My Cousin Vinny tells the hilarious story of a New York lawyer called Vinny, who despite being fresh out of training and having never won a case, attempts to defend his cousin Bill (Ralph Macchio) and friend Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) after they are accused of murder.
Starring Joe Pesci as Vinny and Marisa Tomei as his fiancée Mona Lisa, My Cousin Vinny was a critical and financial success, and is definitely worth checking out if you’ve never done so before. Below are some fun facts about this 1992 comedy that you might not have known.
20. The film was inspired by a law student who failed his bar exam 13 times
My Cousin Vinny was inspired by a law student whom screenwriter Dale Launer met during the 1970s. When the screenwriter met the student in question, he was waiting for the results of his bar exam. The struggling but determined student told Launer that if he failed then he’d simply take the exam again and again until he eventually passed.
“So I said, ‘what’s the most times somebody has taken and failed and finally passed?’” Launer recalls. “He said, ‘Thirteen times.’ I always thought that guy who took 13 times to pass the bar is probably out there practicing law in some capacity.” Launer was inspired by the thought, “How would you feel if suddenly you learned that guy is your lawyer?”
19. There’s an urban legend that Marisa Tomei was given the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress by mistake
Today, My Cousin Vinny is probably best remembered for really launching the film career of Marisa Tomei (now best known as Spider-Man’s Aunt May in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Famously, Tomei won My Cousin Vinny’s sole Academy Award, taking home the Best Supporting Actress statuette. Unfortunately, an urban legend has circulated for years that Tomei was handed the Oscar by mistake, with claims that presenter Jack Palance simply misread the card.
Some people refused to believe that comparative newcomer Tomei could beat esteemed veterans Joan Plowright and Vanessa Redgrave to the award. It goes without saying that this theory is unfounded – and, as proven by the La La Land/Moonlight debacle of 2017, just because a name gets read out doesn’t mean it’s an Oscar winner.
18. Marisa Tomei learned she’d been Oscar-nominated while her friend was about to give birth
One might imagine that when Marisa Tomei found out her My Cousin Vinny performance had earned her an Oscar nomination, it would have been a very big deal. However, at the time the actress got word of this career-changing news, she was otherwise preoccupied. Tomei was informed she was up for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award while a friend of hers was heavily pregnant.
The actress was sleeping on the couch of the friend in question when she was woken with great urgency. Tomei told David Letterman in 1993, “there were shouts from the other room, and they awoke me… I didn’t know if she was going into labor or what.” The rest is history: Tomei won the Oscar, and has since had a further two Best Supporting Actress nominations for In the Bedroom in 2002 and The Wrestler in 2009.
17. Robert De Niro was the first choice to play Vinny
It’s hard now to imagine anyone other than the hilarious Joe Pesci in the role of Vinny Gambini. However, screenwriter Dale Launer’s first choice for the role was none other than the revered Robert De Niro. This was despite the fact that the Raging Bull and The Godfather Part II Oscar-winner was not known for his comedy roles at the time.
Launer recalls 20th Century Fox’s president looking “uncomfortable” and “embarrassed” after he suggested De Niro for the part. The then-head of the studio reportedly grumbled that De Niro was “not funny, and his movies don’t make money.” Within a decade, De Niro would be working far more in comedy, notably with the Analyse This and Meet the Parents movies (all of which, it should be noted, made plenty of money).
16. Will Smith was a contender to play Stan
Actor Mitchell Whitfield landed the role of My Cousin Vinny’s Stan, the youngster charged alongside Ralph Macchio’s Bill as an accessory to first-degree murder. Still, there were of course many other actors being considered for the part – including a certain young up-and-comer who was himself headlining a popular sitcom at the time. Yes, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air himself, Will Smith, was said to have been interested in the role of Stan.
Back in 1991, when My Cousin Vinny was in pre-production, Smith had not yet made a name for himself in film and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had been on the air just over a year at the time. “Believe it or not, Will Smith was also up for the role,” Whitfield remembers, admitting that “I think it could have been funny either way.” In 1994, Whitfield would have his own experience of sitcom fame when he won the recurring role of Barry on Friends.
