15 Uncensored Facts About Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

On May 25, 1969, United Artists released the film Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight (Texas transplant Joe Buck) and Dustin Hoffman (the sleazy Ratso Rizzo) as street hustlers in New York City. It was the first studio film to receive an X-rating (the studio refused to edit anything out), and it became the first X-rated movie to be nominated and win a Best Picture Oscar (A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris followed suit with X-rated nominations). Hoffman and Voight were also nominated for Oscars, and screenwriter Waldo Salt and director John Schlesinger ended up winning gold statuettes for the movie. After the movie became a success, the MPAA demoted its rating to an R.

Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy, the controversial film managed to gross $44 million—about $200 million by today’s standards. The movie saved the careers of its actors, producers, and Salt, who had been blacklisted and fallen on hard times. It also produced a hit song, Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Here are 15 facts about the landmark film.

1. John Schlesinger was reluctant to hire Dustin Hoffman.

Like everybody else, the filmmakers associated Dustin Hoffman with Benjamin Braddock, the clean-cut twentysomething he played in The Graduate. “The truth was, I saw The Graduate as a setback, because I was determined not to be a star,” Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times. Hoffman was doing Off Broadway performances during the casting of Midnight Cowboy, so Schlesinger checked him out in a play. Hoffman frequented an automat with fellow thespians Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall; one night Hoffman showed up there with a scruffy beard, disheveled clothes, and a Bowery accent. Schlesinger said to Hoffman, “Why Dustin, you do fit right in,” and he got the part.

2. Mike Nichols tried to talk Dustin Hoffman out of doing the movie.

Dustin Hoffman appears on the set of the film 'Midnight Cowboy' in 1969 in the USA
Dustin Hoffman stars in Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Hot off the heels of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Hoffman could’ve kept his romantic lead image up, but instead he opted to take a supporting part in Midnight Cowboy. “Mike Nichols, in fact, called me up,” Hoffman told Peter Travers. “And he says, ‘Are you crazy?’ He says, ‘I made you a star. This is an ugly character. It’s a supporting part to Jon Voight.’ He says, ‘What are you doing? Why are you sabotaging?’” But Hoffman stuck to his guns and took the role. “I love the fact I was trying to remain a character actor and that was my desire,” he said.

3. Jon Voight was cast only after the original actor was fired.

Jon Voight auditioned for the role of Joe Buck and really wanted the part, but the producers chose Michael Sarrazin, whose major claim to fame is the 1969 Jane Fonda film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Sometimes I would be offered a role and I would recommend somebody else—I was that kind of person,” Voight told Box Office Mojo. “Yet this one stopped me because the thing I was excited about for this piece wasn’t going to happen. I felt quite sick about it.”

Fortunately for Voight, the producers changed their minds when Sarrazin demanded more money. “It came back to looking at our screen tests back to back,” said Voight. “Apparently, Marion Dougherty, who was the casting director, was in the room and said, ‘Well, there’s no doubt who's the best actor.’ John Schlesinger said, ‘Who?’ And she said, ‘Jon Voight.’ Then, Dustin was called in to look at the tests and apparently he said, ‘When I look at my scene with Michael Sarrazin I look at myself—when I looked at my scene with Jon Voight, I look at Jon.’ That was a huge compliment. I think between these comments, that’s what tipped the balance and then John [Schlesinger] came forward, so I was very fortunate.”

4. Voight worked for scale.

Voight was so desperate to play Joe Buck that he worked for scale: “‘Tell them I'll do this part for nothing,’” Voight told The Telegraph. “They took me at my word, and they gave me minimum for Midnight Cowboy.” At the end of the shoot, they sent him a $14.73 bill for meals on the last day of filming.

5. Hoffman thought the movie would ruin his career.

The actor attended a preview of Midnight Cowboy and noticed “people walked out in droves.”

“Twenty minutes into that movie, Jon Voight has a gay sex scene in the balcony with a kid who was played by Bob Balaban, and people would get up at that point and just walk out of the theater,” Hoffman told Larry King. “We said, ‘We have big problems’ when we heard we got an X-rating and we thought this could end everybody’s career. As a matter of fact, I was talked into doing a movie I wished I hadn’t done, because they had me so frightened that I had buried myself and reversed whatever good The Graduate did.” Hoffman’s agent forced him to star with Mia Farrow in the romantic drama John and Mary to make him “look like a respectable person.”

6. Voight knew the film was destined to become a classic.

Voight and Schlesinger wrapped filming in Texas and Voight noticed how red the director’s face was. Voight thought Schlesinger was having a heart attack and asked him if he was okay. “He looked up at me and said, ‘What have we done? What will they think of us?’ After all, we had made a film about a dishwasher who lives in New York and f*cks a lot of women,” Voight told Esquire. “In the moment he’d finished it, he was shaking. All of a sudden, he saw it as banal and vulgar. He’s having an anxiety attack and I grabbed his shoulders to shake him out of it. I said, ‘John, we will live the rest of our artistic lives in the shadow of this great masterpiece.’ He said, ‘You think so?’ I said, ‘I’m absolutely sure of it.’ The only reason I said such an extravagant thing was because I wanted to get him out of it and nothing would take him out of it but that. But the statement turned out to be true.”

