On March 6, 1987, moviegoers met Roger Murtaugh and Martin Riggs, an unlikely pair of Los Angeles cops, played by Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, respectively. With Lethal Weapon, screenwriter Shane Black wrote a progenitor of the buddy-cop genre, expertly combining an action-thriller with dark humor. For a script that took only six weeks to write, Black earned a whopping $250,000 paycheck—and then another $150,000 after the movie was produced.
The Richard Donner-directed movie grossed more than $120 million worldwide (more than half of that domestically) on a $15 million budget. With a franchise comprised of four films, it generated almost $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide. As Lethal Weapon makes its way back to audiences, this time via the small screen, here are 25 dynamite facts about the Lethal Weapon series.
1. THE FIRST SCRIPT WAS THROWN IN THE GARBAGE.
Shane Black was 23 years old and trying to become an actor when he wrote the first draft of Lethal Weapon in less than six weeks. Not knowing what a huge hit he had on his hands, at one point Black gave up and threw the script into the trash. "I thought it was dreadful," Black admitted.
2. SHANE BLACK SET OUT TO WRITE AN “URBAN WESTERN,” MIXED WITH
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“What I was looking to do at that time was write a urban western,” Black said. For Riggs, Black used one of his favorite films, Dirty Harry, as a template. “That’s what I was thinking about for that character, sort of the Frankenstein who everybody reviles ... for what he did, for what he’s capable of, for the things he still believes in. Because we think that we’re all placid and tame, but in fact violence intrudes in a horrible way and then they have to knock on Frankenstein’s cage and say, 'Well we kind of need what you do even though we hate and revile you. Please come out and kill these people for us,' and it’s the old gun slinger."
3. LEONARD NIMOY WAS OFFERED THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR.
Richard Donner ended up directing all four of the Lethal Weapon films, but that only happened after Leonard Nimoy—who had just shown his directing chops behind the camera on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and 3 Men and a Baby (1987)—turned down directing Lethal Weapon to concentrate on The Good Mother (1988).
4. DONNER TONED DOWN THE SCRIPT'S VIOLENCE, AND WAS INFLUENCED BY JOHN WAYNE.
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''I tried to make it more like an old-fashioned western,'' Donner told The New York Times. ''Sure there were a lot of deaths, but they died like they died in westerns. They were shot with bullets, they weren't dismembered. I like action and a strong story line. I like to turn my head away in suspense, not in disgust. I think the audiences feel like I do, and that's why people like the film and come back to see it a second time.'' This contrasted with Frank's descriptions of the deaths in the script, where "the head disintegrates in a bloody spray." Donner claimed John Wayne fans would recognize some of the punches thrown by Mel Gibson and Gary Busey from the John Wayne film Red River (1948).
5. THE MOVIE WORKED BECAUSE OF “REAL CHARACTERS.”
In a 2012 reunion interview with Empire Magazine, Mel Gibson said buddy-cop movies prior to Lethal Weapon “were all a little two-dimensional. The heroes would grunt; they wouldn’t express themselves much. But Riggs and Murtaugh were real characters.”
“It’s the humor, mixed with the action and the special effects,” Danny Glover added. “All that came together at that particular time. And the chemistry between the two of us was undeniable.” Donner agreed: “You don’t find [chemistry] in real life very often, much less on the screen," said the director. "But it works. People care about them.” Gibson described filming Lethal Weapon as “pure fun,” and Donner said “there was uncontrollable laughter at times.”
“And it’s been emulated so much and referred to so often,” Gibson said. The 1993 film Loaded Weapon 1 (a sequel, thankfully, wasn’t made), starring Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson, parodied Lethal Weapon 1 through 3. “If something works and people are sending it up and knocking it off, you’ve got to be flattered,” Gibson told Empire.
6. THE ORIGINAL FILM HAD A DIFFERENT OPENING AND ENDING.
The first time we see Riggs in Lethal Weapon is at his beachfront trailer, with his dog, smoking and drinking while walking around naked. In an earlier draft of the script, Riggs drinks with dock workers who torment a dog, and Riggs makes “mincemeat” out of the guys. The original ending (above) featured Riggs and Murtaugh saying goodbye to each other, and Riggs telling Murtaugh not to quit the force, because he’s too old. But in the theatrical ending, Riggs shows up at Murtaugh’s house on Christmas. “If you think I’m going to eat the world’s lousiest Christmas turkey by myself, you’re crazy,” Murtaugh tells him. “I’ll tell you a little secret: I’m not crazy,” Riggs responds. Riggs and his dog agree to stay for dinner.
Besides the re-shot ending, a couple of scenes were left out of the film (they were included in the Director’s Cut), one in which Riggs attacks a sniper who’s shooting at a playground, and a scene where Riggs pays a prostitute to watch TV with him.
7. THE ACTORS WERE TRAINED IN THREE DIFFERENT FORMS OF MARTIAL ARTS.
To prepare for their roles, the actors learned a trio of martial arts techniques, including Capoeira, Jailhouse Rock (a fighting technique that originated in United States prisons), and Jiu-Jitsu. Gary Busey recalled also learning Taekwondo as well. Busey's interest in martial arts began when he was taught these forms for Lethal Weapon.
