20 Fun Facts You Didn’t Know About The Cannonball Run Films
Before there was Fast & Furious, there was The Cannonball Run. Blending broad comedy, a big name cast and a whole lot of fast cars, the 1981 action comedy and its 1984 sequel may have been pretty silly, but they thrilled and delighted a generation of viewers.
Here are some fast-paced facts about the Cannonball Run films which you might not have known.
20. The Cannonball Run introduced Western audiences to Jackie Chan
The original Cannonball Run introduced Western Audiences to a then little-known actor named Jackie Chan. Aged 26 when cameras rolled on the car chase comedy, Chan was already a big name in his native Hong Kong. Considering that his films were not well known in the US at the time, the kung fu comedy pioneer might seem an odd addition to a cast full of big-name westerners. It makes more sense on learning that, although The Cannonball Run is set in the US, the movie was actually produced by Asian film company Golden Harvest.
As Chan was one of Golden Harvest’s hottest properties, they were keen to promote him to international audiences. (Chan had already starred in one Hollywood production, The Big Brawl, but this had not proved to be a hit.) However, the Chinese actor was upset on learning that his character in the movie was presented as Japanese.
19. Jackie Chan ended up stealing an idea from Hal Needham’s Cannonball films
Over the end credits of The Cannonball Run, director Hal Needham included outtakes from the production. Jackie Chan loved this idea so much, he decided to start doing the same thing in his own films. Starting with his 1982 movie Dragon Lord, Chan’s films have always included outtakes at the end. In the case of Chan’s films, this typically includes footage of stunts going wrong, often with the action star himself coming close to serious injury.
Jackie Chan would reunite with Hal Needham for 1984 sequel Cannonball Run II, and also starred in 1985 Hollywood action film The Protector. However, he wouldn’t really get a breakthrough hit in the west until 1998, when he co-starred with Chris Tucker in action-comedy Rush Hour.
18. The film made Burt Reynolds the highest-paid actor in cinema history
The Cannonball Run boasts what can truly be considered an all-star cast – but there’s no doubt who the real star of the show is. Burt Reynolds takes the lead in the high-octane caper as rebellious racer J.J. McClure. At the time, Reynolds was considered the biggest movie star in the world, and he commanded a salary to reflect this. The actor got the princely sum of $5 million to star in the film – the most any actor had made for a single role up to that point.
The Cannonball Run marked the fourth occasion on which Reynolds joined forces with director Hal Needham. The actor and the director had previously collaborated on Smokey and the Bandit and its sequel, as well as Hooper.
17. The Cannonball Run was originally meant to be a straight action film starring Steve McQueen
The Cannonball Run boasts some adrenaline-charged automobile action, but above all it aims for the funny bone. This wasn’t always the plan, however, as it was conceived as something far more straight-faced. Originally, it was intended to be first and foremost a standard action film – and what’s more, it wasn’t going to star Burt Reynolds.
Instead, the film was conceived with another beloved Hollywood leading man in mind: one Steve McQueen. Sadly, McQueen passed away 50 in 1980 aged just 50, after a brief battle with cancer. Following McQueen’s untimely passing, The Cannonball Run was significantly reworked for Burt Reynolds.
16. Sir Roger Moore angered his Bond producers by making fun of 007
Alongside Reynolds, the biggest star in The Cannonball Run at the time was Roger Moore. The British actor appeared in the movie in the same year as For Your Eyes Only, his fifth film in the role of James Bond 007. The comedy casts Moore as Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., an American racer who bares an uncanny resemblance to – you guessed it – Roger Moore. The Cannonball Run features many nods to Bond – including Moore driving Bond’s most iconic car, the Aston Martin DB5 (which, funnily enough, he never drove in an actual Bond movie).
The Bond producers were reportedly not too pleased about this, and this had knock-on effects for his successors in the role of the famous secret agent. Pierce Brosnan once revealed that during his tenure as Bond, he was contractually forbidden from wearing a tuxedo in another movie – all as a result of Moore’s Bond parody in The Cannonball Run!
15. The Ferrari used in the movie was owned by director Hal Needham
Aside from the actors, the biggest draw of The Cannonball Run was its slew of desirable cars. As well as Roger Moore’s Aston Martin, we also have the black Lamborghini Countach driven by Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman. Another especially eye-catching vehicle is the red Ferrari 308 GTS driven by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Interestingly, the very Ferrari driven in the movie was the personal property of director Hal Needham.
Needham must have had a lot of faith in his cast to put his own vehicle in harm’s way – but as an experienced stunt co-ordinator, Needham knew what he was doing. Another fun fact: the same model of Ferrari was driven by Tom Selleck in the hit TV show Magnum, P.I., which had already been on the air for a year when The Cannonball Run opened.
