This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of "A Few Good Men."
Landing in theaters on December 13, 1992, the military courtroom drama became director Rob Reiner's biggest hit, put future Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin on the map as a screenwriter, gave Tom Cruise one of his most memorable and best roles, and gifted Jack Nicholson with the most unforgettable line of his career.
Still, as often as you've watched Cruise and Demi Moore face off in court against Nicholson, there's a lot you may not know about "A Few Good Men," including the real-life story behind it, the script's journey from cocktail napkins to the screen, or the time Kevin Pollak's mom hit on Nicholson while he was trying to play his courtroom scene.
1. The story is based on a real-life 1986 incident at Guantanamo Bay, one that is very much like the "code red" hazing depicted in the film. As in the movie, the victim was a Marine named Willie who had snitched about a fence-line shooting into Cuban territory. There, his fellow Marines, acting on orders, gagged him until his lungs filled with fluid. Unlike in the film, Willie survived the code red, thanks to treatment at six different hospitals.
2. Sorkin, then an aspiring playwright, learned of the incident from his sister Deborah, then a recent law school grad, who served in the Navy's Judge Advocate General Corps, on the team defending the accused Marines. Her story became the basis for his first play.
3. Sorkin wrote much of "A Few Good Men" on cocktail napkins while serving as a bartender at Broadway's Palace Theater, scribbling lines while patrons sat through the first act of "La Cage Aux Folles." He and his roommates pooled their resources to buy an early Macintosh desktop with 512K of memory, where he'd type up his napkin work and revise it.
4. Eventually, he had a play, which his agent sold to producer David Brown, who bought the film rights even before the show was mounted on Broadway, with Tom Hulce in the lead. The drama opened in 1989 and ran for more than a year.
5. Reiner (above) was drawn to the story because he identified with protagonist Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a Navy lawyer trying to live up to the example set by his legal-giant father. Reiner had spent the first two decades of his career toiling in the shadow of his comedy-legend dad, Carl Reiner. "He's the nicest man in the world, incredibly sweet-natured, but it was frightening to be compared to him," the younger Reiner said at the time. It was only with dramas like "Stand By Me," "Misery," and "A Few Good Men" that critics finally recognized the former sitcom star as a serious filmmaker striking out on his own.
6. Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson may have been obvious choices to play the two main adversaries, but other roles were harder to cast. Linda Hamilton and Jodie Foster were both up for the role of Kaffee's colleague, Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway, before Demi Moore won the part. Moore, who was eight months pregnant when she auditioned, wanted the role because it was "genderless" and even agreed to play Galloway for just $2 million, well below her fee at the time.
7. For fellow lawyer Lt. Sam Weinberg, the filmmakers first thought of Jason Alexander, then co-starring in a struggling new sitcom made by Reiner's Castle Rock production company. But when that program, a little show called "Seinfeld," was renewed for a second season, Alexander became unavailable, so the role went to comedian and impressionist Pollak.
8. Reiner had a certain look in mind for an actor to play the honor-bound lead Marine defendant, Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson. He realized that the man who looked like what he wanted was right under his nose, in the person of Wolfgang Bodison, a former Castle Rock mail boy who had become Reiner's personal assistant and a Castle Rock location scout. He'd never acted before, but Reiner auditioned him and cast him in his film debut alongside the likes of Cruise, Moore, and Nicholson.
9. Sorkin said he enjoyed working for Reiner, even though the director ordered him to make countless, rigorous revisions of his screenplay. One major revision: unlike in the play, where a doctored logbook is the smoking gun that gives Kaffee the break he needs, Reiner insisted that Cruise's Kaffee win the case on courtroom skills alone.
10. Some of the revisions were rumored to have been written by William Goldman, the screenwriter behind Reiner's "The Princess Bride" and "Misery." Sorkin reportedly liked some of the changes so much that he incorporated them into later editions of the play.
11. Sorkin hated, however, the revision requests he got from the studio. One asked why Galloway had to be a woman if she was never going to sleep with Kaffee. Sorkin's reply: "Women have purposes other than to sleep with Tom Cruise." Sorkin did write one draft, however, that ended with Kaffee asking Galloway out on a date after the trial ends, but overall, he cited his dealings with Columbia on "A Few Good Men" as his worst experience as a screenwriter.
12. Much of the movie consists of indoor scenes shot on a Columbia soundstage in Hollywood, but the Washington, D.C. outdoor scenes were filmed on location. The building that plays the JAG Corps headquarters was actually a former psychiatric hospital. Years after the filming, it became the HQ for the Department of Homeland Security.
13. After "24," it's easy to think there's nothing Kiefer Sutherland can't do, but back in 1992, he still had trouble driving a Jeep. The scene where his Lt. Jonathan Kendrick escorts the Navy lawyers around the Guantanamo base had to be shot several times because Sutherland reportedly kept clipping the Marines playing extras.
14. The Guantanamo Bay barracks scenes were filmed on an Air Force base near Los Angeles.
15. Supporting player Nicholson received $5 million for just 10 days of shooting as Col. Nathan Jessup. Still, he worked hard for his money. He had to deliver his now-famous courtroom speech, at full intensity, as many as 50 times, even when Reiner was just using his performance off-camera to generate reaction shots from the other actors.
16. Pollak was unnerved during that sequence because his mom was on the set, sitting off-camera behind Nicholson and hitting on him. (You can watch Pollak's hilarious recounting of this anecdote, complete with the comic's dead-on Nicholson impression, here.)
17. Frequent Sorkin actor Josh Malina, who plays Jessup's clerk, Tom, is the only actor in the film who was also in the Broadway production. "A Few Good Men" marked his movie debut.
18. Sorkin himself has a cameo, as a lawyer bragging in a bar.
19. "A Few Good Men" cost at least $33 million to make; some sources put the cost as high as $41 million. At least half the budget went toward paying the salaries of the A-list cast and director, before even a foot of film was shot. (Cruise earned a reported $12.5 million. Reiner took home a reported $4 million. Even Sutherland, in a fairly small supporting part, landed a reported $1 million.) The movie earned back $141 million in North America and another $102 million overseas. It remains the biggest career hit for both Reiner and Sorkin.
20. The Academy nominated "A Few Good Men" for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Best Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. Somehow -- Cruise was not nominated. Which is six different flavors of wrong.
21.Rob Lowe, who had co-starred with a then-unknown Cruise in "The Outsiders," and whose own career was saved by landing a starring role on Sorkin's TV drama "The West Wing," played the Cruise role in a London stage production of "A Few Good Men" in 2005.