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Movie Legends Revealed: A White Shaft? Elm Street’s Happy Ending?

Today is a special edition of “Movie Legends Revealed,” where we examine legends from films and the people who make films and determine whether they are true or false. Today we answer the questions: Was Shaft originally intended to star a white actor? Did A Fish Called Wanda really kill one of its viewers? And, Did A Nightmare on Elm Street originally have a dramatically different ending?

Click here to view an archive of the previous movie legends.

Let’s begin!

MOVIE LEGEND: Shaft was originally going to star a white actor.

STATUS: I’m going with false

Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as the titular private detective, was a massive box-office smash upon its release in 1971 and became the face of what was later referred to as “blaxploitation” (I’ll let you judge whether you feel it qualifies as “blaxploitation”). The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Song for its theme (written and performed by Isaac Hayes), was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

 

For years, though, legendary blaxploitation producer and director Melvin Van Peebles has told the story of how Shaft was originally not going to star Richard Roundtree, but rather a white actor! Here’s a New York Press blog article that sums up Van Peebles’ story well:

It’s been almost 40 years since the box office success of Sweet Sweetback Badasssss Song (1971), the first-ever independent film to profit commercially and what Van Peebles claims, “changed everything” in the movie making industry. Sweetback boosted the cinematic black image and influenced the lead in films like Shaft, whose black protagonist was originally cast as a white character.

 

That’s what you’ll generally see told in regard to this story, that the unexpected success of Van Peebles’ independent release Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, about a young black man who stands up against white authority, changed the course of Shaft‘s history. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is undeniably an important film. It clearly influenced a number of blaxspolitation films (although, much more so than Shaft, Van Peebles’ film is definitely not an exploitative film — the knockoffs of it, though, were) and, more importantly, it showed that you could have a hit film not only written and directed by black filmmakers (which was not necessarily in doubt at the time, as Gordon Parks had already had success as a director) but that you could have a hit film produced and financed by black people, as well. Comedian Bill Cosby loaned Van Peebles the last $50,000 he needed to make the film. So yes, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song is an important film. However, I believe Van Peebles is overstating its influence upon Shaft.

First of all, Ernest Tidyman’s novel Shaft, on which the film was based, starred a black private detective. Since one of the most striking aspects of Shaft is the very fact that it is about a black private detective, it seems hard to believe that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would have optioned the book only to change the race of its title character. However, to be honest, I cannot say for sure that they would do such a thing. If they liked the story well enough, perhaps they would have done so.

No, the more important reason as to why Van Peebles is almost surely mistaken in how influential his film was is the fact that Shaft was already well into production by the time Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song was released. Sweet Sweetback hit theaters on April 23, 1971; Shaft hit theaters on July 2, 1971. Roundtree was already cast as Shaft well before Sweet Sweetback’s release. Contemporary articles about Shaft in Ebony in June 1971 made it clear that Shaft‘s release had no connection to Sweet Sweetback. Now, the success of Sweet Sweetback most likely gave Shaft more attention, which surely helped the film be a success, but it did not get the film made and it did not get the film changed from white actors to black.

Thanks to Pauline Pechin for the New York Press article, and thanks to Ebony (author uncredited) for its spotlight on the filming on Shaft from June 1971.

MOVIE LEGEND: An audience member watching A Fish Called Wanda died from laughter.

STATUS: True

The notion of someone dying of laughter watching a film just sounds like an urban legend, doesn’t it? Like someone mixing Pop Rocks and soda and dying. However, in the case of an audience member watching A Fish Called Wanda, it sadly was very true.

In 1989 a Danish audiologist, Ole Bentzen, died watching A Fish Called Wanda. What happened was that he began laughing so hard that his heart was beating between 250 and 500 beats per minute, ultimately leading to cardiac arrest.

 

What specifically got to Bentzen was the famous “fish and chips” scene, where Kevin Kline’s character, Otto, tortures Michael Palin’s character, Ken, first by shoving chips (french fries) up Ken’s nose and then later by eating Ken’s pet fish in front of him.