7. Voight and Hoffman were competitive with each other.

What made the chemistry between Hoffman and Voight work so well is they were constantly competing with one another. Hoffman became a movie star before Voight did, and that brought some jealousy to the set. “We were like Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, two fighters going at it,” Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times. “We knew the movie depended on the bond between us. All through shooting, we’d say to each other, out of the side of our mouths, like a fighter in a clinch, ‘Buddy, is that the best you can do?’”

8. Hoffman placed pebbles in his shoe to acquire Ratso’s limp.

“Why pebbles? It’s not like you’re playing a role on Broadway for six months where you’re so used to it, limping becomes second nature,” Hoffman told Vanity Fair. “The stone makes you limp, and you don’t have to think about it.”

9. Schlesinger came out during the movie’s production.

In the late 1960s, one's sexuality wasn't often discussed in the open. But the British director fell in love with Michael Childers, who worked as his assistant on the movie. “We were one of Hollywood’s first out couples,” Childers told Vanity Fair. “He took me everywhere. I felt a little bit uncomfortable at times, but John never did. He said, ‘F*ck ‘em.’”

“John was totally torn up, because part of him wanted to just embrace this, and another part of him was in terror,” the film’s producer, Jerome Hellman, said. “He had these fantasies that if he were openly gay on a film set, that if he tried to give the crew an order, they would turn on him. I said to him, ‘John, look, you’re the director. It’s your movie. I’m the producer, but I’m your partner. There’s nobody who can challenge your authority. If someone speaks out of line to you, they’ll be fired the same minute.’”

10. The famous “I’m Walkin’ Here” line was improvised.

The scene in which Joe and Ratso attempt to walk across the street and almost get hit by a cab was filmed guerilla-style, with a camera in a van across the street. “It was a difficult scene, logistically, because those were real pedestrians and there was real traffic, and Schlesinger wanted to do it in one shot—he didn’t want to cut,” Hoffman explained. “He wanted us to walk, like, a half a block, and the first times we did it the signal turned red. Schlesinger was getting very upset. He came rushing out of the van, saying, ‘Oh, oh, you’ve got to keep walking.’ ‘We can’t, man. There’s f*cking traffic.’ ‘Well, you’ve got to time it.’”

They figured out how to properly time the walk but then almost got run over by a cab. “I guess the brain works so quickly, it said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character,’” Hoffman said. “So I said, ‘I’m walking here,’ meaning, ‘We’re shooting a scene here, and this is the first time we ever got it right, and you have f*cked us up.’ Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and re-did it two or three times, because he loved it.”

11. Hoffman threw up on set while trying to cough.

Talk about Method: Ratso has a deadly cough (consumption), and in a particular scene Hoffman got sick in real life. “Because I was so nervous that I was going to come across fraudulent and not have the right cough, I tried to do the cough as realistically as I could,” Hoffman told Vanity Fair. “Each time, I tried to do it more realistically until, finally, I did it so realistically I threw up all over Jon. My lunch came up. All over his cowboy boots. Jon looked down. He said, ‘Man, why’d you do that?’ He thought I did it on purpose.”

12. Schlesinger didn’t think anybody would make the movie today.

In 1994, the director found himself at a dinner party with a studio executive. “I said, ‘If I brought you a story about this dishwasher from Texas who goes to New York dressed as a cowboy to fulfill his fantasy of living off rich women, doesn’t, is desperate, meets a crippled consumptive who later pisses his pants and dies on a bus, would you—’ and he said, ‘I’d show you the door,’” Vanity Fair reported in 2000.

13. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl pays tribute to Midnight Cowboy.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's 2015 Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features two friends who turn The Criterion Collection movies into film school comedies. One of those films is Midnight Cowboy, renamed as 2:48 p.m. Cowboy. In the film, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) portray Ratso and Buck, respectively.

Midnight Cowboy became my favorite movie,” Cyler said in a featurette on Greg and Earl’s films. “Now I can’t stop watching it. I’m addicted to it. I’ll be in my trailer. ‘RJ, whatcha doing?’ ‘Watching Midnight Cowboy with some ramen noodles right now.’ It’s just so quirky the way the parody was made, and not just because I got to wear a beautiful cowboy hat.”

14. There’s a speakeasy bar in Austin named after the film.

Midnight Cowboy the bar is located inside a former oriental massage parlor that was busted by the FBI, hence the seedy name. It has a red light—not a sign—outside to mark the place. In order to drink there, you need to make a reservation online, and when you get there, you buzz the box and give the password “Harry Craddock.” They have rules, though: no talking on your cell phone inside the bar, and no “excessive displays of public affection.”

15. A Chicago theater turned it into a stage production.

Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre puts on a lot of literary adaptations, and in 2016 they presented a stage version of Midnight Cowboy, based on the book.

Updated for 2019.

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

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