From time to time, there’s nothing better than a film that requires us to leave our brain at the door and accept the completely implausible, and the 1983 action-thriller Blue Thunder fits that bill perfectly.
Asking us to believe that a regular police officer could be chosen to test a high-tech experimental attack helicopter, Blue Thunder follows Jaws star Roy Scheider as he learns that the government’s plans for the chopper aren’t exactly above board. Below are the most high-flying facts about the film that one – and only one – reviewer described as being 1983’s “must-see action film.”
20. The original script saw Frank Murphy go on a destructive rampage
Blue Thunder is remembered as a rip-roaring all-action adventure, but was originally conceived as something a lot darker. The first draft of the Blue Thunder script was written in 1979 and had a more downbeat tone than the film which ultimately made it to screens in 1983. The film tackles the dangers of the police using helicopter surveillance and weaponry to control the population, but in the first draft this abuse of power is said to have been even harsher.
Blue Thunder was also one of a great many 80s movies in which the central character is a traumatised Vietnam veteran. While this aspect of Roy Scheider’s pilot Frank Murphy remains in the final film, it was originally handled very differently with his trauma taking a greater impact on him personally. Not unlike the original Rambo movie First Blood, the original Blue Thunder script saw Murphy take the helicopter on a destructive rampage due to his declining mental state.
19. Roy Scheider took the project to avoid starring in Jaws 3-D
Blue Thunder originally hit screens in May 1983 – not long before the July release of another 1983 blockbuster, Jaws 3-D. Given that Roy Scheider had starred in the first two Jaws movies, the makers of the third film were obviously eager for him to return to the franchise. However, Scheider was extremely keen to avoid any talk of him appearing in Jaws 3-D at the time, and was quoted as saying that “they knew better than to even ask.”
In fact, reports suggest that Scheider agreed to star in Blue Thunder primarily to ensure he would be unavailable for the third film in the man-eating shark franchise. In the actor’s absence, Jaws 3-D was built around the son of Scheider’s character Chief Brody, with Dennis Quaid cast as a now-adult Mike Brody. Jaws 3-D was savaged by critics, but it wound up a significantly bigger box office hit than Blue Thunder, grossing $88 million worldwide – more than double Blue Thunder’s $42 million takings.
18. Cocktail’s Bryan Brown was originally cast as Cochrane
Before Malcolm McDowell landed the role of Blue Thunder bad guy Cochrane, another actor very nearly played the part. The role was originally given to Australian actor Bryan Brown, who was just breaking through in Hollywood at the time. Unfortunately, a scheduling clash forced Brown to withdraw from director John Badham’s film late in the day.
Brown pulled out of Blue Thunder in order to shoot a role in TV mini-series The Thorn Birds. This cleared the way for Malcolm McDowell to take over the role of Colonel Cochrane. Brown’s later Hollywood movies included F/X and its sequel, plus Cocktail and Gorillas in the Mist.
17. Real barbecued chicken was dropped from the sky for the Little Tokyo explosion
Remember the scene in which barbecued chicken drops from the sky after a Little Tokyo restaurant is accidentally blown up by an F-16? Well, believe it or not the filmmakers chose to use genuine chicken when shooting this scene. This perhaps surprising decision was made once the producers calculated that using rubber chickens would have worked out more expensive!
On shooting the scene, the cooked chickens where dropped from the sky on cranes just out of shot. As you might expect, the local homeless population were very grateful indeed for this free food! Reportedly people living rough on the street were hired to help with the post-shoot clean-up and allowed to keep the chicken.
16. Malcolm McDowell was cast despite his fear of flying
The part of Colonel Cochrane in Blue Thunder is just one of many antagonist roles taken by Malcolm McDowell over the years. However, the famed star of A Clockwork Orange had a problem which might easily have kept him from taking the part. Although Cochrane is a helicopter pilot (like Scheider’s hero Murphy), in reality McDowell has an intense fear of flying.
The film’s director John Badham remembers that McDowell “was terrified, he used to get out and throw up after a flight. McDowell’s then-wife Mary Steenburgen commented to filmmakers that “I don’t know how you got him up there, I can’t even get him in a 747.” Post-Blue Thunder, McDowell went on to play more villains in such films as Class of 1999, Tank Girl and Star Trek: Generations.
15. The final car chase was edited after audiences found it too implausible
Blue Thunder is best remembered for Roy Scheider’s prowess at the controls of a helicopter, but it also boasts some impressive vehicular mayhem at ground level. Candy Clark, who co-stars as Murphy’s on-off girlfriend Kate, takes the spotlight in a spectacular high-speed car chase towards the end. However, though earlier scenes had established Kate’s driving skill, the original uncut car chase was deemed to have gone a little too over-the-top.
In the released cut of the film, Clark’s Kate manages to outrun numerous police cars and dodge and weave through traffic the wrong way. In an early cut of the car chase, Kate also managed to evade the cops by driving her car on the side on two wheels. Test audiences found it impossible to believe that the character could pull off that stunt driver move, so this moment was left on the cutting room floor.
