Problem Child looked like a family film. But its story—about a married couple who adopt a sweet kid, only to quickly realize that he's a pint-sized version of Satan who also happens to be pen pals with a serial killer—was not an all-ages affair. John Ritter and Amy Yasbeck starred as the well-meaning Ben Healy and status-seeking Flo Healy, adoptive father and mother to Junior, thanks to the unscrupulous and strange-sounding Igor Peabody (Gilbert Gottfried). Neither the filmmakers nor the studio was expecting much from the film; critics disliked it and advocacy groups spoke out against it—which made Problem Child's box office success (which led to two sequels and an animated television series) all the more surprising.
1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A NEWSPAPER ARTICLE.
Writing partners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who would go on to write Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon and co-create The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) read a 1988 Los Angeles Times article by Dianne Klein titled "An Adopted Boy—and Terror Begins." It told the story of an Orange County couple who adopted a boy who was "so disturbed that animals instinctively feared him." While other writers pitched movies making the story into a horror film, Alexander and Karaszewski pitched it as a dark comedy.
2. MACAULAY CULKIN AUDITIONED FOR THE LEAD.
Fortunately for Macaulay Culkin (who landed the starring role in Home Alone, which came out four months after Problem Child), casting director Valerie McCaffrey believed Michael Oliver was the right Junior after seeing him in a commercial.
3. DENNIS DUGAN STOOD UP ON A TABLE TO LAND THE DIRECTING GIG.
Dennis Dugan had never directed a feature film before, so he decided to make his pitch to Universal executives a memorable one. He stood on the studio president's coffee table and passionately proclaimed, "You're looking at me like I'm f*cking nuts, and this is what we want. We want this kind of chaos." Three hours later, Dugan learned he had the job.
4. JOHN RITTER AND AMY YASBECK MET REHEARSING THE MOVIE.
The two actors, cast as a married couple, met for the first time before a table read at Dugan's house. "He was funny as can be, and she's funny as can be, and they just hit it off," Dugan told The Hollywood Reporter. Ritter and Yasbeck married in 1999.
5. JACK WARDEN ONLY AGREED TO APPEAR AFTER DUGAN OFFERED HIM HALF OF HIS POINTS.
Jack Warden played "Big Ben" Healy, John Ritter's father, after Dugan offered Warden half of his net points (a percentage negotiated beforehand of the net profit to a movie). Warden was so touched by the gesture that he agreed to take the role, but refused to take any of Dugan's potential earnings.
6. THE TEST SCREENINGS WERE A DISASTER.
"Seventy percent of the audience walked out [during the film], and some people were actually verbally angry," Dugan recalled of the test screenings. The film "scored a 30, and you're in trouble if you're in the 60s."
7. THERE WERE A BUNCH OF RESHOOTS.
8. SCOTT ALEXANDER CRIED AT THE CAST AND CREW SCREENING.
"I cried at the cast and crew screening," Alexander admitted in 2014. "It was our first movie and it was so terrible. And I was so sad."
9. IT WAS INTENDED TO BE A DARK COMEDY, NOT A FAMILY FILM.
"The tone we wanted was Ruthless People (1986) or Throw Momma From the Train (1987)," Alexander and Karazewski wrote in a Reddit AMA.
10. GILBERT GOTTFRIED SAID NOBODY HAD ANY FAITH IN IT.
"Even while we were making it, we all thought, 'This is going to be a bomb,'" the actor/comedian who portrayed the adoption agency worker said. "In fact, I remember when my filming was through and I was going home, I was saying goodbye to John Ritter, and he was kind of looking around, shrugging his shoulders, going, 'Well, you know the way it is in the business: You do something, and then you go on to the next thing.' I think he thought it would be a failure. And the people involved at Universal, one of them said, 'We’re going to treat this like a wounded soldier on the battlefield: leave it there to die and run and save our own asses.'"
11. THERE WERE PROTESTS OVER THE MOVIE POSTER.
The Defense of Animals protested Problem Child after its poster showed a panicked cat being loaded into a dryer—a scene that wasn't in the film. The group managed to get some theaters to take down the poster, after they claimed that impressionable kids might do the same to their pets. Adoption services were also worried, believing people would think that adopting older children was a big risk.
12. THERE WERE NO PRESS SCREENINGS.
The Los Angeles Times' Jack Mathews speculated that Universal "dumped" Problem Child on the market without press screenings not just because of its lack of faith in the product, but because HBO aired the documentary Child of Rage weeks earlier. The doc was about a self-destructive adopted girl named Beth who turned out to be homicidal.
13. IT WAS A (SURPRISE) BOX OFFICE SUCCESS.
Problem Child was one of Universal's most profitable films of 1990. Even Alexander and Karaszewski eased up on their bastardized product, saying in that aforementioned AMA that "over the years, we've come to peace with the film, because people just like it so much!"
14. GOTTFRIED WAS UP FOR A GOLDEN RASPBERRY, BUT LOST TO DONALD TRUMP.
In 1991, Gottfried was nominated for a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie for his work in Problem Child, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and Look Who's Talking Too, but lost to Donald Trump for his performance in Ghosts Can't Do It. Trump played himself.
15. MICHAEL OLIVER LEFT SHOW BUSINESS.
"After having been thrust into the spotlight as a child, I appreciate some peace and quiet. I am grateful and always will be for the experiences," the former Junior said in 2012. "I'm actually quite happy with my life the way it is today. I have a decent job. I work hard. I have a beautiful girlfriend. We have three cats and a hamster. It's a nice, quiet existence. I like it." (Hopefully the cats are happy and healthy.) Oliver works in computer programming.
16. NBC ORDERED A TV REBOOT IN 2015.
The pilot was written by Scot Armstrong (Road Trip, Old School) and starred Matthew Lillard in the John Ritter role and Erinn Hayes in Yasbeck's. NBC chose not to advance it to series.