There’s very little debate about the fact that 1986’s Stand by Me is one of the greatest coming of age dramas ever put to film. Starring a quartet of the very best child actors of the decade with many great older actors in supporting roles, director Rob Reiner’s 1959-set tale of four friends in search of a missing dead teenager has touched the hearts of generations of viewers.
Here are 20 facts you might not have known about the film.
20. It’s based on a Stephen King short story from the same collection as The Shawshank Redemption
As much as Stand by Me had a big impact on the careers of all those involved in the film, it also changed things for writer Stephen King. The film is based on Stephen King’s story The Body, taken from his 1982 collection Different Seasons – which also features the story that would later be adapted into 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption.
King was already a best-selling author whose work had been the basis of several major motion pictures, the most famous including Carrie and The Shining. However, he was still thought of as a fairly low-brow horror author. Thanks in part to Stand by Me, the wider audience began to take King more seriously.
19. Sean Astin and Ethan Hawke were considered for the movie
As with any movie, casting the central actors wasn’t the quickest and easiest process on Stand by Me. The filmmakers looked at a great many young up-and-comers before settling on Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. However, a few other big-name child actors were also considered.
One of these was Sean Astin, who had previously co-starred with Feldman in 1985’s The Goonies. Another was Ethan Hawke, who had co-starred with Phoenix in another 1985 release, Explorers. There was also Stephen Dorff, who would ultimately make his film debut in 1987’s The Gate.
18. A producer financed it himself when the studio pulled the plug three days before shooting began
The producers of Stand by Me had struggled to get the film off the ground for some time – then, mere days before production was due to start, it almost fell apart completely. Embassy International, the production company behind Stand by Me, was sold to Columbia Pictures, who didn’t want to make the movie.
With the funding abruptly pulled, Stand by Me seemed like it was going to be over before it began. However, Embassy producer Norman Lear believed in the project enough to put up the entire budget himself and make the film independently. Perhaps ironically, the independently produced film wound up being sold to Columbia Pictures after all, as the studio’s executives loved it.
17. The actors didn’t see ‘the body’ until they shot the scene
The central crux of Stand by Me is the journey four friends undertake in search of the dead body of a local teen hit by a train. So when the boys actually find the dead body they’re looking for, it’s obviously a pivotal moment in the film. Director Rob Reiner and company were keen to ensure they got the most natural, believable responses possible from their young actors.
Because of this, River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell were not allowed to see the ‘body’ beforehand. Corey Feldman had experienced something similar (but far less downbeat) shooting The Goonies, when the young cast were forbidden to see the pirate ship until shooting the scene when they discover it.
16. It was the childhood favourite film of Jerry O’Connell’s future wife
Though he was cast as the overweight kid in Stand by Me, Jerry O’Connell surprised many by growing into a hunky actor in adulthood. However, Stand by Me remains the actor’s most celebrated work – and it seems to have done him some favours romantically. O’Connell has been married to actress and former model Rebecca Romijn (X-Men) since 2007.
It just so happens that O’Connell’s wife’s favourite movie growing up was Stand by Me. O’Connell recalls “her high school best friend said to me, ‘you know, Stand by Me is Rebecca’s favorite movie of all time. You know she had posters of it all over her room growing up.’ She never told me that.”
15. The leech scene really happened to Stephen King
Stephen King has confirmed that one key sequence in Stand by Me and The Body is based on an actual childhood experience of his own: when the boys go swimming in a pool in the woods, only to find themselves covered in leeches. The shock of this prompts Gordie (Will Wheaton) to faint.
Rather than shooting in a real pond, the crew built a pool specifically for the scene – but it was still in a real forest location, where it stood for two weeks before the scene was shot. As a result, Corey Feldman recalls, “all the worms and the bugs and the leaves and the raccoons, they were all in there. Nature took its course.” Still, the leeches we see were props, not the real thing.
