With a wonderful cast and a fantastic soundtrack, Sister Act is quite possibly the best film musical to come out of the 90s. Starring the indefatigable Whoopi Goldberg as a singer-turned-nun who revitalises a church choir, it’s easy to see now that its gospel-inspired anthems and infectious positivity created the blueprint for more recent projects like The Greatest Showman.
Such a smash hit that its box office returns are almost eye-watering (Sister Act made $231.6 million from a budget of $31 million), the film portended a stellar second act for Maggie Smith and true A-lister status for Goldberg, who became the highest-paid actress in the world after filming the sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
Here are some truly divine facts about the toe-tapping classic.
20. The film spent nearly five years in ‘development hell’ before it got made
Sister Act was an instant success upon its release, receiving critical acclaim as well as two Golden Globe nominations.
Despite its somewhat bizarre premise, audiences fell in love with Whoopie Goldberg’s performance, as well as the wacky cast of characters.
However, despite its positive reception, Sister Act took a long time to be made, and was stuck in pre-production for far longer than it deserved.
The basic story for the film was conceived and written in 1987, five full years before the finished product hit cinemas.
There were myriad reasons for the delay, from proposed stars having growing doubts about their roles, to the ever-changing tone of the film.
Disney’s involvement meant that the script went through several rounds of rewrites, with the concept evolving significantly.
19. The cast would go partying in Vegas dressed as nuns
If anything gives a cast of actors the opportunity for comedy, it’s being dressed in nuns’ habits constantly for a good few weeks.
The opportunity for hijinks is high, given that even drinking or smoking outside in costume could cause a scandal for passers-by.
The comedy potential was upped by the fact that many scenes were shot in Reno, Nevada, and some of the cast liked to stay in costume as nuns to trick the debauched attendees of various casinos, bars and strip clubs.
Therefore, Reno was descended on by nuns for a few weeks, who would drink and play cards while drawing stares from everyone around them.
Kathy Najimy and Wendy Makkena decided to take things one step further, by playing a practical joke on the staff of the hotel where they were staying.
The pair once ordered fries and wine to their hotel room then answered the door in full nun outfits with loud porn playing on the hotel TV as a joke, probably giving the poor hotel porter a shock.
18. Two of the film’s stars went on to feature in Star Trek
By the time Sister Act was released in 1993, Whoopi Goldberg had an established TV and film career going back almost a decade.
However, Goldberg had made herself a regular presence on the general public’s television, by starring in Star Trek: The Next Generation from 1988.
Goldberg played Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation to great success, but another actor appeared in both Sister Act and a Star Trek property.
Specifically, Max Grodenchik has a small role as Ernie in Sister Act, the man who runs the local bar.
Grodenchik’s time as Ernie would be eclipsed by his portrayal of Rom in Deep Space Nine, however, who became something of a fan favourite.
Coincidentally, both of these characters helped to run bars, so one role definitely helped Grodenchik prepare for the other.
17. Bette Midler was originally set to star as Deloris
It’s now impossible to imagine Sister Act without Whoopi Goldberg, but Sister Act was originally going to have another musical grandee in the lead role.
The original actress to be offered the part was Bette Midler, who gladly accepted the opportunity to helm a more grounded musical than her usual glitzy and over-the-top fare.
However, as production progressed, Midler began to have more and more misgivings about the nature of the part.
Specifically, Midler was doubtful that her fanbase would respond well to seeing her in such an unusual project, and so she eventually made the decision to drop out of the film.
Speaking about her decision in an interview, Midler admitted that she may have misjudged how successful the movie would be, and how iconic the part of Deloris would become.
Speaking about her attitude at the time, Midler said: “I said, ‘My fans don’t want to see me in a wimple’. I don’t know where I got that from. Why would I say such a thing? So Whoopi [Goldberg] did it instead and, of course, she made a fortune. Then she went on and did Sister Act 2.”
16. Deloris was originally going to be a drag queen
As strange as it sounds, considering that Sister Act is a movie that centres on teaching a group of nuns to sing, director Paul Rudnick originally wanted to make a film about drag queens.
