Behind the Scenes
Cary Elwes, aka Westley, Shares Inconceivable Tales From the Making of ‘The Princess Bride’
In the upcoming page-turner of a book, As You Wish, the Man in Black writes about how Rob Reiner and Co. made one of the most cherished films of all time.
“It really was like a traveling circus,” Cary Elwes says of filming one of the most beloved movies in the history of cinema, The Princess Bride. Elwes, of course, portrayed the iconic, Zorro-like hero Westley in the Rob Reiner epic—a swashbuckling fantasy/adventure/romance replete with a giant, a six-fingered man, Rodents of Unusual Size, the Cliffs of Insanity, the list goes on. Reiner’s film, released in 1987, boasted a wildly diverse cast including the up-and-coming Brit Elwes as The Man In Black, newcomer Robin Wright as Princess Buttercup, a scenery-chewing Mandy Patinkin as the vengeance-seeking Spaniard Inigo Montoya, wrestler Andre the Giant and thespian Wallace Shawn as henchmen Fezzik and Vizzini, Chris Sarandon as the scheming Prince Humperdinck, Christopher Guest playing against type as the evil Six-Fingered Man, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and Valerie, as well as Peter Falk and Fred Savage as the grandfather/narrator and his grandson, respectively.
The film’s screenplay, courtesy of the great William Goldman—who took home a pair of Oscars for penning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men—is endlessly quotable: “Inconceivable!” “Hello, My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “Anybody want a peanut?” “As you wish.”
It’s this last quote, As You Wish, which serves as the title of an upcoming tome penned by Elwes (with help from Joe Layden) about the making of the unlikeliest of cinema classics, The Princess Bride. The book, which will be released Oct. 14, offers a thrilling, behind-the-scenes look at the production’s highs and lows, from would-be castings to various hijinks. Elwes was inspired to write the book following a special 25th anniversary screening of the film at the New York Film Festival, which was rapturously received.
“We were all asked that night what our individual recollections were of making the film, and there wasn’t really enough time for me to adequately share my experience with the fans, so I thought this would be a good way to do it,” says Elwes.
He had some help, too—the entire cast and crew of The Princess Bride contributed cherished memories to the tome. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Elwes discussed his favorites.
One thing the book revealed, which I hadn’t heard before, was that your onetime co-star Colin Firth was considered for the role of Westley.
That’s right. I finished a picture a few years earlier with Colin called Another Country, and he’s an old friend of mine whom I love dearly. Apparently, he was in the running. I didn’t even know that myself!
There are also interesting bits about who was in the running for Fezzik—that when Norman Jewison had the film set up years prior, a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached, and that Richard Kiel was also strongly considered for the part.
I think Richard Kiel did, God bless him, but according to Rob, there was really only one person who could play the role. When you organize a casting call for a giant, you don’t get a lot of callbacks and Andre the Giant was really it. Bill Goldman had suggested him because he describes himself as a lunatic fan of Andre’s, and he’d been to see him wrestle at Madison Square Garden and said, “This is the guy.” Of course, we were so lucky to because he was wonderful in the role.
Andre’s drinking was the stuff of legend, too. You share a hilarious story in the book of Andre getting so wasted following the first script reading that he passed out smack in the middle of the lobby of the hotel, and hotel employees had to surround him with a velvet rope.
They decided that there was no shifting him. There’s no shifting a 550-pound, 7-foot-4 giant, so they had a choice: either call the authorities, and they didn’t want that kind of publicity, or wait for him to wake up, which was the wiser decision. It should be pointed out that Andre didn’t drink for the sake of drinking—Andre was in a lot of pain, God bless him. His back was injured from carrying all that weight around, and from having other wrestlers breaking chairs over his back. He was due to have an operation right after the shoot, and his doctor didn’t know what kind of pain medication to give him because of his size, so the only way that he could deal with the pain was to drink alcohol. And it didn’t affect him at all. He didn’t flub a line or miss a day. The guy could handle his liquor, let me tell ya.
Right. You mention this special drink he made, “The American,” which consisted of 40 ounces of various liquors poured into a pitcher, and he’d drink several of these in a single sitting.
Yes. The man was extraordinary. He never even slurred his words or was tipsy! He was absolutely a man who could consume vast amounts of alcohol and not have it affect him at all. I’ve never seen anything like it. I went drinking with him after our first screening in New York, and I was sipping a beer all night—which he thought was very funny. There was no way I was going to compete with that, because I knew he could consume 100 beers in one sitting.
Ah, yes. You describe that night of drinking in the book and apparently the NYPD had assigned a cop to shadow Andre when he went out drinking because he’d accidentally fallen on a patron while tipsy?
Yes. Apparently there was one time where he tripped and fell on an unsuspecting patron while waiting for his car, and after that, any time he went out drinking the NYPD would send an undercover cop to follow him around—which, by the way, I always thought was a great gig to get. Andre would just order the cop drinks all night—which the guy happily took, by the way!
