Oral History: When Geraldo Rivera Opened Al Capone's Vault

For gangland aficionados, it was almost as good as the Super Bowl. On April 21, 1986, nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, a live primetime excavation hosted by Geraldo Rivera that promised to dig deep into the catacombs of the criminal’s hotel hideout on Chicago’s South Side. For two hours, Rivera shouted over power tools, ignited dynamite, took target practice with a submachine gun, and teased the possibility of finding money, weapons, or the decayed corpses of Capone’s rivals.

For Rivera, it represented an opportunity to rekindle a career that had stalled following a highly-publicized departure from ABC after 15 years with the network. “I knew everyone in the news business would be watching,” he tells mental_floss. “And as the evening wore on, I had more and more of a sinking feeling.”

In 2016, to celebrate (or bemoan) the program’s 30th anniversary, Rivera and producers recalled the dangers, obstacles, and insanity of broadcasting an urban archeological dig on live television. If Capone’s alleged bunker held any secrets, they wouldn’t come easily. 

I. TELEVISION, CHICAGO-STYLE

MyAlCaponeMuseum via YouTube

In the late 1970s, producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (The People’s Court) formed The Westgate Group, a production company based out of Los Angeles. At the same time the two were actively searching for programming ideas, Joslyn got wind of a discovery by mafia historians Harold Rubin and Thomas Bangs: Capone’s old haunt, the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue, had a concrete wall in the basement that might contain some of the late mob kingpin’s possessions.  

John Joslyn (Producer): I happened to read an article in the newspaper about the Lexington Hotel and how the owner believed there was a vault in the basement. I sat down with Doug, my partner, and said, “Doug, what do you think about this?” He thought it was a big concept. We ran it by a pal of ours in New York who was in ad sales, and he goes, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” He fell on the floor. He told us we had to do it.

Allan Grafman (Then-Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): It landed on the desk of the president of Tribune, Sheldon Cooper. We were only a few years old at the time and had syndicated shows, but doing something live was unheard of. I met with Westgate and thought this could really be something.

Sheldon Cooper (Then-President, Tribune Entertainment): We were generating content for our stations, and to sell across the country. It was really for stations that couldn’t afford original content on their own.

Joslyn: ABC said, “You don’t know what’s inside?” No. NBC said, “We gotta know what’s inside.” I told them no. They would not go on the air without it, but we weren’t going to do that.

Grafman: It was way too out there for the big networks.

Peter Marino (Then-Vice President, Program Development, Tribune Entertainment): John went on to tell me about the rumored tunnels that went under Michigan Avenue from the Lexington Hotel to the Metropole Hotel, directly across Michigan Avenue. John mentioned not only the tunnels but a hidden staircase and three cement vaults. The center vault … had electrical cables protruding from the top of the vault. Why would there be electrical cables? Were they to light up a wine cellar? Were bodies buried in the vault?

Joslyn: Tribune stepped up. It was a big commitment, to do a live show and not know what’s in the vault.

Cooper: Al Capone was known internationally. You go to Europe and say “Al Capone,” and they make a pistol with their finger.

Grafman: I sold it worldwide, to 20 different countries.

Clark Morehouse (Then-Executive Vice President, Sales, Tribune Entertainment): The year before, a company called TPE did a live special and tried to raise a vault out of the Andrea Doria from World War II. They didn’t find a whole lot, but they did a 22 rating, which was very nice, so we were coming on the heels of that.

Donald Hacker (Then-Executive Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): Peter and Allan had this crazy idea of doing this as a live event, which was interesting. The hotel itself was being renovated for a female job training school by the Sunbow Foundation.

Joslyn: It was a nonprofit women’s group that trained women in low-income neighborhoods.  

Hacker: They had found secret passages. So I thought, yeah, this could be intriguing. This was long before the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, but it was in that vein.

In 1985, Tribune agreed to finance a $900,000 production by Westgate that would consist of a live breaching of the vault peppered with documentary-style footage that would tell the story of Capone’s rise and fall in the criminal underworld. Initially, the choice of a host seemed obvious.

Cooper: Joslyn was telling me they were planning on talking to Robert Stack. [Stack had portrayed Capone’s nemesis, Eliot Ness, on the 1959-1963 television series The Untouchables.] I said, that’s not a bad idea, but I really think we need someone who can walk and talk at the same time.  

