on Casey. We picked on him.

Punky Brewster premiered on September 16, 1984, with a three-part story that saw the character squatting in an empty apartment with her dog, Brandon, before being discovered by Henry Warnimont (George Gaynes), the building’s superintendent. Eventually, Punky is adopted by the curmudgeonly Henry and proceeds to use her Technicolor charm to navigate some distressing subject matter. Quickly, Punky Brewster became synonymous with “Very Special Episode.”

Hawkins: All of this color and childlike humor was to balance out some of the darker aspects of the storytelling.

Dielhenn: I won the Scott Newman [anti-drug foundation] Award for the “Just Say No” drug episode with Nancy Reagan. A lot of those choices were made in the writing room. In directing, it was about, "How do you play against this intensity so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming?"

Hawkins: We did an episode where she gets lost in a cave, some scary supernatural stuff, and we found early on it didn’t work for the world of the series. It was grounded in reality. She didn’t have superpowers. She talked about Punky Power, but that was the positive energy she had, a belief in herself and her abilities.

Johnson: Soleil and I were watching when the [Space Shuttle Challenger] exploded [in 1986]. Soleil really wanted to be an astronaut. I remember they got Buzz Aldrin to be on the show.

Hawkins: The drug episode, the child molester—there was nothing going on in the world we didn’t address.

Johnson: Shooting it, we were never upset. Even the episode where my [on-screen] mom died, David was like, “I’ll give you $20 and take you to 7-11 if you cry.”

II. A CHILLY RECEPTION

By the end of its freshman season, Punky Brewster had finished in 64th place in the Nielsen ratings. It wasn’t a spectacular debut, but the show still managed to captivate kids ages 2 through 11. If they were tuned into television at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, they were almost certainly watching Punky. If not, they were busy writing to her: The show received up to 10,000 letters a week.

Hawkins: We would get tons of fan mail, tons of kids writing to Punky asking for her advice or sending pictures.

Johnson: We’d get letters from jail. Those would get confiscated.

Doucette: Every letter was looked at and talked about. Kids came to trust Punky. They learned they could confide in her. Fortunately, but also unfortunately, we had hundreds of letters from kids who had no one else to tell they were being abused, hurt, sexually assaulted. So they wrote to Punky. All of those letters were turned over to the proper authorities, all taken care of by the main production office, so authorities could possibly investigate and find a way to help kids.

Hawkins: A lot of times, kids would talk about what they wanted to see Punky do. I’m pretty sure the idea came from David to have a contest and get kids to submit an idea. We’d pick one and build a story around it.

To engage viewers and promote the second season, the series aired a call for story submissions in September 1985. Kids had until October 20 to submit a premise for an episode, with the winner being flown out with their family on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood. It was this appeal to viewers that would eventually lead to the show’s famous encounter with a refrigerator.

Hawkins: That turned out to be one of our most memorable episodes, yes.

Jeremy Reams (Contest Winner): There was an ad on the show. “Hey, send us your ideas!” That kind of thing. I was 7, and my sister was a couple of years older, and we watched the show religiously. She wanted to do it, and I’m the little brother, so I wanted to do it, too. So we sat at the kitchen table and thought about it.

Hawkins: It got kids into the process of finding ways to be creative themselves. It was about child empowerment in a world where, when you’re a kid, you have no control whatsoever.

Reams: My idea was, they learned about CPR in school. Then they’d get off the bus, and they’d see an elderly woman or someone who needed it. The fridge was just how they presented it.

Hawkins: That came out of research we had done where we learned an alarming number of kids had suffocated in an old fridge or freezer. The government had passed laws as early as the late 1950s to ban manufacturing a fridge you couldn’t open from the inside. But in low economic neighborhoods, the old ones were being tossed out in vacant lots. They lasted forever.

Reams: It was a long time before we heard anything, maybe a few months. I remember my dad answered the phone. It was like, “Remember that contest? Well, you won. We’re going to California.”

Dielhenn: I only vaguely recall the refrigerator. I don’t know whose idea it was.

Hawkins: You were just putting two and two together. If you’re going to teach CPR, where’s the story? Who’s going to need CPR? We didn’t want it to be Henry or Brandon.

Johnson: I don’t think there was anyone else. From the time I got the script, it was, “Hop in the fridge.”

Writer Stephanie Mathison is credited for “Cherie Lifesaver,” which involves Punky and friend Margaux (Ami Foster-DeFries) taking a hands-on CPR class from teacher Mr. Fulton (T.K. Carter). It’s a lesson that proves invaluable after Henry throws away his ancient refrigerator, which Cherie climbs into during a potentially deadly game of hide-and-seek. 