8. LOOK CLOSELY AND IT TURNS INTO A MESSAGE MOVIE.
If you pay attention to stuff in the background, you’ll notice a “Free South Africa, End Apartheid” sticker on the Murtaughs’ fridge in the first film, and other messages like anti-NRA and anti-tuna posters. “If you can make a good entertainment and sneak a message in, super,” Donner told Empire. “Sometimes people do it ass-backwards: make message films and then sneak the entertainment in.” Viewers definitely noticed; because of the sticker and South African-themed plot of the second film, Donner received death threats.
9. MURTAUGH WASN’T WRITTEN WITH A PARTICULAR ETHNICITY IN MIND.
Nowhere in the script does it mention Murtaugh's ethnicity. “We just got the best actor that we could for the part, and it happened to be he was black,” Donner said during a 1987 press conference for the move. In the interview with Empire, Donner explained that it was casting director Marion Dougherty who suggested Glover. “She said to me, ‘Did you see The Color Purple? What about Danny Glover?’ And my first reaction was, ‘But he’s black!’ And then I thought, ‘Whoa, f*ck, here’s Mr. Liberal. What a brilliant idea...’ I felt stupid. It changed my way of thinking.”
10. GIBSON AND GLOVER BONDED IN REAL LIFE.
Friendship—both on- and off-screen—is one reason the four films were so successful. “It parallels the police relationship,” Gibson said of his relationship with Glover. “A lot of those guys become friends or become dependent on each other. They get a bond through desperation. Because we used to go out on night patrols, you get this feeling of vulnerability. It’s the same with the film. It’s kind of a feeling of desperation in a way. It’s scary when you embark on something like that because you’re exposing yourself in a way, so a bond forms. And he’s a good actor and a nice guy. So it normally happened; it was easy.”
11. DISNEYLAND (AND MICKEY ROURKE) SPROUTED JOE PESCI’S LEO GETZ.
The loquacious, foul-mouthed Leo Getz makes his first appearance in Lethal Weapon 2, spouting the catchphrase “okay, okay, okay.” The origin of the repetitive expression occurred when Mickey Rourke and Pesci went to Disneyland. “Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons were singing at Frontierland, so we stopped to ask for directions from these blond-headed, blue-eyed kids,” Pesci told Empire. “I think they were Mormons probably. And the first word out of this kid’s mouth was, ‘Okay!’ Then he hit me with about 12 more: ‘No, no! Okay, okay, okay!’ We thought it was really funny.”
12. GARY BUSEY THOUGHT ABOUT A SHARK WHILE PREPPING HIS BAD GUY ROLE.
The actor played Mr. Joshua in the first Lethal Weapon, and is one of Donner’s favorite villains in the series. “I always build a back story for my characters, to get in the mood of it,” Busey told Empire, For this role, he went to an unusual place. “Mr. Joshua, he would walk through his grandmother’s blood to get a postage stamp and never look at her. I had this look, here,” Busey said, and then took off his sunglasses. “It gave me the eyes of a shark, which has no life. It’s neat doing that.”
13. RIGGS WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE IN THE SECOND MOVIE.
“We were always teetering on the brink of bumping Riggs off,” Gibson told Empire, and the idea almost manifested in the second film. During the period when Black wrote the sequel, he said he was “a real wreck psychologically.” “They put me on the sequel and it was one of the hardest scripts I’ve ever written,” Black told Creative Screenwriting. “I was so terrified of it, at the end of the process I looked at the script and thought, I’d really blown it. I wrote it with a friend of mine, a guy named Warren Murphy. They said they didn’t like that the character died at the end, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve failed everybody, I screwed up, I blew it. My writing sucks.’” Black said when he re-read his script, he realized it wasn’t so bad. “There’s no question the draft of Lethal Weapon 2 that I wrote, death and all, is my best work.”
14. THE CARPENTER'S COMMENT ABOUT THE CONDOM COMMERCIAL WAS IMPROVISED.
In Lethal Weapon 2, Jack McGee played "Carpenter" in the scene where everyone gathers around to see Murtaugh's daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe) in a condom commercial. During rehearsal, Gibson set McGee up by asking what he thought of what he had just seen. "I said, 'I thought she was great. She made me wanna go out and buy rubbers right now.' Danny Glover, in the rehearsal, spit his f*cking sandwich across the room, and it wound up staying in the movie." Fun fact: The year before Lethal Weapon 2's release, McGee played "Carpenter" in Scrooged.
15. $10,000 OF LETHAL WEAPON 2'S BUDGET CAME FROM CONDOMS.
In a product placement deal, the makers of Ramses condoms paid more than $10,000 to showcase their product in Lethal Weapon 2.
16. CARRIE FISHER HELPED WRITE LETHAL WEAPON 3.
After Carrie Fisher's success in adapting her own semi-autobiography Postcards From the Edge (1990) to film, the actress was hired as a script doctor for several major movies. In addition to punching up the dialogue for Lethal Weapon 3, she worked on Hook (1991), Sister Act (1992), Outbreak (1995), The Wedding Singer (1998), and even the Star Wars prequels.