15. Danny DeVito and James Belushi were both considered for the role of Vinny
After Robert De Niro was out of the running, but before Joe Pesci landed the role, other big name actors were of course under consideration for cousin Vinny. One of these was Danny DeVito, a fairly obvious contender given his similarities to Pesci (ie short, loud-mouthed and Italian-American). Another, perhaps less likely contender for the role of Vinny Gambini was James Belushi, who later expressed regret over turning the part down.
Controversial stand-up comedian and actor Andrew Dice Clay has also claimed he was in line for the title role, declaring in his autobiography that the project was developed with him in mind (although we must note there isn’t much to actually corroborate this claim). Naturally, Marisa Tomei was also not the only actress in line for her role, which was reportedly first offered to Pesci’s Goodfellas co-star Lorraine Bracco, who would later appear in the highly acclaimed TV series The Sopranos.
14. Mona Lisa Vito was almost cut from the script
Aside from featuring a hilarious Joe Pesci in the title role, My Cousin Vinny is best remembered today as the film that made Marisa Tomei a star. Tomei was 28 at the time, with only a few small film roles to her name; arguably her highest profile work was on the first season of TV sitcom A Different World. Not only was Tomei’s casting in My Cousin Vinny considered a risky move by the studio, there were also calls for her character of Mona Lisa Vito to be excised completely before production began.
Screenwriter Dale Launer recalled getting notes from the studio that there should be more conflict between Vinny and Mona Lisa – and unless Launer complied, they were considering cutting her out altogether. Though reluctant, Launer took the studio’s notes on board and came up with the scene in which Mona Lisa complains of her inability to help Vinny, and the fact that her “biological clock is ticking!” Happily, Launer says the scene in question wound up being one of his personal favourite moments in the final film.
13. Plans for a sequel were scrapped after Marisa Tomei dropped out
My Cousin Vinny proved a critical and commercial success on release in 1992, making $64.1 million off the back of an $11 million budget. In the wake of this, the studio and the filmmakers were initially, and inevitably, keen to make a follow-up film. In 2012, screenwriter Dale Launer revealed he had written a sequel that would have seen Vinny practicing law in England.
However, a spanner went into the works when Marisa Tomei, whose Oscar win gave the first film a great deal of its kudos, decided she didn’t want to do it. 20th Century Fox then handed Launer’s script to another screenwriter to produce a new draft in which Tomei’s character Mona Lisa did not appear. The project wound up on the back burner – then died out altogether once Joe Pesci announced his semi-retirement from acting in 1999.
12. Joe Pesci recorded an album in character as Vinny
To date, Joe Pesci has not reprised the character of Vinny Gambini on film – small wonder, as he’s only made four movies since his 1999 semi-retirement. However, Pesci has played Vinny again once more, albeit musically in the perhaps surprising form of an album. Pesci released the album Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You shortly before walking away from the film industry in 1998.
This might surprise some of his fans, but Pesci had previously worked as a lounge singer for many years before getting into acting, releasing the album Little Joe Sure Can Sing! under the stage name Joe Ritchie in 1968. The Cousin Vinny album, which Pesci performs entirely in character, features the songs Yo Cousin Vinny and I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby, which sees Pesci perform a duet with Marisa Tomei. In 2019, Pesci released another album entitled Still Singing, whose track list includes a duet with Adam Levine of Maroon 5.
11. A scene was shot in which Joe Pesci hugged his Goodfellas Oscar
While My Cousin Vinny was in production, Joe Pesci was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Goodfellas. It was one of the high points of the esteemed actor’s career – and also involved one of the shortest acceptance speeches ever. Naturally, when the actor returned to the My Cousin Vinny set with his Oscar in tow, everyone was delighted for him.
In fact, at one point during filming, the team shot a blooper in which the golden statuette itself actually made a cameo appearance. This was the sequence in which Vinny soundly sleeps through a prison riot after being thrown out of court. Director Jonathan Lynn recalls on the My Cousin Vinny DVD commentary, “on the first take, when we panned to [Pesci], he was clutching the Oscar in his arms. We sent that to the studio as the dailies.”