Rudnick was originally planning to make a movie with a drag queen in the lead, but eventually decided to create a larger-than-life, drag queen-esque role that could be played by a woman.
When thinking about what would constitute a woman being in drag, Rudnick came to the conclusion that nuns were the perfect catalyst for the movie.
Rudnick’s reasoning was that a woman wearing a wimple, habit and robes would be completely transformed, just like someone would be in drag.
That drag queen influence led to a much raunchier first draft of the script, with more references to sex, drugs and alcohol.
Deloris was originally supposed to be a much more promiscuous character, who wasn’t afraid to play that up in her performance.
15. Mother Superior gets her saints wrong
What if it isn’t just Deloris who fakes-it-til-she-makes-it as a nun as part of the Witness Protection Program?
What if every other nun hiding out at that particular church is also an ordinary person with a past they need to escape, rather than a devout sister?
It sounds farfetched but is made more likely by the fact that Maggie Smith’s character mixes up her saints, despite being the Mother Superior.
At an important point in the film, Mother Superior dubs Deloris Sister Mary Clarence, with the ‘Clarence’ ostensibly coming from Saint Clarence of Concord.
However, there was no such saint, though there was a Saint Clarence of Vienne, which might be what the Mother Superior meant to say instead.
Either the writers of Sister Act are to blame, or the Mother Superior is hiding a serious secret of her own.
14. Goldberg hired Carrie Fisher to rewrite her dialogue
We’ve already discussed the fact that Sister Act was stuck in pre-production for a long time, which led to delays all the way through the filmmaking process.
Specifically, the dialogue had to be rushed in order to keep up the movie on schedule, which led to some less-than-stellar lines.
Whoopi Goldberg was not happy with the whole script and hired Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher to rewrite much of her dialogue.
The studio was notoriously unhappy with Goldberg privately contracting Fisher as a script doctor, to the point that Fisher remarked: “You’re getting into a p***ing contest with people who have actual d**ks.”
When Goldberg reiterated that she was still not happy with the quality of the dialogue, another expensive script doctor was hired.
Nancy Meyers, later known for It’s Complicated and The Holiday, was brought on to smarten up the script before shooting began.
13. Goldberg played Mother Superior on stage in 2010
Many successful musicals find themselves being adapted into films, but it’s more unusual for things to happen the other way around.
With that said, after Sister Act was released in 1993, it was only a matter of time before it was reworked into a musical theatre show.
In fact, when in 2010 when the stage version of Sister Act hit London’s West End, Whoopi Goldberg even appeared for a handful of shows.
Goldberg did not reprise the role of Deloris but instead played the character of Mother Superior, the role played by Maggie Smith in the movie.
While Disney+ has confirmed that a Sister Act 3 is in the works, Goldberg has been clear that she’s not interested in taking part.
As a result, this short-run on the West End might have marked the actor’s last appearance in relation to the iconic film franchise. We hope we’re wrong!
12. The screenplay was almost credited to Goofy
With Bette Midler stepping away from the role of Deloris, Whoopi Goldberg being cast instead, and Disney keeping a close eye on the tone of the production – it’s fair to say that Sister Act ended as a different movie than the one it started out as.
Though it’s true that most films evolve throughout production, Sister Act was entirely different tonally than the project Paul Rudnick envisioned.
In fact, Rudnick felt that the movie changed so much that it ceased to be the project he had signed on to create in the first place.
Therefore, he attempted to distance himself from Sister Act by asking Disney to avoid crediting him as the screenwriter completely.
Disney refused to leave Rudnick entirely out of the credits, so they offered to use the pen name ‘Goofy’ for him instead.
After Rudnick refused that name, as well as a reference to a character in The Importance of Being Earnest, they settled on Joseph Howard.
11. Naming the character ‘Deloris Van Cartier’ was one of Goldberg’s conditions for making the film
When Whoopi Goldberg took over the starring role in Sister Act from Bette Midler, she had a few conditions.
First of all, she wanted the movie to be set in San Francisco, rather than Chicago where it was originally supposed to take place.