Hacker: We felt we had to have someone who could handle a live event, someone who came from news.

Marino: Having seen Robert Stack attempt to host a morning TV talk show, I felt we needed someone who could do it without cue cards, a real reporter. Sheldon suggested Mike Wallace. A terrific idea, but I doubted CBS would allow their 60 Minutes star to appear on our syndicated special.    

Cooper: I said, “Well, there’s this guy who just got fired from ABC, but he won them a whole bunch of awards.”

Morehouse: Bringing in Geraldo was a real outside of the box thing, but it turned out to be genius.

Joslyn: Shelly was adamant about it.

Morehouse: Geraldo had done a story about Willowbrook, about mentally challenged kids being abused on Staten Island, that catapulted him into the ABC thing. [The piece won Rivera a Peabody Award in 1972.]

Cooper: Then there was some kind of quarrel over something that would be on the air in 10 seconds today. [Rivera stood up for a colleague, Sylvia Chase, who had a 20/20 story about Marilyn Monroe’s alleged affairs with John and Robert Kennedy withheld from broadcast.]

Morehouse: It was a hard fall from grace.

Cooper: He was so down over losing his job at ABC that he just wanted to get away from everybody. 

Hacker: I vividly remember calling his agent and describing what we were going to do and having him say, “Hell, no.”

Cooper: I told him to forget them. He’s out of work and somewhere in the world. Go talk to him directly.

Hacker: He had taken his sailboat out and was somewhere in the Panama Canal. I think we met in Marina del Rey.

Geraldo Rivera (Host): My agent got in touch and said he had an offer but that he didn’t think I’d be interested. I asked how much. He said $25,000. I told him, “Get $50,000 and I’ll do it.”  

Joslyn: We overnighted him all of the research we had done. He called the next day and said, “OK, deal.”

Rivera: It’s a two-hour show, so we’ll do an hour documentary, and whatever happens with the vault, happens.

II. A DIRTY JOB

Westgate had roughly four months to complete pre-production on the special before it aired. In addition to getting proper permits from Chicago and permission from Sunbow, there was a concentrated effort to get some idea of the origins of the “vault”—a 125-foot long concrete wall that began in the Lexington’s basement and stretched out underneath Michigan Avenue's sidewalk.

Joslyn: It wasn’t a safe with a tumbler. It was a large concrete mass.

Tim Samuelson (Cultural Historian, City of Chicago): What started this whole thing was the fact someone had found a sidewalk vault under the Lexington. It was common practice in the late 19th century to build out underneath a sidewalk and have doorways leading to the space. Businesses could have storage, load packages, that kind of thing. They’d start to leak and get sealed up with brick, concrete, then filled up with gravel and sealed over. I have a feeling someone heard “vault” and it took on a whole new definition.

Cooper: I remember getting a call from the business manager at Tribune Tower saying people were worried the street might fall in and people would be hurt or killed. Then it was concern over fires. We took it very seriously.

Grafman: It was a boarded-up mess of a building. I think [Sunbow] was around to make sure we didn’t blow it up.

Morehouse: I remember we took a bus trip down there on the coldest day of the year in Chicago. There was this whole story about an underground railroad running whiskey and other contraband.

Samuelson: The lore comes up all the time. The gangs of the time were really low-tech people. They weren’t digging tunnels.

Joslyn: Construction came to me one day and said, “We’re going to have to lower a baby bulldozer down there.” They took the tires off to make it fit. People do not realize the work involved.

Morehouse: They had done X-rays from the street level and on all sides, and the results were inconclusive.

Joslyn: We had ground-penetrating radar not to see what was in it, but to find parameters, to see which direction to go in.

Rivera: We had sonar, we had vibrations, we had the sort of technology available for pregnant women back in those days.

Hacker: [Westgate] had sonar and all this stuff to look at the area, which was quite big. We were reasonably sure something was in there, but we didn’t know what it was.

Joslyn: We got calls from Capone’s family wanting to see what was inside. We told them no. We weren’t going to do it that way.  

Samuelson: They asked me to come down and what I did from the very start was say, “Look, I hate to tell you this, but this is a Chicago sidewalk vault. I don’t think there’s anything in there at all.”

Joslyn: I don’t remember exactly what Tim said, but there was marble tile in the basement area. You don’t fill in holes with one-inch marble. I saw it first-hand.

