11 Rapid-Fire Facts About 'The Untouchables'

While much of the film was fictional, Al Capone taking a baseball bat to a rival was based on bloody fact.

Paramount / Paramount

Loosely based on the 1960s cops-and-robbers television series starring Robert Stack, Brian De Palma's The Untouchables pitted Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness against Robert De Niro’s unhinged crime boss Al Capone in a highly fictionalized (and stylized) account of their real-life Prohibition feud. We’ve drawn a chalk outline around some of the film’s more fascinating facts.

1. Robert De Niro insisted on getting fat—again.

After impressing audiences and critics with his bulging gut and saggy jowls for 1980’s Raging Bull, De Niro informed The Untouchables director Brian De Palma he wanted time to put on 30 pounds of fat to play chubby Al Capone. “He’s very concerned about the shape of his face for the part,” De Palma told the Chicago Tribune. To cultivate mass and achieve a rounded jawline, De Niro stuck to his “Raging Bull diet” of pancakes every morning and went to Italy on an eating tour. In spite of his gorging, the production still had to use padding to fill out his midsection.

2. Bob Hoskins was Brian De Palma's second choice for Al Capone.

Bob Hoskins recalled meeting De Palma and being told that the production was expecting that De Niro would agree to play Capone—but if not, they were really hoping the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? star would step in. Hoskins agreed; De Niro ended up committing to the part. A short while later, Paramount sent Hoskins a check for $300,000. It was a pay or play deal, and he was due to be compensated either way. Hoskins reportedly called it "the best job I ever had!"

3. Paramount hated the script.

Acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, and director David Mamet is responsible for the combustible dialogue in The Untouchables, but not everyone was a fan. According to Mamet, Paramount executive Ned Tanen thought the script “was a piece of dreck.” Producer Art Linson insisted they stick with Mamet, who based the film in some part on Ness’s autobiography. Mamet would later state the movie stayed generally true to his work, but tossed out closing text that explained the end of Prohibition.  

4. They thought about doing it in black and white.

To help evoke the 1930s for modern audiences, director of photography Stephen Burum tried to convince De Palma to allow him to shoot the picture in black and white. De Palma’s response was to shake his head, telling Burum, “Don’t break your heart, Steve. They won’t let us do it.”

5. The baseball bat dinner scene actually happened.

While some of the film’s facts were bent into some narrative shape—though Costner’s Ness has a family, the real lawman was single at the time—one memorable scene was inspired by a true event. In May 1928, after getting word several of his associates were plotting to murder him, Capone invited them all to a dinner, got them drunk, and then proceeded to beat each man to death with a baseball bat.

6. Eliot Ness and Jimmy Malone never really met.

In the film, the earnest Ness is tutored by gruff Chicago cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery). In real life, Malone and Ness never crossed paths: as part of the Treasury department, Malone was getting his hands dirty trying to infiltrate Capone’s organization to uncover evidence of suspected tax evasion.

7. The baby carriage shootout almost didn't get shot.

De Palma, who has often made visual references to Alfred Hitchcock throughout his career, honored another director for the famous shootout at the Chicago train station featuring a runaway baby carriage. The scene’s premise originated with Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. (Mamet, who didn’t write the scene in the script, called it “cockamamie.”) When De Palma wanted to film it, Paramount was already insisting he wrap up production—but he had covertly been stashing away raw film stock so that he’d have enough for the scene.

8. Filmmakers got help from a real Untouchable.

To help capture the camraderie and characterizations of Ness’s U.S. Justice lawmen, producers turned to Al “Wallpaper” Wolff—at 85, the lone surviving member of his team. As a form of reciprocation, Paramount gave Wolff 160 free tickets to the premiere. (In 1987, Wolff—who got his nickname for combing over everything during a room toss but the wallpaper—said that sometimes raids would result in empty rooms. He imagined one of the “Untouchables” had leaked the information.)

9. The studio was squeamish about the violence.

During a screening for Paramount executives, producer Linson and De Palma heard concerns over some of the graphic shootout scenes depicted in the film. The studio was especially concerned over a scene that featured a man being killed while standing in front of a white marble wall: The background revealed bits of brain matter behind him. De Palma’s contract, however, granted him final cut. So the shot stayed in.

10. The movie earned Sean Connery his only Oscar.

Despite starring in dozens of features over a 30-year (at the time) career, Connery was nominated for an Academy Award only once. Fortunately, it was also a win. Connery took home a Best Supporting Oscar in the spring of 1988 for his portrayal of Ness’s mentor, Jimmy Malone. His appearance during the ceremony was so popular that he got a standing ovation—not for the award, but for presenting the Best Visual Effects Oscar earlier in the show.

11. De Palma considered a prequel with Nicolas Cage.

Following the success of The Untouchables, De Palma and Paramount attempted to continue the franchise with a prequel script titled Capone Rising, which would chart the mobster’s climb to power prior to clashing with Ness. In 2007, De Palma was interested in Nicolas Cage as Capone, with Gerard Butler playing a younger version of Connery’s character. In 2012, the director told Collider that the script was “great” but that they’ve “never been able to get it all together.”