Hawkins: You want a fun fact? When we were looking to cast the teacher, we wanted someone dynamic and fun, a strong male influence for Punky. Jim Carrey auditioned. But it was almost a comic mania. It wasn’t quite suited for children.

Dielhenn: I remember, from a production standpoint, having to figure out how to make sure she was safe inside the fridge while still making it seem real.  

Johnson: The first time we tried it, we were using an oxygen mask and I had only so much time I could stay in there. Everyone was so afraid, but I loved it. It was like doing my own stunt.

Reams: When we went to watch the shoot, I remember seeing the fridge and going, “Wait, that wasn’t my idea. That’s not how I saw it going down."

Johnson: Eventually, David couldn’t take it. I was like, “No, I’m cool, I’m okay.” They wound up taking the back of the fridge off.

Doucette: We did approach major problems throughout the series that kids face, the dangers out in the world. 

Johnson: We had rehearsal and then we taped in front of a live audience. Kids were screaming, “Oh, no! Get her out!”

Hawkins: That show aired and the best reward I ever got was a phone call we got the next Monday afternoon. A woman from the Midwest called to say her husband worked for the power company, had been electrocuted on the line, and had fallen to the ground just as some kids were getting off the bus. They had seen the episode, ran over, gave him CPR, and saved his life.

Doucette: The fridge was handled delicately. Instead of kids living in fear, it was more about teaching kids to be careful what you do.

Reams: I had a little part at the beginning of the show. They had me sitting on the couch introducing it. “This is Jeremy Reams, he’s our contest winner.” Then the dog came over for 15 seconds or whatever.

Johnson: That dog was more professional than some veteran actors I’ve worked with.

Dielhenn: The dog was great. The trainers were great. He was named Brandon after Brandon Tartikoff.

Johnson: The dog had one double, a female named Brandy. I thought it was just those two, but later on someone told me there was one who passed away and they didn’t tell us so we wouldn’t get upset. Like how you’d replace a fish.

Reams: My class knew I was going to be on the show, but I moved away later on and no one knew about it until we took a spring break trip. Someone was in another hotel room. I guess they were watching a rerun. They said, “Is that you?” It’s never really come up since. It’s not really how you impress people.

III. PUNKY POWERS DOWN

By the end of its second season, Punky Brewster had failed to improve its standing in the ratings. While it was well-received by its juvenile audience, that wasn’t enough to sustain the expense of a primetime series.   

Hawkins: The expectation was never for us to beat 60 Minutes in the ratings. Everyone was really realistic. We had a lot of episodes planned.

Dielhenn: NBC liked us, the audience liked us. It seemed like we were positioned accordingly.

Hawkins: Brandon [Tartikoff] came to speak to David personally. It was a difficult decision for him, but he was running a network. It’s about ad dollars. He had to make a tough decision, and he did. No one took it personally.

What NBC lacked in ad revenue it made up for in merchandising: Punky prompted over 30 separate licensing deals and an animated series.

Hawkins: There was such a demand for merchandise, for mismatched shoes, for the Punky doll.

Doucette: Another reason they wanted to keep the character the same for a while was the doll and everything else. The company they hired to do the shoes totally blew the concept because what they did was, they wanted to sell multi-colored sneakers in pairs, which is not what Punky was doing. My concept, when I was asked, was to sell individual shoes—sell lefts and rights—and let kids pick what ones they want to match up. The apparel company, nobody got it.

Frye: It was a little bizarre going to the Toys"R"Us and right next to the Cabbage Patch doll would be my face looking at me.

Galoob

After 44 episodes on NBC, Punky Brewster moved to syndication, where it aired for another 44 episodes and two years before signing off in 1988. In the finale, Brandon and his girlfriend celebrate their canine nuptials. In the course of the show’s run, it was never explained why Punky’s mother had chosen to abandon her.

Hawkins: We tried to wrap our brains around what kind of parent can leave their kid. I know we talked about the idea of a mental illness involved with the mother, not being able to take care of herself or her child. I know Punky remembered things her mom told her, a song her mom would sing to her. But I don’t think there was ever any good time to bring her mother back.

Johnson: The last episode came during a writer’s strike. The dog wedding wasn’t intended to be a final episode.

Alu: I think we didn't find out we were canceled until after the final episode was shot. In other words, we didn't know that the final show of the fourth season was the final show of the series. But then, who’s to say a dog wedding isn't a fitting exit? 

Hawkins: For a certain age group, Punky was a formative role model. I was at the eye doctor the other day and she was asking what shows I’ve done. Out of Carol Burnett, Welcome Back, Kotter, and everything else, it was, “Oh, my God! Punky Brewster!” She got teary-eyed about it.

Doucette: I’ve never been involved with a bunch of people who tried so hard to look at things from a kid’s point of view, teach them values, try to teach them lessons, and get them to be excited to be kids. There was a lot of care involved.

