On its 30th anniversary, we toast "Trading Places" with its cast and crew.
In June of 1983, “Trading Places” was released in theaters. It remains the greatest Wall Street movie ever made.
Thirty years later, most regard it as part of the canon of American comedies, having launched, revived, or defined the careers of many of its cast and crew.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably repent to your local pastor, then log into your nearest Netflix account.
But as a courtesy, we’ll summarize the plot: Two septuagenarian brothers who run a successful commodities brokerage in Philadelphia get into an argument about whether a person’s character is shaped by nature or nurture. They decide to make a bet: They will frame a top executive (Dan Aykroyd) with drug possession and soliciting a prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis). Meanwhile, they will promote a street beggar (Eddie Murphy) to the executive’s former role. They will then observe whether the beggar and executive still act like their old selves.
To celebrate the 30-year anniversary of this film, we reached out to some key principals behind the film — sadly, many are no longer with us, though their collective experience at the time of the shooting helped make the movie as good as it was — to talk to us about how it got made and what it means today.
JOHN LANDIS, director: I got a call from Jeff Katzenberg, the executive at Paramount at that time, asking if I would read a script called ‘Black And White,’ which I thought was a lousy title — ironically black or white was something I did with Michael Jackson several years later.
It was very old fashioned, a social comedy very much like the screwball stuff done in the '30s. Hollywood made a series of movies — Preston Sturges, Frank Capra — these comedies that really were about society at the time, and were fairly political, but wonderfully funny and with strong characters.
TIM HARRIS, co-writer: There were these two brothers who were both doctors who I would play tennis with on a fairly regular basis, and they were incredibly irritating to play with because they had a major sibling rivalry going, all the time about everything.
So they always had to be separated, you know, play on the other team.
And they were very wealthy but also incredibly cheap — we would play on public courts where it was like a couple of bucks for four guys for an hour.
And they’d have arguments about who was coming up with 50 cents, and I think one very hot day I played with them, and I just came home and was fed up with it, and I just thought, ‘God, I just don’t want to play with these people, they’re awful.’
And I had the idea of them betting on a nature/nurture situation with somebody in their company, and I’d pretty much worked out the whole thing, and went over to Herschel’s and told it to him and he thought it was fabulous.
At the time I was living in what was a fairly run-down part of L.A. near Fairfax Avenue that was completely crime ridden. I lived in an apartment complex where everybody either had a gun held to their head or been raped or whatever — just a very criminal environment — that was part of it I suppose as well.
HERSCHEL WEINGROD, co-writer: The truth is that the only way that a screenplay can really be judged, by definition, isn't on the page, it's by watching the film that was made from it. It can certainly be read and enjoyed, but the inescapable fact is that it was written in order to be seen.
LANDIS: The script was developed for Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. And when I was sent the script, Richard Pryor, unfortunately, had his accident where he burnt himself rather badly, and they sent it to me and said, ‘What do you think?’
‘48 Hours’ hadn't come out yet, but they’d previewed it, and Eddie Murphy had previewed very well, and they thought, ‘Ah this kid's going to be a star,’ So they said, ‘What do you think about Eddie Murphy playing the Billy Ray Valentine part?’ And I of course said, ‘Who’s Eddie Murphy?’
Because I didn’t watch Saturday Night Live since John [Belushi] had died.
So I read the script, and I saw Eddie's tapes, and went to New York and met with Eddie. And they wanted — I won't tell you who they wanted me to cast — but the studio was very unhappy with almost everybody they wanted me to cast.
John Belushi had died, and [Dan Aykroyd’s] movie without John was called ‘Dr. Detroit,’ which was a failure, so conventional wisdom was that Aykroyd without Belushi was like Abbott without Costello, and that his career was over.
Now I knew Danny well, having worked with him, and I knew Danny was a fine actor, and he could easily play this guy. Danny, he's an actor: You tell him what you want, and he delivers. And I thought he'd be wonderful. So he reduced his price quite a bit, and I got him, so I had Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, and they were upset because Danny hadn't — his last couple of pictures hadn't done well, and Eddie was still an unknown really. ‘48 Hours’ came out while we were shooting...
The only character in the script I had a problem with, because she's such a fantasy, is Ophelia. The classic ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ — she's such a fantasy that I thought how the fuck am I going to get away with this?’ I had met Jamie Lee Curtis — I shot a documentary on horror stuff, and she was host of it —