14. Don Rickles was supposed to be in the film
Even though The Cannonball Run is jam-packed with big names, they couldn’t get everyone they wanted. Legendary entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was not the first choice to play Fenderbaum, believe it or not. Originally, this role was earmarked instead for another long-standing Hollywood star, Don Rickles. Stand-up comedy legend Rickles had appeared in many films beforehand, but for some reason appearing in The Cannonball Run didn’t pan out.
Sammy Davis Jr. would reprise the role of Fenderbaum in Cannonball Run II, before passing away in 1990. Rickles, meanwhile, went on to win the hearts of a new generation as the voice of Mr Potato Head in the first three Toy Story movies, before he too passed away in 2017.
13. There’s a cameo by Burt Reynolds’ stand-in
For a lot of viewers – particularly the men in the audience – some of The Cannonball Run’s most memorable scenes feature the female racers in the black Lamborghini. These two racers (officially named Marcie and Jill, although their names are never mentioned in the film) are portrayed by Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman. As well as driving an eye-catching car, the duo wear low-cut spandex jumpsuits which they use to help distract male traffic cops, although in one scene this famously backfires.
When they’re first pulled over by a Highway Patrol Officer, the actor playing the officer is an actor named Roy Tatum. Tatum regularly served as Burt Reynolds’ stand-in, as might be apparent from his striking resemblance to the star. The Cannonball Run didn’t exactly launch Tatum as a star in his own right, but the actor went on to make many more movies.
12. It was based on a real-life road race, which there had already been two movies about
As outlandish as The Cannonball Run may be, it was in fact based very loosely on real-life events. The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was a bona fide cross-country road race. Although the event was entirely unsanctioned and illegal, it ran for several years in a row in the 1970s. Filmmakers were quick to recognise the cinematic potential of the Cannonball, and it had been the subject of two movies before 1981’s The Cannonball Run.
Two movies were released in 1976 inspired by the race. Firstly, there was the hard-edged road race movie Cannonball, starring David Carradine. Secondly, there was The Gumball Rally, a more light-hearted comedy closer in tone and content to the later Cannonball Run movies.
11. Burt Reynolds regretted making the film
Along with the likes of Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, The Cannonball Run is one of the movies the late Burt Reynolds is best remembered for. It may come as a surprise to some fans, then, that Reynolds ultimately admitted he had regrets about making the film. The actor candidly stated in an interview, “I did that movie for all the wrong reasons. I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money.” (Reminder: Reynolds made a then-unprecedented $5 million for the film.)
“I suppose I sold out so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.” Still, none of this kept Reynolds from reuniting with director Needham for 1984 sequel Cannonball Run II.
10. A stunt performer was paralysed after an accident during filming
Shooting a movie that rests heavily on cars going fast and pulling off daring manoeuvres is an inherently risky business. Tragically, the makers of The Cannonball Run learned this lesson the hard way when a stunt went wrong. Stunt performer Heidi von Beltz was sat in the passenger seat of an Aston Martin whilst another stunt performer drove the vehicle.
Whilst performing the stunt, the car – which had no seatbelts – collided head-on with a truck. The impact left von Beltz with a broken neck. Luckily she survived, but was left a quadriplegic. After a lengthy legal battle, she was awarded $3.7 million in damages, and movie stunt regulations were revised to make seatbelts compulsory.
9. Jaclyn Smith of Charlie’s Angels was originally cast as Cannonball Run II’s female lead
Burt Reynolds’ love interest in The Cannonball Run was played by Farrah Fawcett, 70s pin-up queen famed for her role on TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Curiously, Cannonball Run II was originally poised to star another of Charlie’s Angels: Fawcett’s former co-star Jaclyn Smith. However, Smith dropped out of the sequel late in the day, and was replaced by Shirley Maclaine.
Director Hal Needham stated afterwards, “I think [Smith] was scared to death to be up there against Burt and Dom [DeLuise]. I don’t want someone on the set that’s gonna be that scared. So we went somewhere else.” Five years earlier, Smith had backed out of another major movie: she’d been the first choice for Dr Goodhead in Moonraker.
8. Roger Moore regretted turning down a chance to star in the sequel
Several of The Cannonball Run’s stars returned for the sequel, including Reynolds, DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Chan. However, one of the key figures from the original movie is conspicuous by their absence in the follow-up. That actor is, of course, Roger Moore, who turned down an offer to reprise his role in Cannonball Run II. Moore decided against making the sequel both as he felt there was nothing left to do with his one-note character, and also felt remorse over the terrible Aston Martin accident on the first film.
However, the actor would later curse himself for passing up Cannonball Run II – because he missed out on the chance to work with Frank Sinatra. Moore noted this in his autobiography by quoting Sinatra’s best-loved song My Way: “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.”