Dielhenn: She was a little like Annie and kind of an extension of Our Gang. It was great to have a female lead. There was one boy, three girls, and that was a great role model for girls at that time.

Johnson: I’m 40 years old and people are still tweeting me about it all the time. “If Punky Brewster taught me nothing else, it kept me out of a fridge.”

10 of the Most Popular Portable Bluetooth Speakers on Amazon

Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon
Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon

As convenient as smartphones and tablets are, they don’t necessarily offer the best sound quality. But a well-built portable speaker can fill that need. And whether you’re looking for a speaker to use in the shower or a device to take on a long camping trip, these bestselling models from Amazon have you covered.

1. OontZ Angle 3 Bluetooth Portable Speaker; $26-$30 (4.4 stars)

Oontz portable bluetooth speaker
Cambridge Soundworks/Amazon

Of the 57,000-plus reviews that users have left for this speaker on Amazon, 72 percent of them are five stars. So it should come as no surprise that this is currently the best-selling portable Bluetooth speaker on the site. It comes in eight different colors and can play for up to 14 hours straight after a full charge. Plus, it’s splash proof, making it a perfect speaker for the shower, beach, or pool.

Buy it: Amazon

2. JBL Charge 3 Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $110 (4.6 stars)

JBL portable bluetooth speaker
JBL/Amazon

This nifty speaker can connect with up to three devices at one time, so you and your friends can take turns sharing your favorite music. Its built-in battery can play music for up to 20 hours, and it can even charge smartphones and tablets via USB.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Anker Soundcore Bluetooth Speaker; $25-$28 (4.6 stars)

Anker portable bluetooth speaker
Anker/Amazon

This speaker boasts 24-hour battery life and a strong Bluetooth connection within a 66-foot radius. It also comes with a built-in microphone so you can easily take calls over speakerphone.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker; $129 (4.4 stars)

Bose portable bluetooth speaker
Bose/Amazon

Bose is well-known for building user-friendly products that offer excellent sound quality. This portable speaker lets you connect to the Bose app, which makes it easier to switch between devices and personalize your settings. It’s also water-resistant, making it durable enough to handle a day at the pool or beach.

Buy it: Amazon

5. DOSS Soundbox Touch Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $28-$33 (4.4 stars)

DOSS portable bluetooth speaker
DOSS/Amazon

This portable speaker features an elegant system of touch controls that lets you easily switch between three methods of playing audio—Bluetooth, Micro SD, or auxiliary input. It can play for up to 20 hours after a full charge.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Altec Lansing Mini Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $15-$20 (4.3 stars)

Altec Lansing portable bluetooth speaker
Altec Lansing/Amazon

This lightweight speaker is built for the outdoors. With its certified IP67 rating—meaning that it’s fully waterproof, shockproof, and dust proof—it’s durable enough to withstand harsh environments. Plus, it comes with a carabiner that can attach to a backpack or belt loop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Tribit XSound Go Bluetooth Speaker; $33-$38 (4.6 stars)

Tribit portable bluetooth speaker
Tribit/Amazon

Tribit’s portable Bluetooth speaker weighs less than a pound and is fully waterproof and resistant to scratches and drops. It also comes with a tear-resistant strap for easy transportation, and the rechargeable battery can handle up to 24 hours of continuous use after a full charge. In 2020, it was Wirecutter's pick as the best budget portable Bluetooth speaker on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

8. VicTsing SoundHot C6 Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $18 (4.3 stars)

VicTsing portable bluetooth speaker
VicTsing/Amazon

The SoundHot portable Bluetooth speaker is designed for convenience wherever you go. It comes with a detachable suction cup and a carabiner so you can keep it secure while you’re showering, kayaking, or hiking, to name just a few.

Buy it: Amazon

9. AOMAIS Sport II Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $30 (4.4 stars)

AOMAIS portable bluetooth speaker
AOMAIS/Amazon

This portable speaker is certified to handle deep waters and harsh weather, making it perfect for your next big adventure. It can play for up to 15 hours on a full charge and offers a stable Bluetooth connection within a 100-foot radius.

Buy it: Amazon

10. XLEADER SoundAngel Touch Bluetooth Speaker; $19-$23 (4.4 stars)

XLeader portable bluetooth speaker
XLEADER/Amazon

This stylish device is available in black, silver, gold, and rose gold. Plus, it’s equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, a more powerful technology that can pair with devices up to 800 feet away. The SoundAngel speaker itself isn’t water-resistant, but it comes with a waterproof case for protection in less-than-ideal conditions.