Next, Goldberg specified that she wanted her character to be called Deloris, and the name was quickly changed to oblige.
It is unclear what the name of Sister Act’s protagonist was before Goldberg made this decision, which she did simply because she had always wanted to play a character called Deloris.
Deloris’ second name, Van Cartier, goes unexplained, though we know she was born Deloris Wilson.
Deloris even gets very defensive when the Mother Superior asks her about it, implying that the Van Cartier is a stage name or the result of a marriage that didn’t work out.
10. Disney’s indecision over whether to make Souther black or white actually delayed production on the film
Disney being at the helm of Sister Act caused many delays in production, as the tone of the movie was argued over ceaselessly.
Even specific jokes had to be argued back and forth to ensure they struck the right balance, but what took the longest to resolve was the casting of one specific character.
As surprising as it may sound, pre-production allegedly dragged on Sister Act because Disney couldn’t decide how to cast Lieutenant Eddie Souther.
Specifically, Disney allegedly couldn’t decide on whether Souther should be played by a white or a black actor.
The controversy boiled down to Disney being unable to decide if it was more progressive to give Deloris a black love interest, or to allow her to be in an interracial relationship.
Bill Nunn was eventually chosen for the part thanks to his superior audition – not, as far as we know, because his second name is Nunn.
9. The script was still being written as the film was shooting
Even after hiring two script doctors to ensure that the dialogue was up to a high standard by the time that shooting role around, production on Sister Act was still chaotic.
Even once shooting began, the script itself was not finished, and many scenes were written the day they were performed.
This caused both Whoopi Goldberg and the director Emile Ardolino great stress, and they even complained to the studio to try and get things moving along quicker.
However, because the cast was still able to shoot something every day, it was decided that the haphazard scriptwriting could continue.
Speaking about the somewhat unplanned production, Ardolino said: “It put Whoopi and me in a difficult position.”
Ardolino went on to say: “It’s problematic to be shooting out of order and then suddenly you come to a scene that hasn’t been written yet. What precedes it? What follows it?”
8. Deloris’ backing group is a portmanteau of 60s stars
Before Deloris is caught up in the Witness Protection Program, she spends her nights as the lead singer in a moderately successful soul group.
The name of the backing group is The Ronelles, which might sound familiar if you know anything about 60s music.
The reason the name sounds immediately evocative of both the era and the style of music is that it’s actually a portmanteau of two real-life soul groups from the 60s.
The two groups in question are The Ronettes and The Shirelles, who were both active from the mid-50s to the late 70s and even 80s.
Both groups blended soul with elements of rhythm and blues, doo-wop and pop music, which gave them a unique and captivating sound.
Goldberg’s character Deloris does exactly the same thing with the choir she revolutionises, pulling elements from different genres in order to create a whole new way of performing.
7. The actor who plays young Whoopi Goldberg later played Whoopi again in Star Trek
At the start of Sister Act we meet ‘Young Deloris,’ played by Isis Carmen Jones in her first-ever credited film role.
Jones was chosen for her resemblance to a young Whoopi Goldberg as well as her acting chops, as both of those qualities made her perfect for the role.
Jones’ choice to appear in Sister Act immediately paid-off, as she was asked to play a young Whoopi Goldberg in a different project that same year.
This time, Jones was playing a younger version of Goldberg’s character Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The episode of Star Wars: The Next Generation is called Rascals, and it’s not a prequel or back-in-time episode like you might expect.
Instead, the ship’s whole crew are transformed into twelve-year-olds after a transporter accident, and they are forced to fight off a pirate attack in their young state.
6. The church is a real place you can visit
Although Sister Act was originally supposed to take place in Chicago, the location of the story was amended to San Francisco after Bette Midler left the project and Whoopi Goldberg signed on.
The location was switched to San Francisco after Goldberg specifically requested it, since Goldberg had started her stand up comedy career there.
The switch in location meant the filmmakers had to find a new church that was imposing and memorable enough to work as Sister Act’s main setting.
They eventually settled on St Paul’s Catholic Church, on 221 Valley Street in San Francisco, which features two towering spires and an iconic circular window.