10. The director and cast struggled not to laugh during Austin Pendleton’s stuttering scenes
One recurring joke in My Cousin Vinny which might be frowned on by some today involves Austin Pendleton’s public defender, John Gibbons. Gibbons is hired by Mitchell Whitfield’s Stan midway through the film, when Stan loses confidence in Vinny’s ability to save him. However, as they only discover when Gibbons has to give his opening statement, the public defender suffers a nervous stutter when addressing the jury.
While this would likely be deemed insensitive by modern standards, reportedly the director and cast of My Cousin Vinny were in stitches at Pendleton’s performance. Director Jonathan Lynn has declared Gibbons’ opening statement to be the funniest scene he’s ever shot, and Mitchell Whitfield admits you can actually see him struggling not to laugh on film. Actor Austin Pendleton (also known for his roles in The Muppet Movie and Short Circuit) is actually a stutterer in real life; he has defended the scene as “evidence that God is a kidder.”
9. Ralph Macchio’s career was on a downturn when he was cast in the film post-Karate Kid
Ralph Macchio enjoyed early success in the star-studded ensemble of The Outsiders, but in the years since he’s been synonymous with one role: Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid franchise. Despite enjoying huge success and recognition for his performances as ‘Daniel-San,’ Macchio didn’t get as much high profile work after the initial film trilogy in the 80s.
My Cousin Vinny gave Macchio one of his few major roles in the wake of The Karate Kid, and director Jonathan Lynn insists Macchio’s earlier role had nothing to do with it. “I must confess, I had never actually seen The Karate Kid,” Lynn later admitted. “I watched him in a couple of videos that his agent sent and I thought he was just perfect for the part.” Recently, Macchio has returned to the role of Daniel LaRusso on the acclaimed TV series Cobra Kai.
8. Fred Gwynne gives his final film performance as the Judge
My Cousin Vinny features Fred Gwynne in what would prove to be his last film role as Judge Chamberlain Haller. Gwynne was a seasoned comedy actor, who first achieved fame in TV series Car 54, Where Are You? However, the role he will always be remembered for is that of the benevolent Frankenstein monster Herman in TV’s The Munsters.
Gwynne played Herman Munster in 70 episodes of the beloved sitcom, as well as two spin-off movies. He went on to enjoy a career resurgence in more dramatic roles in the late 80s, appearing in Fatal Attraction and, perhaps most famously, Pet Sematary. Gwynne passed away on 2nd July 1993 aged 66, following a struggle with pancreatic cancer.
7. Director Jonathan Lynn made Eddie Murphy movie The Distinguished Gentleman in the same year
My Cousin Vinny director Jonathan Lynn started out writing for such BBC TV comedies as On the Buses and Doctor at Large, then co-created the acclaimed Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. Lynn then broke into directing in 1985, calling the shots on the much-loved mystery comedy and board game adaptation Clue. 1990 British comedy Nuns on the Run followed, and by the time My Cousin Vinny opened in March 1992, Lynn was rather in demand.
It’s proof of how busy Lynn was at the time that his next movie, The Distinguished Gentleman, hit cinemas a mere nine months after My Cousin Vinny in December 1992. Another fish-out-of-water comedy, The Distinguished Gentleman cast Eddie Murphy as a con man who manages to get himself elected to the US Congress. By stark contrast with My Cousin Vinny, The Distinguished Gentleman was met with a negative critical response and failed to turn a profit at the box office.
6. Joe Pesci really does pronounce it ‘yoots’
One memorable moment in My Cousin Vinny that was not part of the original screenplay was the “yoots” conversation. This comes as Fred Gwynne’s Judge is confused by Vinny’s pronunciation of the word “youths.” This brief exchange was added to the script following a very similar real-life exchange between actor Joe Pesci and director Jonathan Lynn.
Like his character, Joe Pesci hails from the East Coast of the US, whilst director Jonathan Lynn is English, so at times the director struggled to understand certain words as Pesci spoke them – including “youth.” Lynn realised this confusion could add some additional humour to the courtroom scenes, and added the dialogue to the script. The irony is, in the movie Fred Gwynne’s Judge struggles to understand Vinny’s accent – but in reality Gwynne was a native New Yorker, and Pesci, who was born and raised in New Jersey, isn’t.