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Your Friend 'Til the End: An Oral History of Child's Play

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As a film student at UCLA in the mid-1980s, Don Mancini was amused by the hysteria surrounding the Cabbage Patch Kids, those ubiquitous, slightly homely dolls that were disappearing from toy shelves and prompting physical fights between parents. Mancini’s father had worked in the advertising industry all his life, and his son knew how effective marketing could pull strings, resulting in consumer bedlam.

“I wanted to write a dark satire about how marketing affected children,” Mancini tells Mental Floss. “Cabbage Patch was really popular. I put the two impulses together.”

Out of Mancini’s efforts came Child’s Play, the 1988 film written by a college student, directed by a horror veteran, and produced by a man who had just finished an animated family film for Steven Spielberg. Like 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the movie was a well-received, effects-heavy twist on the slasher genre. And like that film, it birthed one of the great horror icons of the 20th century: Chucky, the carrot-topped doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

The portable monster—or, as Mancini puts it, an “innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth”—went on to star in five sequels, a Universal Studios horror attraction, and a comic book, launching Mancini’s career and providing horror fans with another antihero to root for. Mental Floss spoke with the cast and crew members who endured an uncooperative puppet, freezing weather, and setting an actor on fire to break new territory in creating a highly animated, expressive, and iconic tiny terror.

I: Batteries Not Included

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After two years as an English major at Columbia University, Don Mancini transferred to UCLA with an eye on becoming a filmmaker. A teacher was impressed with his first script, Split Screen, about a small town overtaken by a horror production. Riding on that enthusiasm, Mancini tackled his second script by exploring the idea that a doll could be a child’s violent alter ego.

Don Mancini (Writer): Being a horror fan all of my life, I had seen Trilogy of Terror, I had seen the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone, and I knew the killer doll trope. But what I realized was that it had never been done as a feature-length film in the age of animatronics.

Howard Berger (Special Effects Artist, KNB): Animatronics were not exactly booming, but we were doing what we could with them. At the time, they were not nearly as advanced as what would eventually be required for Chucky.

David Kirschner (Executive Producer): I had just done my first film for Steven Spielberg, An American Tail, and was in London where I bought a book called The Dollhouse Murders. I read it, got back home, and told my development person that I’d love to do something with dolls.

Mancini: This was shortly after Gremlins, and effects had progressed to the point where you could create a puppet that was extremely articulated.

Kirschner: Talky Tina terrified me as a kid. My sister’s dolls did, too. They had a night light under them, like when you hold a flashlight up to your chin.

Mancini: Before, the doll jaws in movies had been kind of floppy or Muppet-like, but there was a new level of nuance I thought I could take advantage of.

Kirschner: I later co-wrote a movie with Richard Matheson, The Dreamer of Oz, which we did with John Ritter. He was a paternal figure in my life, and strangely, I never did ask him about [co-writing the 1975 TV movie] Trilogy of Terror.

Tom Holland (Co-Writer, Director): I quoted Trilogy of Terror to everyone. I basically got involved with this movie due to the sequence, “Prey,” and how they put a camera on a skateboard for a doll to terrorize Karen Black, shaking it from side to side. It looked terrific.

Mancini: This was shortly after A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was really important in the development of the slasher genre. Freddy was a villain with a very distinct sense of humor, someone who could taunt victims verbally. I was quite consciously influenced by that with Chucky, the idea of an innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth.

Kirschner: It was in many ways what Spielberg had done with Poltergeist, which was about suburbia and bringing the terror home.

Mancini: It was originally titled Batteries Not Included. I was living in a house off-campus with three other film students, one of whom had graduated and was working as an assistant to a producer at Orion Pictures. She passed it on to his boss, who read it and passed it on to an agent. He got wind Steven Spielberg was doing a movie with the same title and suggested I change it. So it went out as Blood Buddy.

Brad Dourif and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Kirschner: The development person said, “Actually, there’s a script that’s been making the rounds called Blood Buddy, but everyone’s passed on it.” I read it and loved Don’s idea.

Mancini: It's not completely true [that everyone passed]. I did get some bites. Charles Band was one producer who saw it and liked it. He had a studio that turned out really low-budget horror and exploitation films. I don’t remember why he didn’t buy it, but he did end up doing movies called Dolls and Puppet Master. And he hired me to write a movie called Cellar Dwellers, which I used a pseudonym on.

Holland: In Don’s original script, there needed to be a way to sympathize with the son and mother.

Mancini: In my script, the doll was not possessed by a killer. The doll was a manifestation of a little boy’s unconscious rage, his id.

Kirschner: The idea of what brought the doll to life wasn’t there yet.

Mancini: If you played too rough with him, his latex skin would break and he’d bleed this red substance so you’d have to buy special bandages. So the boy, Andy, in a rite of brotherhood, cuts his thumb and mixes it with the doll’s blood, and that’s the catalyst that brings the doll to life.