14. The Blue Thunder helicopter previously appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Firefox
Another airborne 80s property which Blue Thunder is frequently mentioned in the same breath in is Firefox. Clint Eastwood’s 1982 movie also centred on a state of the art military aircraft, in this instance a MiG-31 fighter jet. Firefox hit screens one year before Blue Thunder – and also boasted an early appearance from the pivotal helicopter.
The helicopters used in Blue Thunder were Aérospatiale SA-341G Gazelles, a French-built model of military helicopter. One of the very same helicopters had previously been used in Firefox in the film’s pivotal aviation chase sequences. The helicopters don’t quite look the same in both films, however, as heavy modifications were made for Blue Thunder.
13. Real-life newscaster Mario Machado co-stars as himself
If you think Blue Thunder’s TV newsreader Mario Machado looks and sounds a bit familiar, there may be a good reason for this. Machado was indeed a real-life newscaster, who had been a prominent Los Angeles anchorman since 1970. He also enjoyed a successful acting career, appearing in many movies and TV shows as – yes, you guessed it – a newsreader. As well as appearing in Blue Thunder under his real name, Machado played Detroit anchorman Casey Wong in the RoboCop movies, and appeared as a reporter in Rocky III and Scarface, amongst others.
On the small screen, Machado appeared as newsreaders on such shows as The Colbys and The Golden Girls. As a Chinese-Portuguese American, Machado’s TV career marked a significant breakthrough for non-white newsreaders in the US. Sadly, Machado passed away in May 2013 at the age of 78, due to complications from pneumonia.
12. Warren Oates died after completing the film, aged just 52
Blue Thunder proved to be one of the last performances of seasoned actor Warren Oates. Oates, who co-stars as Captain Jack Braddock, passed away from a heart attack in April 1982, aged just 52. Blue Thunder was subsequently dedicated to his memory, with a tribute to the actor appearing on screen at the end of the credits.
The tribute at the end of the credits reads, “For Warren Oates, with love for all the joy you gave us.” Although Oates passed away before Blue Thunder’s release, he still shot two more roles before his death, in 1983’s Tough Enough, and an episode of TV’s Tales of the Unexpected. Oates’ best-known movie roles include In the Heat of the Night, The Wild Bunch and Stripes.
11. ASTRO Division doesn’t actually exist
While Blue Thunder is set in Los Angeles and centres on cops, you might notice they’re never referred to as the LAPD. This is because the Los Angeles Police Department did not want to be associated with the movie. It’s not too hard to see why, considering the film centres on the cops being complicit in a totalitarian conspiracy – even if the good guys are also cops.
Because of this, the filmmakers dreamed up the fictitious ASTRO Division as a substitute for what is really known as LAPD Air Support. In Blue Thunder’s imagined division of the police force, ASTRO means Air Support to Regular Operations. On top of which, the police force shown in the movie is referred to as the Metropolitan Police Force rather than the LAPD.
10. Three full-sized helicopters and two radio-controlled fighter jets were used in the film
As a product of the early 80s, Blue Thunder arrived long before the use of realistic computer effects became commonplace in the movies. As a result, the helicopter sequences had to be realised with practical FX work – although not always with a real, full-size helicopter. In some sequences the filmmakers made use of two radio-controlled F-16 fighter jet models, and radio-controlled helicopter models.
These remote control models were used for scenes that required more maneuverability, such as the 360° loop move from the end of the film. Of course, for many other helicopter scenes in Blue Thunder, only the real thing would do. For scenes requiring a real helicopter, the filmmakers used two real-life Aerospatiale SA-341G Gazelle helicopters and one Hughes 500 helicopter, both of which they modified heavily.
9. It co-stars two future Home Alone villains
Daniel Stern makes an early appearance in Blue Thunder as Officer Richard Lymangood, otherwise known as ‘JAFO.’ It was the tenth screen credit for the American actor, whose earlier films included Breaking Away and Diner. By the start of the 90s, Stern would be best known for two very different roles. The first of these was the voice of adult Kevin on TV hit The Wonder Years. Secondly, and perhaps more prominently, Stern became globally known as the dim-witted, long-suffering burglar Marv in blockbuster comedy Home Alone.
Stern would play Marv twice, in the 1990 original and 1992 follow-up Home Alone 2: Lost in New York – but you might not have known he isn’t the only Home Alone villain to appear in Blue Thunder. Years later, Stern’s Blue Thunder co-star Malcolm McDowell would take an antagonist role in 2012 TV movie Home Alone: The Holiday Heist.
8. A helicopter featured in the movie was later used on TV’s Airwolf
As well as the aforementioned Firefox, Blue Thunder is even more synonymous with 80s TV hit Airwolf, as both centred on a super-cool, state-of-the-art helicopter. However, you might not have known that one such vehicle which appears in Blue Thunder later appeared on Airwolf. The helicopter in question isn’t Blue Thunder itself, but the police JetRanger helicopter flown by Murphy and Lymangood in the first scene. This very helicopter would later be repurposed as Santini Air in the popular small screen adventure series.