Rivera: We discerned there was a hollow chamber, but we couldn’t see what might be in it.

Cooper: They were doing interviews with relatives, or people that had been alive at the time, and the thinking was that it might be hiding money, cars, bodies, whatever. It got more exciting the more they talked to people.

Samuelson: They were the ultimate optimists.

Rivera: I was reasonably sure we would find either guns or money or dead bodies. I was pretty confident something was in there.

Cooper: Geraldo was a believer. I was never a believer or a non-believer. I just believed we had a good television show.

Samuelson: They called me once and said, “We found a torture chamber!” I go over there and it was a fuse box.

While construction crews worked to prepare the site for a television broadcast, producers kept busy fleshing out the taped portions of the show; Tribune's ad sales department tried to convince independent stations they had a winner.

Samuelson: They actually brought in Irene Hughes, who was at the time the biggest psychic in America next to Jeane Dixon. She was going to try to pick up the spirit of Capone in the building. We go to the basement, she walks toward the middle of the wall, and says, “Capone is behind it in a garden under glass, laughing, laughing, laughing.” Now, I had researched the hell out of that building. I told her there had been nothing there but a yard. Fifteen years later, the city found some old real estate atlases. What was in the middle of the Lexington? A greenhouse. Honest to god.  

Grafman: Tribune was one of the most honored, most respected media companies in America, and there were times we couldn’t believe they were letting us do this.

Morehouse: Some of the advertisers were nervous about content. About 40 percent of it was pre-taped, which allowed advertisers to pre-screen it. We had General Mills, Budweiser; 24 spots at $100,000 per spot. That’s $2.4 million, less the ad agency commission. We took it to the television convention that January and everyone got into it. We sold all the commercial time.

Hacker: We had to go to each TV station in each market to clear out a primetime spot.

Morehouse: It was like nothing you had ever seen. We had a Model T, models dressed as flappers, and a couple of guys with submachine guns. We played it to the hilt.

Samuelson: I remember sitting with Doug Llewelyn, and he said, “You know, Tim, I know you think otherwise, but I really think we’re going to find something.”

Grafman: Half of it was the excitement of what we were doing, and half of it was dread.

III. LIVE

At 7 p.m. central time on April 21, 1986, Tribune syndicated The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults to more than 180 domestic stations. An enthusiastic Rivera stood in front of the Lexington promising an adventure akin to excavating Tut’s tomb.

Rivera: I recall a producer giving me a pep talk. “Get out there and nail this on-camera open.” Live programming is controllable in a studio. This was like stepping off the ledge of a building.

Morehouse: We had forensic examiners in case there were bodies.

Cooper: Everyone had come to see this. Not just here, but from overseas, press from all over the world.

Samuelson: There was a guy there who was selling homemade T-shirts, “I was at Capone’s vault.” But they were used and had sweat stains on them.

Joslyn: We were going to blow up one part of it on live television with dynamite. To get a permit to light dynamite in Chicago? We didn’t get permission until 4 p.m. that day.

Samuelson: I remember early before the show, Geraldo had split the back of his pants. I don’t think they had an extra pair, so they were going around looking for safety pins.

Grafman: We got lucky with the time slot. The week before, Reagan had bombed Libya.

Joslyn: We had concerns about security. Once Geraldo came off the street and went into the building, we padlocked the doors. No one was getting in or out.

Samuelson: There were three of us lined up side-by-side upstairs. Me, because I knew the building and could identify stuff, the coroner, and somebody from the IRS in case they found money.

Joslyn: The IRS had a lien if there was money inside. [After his death in 1947, Capone still owed over $800,000 in unpaid taxes.]

Joslyn: We pulled down the first concrete wall and went, “Oh, god. More dirt.”

Samuelson: I looked at the layers, the broken-up sidewalk on the bottom and the slag from the steel mills on top and said, “Sorry, it’s all over.” I see Doug go over to Geraldo, point to me, shrug his shoulders, and then Geraldo sits on a milk crate and puts his hands over his face.

Joslyn: We found some bottles.

Rivera: We were finding nothing but trivial things.

Samuelson: He pulls out some old bottles and says, “Samuelson, you know old bottles, right? Come identify these.” They were two little cheap liquor bottles with an Illinois tax stamp of 1948. Probably from workmen who drank their lunch.

Morehouse: It was just a bunch of s***.