Kirschner: At that point, I was a relatively new father and wasn’t sure anybody would buy a doll with blood in it. It didn’t make sense to me, but there were a lot of cool things in there, some cool deaths.

Mancini: He starts acting out against the boy’s enemies, which he might not even be able to express. Like a babysitter who tells him to go to bed, or a teacher who gives him a bad grade.

Holland: What Don wrote originally felt more like a Twilight Zone episode. The little boy fell asleep and the doll came to life. It didn’t emotionally involve you.

Mancini: Ultimately, the mother was a target, too. The kid had an unconscious resentment toward her. She was an ambitious single mother who wasn’t around, so she got him the hot toy.

In my script, the doll wasn’t really seen until the third act, where he's spouting one-liners and killing the kid’s dentist. I should really bring that back at some point.

Kirschner: I did two drawings of the character and went out to studios. A guy I had never heard of named Tony Thomopoulos from United Artists came to my office and said, “We want to make this movie.” He was wonderful and he lived up to everything he ever promised.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

With Kirschner attracting interest in Blood Buddy, he began the process of revising the script on the belief that audiences needed a more sympathetic character than a boy with a murderous alter ego.

Kirschner: The studio did not want Don, so we brought in John Lafia.

John Lafia (Co-Writer): I believe David and I were at the same agency at the time and got introduced that way. He showed me Don’s draft and that’s how I got involved. He told me his take on it and I did two drafts. This was after Tom had come on for the first time.

Holland: I had come on the project once before and couldn’t solve it. In horror, the audience is involved in direct proportion to how much you care about the people. And that wasn’t the situation here. So I left to go do Fatal Beauty with Whoopi Goldberg.

Lafia: I went to a toy store and looked around. I remember picking up a Bugs Bunny, pulling the string, and hearing a scratchy voice. There was also a freaky Woody Woodpecker that talked.

Holland: You had to set up a situation where you can believe in a possessed doll, which sounds silly in the light of day, but that was the job.

Lafia: I was thinking of The Terminator, actually, but in micro form. Just this thing that keeps coming.

Kirschner: John got us to a point where we could go to directors. I met with William Friedkin, who I was terrified of, but he was a wonderful man. And I talked to Irvin Kershner, who did The Empire Strikes Back.

Lafia: I think the biggest contribution I made was to give the character a back story so it was a human who somehow became a doll. In my draft, it became Charles Lee Ray. I coined the name Chucky.

Holland: By the time I came around a second time, Lafia had done a rewrite and I think they had spoken with Joe Ruben, who had done The Stepfather. In the year or so I spent away from it, I figured out how to involve the killer.

Kirschner: I had seen Fright Night, which I loved. Tom seemed nice. I called Spielberg because Tom had done an Amazing Stories for him. He said Tom was an arrogant guy, but talented.

Mancini: I was still just a kid in school. It was just sort of this unspoken thing—pushing you out the door. Let the adults take over.

Lafia: My take on it, and I don’t think Don’s was that far off, was more like Poltergeist, with a family threatened by supernatural forces. I remember David and I watching that movie to refresh our memory.

Mancini: I was excited. I was a fan of Fright Night, of Psycho II.

Holland: I learned so much by writing Psycho II about moving movies forward visually. I had to study Alfred Hitchcock.

Mancini: It was Tom or David or John who brought in the voodoo, which I was never thrilled with and a mythology we got stuck with for six movies.

Lafia: My device was not voodoo. It was more of a Frankenstein-type of moment at a toy factory. A prisoner was being electrocuted on death row and his spirit got into the doll. We would cross-cut with his execution and the doll being manufactured.

Mancini: Tom has said over the years that it’s an original screenplay even though the credits say it isn’t, which is complete bullsh*t.

Holland: The Guild is set up to protect the writer. It is what it is. Failure has no fathers, success has many.

Securing Holland gave Blood Buddy—now titled Child’s Play—a strong anchor, but the film would succeed or fail based on whether the movie could convince audiences a malevolent doll could go on a killing spree. To make that happen, Kirschner enlisted Kevin Yagher, a 24-year-old effects expert who had worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Yagher and a team of effects artists, including Howard Berger, would spend months perfecting ways to bring the puppet to life.

Kirschner: I drew Chucky in graphite, and Kevin brought him to life incredibly.

Berger: David’s drawings were a great jumping-off point. We had so many versions of Chucky. The one we used most was from the waist-up.

Mancini: I was so involved with school that it was all just moving along without me. I had no involvement with the doll's development.

Berger: He really couldn’t walk. We tried putting him on a six-foot dolly, but it just sort of dragged itself along.

Kirschner: If you’ve got someone controlling the eyes, someone else the mouth, someone else the hands, something will go wrong. It’s going to take a very long time. But Kevin and his team were amazing.