Santini Air was distinctive for its stars-and-stripes paint job; a far cry from the simple white and blue colour scheme the helicopter sports in Blue Thunder. This very same helicopter would make further screen appearances in The A-Team, and later in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Eraser.
7. An alternate version of the yoga scene was shot for television
As with many older movies, Blue Thunder contains some material that seems questionable today, most notably the scene in which Scheider’s Murphy and Daniel Stern’s Lymangood voyeuristically watch a woman doing yoga through her apartment window. In the theatrical cut of the movie, the woman performing yoga – Ana Forrest, who is listed in the credits as Anna with the character name of ‘Nudy Lucy’ – is fully naked.
For the obvious reasons, the filmmakers were aware that this sequence would be an issue when it came to Blue Thunder being shown on television. Because of this, an alternate take was also shot in which Forrest is wearing workout clothes, and adopting slightly less provocative poses. Blue Thunder is the only film credit of Forrest, who is a successful yoga instructor in real life.
6. Roy Scheider and Malcolm McDowell became best buds during filming
Blue Thunder sees Roy Scheider and Malcolm McDowell cast as enemies, whose antagonistic relationship dates back to Vietnam. Happily, the reality of Scheider and McDowell’s relationship off-camera couldn’t have been more different. The two actors worked together for the first and only time on Blue Thunder, and became very good friends during filming.
McDowell has revealed that they “couldn’t leave each other alone” during production, as they enjoyed one another’s company so much. As a result, McDowell was of course extremely upset when Scheider passed away in 2004 at the age of 75. Sadly, McDowell was shooting on location and had to miss Scheider’s funeral, but made sure to send flowers and a letter of condolence.
5. It was co-written by the creator of Alien
Blue Thunder was the brainchild of screenwriting partners Dan O’Bannon (above) and Don Jakoby. Both together and individually, the writers worked on some of the best loved genre films of the era. O’Bannon had the greatest impact, as the writer of 1979’s Alien, and director of 1984’s The Return of the Living Dead. Jakoby, meanwhile, penned such films as Death Wish III, Arachnophobia and John Carpenter’s Vampires.
Together, O’Bannon and Jakoby also collaborated on Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and two episodes of the Blue Thunder TV series. The writers were also roommates, and were inspired to write Blue Thunder after they were often kept awake by police helicopters flying over their Hollywood apartment.
4. The film was made by the director of Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit
As well as having writers who made a mark elsewhere, Blue Thunder also had a significant director calling the shots. John Badham, previously responsible for 1977 smash hit Saturday Night Fever, took the helm on Blue Thunder. Following that classic disco drama, Badham directed a 1979 version of Dracula, with Frank Langella in the lead.
Blue Thunder proved to be Badham’s first big hit of the 80s, and he followed it with some more favourites from the era. Later in 1983, Badham made beloved computer hacker hit WarGames, and in 1986 he directed family sci-fi comedy Short Circuit. Badham’s last feature film was 1997’s Incognito, but he has continued to work extensively in TV, recently directing episodes of Supernatural and Siren.
3. It knocked Flashdance off the top of the box office
Blue Thunder was a very respectable success, both critically and commercially. Reviews were mostly positive, with Variety declaring it “a ripsnorting live-action cartoon, utterly implausible but no less enjoyable for that.” It also performed well enough at the box office to come in at number 17 on the list of 1983’s top 20 box office hits. It wound up making $42 million, a reasonable profit from its $22 million budget.
Significantly, it knocked Flashdance – one of the year’s biggest movies – off the number one spot in the US on its release weekend. Still, the takings of Flashdance and Blue Thunder put together paled next to those of 1983’s biggest movie, Return of the Jedi, which made over $250 million.
2. A TV spin-off show went head-to-head with Airwolf, and lost
Following the success of the movie, a Blue Thunder TV show hit the small screen in 1984. Deviating a bit from the movie, the show cast James Farentino as Blue Thunder’s pilot Frank Chaney (not Murphy, as with Scheider’s character). Farentino was joined by future Wayne’s World star Dana Carvey as flight engineer Clinton Wonderlove, and Police Academy‘s Bubba Smith as the imaginatively named ‘Bubba’ Kelsey.
While the series seemed to have great potential, it faced some significant obstacles. Most notably, Blue Thunder hit the airwaves around the same time as another TV series centred on a hi-tech helicopter: the aforementioned Airwolf. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Blue Thunder also aired at the same time as massively popular soap opera Dallas, further denting its viewing figures. This competition proved more than Blue Thunder could handle, and the show was cancelled after only 11 episodes.
1. A proposed remake is set to feature drones rather than a helicopter
Back in March 2015, it was announced that work was underway on a Blue Thunder remake. According to The Hollywood Reporter, producer Dana Brunetti (Fifty Shades of Grey) was developing the project. Attached to script the film was Craig Kyle, a Marvel Studios veteran who co-wrote and produced the Thor movies. According to this initial report, the plan was for this new take on Blue Thunder to centre on the world’s most advanced military drone, rather than a helicopter.
However, pretty much nothing further has been heard of the project in the years since. Why, you could say that it’s all up in the air…