The Fisher King
(1991), Terry Gilliam's first attempt at directing a movie he had no part in writing, starred Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in two of their most underrated performances. Williams portrays Parry, a former professor turned delusional homeless man following the murder of his wife. He is helped by Bridges's shock jock character Jack Lucas, who inadvertently provoked a listener to kill Parry's wife. In honor of the Oscar-winning film's 25th anniversary, here are 15 royal facts about The Fisher King.
1. RICHARD LAGRAVENESE HAD TO START HIS SCRIPT OVER AGAIN AFTER RAIN MAN CAME OUT.
kept the Jack and Parry characters but threw the rest of his initial draft out because it was too similar to Rain Man. In his next attempt, LaGravenese came up with a "sitcom-y" idea, where Jack has to find Lydia (Amanda Plummer) a husband in order to get his fortune.
2. JACK WASN'T A SHOCK JOCK UNTIL THE FINAL DRAFT OF THE SCRIPT.
Jack Lucas started off as a "cynical cab driver" before he became an heir to a fortune. Then LaGravenese listened to Howard Stern and figured out Bridges's character. Bridges even trained to be a DJ for research, and appeared on the air a few times as Jack Lucas.
3. THE MOVIE WAS PROMISED TO JAMES CAMERON, AND BILLY CRYSTAL WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE JACK LUCAS PART.
Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg gave the script to Steven Spielberg and James L. Brooks, and at one point the project was "promised" to James Cameron with Billy Crystal eyed to play Jack. When the project was moved to Tri-Star, the producers continued an uphill battle to fight for Gilliam to get involved. The same movie executive who worked with Gilliam on the over-budget The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) told producer Lynda Obst that Gilliam would get the job "over my dead body."
4. DISNEY THOUGHT IT WAS TOO DARK.
Disney thought the film was too dark, and shelved it for that reason. Before they did, though, the powers-that-be made LaGravenese tone down a lot of the elements they considered to be too "dark," "odd," or "weird." Disney wanted Jack to be less mean, more like David Letterman than Howard Stern, but Gilliam told LaGravenese to change the script back. Gilliam referred to the Disney version as the "Frank Capra version."
5. MERCEDES RUEHL THOUGHT SHE BORED GILLIAM TO DEATH IN HER AUDITION.
Mercedes Ruehl (Anne Napolitano) wrote her college thesis on T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and the legend of the Fisher King. "I talked to Terry about 'The Waste Land,' redemption, the Fisher King, vegetation rights, blah, blah, and he just watched me as a glaze fell over his eyes," Ruehl said about her hour-long initial interview. "I think he offered me the role because he needed to shut me up, something had to cork this unasked-for scholarship on Fisher King." Ruehl won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.
6. GILLIAM DIDN'T WANT TO MESS WITH THE SCRIPT.
The writer-director of Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985) had said he would never direct a movie that wasn't his own; he broke that rule for the first time with The Fisher King. The one scene he added was the Grand Central Station waltz. "A scene takes place at Grand Central Station, so I was there watching the rush hour develop, watching the swarm begin," Gilliam remembered. "It started slowly, then the tempo increased and I thought, 'My god, wouldn't it be wonderful if all these thousands of people suddenly just paired up and began to waltz?'" Gilliam and his team were granted exclusive access to Grand Central for two nights, from 11:00 p.m. until 6:10 a.m., when the first commuter trains arrived.
7. GILLIAM HAD TO BRING IN GARBAGE.
Production loved a location off of FDR Drive, which was ideal for a scene where Jack was going to try to drown himself in the river. They asked the city to keep the garbage there, but instead it was swept clean. At the production designer's estimation, a load of trash and cars and refrigerators had to be shipped in at a "major expense."
8. THEY HAD TO SWITCH MADISON AVENUE AND FIFTH AVENUE.
The Langdon Carmichael townhouse, on Fifth Avenue in the movie, was portrayed by the Armory on 94th Street and Madison Avenue. Stained glass windows and gargoyles were added to it, as well as an entryway and double staircase made in California and shipped 3000 miles to New York. Production flipped the vehicle direction on Madison, because traffic on Fifth flows the other way.
9. BOTH CITY RESIDENTS AND THE STUDIO DELAYED IT.
A bike-riding sick man named Mercury rode around production shouting for Robin Williams, holding up production on the day they were trying to shoot the Central Park nude scene for hours. When other New Yorkers got annoyed at the lights and noise from the night shoots, they reported fake fires to the fire department, which also caused delays. In March, just when the cast and crew assumed their troubles were over, Tri-Star decided to postpone the scheduled May 10, 1991 opening date to September.
10. GILLIAM WAS LOOKING FOR FAIRY TALE IMAGERY.
"In my mind I was making a fairy tale of people like Lydia imprisoned in this great stone tower working in this publishing house, and bums living under the arches of Manhattan bridge in a setting that's Dante-esque," the director said. He added that since, in the myth, the Fisher King was dying, he saw New York "as all stone and brutal buildings, with no living things like trees and birds. I put Jack Lucas, who's actually the Fisher King, up in the most minimalistic, severe, cold building I could find."
11. THE RED KNIGHT WAS MADE WITH FOAM LATEX.
Stunt coordinator Chris Howell had a fire-shooting, 16 pound flame-thrower attached to his helmet. Trained Percheron gelding circus horses named "Lightning" and "Goliath" were featured in the Knight scenes.
12. GILLIAM HAD TO STOP WILLIAMS FROM OVERDOING IT.
Williams always wanted to do one more take, even though he had given it his all and Gilliam thought they had more than enough. One scene in particular stood out to Gilliam:
"The last shot we had to do was Robin running at the end of this scene, in this hysterical state. You can even see the light ever so slightly beginning to come on the river in the background. But Robin was so angry because it was such a crucial moment, and he felt he’d been cheated of his ability to really give this moment his all. And Robin was an incredibly strong guy: When he’d worked himself into this state of madness for the part, nobody could approach him. The first assistant, the stunt guy … nobody wanted to get near him. They were terrified. So, I had to go up there and tell him, ‘Robin, what we have here is very good. And if we look at the rushes and it isn’t, I promise you I will reshoot it.’ And I had to hug him basically, and hold him. I could feel these muscles that were so tense and so strong, they felt like they could easily rip my head off."
13. WILLIAMS HAD TO GET THE COMEDY OUT OF HIS SYSTEM.
, Williams went uptown to do a set to—in his words—get the comedy "out of my system." Gilliam, Bridges, his brother Beau, and a shocked audience watched Williams do 45 minutes of improvised stand-up.
14. STEPHEN SONDHEIM GAVE PERMISSION TO REWRITE HIS LYRICS.
Production failed at getting permission, but Michael Jeter ("Homeless Cabaret Singer") was good friends with the famous composer and managed to get it. According to Gilliam, Jeter came through again later when he sang "Everything's Coming Up Roses" on pitch for every take, so they were able to cut all of his takes together.
15. ROBIN WILLIAMS HAD TOO MUCH HAIR.
This was according to Tri-Star, who, Gilliam reported in all seriousness, was worried that Williams would lose fans because his naked body had too much hair on it.