Berger: We made the doll heads to look increasingly more human as the movie goes on. The hairline begins to match Brad Dourif’s.

Mancini: Over the course of the movie, his hairline is receding. At the top of the movie, he’s got a full mop of hair. Visually, it was cool, but I was never down with the story logic. Why would that happen? What does it mean? Does it mean he’d ultimately be a human thing?

Berger: We had different expressions. A neutral one, angry, one that was screaming. One Chucky we literally just hooked up to a Nikita drill motor. When you turn him on, he’d just spin and flail around, kicking.

Mancini: While I was still writing the script, a lawyer had encouraged me to describe the doll in great detail—in as much detail as I could think up. Because if the movie became a hit and if there was merchandise, there would be a scramble over who was legally the creator of the character. And sure enough, there was.

Berger: Chucky went through a few iterations. Originally his head was more football-shaped, like a Zeppelin.

Mancini: I was very distinct in the script: red hair, two feet tall, blue eyes, freckles, striped shirt. David designed the doll, but didn’t deviate from those details.

Kirschner: After American Tail, I wanted to do something different. My agent was not happy about it. My mother was not happy about it. My wife thought it was great.

II: The Assembly Line

Brad Dourif, Jack Colvin, Tommy Swerdlow, and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Child’s Play began production in the winter of 1988 in Chicago and Los Angeles—the former during the coldest time of the year. Holland’s cast included Catherine Hicks as Karen Barclay, Chris Sarandon as Detective Mike Norris, and Brad Dourif as Charles Lee Ray, the killer fated to become trapped in the plastic prison of a retail toy.

For shots beyond the ability of the puppet to perform, Holland enlisted actor Ed Gale, a three-foot, six-inch tall performer who had made his film debut as the title character in 1986’s Howard the Duck.

Ed Gale (“Chucky”): I knew Howard Berger from other projects. I met with Tom having just done Spaceballs. I wound up doing Child’s Play and Phantasm II at the same time. I don't take credit for being Chucky. It's Brad [Dourif], the puppeteers, and me.

Holland: Brad is wonderful, a genuine actor.

Alex Vincent (“Andy Barclay”): Brad’s voice was on playback on the set. The puppeteers would synch the movement to his voice, sometimes at half-speed.

Mancini: There was a Writers Guild strike and I wasn’t legally allowed to be on the set, so I didn’t rejoin the process until after shooting was over. But I don’t think I would’ve been welcome anyway.

Holland: I don’t remember ever meeting Don. I thought the writer’s strike was toward the end of shooting.

Mancini: My understanding through David is that Tom was the auteur and wouldn’t want anyone else around.

Holland: He certainly would have been welcome to come to the set.

Chris Sarandon in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Although a few of Holland’s leads struggled—Sarandon’s vocal cords once froze during a sub-zero exterior shot—nothing caused more trouble with the production than Chucky, a complex mechanism requiring multiple puppeteers. His presence led to differing opinions over how best to approach the tone of the film.

Kirschner: This was my first live-action film project. I was a real quiet, shy person, and Tom was a real presence.

Gale: Tom was very driven and focused. I very distinctly remember a scene where Alex needed to cry and Tom was spitballing how he could get him to react. He was asking the social worker, “Can I blow smoke in his face? Can I pinch him?”

Holland: I was very sensitive to Alex’s feelings. He was not an actor with experience. I hugged him after reach take.

Vincent: Tom was very passionate about getting specific things from me and being really happy when he got them.

Gale: I think he wound up telling him scary stories.

Holland: I don’t remember any scary stories. I just kept having him do the scene.

Vincent: I don’t remember anything specific he said. I do remember that they ran out of film when I was doing it and I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep crying.”

Gale: When you look at the crying scene, it’s pretty convincing. Tom is a genius director. As a person, I won’t comment.

Kirschner: I felt he kept showing too much of the doll. I wanted to be gentlemanly about it and kept whispering in his ear, and he was getting fed up with me.

Berger: The doll was a pain in the ass. Everything was a hassle. I remember the scene where Chucky was in a mental hospital electrocuting a doctor. It took 27 takes to get him to press a button.

Vincent: I was aware of the puppet [being slow] because I’d be standing there for 43 takes. Having him flip his middle finger was this whole process.

Kirschner: The doll was not working great. Jaws had come out and I had seen how great that worked. You were postponing the fear. Tom wanted to show the doll.

Brad Dourif and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Holland: The studio was applying pressure because of costs. It became more tension-filled.

Berger: Chucky made a horrible noise when he moved because of the servos—like scree, scree. He was very noisy.

Kirschner: I felt it should be more like Jaws or Alien where you don’t see anything for a long time.