The good news for Sister Act fans is that you can visit the church in question, as long as you’re respectful to the people using the place as a real place of worship.
That means no busting out soul solos in the pews, or asking if you can try on someone’s wimple for a laugh.
5. Kathy Najimy based her character on Mary Hart
Kathy Najimy plays Sister Mary Patrick in Sister Act, a perky and extroverted nun who is perhaps a little bit too excitable.
Rather than being serene and demure like most nuns are expected to be, Sister Mary Patrick is bubbly and outgoing.
When Kathy Najimy was researching the part, she decided to base her characterisation on one woman: Mary Hart.
Mary Hart is a news anchor and television personality similarly known for her winning smile and bubbly attitude, making her the perfect inspiration for the character of Sister Mary Patrick.
Najimy was so pleased with how well Mary Hart worked as the inspiration for the part, she even sent Hart flowers to her office.
However, because Najimy didn’t want to disclose that she based a whole character on Hart, Najimy never admitted the reason for why she sent Hart flowers.
4. Sister Mary Robert is dubbed by a different actress
As with many other films about a group of singers who gain confidence and prominence, Sister Act features a painfully shy character.
Sister Mary Robert is about as shy and retiring as a person can get, making her the perfect nun, and she slowly comes out of her shell throughout the film.
One of the big reveals of Sister Act is that Sister Mary Robert actually has an incredible voice, made even more powerful when compared to her normal demeanour.
However, it may surprise you to know that the actress playing Sister Mary Robert, Wendy Makkena, was not chosen for her singing ability.
Wendy Makkena actually never sings in Sister Act, and her voice is instead dubbed over by a professional session singer.
Specifically, Andrea Robinson is the owner of Sister Mary Robert’s booming voice, even if she is uncredited in the movie.
3. The film has been sued twice for alleged plagiarism
It’s not completely unusual for movies to be controversial, and to even lead to lawsuits from people connected in some way to the film.
With that said, when Disney was making Sister Act, they probably didn’t expect their funny singing nun movie to lead to quite so much litigation.
In the same year that Sister Act was released, Donna Douglas filed a $200 million lawsuit against Disney, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler and their production companies.
Douglas claimed that Sister Act was actually based on A Nun in the Closet, a book for which Douglas owned the rights and had adapted into a screenplay.
Not only that, but when Sister Act was adapted into a Broadway musical, a second lawsuit was filed against Disney, Rudnick, Rudin, Sony Pictures and Stage Entertainment.
This time it was Delois Blakely who filed the lawsuit, claiming that the story was stolen from her own book The Harlem Street Nun, which followed her life as a nun in Harlem.
2. Sister Act Two made Whoopi Goldberg the highest-paid actress in Hollywood
Despite the chaotic production of Sister Act, the movie became instantly beloved when it was released.
It was no surprise to anyone when a sequel was immediately greenlit, and Whoopi Goldberg happily jumped on board to reprise her role.
Unfortunately for the whole cast, Sister Act 2 was released in the next year, and had a similarly rushed production.
This resulted in a poor critical and commercial reception, even if the movie easily made back its budget and turned a profit.
With that said, Whoopi Goldberg was paid seven million dollars to appear in the film, which was almost the entire budget of the first movie.
That fee made Whoopi Goldberg the highest-paid actress in Hollywood for a short time, and cemented her as a force to be reckoned with in the acting world.
1. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick stayed at a real convent for research
Though screenwriter Paul Rudnick eventually distanced himself from Sister Act, he was initially very passionate about the story.
Rudnick went out of his way to research the lives of nuns, and even specifically tried to research the lives of performers in the public eye who had transitioned into a quiet, religious life.
As part of his research, Rudnick arranged to stay at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in rural Connecticut, in order to observe the nuns.
Unfortunately, he left without ever meeting the woman he had hoped to draw inspiration from: Mother Dolores Hart.
Dolores Hart had been a huge movie star in the late 50s, even co-starring in two films with Elvis Presley, before stepping away from the spotlight to become a nun at the abbey.