14. Phoenix was ‘a total wreck’ by the time filming ended
River Phoenix originally auditioned to play the part of Gordie, but Rob Reiner and co. recognised he had far more in common with the part of Chris. For one of Phoenix’s stand-out scenes, when Chris tells the story of being accused of stealing, director Rob Reiner told the boy to think of a time when an adult let him down.
Phoenix – who had suffered very real childhood traumas – burst into tears for real shooting the scene, and struggled to regain his composure once the scene was over. The young actor is quoted as saying that he identified so much with his character, that if he didn’t have his family to go back to he would have needed a psychiatrist.
13. Rob Reiner suggested the title and made Wil Wheaton’s Gordie the focal point
When Rob Reiner came on board to direct Stand by Me, he recognised the potential of the project, but had issues with the first draft of the script. The initial script by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon adhered closely to Stephen King’s short story The Body, which presented all four of the central boys with equal importance.
Reiner recognised that the audience needed a singular figure to identify with, and felt that this had to be Gordie. Also, as no one liked the idea of calling the film The Body, Reiner suggested Stand by Me as the title, knowing he intended to use Ben E. King’s song over the end titles.
12. Richard Dreyfuss was the fourth actor approached to play adult Gordie
One performance that’s every bit as significant as those of the four central kids is that which provides the film’s narration, from the adult Gordie. This part ultimately went to Richard Dreyfuss of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind fame. However, before Dreyfuss was cast in the role, at least three other actors were looked at to provide Stand by Me’s narration.
David Dukes was the first actor cast as the grown-up Gordie, but after recordings were made it was agreed that his voice wasn’t quite right. Next, director Rob Reiner tried Ted Bessell, as well as This is Spinal Tap star Michael McKean, but no one really nailed it until Dreyfuss came along.
11. The cigarettes actually contained cabbage
Stand by Me is one of a number of films made in the 80s to show children doing things we wouldn’t expect today. For one, the boys are all seen smoking cigarettes. Still, concerned viewers should be happy to learn that none of the young cast members were given real cigarettes in these scenes.
According to Corey Feldman, the other young actors and himself were given imitation cigarettes made from cabbage leaves. Feldman says this was a demand made by director Rob Reiner, “an avid non-smoker who campaigned for anti-smoking laws in California.” Feldman remarked he later came to “regret the cigarette smoking image that we may have projected to kids at the time.”
10. Michael Jackson was approached to contribute to the soundtrack
Stand by Me is set in 1959, and uses era-appropriate music – although things were almost different. At one point the filmmakers were hoping to use music from the biggest pop star of the time, Michael Jackson, for the Stand by Me soundtrack. Corey Feldman, who was a friend of the troubled music legend, recalls hearing from Jackson after the film’s rough cut was first screened.
Feldman recalls, “(Jackson) sent me a message, saying, ‘Hey I just saw your movie. Great work.’ “They were asking if they could use one of my songs in the film or he was going to write an original song for it, and it was around that time that they decided to go with an all-50s soundtrack.”
9. The young cast pulled a lot of pranks and had formative experiences together
It’s only fitting that a film about young boys sharing a coming of age experience would see some coming of age experiences occur on-set. Phoenix, Feldman, Wheaton and O’Connell got up to plenty of tomfoolery, including throwing furniture into a pool, covering Kiefer Sutherland’s car in mud and tampering with arcade games so they could play them for free.
Also, Sutherland has said that one day the cast and crew attended a fair and bought some cookies to eat, but didn’t learn until afterwards that these contained marijuana. It’s said to have taken the crew two hours until they managed to find Jerry O’Connell sitting alone crying, struggling with the drug’s effects.
8. The young actors were all uncannily like their characters
According to Gordi actor Wil Wheaton, the main reason the ensemble cast of Stand by Me is so effective is that the young actors were so close to their characters. Wheaton remarked in a 2011 interview, “Rob Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played.”
“I was awkward and nerdy and shy… River was cool and really smart and passionate… Jerry was one of the funniest people I had ever seen in my life, either before or since. And Corey was unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain and had an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents.”