5. The prison sequence was shot in a real prison
With the exception of the courtroom, which was a specially constructed set, My Cousin Vinny was shot almost entirely in real locations. Director Jonathan Lynn notes in the commentary that location shooting was “the cheaper way to go. It also had more authenticity.” This authenticity even extends to the scenes that take place in the prison where Ralph Macchio’s Bill and Mitchell Whitfield’s Stan are held.
Whitfield recalls that both Macchio and himself were “petrified” shooting the scene in which they walk to their cell for the first time, as other prisoners were roaring at them throughout. Those were real convicts shouting threats at the actors, and Whitfield says the filmmakers “had to tone it down with what they put in the movie because [the convicts] were saying some horrible stuff.” Similarly, none of the prison guards seen in these sequences were actors, but genuine guards.
4. In the original script, Vinny struggled to earn his qualifications because he was dyslexic
The central hook of My Cousin Vinny is that it centres on a lawyer who struggled to earn his qualifications. In the first draft of the screenplay, there was a reason given for Vinny’s difficulty: he has dyslexia. Dale Launer’s script originally featured Vinny confessing as much to Bill, and the writer also penned a scene that would portray the condition visually.
In a scene in which Vinny is reading the book on Alabama Criminal Court procedure, we would have seen the book as Vinny did: a jumble of letters slowly shifting into the actual words. According to Launer, this aspect of Vinny wound up getting removed at the behest of director Jonathan Lynn, who “said he did not know how to portray dyslexia.” Launer admits he was not happy about this decision, for fear that removing Vinny’s learning disorder just made the character seem dumb and lazy.
3. Real attorneys have praised the film for its accurate depiction of legal proceedings
You might think a film as light-hearted and comedic as My Cousin Vinny might play a bit fast and loose with the realities of its subject matter. However, this is one instance in which the comedy movie is actually far closer to the real world than some of its dramatic counterparts. My Cousin Vinny has been praised by a number of real-life attorneys for the accurate way in which it depicted legal proceedings.
In 2008, My Cousin Vinny came in third (behind To Kill a Mockingbird and Twelve Angry Men) on a list of the greatest legal movies ever, compiled by the American Bar Association. This accuracy was helped by the fact that the film’s director Jonathan Lynn has a law degree from Cambridge University. Screenwriter Dale Launer was equally concerned about getting things just right in that department, and researched the subject heavily beforehand.
2. An unofficial Bollywood remake was never released after 20th Century Fox sued the filmmakers
In 2007, Bollywood filmmaker Ravi Chopra tried to get the rights to shoot his own remake of My Cousin Vinny in India. Studio 20th Century Fox reportedly gave Chopra the go-ahead to make something “loosely based” on the movie. However, two years later things got complicated – Fox slapped Chopra with a lawsuit declaring that his resultant movie, Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai, was plagiarism.
Chopra denied the charges, and a legal battle ensued, with the US studio demanding $1.4 million in damages from the Indian filmmaker and his company. It seems that Fox felt Chopra disregarded their insistence that his work be only a loose adaptation of My Cousin Vinny, feeling the final film was a blatant reproduction of Jonathan Lynn’s film. Ultimately Fox accepted $200,000 in damages from Chopra, and Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai wound up never being released.
1. There’s a series of novels based on the film
While the legal adventures of Vinny Gambini may not have continued on film, the characters have indeed returned in other forms. A series of My Cousin Vinny novels was started in 2017 by author Lawrence Kelter. The first of these was entitled My Cousin Vinny: Back to Brooklyn, and serves as a sequel to the 1992 film.
The novel brings the characters of Vinny and Mona Lisa into the present day, with Vinny still working as a lawyer whilst Mona Lisa investigates cases with him. Kelter followed My Cousin Vinny: Back to Brooklyn with a novelisation of the original movie in 2018, followed by third novel Wing and a Prayer in 2020.