 

Apparently the scene reminded Bentzen of a joke/game that he did with his family, where each member would put a piece of cauliflower up their nose and see who could eat the rest of their vegetables fastest without the cauliflower falling out.

While bizarre, it really is quite sad, as it sounds like Bentzen was a fun-loving guy. In Washington, D.C., in 2009, they began a comedy festival in Bentzen’s honor called The Bentzen Ball.

MOVIE LEGEND: Wes Craven’s original ending for A Nightmare on Elm Street was dramatically different than what made it into theaters.

STATUS: True

If you haven’t seen A Nightmare on Elm Street, you might not want to read this one. You are spoiler warned!

 

The low-budget horror film, written and directed by Wes Craven, was a massive success upon its release in 1984, and a sequel was quickly rushed out for release the next year (the series ultimately became a successful franchise, with nine films released so far, and I’m sure more to come).

However, when Craven wrote the film, he never intended it as the beginning of a franchise, and in fact, Craven’s original ending for the film was a happy one. The film’s protagonist, Nancy Thompson, sees basically all of her friends and her mother killed by the evil Freddy Krueger, who attacks you in your dreams, and if you die in your dream you also die in real life. Craven wanted the film to end with Nancy defeating Freddy by basically refusing to believe in him.

The next day would then open with the revelation that it was all a dream, and Nancy’s mother and her friends were all still alive. Here are two screen shots of that original ending …

 

 

However, the head of New Line Cinema (which financed the film — the first time the independent movie distributor actually produced its own film), Robert Shaye, insisted that the ending be done in such a way as to set up a sequel. Shaye compelled Craven to have his original ending modified into a “twist” ending, where what Nancy thinks is the next day is actually still part of the nightmare, with Krueger pulling her mother into the house and having Krueger possess the car she and her friends are driving in and having the film end in that shocking fashion.

They ultimately filmed four versions of the ending — the happy one, the twist one and two compromise versions (mostly the twist ending, but with slight changes). They went with the twist ending. Craven decided not to do the second film, although he later returned to the film franchise for a few of the sequels.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

Be sure to check out my website, Entertainment Legends Revealed, for more movie, TV and music legends!

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Comments

  • Wildstorm

    I remember the four endings for Nightmare.  I had a t VHS set that had a second tape that had outtakes, bloopers, and alternate takes.

  • Anonymous

    I had never heard of the original Shaft actor being white, but I do know that before the recent remake starring Sam Jackson was filmed, Bruce Willis was reportedly attached as the title character.

  • demoncat_4

    i remember the other so called original ending to nightmare on elm. though did not know wes made four versions. as for shaft can not believe mgm was even considering changing the character to white .

  • Sijo

    I’ve never liked the Freddy Kruger films because they make no sense- of all the people in the world, why would a *serial killer of children* come back from the dead just because he was lynched? I guess all the other murderers in the world must have said “Shucks, if only I had been killed illegally, I would have come back too!” And why only inside dreams? Then again it was all just a poor excuse to set up lots of gruesome deaths with no real plot (sort of like the Final Destination movies today) so I stopped caring early on.

  • DRW

    The “Shaft” legend reminds me of The Pelican Brief. In the novel, Denzel Washington’s character is described in one part of the book as being “the only white man [in the bar].”

  • Anonymous

    Check out a movie called “Shocker” (also directed by Craven).  In it, a murderer named Horace Pinker IS put to death via legal means (ie, capital punishment courtesy of the electric chair), but he’s made a proverbial deal with the devil to come back to continue his killing spree.  (Pinker is played by the man who would go on to greater recognition playing a character on the other side of the law, Assistant Director Walter Skinner on the X-Files.  Yep, Mitch Pileggi himself.  And, Heather “Nancy–Elm Street–Thompson” Langenkamp played a victim in “Shocker.”)