7. Wil Wheaton and Jerry O’Connell are crying for real in the train scene
One of the most memorable and heart-pounding sequences in Stand by Me comes when the boys are walking along the rails of a massive elevated railway line, and a train comes up behind them. It looks like a terrifying and traumatic experience for anyone to live through, young or old – and it seems Rob Reiner made efforts to ensure this.
The director thought that Wil Wheaton and Jerry O’Connell didn’t look scared enough, and after shooting numerous takes they still hadn’t got the scene right. Finally, Reiner lost his temper and roared at the young boys in a threatening manner. This had the desired effect, as Wheaton and O’Connell are visibly afraid and upset in the footage used in the film.
6. The ‘vomit’ was actually cottage cheese and blueberries
One of the funniest and most repulsive parts of Stand by Me is the film within the film; Gordie’s campfire story of an overweight teen nicknamed ‘Lardass’ (Andy Lindberg), who enters into a pie-eating contest with a plan to get revenge on the townsfolk who have bullied him all his life.
Memorably, this results in the character vomiting all over his bullies, and setting off a chain reaction of mass puking. As repulsive as this sounds, in reality the artificial vomit used in the movie probably didn’t taste too bad at all. It was a specially made blend of cottage cheese and blueberries.
5. Kiefer Sutherland bullied the kids for real
Much as the young central quartet were very close to their characters in reality, Kiefer Sutherland went to efforts to make a personal connection to his character. Sutherland, who would later reunite with Corey Feldman on 1987’s The Lost Boys, appears in Stand by Me as adolescent bully Ace Merrill.
In the hopes of promoting a greater tension, Sutherland would continue to pick on them when cameras weren’t rolling. Jerry O’Connell, the youngest of the cast members making his acting debut, recalls being genuinely terrified of Sutherland, although he says Wheaton, Phoenix and Feldman took it in their stride.
4. Stephen King considers it the best film based on his work
Stephen King hasn’t always had the best relationship with movies based on his books; most notoriously, he strongly dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining. However, King’s response to Stand by Me was wildly different, as director Rob Reiner explained in a 1986 interview with critic Gene Siskel.
Reiner recalls, ”We showed the film to Stephen King alone in a screening room, and when it was over he was pretty broken up. He excused himself for about 15 minutes. When he came back he said, ‘That’s the best film ever made out of anything I’ve written… you’ve really captured my story. It is autobiographical. All that was made up was the device of the hunt for the body.”
3. It started a professional relationship between Rob Reiner and Stephen King
Stand by Me was such a positive experience for Reiner and King that it proved to be the first of many times the filmmaker would tackle the author’s work. In 1987, Reiner founded production company Castle Rock Entertainment, named after the fictitious town in Maine where King sets many of his stories, including The Body (although Stand by Me changed the setting to Oregon).
Then, in 1990, Reiner directed his second film based on King’s writing: Misery, which won Kathy Bates the Best Actress Oscar. Castle Rock Entertainment has since produced six more King adaptations: Needful Things, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis and Dreamcatcher.
2. Rob Reiner took the director’s chair when Adrian Lyne dropped out
When you think about what a sensitive and heartfelt film Stand by Me is, it’s not really the first thing you’d expect to see from the director of Flashdance and 9½ Weeks. However, that’s very nearly what we had, as director Adrian Lyne was the first person attached to call the shots on the film.
When Lyne dropped out, producer Andy Scheinman approached Rob Reiner, who at the time was still best known as an actor on 70s sitcom All in the Family. Reiner’s directing career was still just taking off after the success of his first two movies, This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing.
1. It was a critical and commercial success
As an R-rated film centred on children, Stand by Me could easily have been a hard sell. However, the film proved a comfortable box office success, making over $52 million off the back of a $7.5 million budget. On top of this, the film was also very well received by critics.
Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times called the film “one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed,” whilst Carrie Ricker of Philadelphia Enquirer dubbed it “a small, quiet film that walks tall and resonates long after.” For evidence of how well regarded Stand by Me is, look no further than its current Rotten Tomatoes rating of 91%.