Holland: There was a disagreement as to tone. David made movies for children.

Vincent: I remember being taken off set a couple of times when there was a fight or disagreement. I’d have some big production assistant put me on his shoulders and carry me out.

Berger: What you have to remember is, it took quite a few of us to make the doll work. Someone was doing the hands, then someone else the eyebrows, and someone else the mouth. It was like we all had to become one brain.

Gale: It didn’t really involve me, but I do remember David calling me up at 3 or 4 in the morning just to talk. I told him, “You’re the producer. Put your foot down.”

Kirschner: I won’t go into the near-bloody details of the fight we had.

Holland: David was a skinny kid then. It never got physical. There was just a difference in temperament.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A difficult performer, Chucky would go on to become the catalyst for strained working relationships on the set.

Kirschner: Kevin Yagher was brilliant at what he did, but he didn’t have a ton of experience. And Tom is screaming and shouting at him.

Holland: It was no knock on Kevin, but it was all the doll could do to take a step.

Berger: Chucky’s fingers would get worn out quickly. The aluminum fingers would begin to poke right through the latex skin. I had this big bag of Chucky hands and changed them three times a day.

Holland: I had a terrible time with the eyeline of the doll. He couldn’t look at actors. The puppeteers were under the set and for reasons I could never figure out, the monitors they had were reversed. He'd look left instead of right.

Kirschner: It took like 11 people to make the puppet work.

Berger: This was a puppet that was radio-controlled who was in half the movie. It was brand-new territory.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Holland leaned on Ed Gale to perform broader movements. Because he was significantly larger than Chucky, the production built sets 30 percent larger than normal to maintain a forced perspective.

Holland: That was something I learned from Darby O’Gill and the Little People. You use forced perspective with overbuilt sets.

Mancini: I thought that was really cool. I love those sleight of hand things.

Gale: Facially, nothing can beat a puppet. But to make it actually work full body, running, or jumping, they needed me.

Mancini: Tom had directed him to walk in a sort of mechanical way, almost like a clockwork. He just marches.

Gale: The puppet would move more smoothly and I’d walk a little more like a robot and we’d meet in the middle. The problem was that I had zero visibility. I’d rehearse and walk through a scene with my eyes closed. It’s like taking a drink while blindfolded. You look like an idiot. I was also set on fire.

Holland: Ed is a very brave guy.

Gale: I got weaned into it. They set one arm on fire first, then my chest, then both arms. You wear an oxygen mask.

Vincent: I did not want to see that. Ed was my friend and I didn’t want to see him spinning around on fire.

Gale: I did the scene in segments. First I was on fire in the fireplace, cut. Kicking the gate open, cut. Walk out on fire, cut. Each was only about 45 seconds, which is a little less than a lifetime when you’re on fire.

The only close call was when they wanted to drop me into the fireplace. They could see the assistant’s shadow, so they wound up hoisting me up further and I dropped six or eight feet, hurting my back. It put me out of work for a few days. I also got burns on my wrists. Nothing bad.

III: Chucky Unleashed

After filming on Child's Play was completed in spring 1988, Kirschner wanted to separate himself from Holland, with whom he had developed an acrimonious working relationship.

Kirschner: The film did not screen well. It tested horribly. Tom had a right to his cut. After that, we took him off the film.

Mancini: David invited me to watch the original cut, which was much longer. It was about two hours.

Kirschner: We invited Don in at certain times to bring him back into the process.

Mancini: At that point, David needed a relatively objective opinion of where the movie was. For him to have me voice mine was very gracious. Not all producers would do that.

Kirschner: We cut about a half-hour out of the movie.

Mancini: Seeing the edit was my first time seeing Chucky, which was thrilling. But the voice in the cut was not Brad. It was Jessica Walter [of Arrested Development].

Holland: I tried to use an electronic overlay to the voice, like a Robbie the Robot kind of thing, because that’s how the toys with sound chips worked. Then I tried Jessica Walter, who had been in Play Misty for Me. She could make the threats work, but not the humor. So we went back to Brad.

Mancini: Tom’s logic was that the voice of the devil was done by a woman in The Exorcist. But her voice, while being creepy, just didn’t fit.

Child’s Play premiered on November 11, 1988. Mancini and Kirschner had already gone to test screenings to gauge the reaction of an audience.

Mancini: The scene where the mom finds out that the batteries are included and still in the box was like a cattle prod. The audience just roared.

Holland: I kept building up to that moment where Chucky comes alive in her hands. The doll does a 180 with his head, which is a nod to The Exorcist.

Kirschner: Brad Dourif ad-libbed the line where he’s in an elevator with an older couple and the wife says, “That’s the ugliest doll I’ve ever seen.” Chucky says, “F*ck you.” The audience loved it.