You said in the book that Andre got you to taste “The American.” What did it taste like?
I’ve never tasted airplane fuel, but I imagine it’s very close to what that must taste like. It’s very potent indeed, and I remember coughing a lot. But to him, it was like chugging water.
Another one of my favorite anecdotes from the book is the little person, Danny, who also had played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi, was playing the big Rodent of Unusual Size (ROUS), and the night before you shot the scene of you two fighting, he got wasted, was pulled over in his custom-made little person car, and sent to the drunk tank.
Danny Blackner! Poor guy. He was pulled over by policemen the night before our big scene together, and the cop didn’t believe that he was an actor. When the cop asked him, “What role are you playing?” and he said, “I’m playing a rat,” the cop didn’t believe him and took him downtown. The poor guy had to spend the night in jail! I think the cop was picking on him, frankly.
There are quotes from both you and Robin Wright about being “smitten” with one another during filming. Did this ever blossom into a full-on romance? I know Robin recently said of you, “I was convinced we were going to be married.”
I didn’t know that at the time! But no, no! Everyone was in love with Robin. We all fell in love with her because she’s just a wonderful, sweet human being. It’s hard not to fall in love with Robin. But we were like a big family and I felt more like her older brother, really. I adore her dearly, and she’s a fabulous woman and an enormous talent.
And according to the book, both you and Robin kept demanding more and more takes of the final kiss.
We couldn’t stop giggling, you know? It’s like kissing your sister! It’s weird. We were laughing and couldn’t believe we were actually doing it. We ruined a lot of takes from giggling, which is why it took six of ’em. But it was a really nice way to end the picture, too, and I also didn’t want the film to end, in a strange way.
It’s crazy that The Princess Bride only made around $30.8 million in its initial theatrical run, and the cast and crew discuss in the book how Fox just had no idea whatsoever how to market it—with the first poster even just featuring Peter Falk reading to Fred Savage in bed.
Not to be disingenuous to Fox’s marketing department, but they were confused. They were presented with a film that had many genres. Was it a comedy? An adventure film? A romantic film? A kid’s movie? An adult’s movie? They didn’t know what angle was best, so they settled on the grandson-and-grandfather angle, and we didn’t feel that was the best way to market the film, and neither did the audience. The film didn’t really find its legs until it was released on VHS and people began renting it, buying it, and giving it as gifts to friends and family.
How did you get Shepard Fairey to design the limited edition Princess Bride poster that comes with the book?
I just asked him! It turns out he’s a big fan of the movie, and that was that. We’re very blessed to have him be a part of the book. If you take off the dust jacket of the hardcover edition of the book, inside is a limited edition Shepard Fairey poster, and it’s absolutely beautiful. So lovely.
He’s not the only one who loved the film. In the book, you write about how you were given an audience with Pope John Paul II and he told you how much he loved the film.
I got to play him years later in a TV movie, and had I known what I know now about this guy, I would have asked him more questions because he was an actor, poet, and Renaissance man. And he’d seen the film, which was incredible! I was blown away by the fact that he’d actually seen it, and liked it. We have a saint who’s a fan. I guess you can’t beat that, really!
An interesting bit in the book concerns Wallace Shawn, who apparently was really overcome with anxiety during filming—in part, because his agent had told him that Danny DeVito was offered the part of Vizzini before him.
I noticed he was anxious at the time, but I didn’t know what the reason was, and apparently his agent had told him that they really wanted Danny DeVito for the role of Vizzini. So during shooting, the poor guy was fixated on the idea and really nervous that he was going to be replaced, which is so crazy because when you look at his performance, you can’t think of anyone else playing Vizzini besides Wally.
Was there ever talk of a film sequel to The Princess Bride? I understand that Bill Goldman was working on a book sequel that he never finished.
Well, Bill had already started writing that sequel himself as a book called Buttercup’s Baby, but he was having a really hard time with it and couldn’t lick it. If Bill Goldman couldn’t lick it then who else was going to do it, you know what I mean? He definitely tried, but I think it’s nice being left as a single film without a sequel. It would be very hard to remake.
It’s hard to crystallize what makes The Princess Bride such a cherished film, and one that gets passed on from generation to generation. Why do you think people love The Princess Bride?
I have a theory about it. First of all, it’s a really sweet story written by Bill Goldman for his two daughters, and it’s a love letter to them. He asked his daughters, “I’m going to write a book for you both… what do you want it to be about?” And one daughter said “princesses” and the other said “bride.” Even in its inception, it was a very sweet and lovely place to start from, and we carried that sweetness and love into the filmmaking process. And Rob was just the right director at that point in his career. His father, Carl Reiner, had given him the book to read, and he adored it so he had a real respect for the material. I don’t think any other director then or now could have directed it as well as he did, because it has a lot of heart.