In the days before comic book adaptations dominated the box office, one of the earlier blockbusters to tackle the genre was 1990’s Dick Tracy. Adapted from Chester Gould’s 1930s comic strip, the film was directed by Warren Beatty, who also took the title role of the yellow-clad detective out to take down the crime syndicate commanded by Al Pacino’s mobster ‘Big Boy’ Caprice.
Noted for its distinctive comic-like visuals, Dick Tracy was a big hit and multiple Oscar nominee – but did you know the following facts about the film?
10. John Landis and Walter Hill were attached to direct before Warren Beatty
When Dick Tracy first went into development in the early 80s, the first director attached was John Landis (Trading Places, An American Werewolf in London), who wanted Clint Eastwood to play Tracy. Eventually Landis was replaced by Walter Hill (48 Hrs., The Warriors) who pursued Warren Beatty for the lead; not a hard sell, as Beatty had initially tried to make a Dick Tracy movie back in the mid-70s.
Various behind-the-scenes issues eventually saw Hill step down, and after briefly considering asking Martin Scorsese or Bob Fosse to direct the film, Beatty decided to simply call the shots himself.
9. Gene Hackman declined a role over an earlier falling out with Warren Beatty
Dick Tracy is notable for featuring a lot of big-name actors under heavy prosthetic make-up as the colourful rogue’s gallery with whom Tracy does battle. As well as Al Pacino as Big Boy, there’s Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, James Caan as Spud Spaldoni and Paul Sorvino as Lips Manliss. However, another big name turned down Lips before Sorvino said yes: none other than Gene Hackman.
Hackman and Beatty had worked together a number of times beforehand, but after Beatty directed Hackman in 1981’s Reds the two men had a falling out, which led Hackman to say no to Dick Tracy. (Beatty later explained that the falling out was down to a misunderstanding between the two of them.)
8. Macaulay Culkin turned down the part of The Kid to make Home Alone
The role of Tracy’s pre-teen sidekick The Kid was taken by Charlie Korsmo, who would later appear in Hook. However, another up-and-coming child actor of the time was also considered for the role: a certain Macaulay Culkin, who wound up turning the part down in favour of a different project called Home Alone.
The rest, of course, is history. Home Alone hit screens five months after Dick Tracy in November 1990, wound up the second highest-earning film of the year (behind Ghost), and made Culkin the biggest child actor of his generation.
7. Warren Beatty chose to make the film instead of Misery
Once photography on Dick Tracy was complete, Warren Beatty was offered the role of romance novelist Paul Sheldon in director Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Misery. However, Beatty’s directorial responsibilities during post-production on Dick Tracy meant he didn’t have time, and had to decline.
Dick Tracy supporting actor James Caan took the part instead, and appeared alongside Kathy Bates in the film. Misery proved a big hit, and earned Bates a Best Actress Oscar.
6. Al Pacino saw more than he expected of Madonna
In the role of singer and gangster’s moll Breathless Mahoney, Dick Tracy co-stars pop icon Madonna, who beat Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone for the role. Madonna also began a relationship with Beatty during production – but this doesn’t mean the notoriously exhibitionistic performer behaved herself around her other male co-stars.
During rehearsals, Al Pacino has stated that Madonna flashed him, revealing that she was naked underneath her coat. Pacino remarked that if anyone catches him smiling in his old age, then he’s recalling this incident!
5. Glenne Headly was a last-minute replacement for Sean Young
While Madonna portrays the sultry temptress Breathless Mahoney, Tracy’s more demure love interest Tess Trueheart is portrayed by the late Glenne Headly. However, Headly was an eleventh-hour replacement for Sean Young, who was initially cast as Tess but fired mere days into shooting. At the time, Beatty stated he had “made a mistake casting Sean Young in the part and I felt very badly about it.”
Sean Young, however, has blasted Beatty for firing her, claiming that he only did so because she spurned the actor and director’s unwanted sexual advances.
4. Disney refused to release the film
Back in 1990, the Walt Disney Pictures brand was associated almost exclusively with family-friendly material. As such, top brass at the studio felt Dick Tracy was a little too mature for their liking (even though it got a PG rating), so they opted instead to release the film under their more grown-up oriented label Touchstone Pictures.
The studio also demanded that Beatty cut the film down in length. The director’s first cut ran two hours and fifteen minutes long, but at Disney’s insistence he trimmed a full 30 minutes for their cut that made cinemas.
3. It won three Academy Awards
Summer blockbusters aren’t usually considered Oscar contenders, but the wealth of established talent in Dick Tracy meant the Academy couldn’t ignore it. The film won three Oscars – Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Original Song for Sooner or Later – and was nominated for four more, including Best Supporting Actor for Al Pacino.
Dick Tracy also proved to be the biggest box office hit of Warren Beatty’s career, earning $162.7 million worldwide. (That might not sound like blockbuster money today, but it was a lot back in 1990.)
2. The producers wanted to cast Ronald Reagan as Pruneface
The role of gangster Pruneface is played by veteran actor R.G. Armstrong, but the producers of Dick Tracy were initially keen to cast another seasoned screen star in the role: no less than Ronald Reagan, the one-time movie star who enjoyed great success in politics, and had not long since completed his second term as President of the United States.
However, Warren Beatty ruled out this idea, perhaps because as a lifelong supporter of the Democrat Party he had political differences with Reagan.
1. Beatty still owns the Dick Tracy rights
Although it was a Disney production, Disney+ subscribers may have noticed the film is absent from the streaming platform. This is due to the complex legal situation surrounding the film. Warren Beatty still owns the film rights to Dick Tracy, and has expressed hopes of making further films about the character. This seems to have been derailed due to disagreements with Disney, but Beatty remains steadfast about holding onto the rights to Dick Tracy.
In 2010, he marked the film’s 20th anniversary with a TV special in which he briefly appeared as Tracy, and did the same thing again with 2023 TCM show Dick Tracy Special: Tracy Zooms In. These short TV appearances in character were enough to legally renew Beatty’s hold on the Dick Tracy rights.