Vincent: My grandfather rented out an entire theater in our hometown for a screening. I wore a tuxedo.

Lafia: I actually didn’t like when they had a little person in the Chucky outfit, only because he looked thicker and bigger. No matter how well a human being moves, your brain just knows it’s not the puppet.

Mancini: There’s a good shot of Ed climbing on the bed with a knife. I thought most of his shots were very successful.

Earning $33 million, Child’s Play became the second-highest grossing horror film of the year, behind the fourth installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. But United Artists, which had supported the production, made the decision not to be involved in a sequel for a reason almost unfathomable in Hollywood: moral grounds.

Kirschner: It was the second highest-grossing film for United Artists that year after Rain Man.

Mancini: The studio initiated a sequel immediately. I was set to work on writing the script by Christmas 1988. John Lafia, who did a draft of the first, was going to direct it. By summer of 1989, the script was done and going into production. Then United Artists was sold to Qintex Group, and they had a reputation for family entertainment. And it wasn’t a project they were interested in pursuing.

Kirschner: I got a call from the head of the studio, Richard Berger. He said, “David, I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but the company buying UA doesn’t want it. They want to be more like Disney.”

Lafia: We were green-lit and all of a sudden they make this ridiculous pronouncement.

Mancini: Because David was under an overall deal there and they wanted to maintain that relationship, they literally just gave it back to him. And he went out and made a deal with Universal, where we’ve done all the subsequent movies.

Lafia: They basically gave him the franchise for next to nothing. It was an unbelievably stupid thing for them to do.

Kirschner: They were decent guys. I got a call from Spielberg who said, “I know you’re getting calls about this from all over the place, but do me a favor and give Universal the first shot.” Well, of course, Steven.

Child’s Play 2 opened at number one in November 1990.; Child’s Play 3 arrived less than a year later. In 1998, the franchise took a turn into dark comedy with Bride of Chucky, where the maniac finds a love interest.

Vincent: I did the second [movie]. We shot it on the same lot as Back to the Future Part III. I had lunch with Michael J. Fox. It was awesome.

Mancini: John wanted to shoot with a puppet 100 percent of the time, but Ed was around for the whole production.

Gale: Lafia was a complete idiot to me. He did an interview with Fangoria where they asked him if he used me like Holland did, and he said, “No, I hired a midget but never used it.” That’s an offensive word. When Child’s Play 3 came along, I hung up the phone.

Lafia: Ed did a great job, but I wanted to avoid it. He moved too much like a person.

Gale: On Bride of Chucky, they begged and begged, and I finally did it. And then they used the word “midget” [in the movie]. So I refused Seed of Chucky. They filmed in Romania, too, and I don’t fly.

Mancini: It [the line] was wrong, and it's my responsibility.

Gale: One of the reasons they credited me as Chucky’s stunt double was so they could pay me fewer residuals.

Mancini: One reason we used fewer little actors as the series went on is because it’s expensive to build sets 30 percent larger. Each successive movie, we have less and less money. On Curse of Chucky, I used Debbie Carrington to double Chucky—partly because she’s a good friend of mine, and partly because bodies change as people age. Ed physically became too large to play Chucky. It’s just the reality we were facing.

In 2013, Mancini wrote and directed Curse of Chucky, a critically-praised return to Chucky’s more sinister roots.

Mancini: To this day I prefer my concept of the doll being a product of the little kid’s subconscious, but the concept used ended up being gangbusters. Tom was a seasoned writer who made improvements.

Vincent: Starting with the second one, the movies really became Don’s. He came into the forefront.

Mancini: We start production on the next Chucky in Winnipeg in January. It continues the story of Nica, who was introduced in Curse of Chucky. At the end of that movie, she’s taken the rap for the murder of her family and has been institutionalized in an asylum. That’s the basic premise and setting.

Vincent: What’s interesting is that you can tell different types of stories with Chucky. There’s a balance between playfulness and that anger.

Mancini: Even in the movies that aren’t overt comedies, there’s an amusement factor of a doll coming to life. It’s disturbing on a primal level. Dolls are distortions of the human form. They’re humanoid. There’s something inherently off and creepy about them.

Kirschner: Chucky’s become so iconic. When you refer to a kid being awful, you refer to him as Chucky.

Lafia: Chucky has a very unique skill set for a villain, which is that he can be sitting in a room and you don’t think he’s a threat at all. He’s hiding in plain sight.

Mancini: He’s an ambassador for the horror genre, for Halloween, for why we as a culture enjoy this stuff. It’s celebrating the fun of being scared.

Gale: I have the screen-used Chucky hands. No one else does. So if you buy a pair that claim to be worn in the film, you got ripped off.

This story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2019.