Samuelson: They were going to break down a retaining wall with a huge water main on the other side. If they had broken the pipe, it would’ve flooded the basement instantly. Everybody would have died.  

Joslyn: No. That was before the show. It flooded about 4 feet.

With time running out on the two-hour broadcast and nothing but dirt remaining, Rivera blew an air horn and called off the workers. “We didn’t find the hollow spaces we were led to believe were in there,” he told viewers. “Sorry.”

Joslyn: He called it. “OK, guys, we tried.”

Morehouse: Geraldo played it like a Stradivarius.

Rivera: It was an old building. I do not recall fearing it would collapse on my head. I was much more engaged emotionally with finding something. Later, I maybe would’ve liked for it to fall on my head.

Joslyn: There was a little confusion when the show ended. We had an extra 90 seconds, so Geraldo sang. He padded it. It was total improv.

Grafman: I think he felt his career was over.

Cooper: He was destroyed when the show ended.

Rivera: All of the construction guys went and got drunk with me.

Hacker: Geraldo was very depressed he didn’t find anything. My take on it was, it was a great adventure. People had fun. It was a great two-hour movie with a bad ending.

Grafman: Twenty of us went to a place on the South Side, some honky-tonk, and had a drink or two. Some had three or five. I don’t even know if we went to bed.

Cooper: It was one of the saddest evenings you ever saw. Everybody was downtrodden.

Grafman: We thought, "Oh, well, that’s quite a way to go out." I don’t want to say we were fearing for our jobs, but we were fearing for our jobs. Until the ratings came in.

IV. MADE MEN

Following the anticlimactic conclusion, Rivera and the producers of Capone’s Vaults went their separate, inebriated ways. While the press had a field day—“the Windy City was never windier,” according to the company’s own Chicago Tribune—the public held a different view.   

Morehouse: The next morning the teletype machine is cranking out the overnight ratings. It did a 35 share in New York, a 70 share in Chicago.

Cooper: In those days, ratings came over these big machines rattling off the ticker tape in a glass booth.

Grafman: We thought it would do a 20. It did a 35 [share, the percentage of all televisions tuned into the show]. It was an enormous, colossal success. Nationally, we out-performed the network—The Cosby Show, Family Ties. I got the ratings and slid them under Geraldo's hotel room door.

Cooper: To this day, no entertainment program in syndication has ever gotten a higher rating in Chicago, ever.

Grafman: We set a record for a live syndicated special. We did a home video deal.

Morehouse: Some executives accused me of under-selling it. We guaranteed a 25 share and got more, so there was money left on the table.

Joslyn: Now you do a 2.9 share in New York and it’s great. The world’s changed.

Cooper: The show played later on the West Coast and that was amazing. Even though the news was out, it still got phenomenal ratings.

Rivera: I knew if we found anything, I’d be the toast of the town. I also knew if we didn’t, I’d be widely ridiculed.

Joslyn: We actually kept digging for three or four days after, just to finish the job.

Grafman: We did keep digging, but it was like after you bury a body, just throwing dirt on it.

The Lexington never did get renovated: It was demolished in 1995. Despite Rivera’s fear the special would prove problematic for his career, the opposite happened. In fall 1986, Tribune announced a deal for a daily talk show featuring the broadcaster.

Grafman: We developed a lot of other live specials with Geraldo.  

Morehouse: I think we did five. We did one on missing and exploited children that got an 18 share in 1987 or 1988, and another one on the mafia.

Hacker: We did do other things, but we didn’t open anything.

Grafman: We joked there was nothing in the vault, but inside we found Geraldo’s talk show. We had an 11-year run with that.

Marino: I still hear people say it was a great show with a bad ending. They always say, “It’s too bad that there was nothing in the vault.” My reply is that there was a 50 share in that vault and the special led to a dozen other Geraldo primetime specials, a daytime Geraldo talk show that ran for years, and it certainly led to the reality television craze which continues to this day.

Morehouse: About four weeks into the show, some skinheads got into a fight and broke his nose.

Cooper: That was typical Geraldo. But his ratings were very good.

Joslyn: I remember one morning before the show, we were down in that basement, and it was sub-zero. There was a three-legged cat, a little tiny thing all of three months old. A researcher adopted him. She named him Capone.

All images courtesy of Geraldo.com unless otherwise credited.

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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.