7. Cannonball Run II gave Frank Sinatra his final movie role
Frank Sinatra was of course the most famous new face to join the ensemble for Cannonball Run II. The iconic entertainer agreed to make an appearance at the persuasion of his old ‘Rat Pack’ cohorts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. The role didn’t exactly push Sinatra out of his comfort zone: he got to play himself, and even drove his own car (a 1984 Dodge Daytona Turbo).
As well as being a Rat Pack reunion, Cannonball Run II turned out to be Sinatra’s very last appearance in a theatrically released feature film. After the 1984 film, Sinatra’s last acting roles were on television: a guest appearance on Magnum, P.I., and a cameo as himself on Who’s The Boss? In his later years, Sinatra appeared in a number of documentaries and retrospectives before passing away in 1998.
6. The sequel includes more James Bond jokes, even though Roger Moore didn’t return
The absence of Roger Moore didn’t stop the makers of Cannonball Run II from making yet more James Bond jokes. Jackie Chan reprises his role from the original, this time with a new partner: Richard Kiel. The hulking Kiel was of course best known as Jaws, the Bond villain who starred opposite Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
The duo are racing in a Mitsubishi Starion with a rather unique and helpful modification. Chan and Kiel’s car has the ability to convert into a submarine and run underwater. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because Roger Moore’s 007 drove a Lotus Esprit with that same function in The Spy Who Loved Me.
5. The characters of ‘Lamborghini Babes’ Jill and Marcie were recast
The original Cannonball Run co-starred Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckmann as the spandex-clad temptresses driving a Lamborghini. Observant viewers (at least, those who weren’t too distracted by the outfits) may recall that these characters actually won the race in the first movie. The racers return to defend their crown in the follow-up – but actresses Barbeau and Buckmann did not. The characters were recast in Cannonball Run II, with Catherine Bach (best known as Daisy on TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard) and Susan Anton taking over.
Outside of The Cannonball Run, Barbeau did her best known work with director John Carpenter (formerly her husband), appearing in The Fog and Escape from New York. Tara Buckmann, meanwhile, made appearances in a number of cult 80s movies including horror Silent Night, Deadly Night and action-comedy Never Too Young to Die.
4. It was Burt Reynolds’ last car chase movie
Burt Reynolds enjoyed a run of popular hits in the 70s and 80s, most of which involved him driving. The actor shot his first substantial car chase in 1973 thriller White Lightning, which got a sequel in 1976’s Gator. Later, Reynolds enjoyed his biggest car-based hit in 1977’s beloved action comedy Smokey and the Bandit, which also spawned a follow-up. Reynolds’ other fuel-injected flicks include Hooper and Stroker Ace, both of which cast him as a hotshot driver.
Feeling that he was repeating himself, Reynolds decided not to make any more driving movies after Cannonball Run II. However, he did go on to take supporting roles in Formula 1 drama Driven, and the big screen adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard.
3. Put together, the two films made over $200 million at the box office
1981’s The Cannonball Run was (appropriately enough) a runaway success at the box office. The film earned upwards of $160 million in ticket sales, a significant return of its reported $18 million budget. Naturally, the filmmakers and production company Golden Harvest were hoping for equally big things on the sequel.
Alas, while Cannonball Run II wasn’t a flop, it was a significantly smaller hit, earning just over $56 million at the box office. Collectively, this means the Cannonball Run franchise made upwards of $200 million, which wasn’t a bad haul for the early 80s. This is in spite of the fact that both films, the sequel in particular, were almost unanimously trashed by the critics.
2. There’s an unofficial third Cannonball Run movie that you might have missed
Five years after Cannonball Run II, a third film in the series was released – although you might not have known about it. Officially entitled Speed Zone, the 1989 movie has been released under a variety of titles including Cannonball Run III and Cannonball Fever. Once again, it’s a comedy based around the Cannonball cross-country road race, but that’s about as far as the connections go. Hal Needham did not direct the film, nor did Burt Reynolds nor any of the other key stars of the original films appear, bar one: Jimmy Far, who briefly reprises the role of Sheik Abdul ben Falafel.
Instead, Speed Zone was directed by Jim Drake with a cast including John Candy, Eugene Levy, Melody Anderson, Peter Boyle, Alyssa Milano, Brooke Shields and Lee Van Cleef. The film was a box office flop with earnings of just $3 million, and it was despised by critics: it’s got a damning 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
1. Plans for a reboot were announced in 2018
There have been reports of a potential reboot of The Cannonball Run for some time now. The first director linked to the project was Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, Skyscraper). However, when talks with Thurber fell through, Doug Liman was announced as the reboot’s director.
However, this was all the way back in 2018, and virtually nothing has been heard on the matter since. Liman looks to have his hands full in the meantime, as he’s attached to direct the as-yet untitled Tom Cruise project which will be the first feature film to shoot in outer space.