17. RENE RUSSO BLEW HER AUDITION.
Rene Russo would not have gotten the part of Lorna Cole in Lethal Weapon 3 (or Lethal Weapon 4) if she had been judged solely on her first audition. "I was bad," Russo told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. "I could feel I was dying." Donner thought she "lacked the edge" needed for Cole.
“I went back and showed him my street girl and told him that when I said, ‘get against the f*cking wall,’ people were going to believe me,” Russo told The Independent. She told the Los Angeles Times, “When I did Lethal Weapon, they needed someone who could say 'you' with a gun and mean it—and because I was able to do that, I was pigeonholed in that way.” Though she liked playing tough, Russo says should would have liked to have done more romantic comedies.
18. ORLANDO ASKED THAT ITS CITY HALL BE BLOWN UP FOR LETHAL WEAPON 3.
In 1991, a new, $36 million City Hall opened in Orlando, Florida, but the old one needed to be demolished. Local producer Ross Testagrossa contacted Lethal Weapon 3 producer Joel Silver, who was looking for a building to blow up. On October 25, 1991, the building imploded. “We did the explosion in pieces,” Donner told Empire. “When you guys ran out of the building, we blew all the glass. And you were really there when the big detonation happened. I’m sure you felt that blast.”
“We were jumpy as hell,” Gibson admitted. “We knew the building was coming down and we were ready to sprint. When we took off, I thought, ‘I’d better slow down for [Glover]’—but he actually ran right past me.”
It wasn’t the only Florida building to be demolished for the film: The old hotel that blows up during the closing credits was the scheduled-for-demolition Soreno Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida. The city's name was misspelled in the credits.
19. LEO GETZ AND LEE BUTTERS WERE NOT IN THE ORIGINAL LETHAL WEAPON 4 SCRIPT.
Pesci was re-signed at the last minute for $1 million for three weeks of work. Chris Rock (Detective Lee Butters) did not join until Gibson was three-fourths through his latest draft. Writing on the script continued during filming.
20. LETHAL WEAPON 4 WAS MADE FASTER THAN THE OTHER FILMS.
A Den Of Geek article explained Warner Bros. was desperate for a hit, so they ordered a fourth installment—but it had to be ready in six months. Production didn’t begin until January 1998 but the movie needed to be released in July. After production ended, editor Frank J. Urioste had only four weeks to edit the movie, doing it digitally on an Avid for the first time. Luckily for Warner Bros. the film grossed $285 million worldwide, slightly less than Lethal Weapon 3’s 1992 haul of $321 million worldwide.
21. JET LI MADE HIS HOLLYWOOD DEBUT IN LETHAL WEAPON 4.
Jet Li had never been in an English language film, nor had he ever played a bad guy before portraying Wah Sing Ku. Li told CNN that a lot of Asian audiences and reporters didn't like the idea of him acting as a villain. In his next Hollywood film, 2000's Romeo Must Die, he got to play a good guy.
22. JEFFREY BOAM WROTE A LETHAL WEAPON 4 SCRIPT ABOUT NEO-NAZIS.
Jeffrey Boam, who wrote the second and third installments of Lethal Weapon, was tasked with writing a draft for the fourth film, too. It involved Neo-Nazis as the enemy, as well as a terrorist attack. The producers passed on Boam's script and opted for one penned by Murder One creator Channing Gibson, who had only worked in television previously.
23. SHANE BLACK LIKES SETTING HIS MOVIES DURING CHRISTMASTIME BECAUSE “IT’S UNIFYING.”
takes place at Christmastime, as do several other Black-penned films, including The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. “Christmas is fun,” Black told Den Of Geek. “It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story ... It grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take ... stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.”
24. INSTEAD OF A FIFTH FILM, AUDIENCES ARE GETTING A TELEVISION SERIES.
For years, Lethal Weapon 5 was reportedly in the works; in 2014 it was titled Lionhunters, and Chris Hemsworth and director Justin Lin were attached. Mel Gibson turned down reprising his role, as did Donner. “I would like to think that Mel turned it down because I wasn’t involved,” Donner told the Los Angeles Times. “Knowing Mel, I would like to think that. Would that be the kind of thing he does? It sure would be.” In February 2016, Fox greenlit a pilot for a TV adaptation, starring Damon Wayans as Murtaugh. The series, which features Clayne Crawford as Riggs, kicks off tonight on Fox.
25. BUT IF THERE WAS A FIFTH FILM, IT WOULD INVOLVE A MOTOR HOME.
Black reportedly wrote a treatment for a fifth film, but Donner didn’t see it. The director told Empire what his version would be like: “The two crazies decide to cool their lives, but it’s impossible for them to stay out of situations. It starts with Riggs and Murtaugh out in the country in a motor home. They’re on a trip and they stop to get gas, but Roger forgets to put the brake on. So the motor home rolls through a village, annihilating everything, and they get in serious trouble. It had a lot of heart, a lot of family. Rene [Russo], Darlene [Love], they would all have come back.”