In these days when silent-film homages are all the rage (see 'Hugo' and 'The Artist'), it's worth taking a look back at 'Three Amigos,' released exactly 25 years ago, on December 12, 1986. The thoroughly silly comedy centers on a trio of extravagantly-costumed silent-movie Western stars (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short) who find themselves having to be heroes for real when they visit a Mexican town beset by bandits. A modest hit at the time, the movie has since become a cult favorite and surprisingly influential, with its plot echoing through such later movies as 'A Bug's Life,' 'Galaxy Quest,' and 'Rango.' Its spoofing of silent-film conventions must have seemed esoteric a quarter-century ago, but its total absurdity makes 'Three Amigos' timeless. Read on for the untold story of 'Three Amigos' - how it almost became a Steven Spielberg movie, the lost subplots involving Fran Drescher and Sam Kinison, the feud between Chase and director John Landis, and the movie's unheralded role in the genesis of the beloved novel and film versions of 'Like Water for Chocolate.'
1. The 'Saturday Night Live' talent axis was instrumental in the creation of 'Three Amigos.' Frequent guest host Martin had had the idea for the movie for many years before the film was made. Back in 1980, he mentioned the project (then called 'The Three Caballeros') in a Playboy interview, saying he intended to costar with 'SNL'-ers John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
2. Steven Spielberg was at one point slated to direct, but he ended up doing 'E.T.' instead. Opposite Martin, he'd wanted to cast Bill Murray and Robin Williams.
3. Ultimately, director John Landis (practically an honorary 'SNL'-er after his frequent work with Belushi, Aykroyd, and Eddie Murphy) took the helm. He cast SNL alumni Chevy Chase and Martin Short, though if Short had been unavailable, he'd have gone with Short's fellow 'SCTV' alum Rick Moranis.
4. 'SNL' producer/guru Lorne Michaels and singer/film composer Randy Newman are credited screenwriters of 'Three Amigos', along with Steve Martin. It's the only screenwriting credit to date for either Michaels or Newman.
5. Newman also wrote three songs and performed the voice of the Singing Bush.
6. Casting fellow directors in cameos is a trademark for Landis – there were 17 of them in his 1985 movie 'Into the Night' But here he gave one a major role as the villain.
7. As bandit leader El Guapo, Landis cast Mexican actor/director Alfonso Arau, who had played a similar role in 'The Wild Bunch.' He'd also recently played Juan, the menacing Colombian smuggler who turns out to be a big fan of Kathleen Turner's romance novels in 'Romancing the Stone.'
8. Arau also starred in a Mexican movie in 1970 called 'Tres Amigos,' which means Three Amigos.
9. El Guapo means The Handsome One; it can also mean The Ladies' Man.
10. 'Three Amigos' was the first major film role for Martin Short.
11. Patrice Martinez, a 23-year-old actress from Albuquerque who had studied in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, won the part of Carmen, the village girl who summons the Three Amigos to her beleaguered town. Her 21-year-old lookalike sister, Benita, also landed a part in the movie.
12. Tony Plana, who played Jefe (El Guapo's second in command, though his name means Chief or Boss), was a Cuban-born performer who had emigrated to America as a child with his family in 1960, after Castro took over. He had created the role of Rudy in Luis Valdez' play 'Zoot Suit' and reprised the role on Broadway and in the movie. He had also starred as one of the cadets alongside Richard Gere in 'An Officer and a Gentleman.' And he's already co-starred with Chase via a bit part in 'Deal of the Century' (1983).
13. In walk-on parts as studio flunkies, Landis cast Jon Lovitz (then a regular on 'SNL') and Phil Hartman (who would join the 'SNL' cast in the fall of 1986).
14. Comedian Sam Kinison had a cameo as a bandit that wound up on the cutting room floor. So did a subplot involving Fran Drescher (who was still years away from sitcom fame on 'The Nanny') as a rival starlet.
15. In the opening song, the Amigos manage to hold that high note for 14 seconds.
16. In the sequence where they have to say magic words to summon the invisible swordsman, one of Steve Martin's magic words is "Hfuhruhurr," his character's name in The Man with Two Brains.
17. To promote the film's imminent release, Chase, Martin, and Short co-hosted 'SNL' on December 8, 1986. Randy Newman was the musical guest. The episode included three classic sketches: Satan (Lovitz) comes to claim the soul of spike-cowlicked Ed Grimley (Short); Martin reveals in a monologue his self-serving holiday wish; and President Reagan (Hartman) proves himself to be an take-charge logistical mastermind behind the scenes while pretending to be a guileless, doddering oldtimer before the public.
18. The movie earned $39.2 million at the domestic box office. Among 1986 films, it came in just ahead of 'Little Shop of Horrors,' the musical that featured Moranis and Martin.
19. During production, Landis met Arau's wife, Laura Esquivel, and wondered why she was so quiet. Over dinner one night, she explained that she was coming up with an idea for a novel. She and Arau had been married for 10 years, and shortly after their wedding, an astrologer predicted that, by their 12th anniversary, she would write one of the most popular novels in Mexican history, and soon after, Arau would direct a similarly successful movie. Sure enough, a couple years later, Esquivel published the best-selling 'Like Water for Chocolate. And in 1992, Arau directed the film version, which became an international hit and one of the most popular Spanish-language movies of all time.
20. Patrice Martinez later starred on the series 'Zorro' on the Family Channel from 1990-93.
21. Kai Wulff, who played the German, has done voice work for 20 video games, including various versions of 'Medal of Honor' and 'Call of Duty'
22. Tony Plana ultimately went on to fame as Betty's dad on 'Ugly Betty.'
23. Martin and Short worked together again on the two 'Father of the Bride' movies.
24. In a 2011 interview with Movies.com, Landis recalled having some friction on the set with Chase.
Probably the funniest moment for me when shooting was when I had the Three Amigos on horseback in the desert and I was shooting while they were wearing those ridiculous outfits and after having been shooting for three weeks, Chevy objected to a line of dialogue and he said, "I don't think I should say this." And, remember, Chevy plays a character named Dusty Bottoms. So I said, "Well, why not?" He said, "Because my character would have to be a moron to say this." All I could think was, What movie has Chevy been making? So I said, "OK, I'll give it to Marty because it's a laugh." Then Chevy said, "I'll say it!" It's one of my favorite moments with an actor.25. For his part, Chase had this to say, to Entertainment Weekly, in 2004:
There was a time when the three of us were on a cliffside, 50 feet straight down, and there was nobody behind us with ropes tied to our belts or anything. Just kidding around, I made some hideous comment about John not taking precautions [after the accidental deaths on the set of 'Twilight Zone: The Movie,' which Landis directed]. Unfortunately we were wearing mikes and John could hear us talking. Boy, was he mad! We almost came to blows. But otherwise it was just the most fun I've ever had.[Photos: HBO Studios]
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