Bill Murray and Ivan Reitman were of the most reliable actor-director teams at the dawn of the 80s. Having collaborated on the summer camp movie Meatballs in 1979, they would later conquer the world with supernatural extravaganza Ghostbusters in 1984 – but right between those lies Murray and Reitman’s second collaboration, Stripes, which was quite the comedy hit in its own right.
The 1981 film casts Murray as John Winger, an easy-going New York cabbie who suddenly finds himself unemployed, homeless and dumped by his girlfriend. With few options available, John does the only thing he can think of: he signs up to join the army, dragging his buddy Russell (Harold Ramis) along with him.
Join us as we retake our basic training at Fort Arnold with some facts you might not have known about Stripes.
It was originally devised as a Cheech and Chong movie
Director Ivan Reitman came up with the idea for Stripes on the day that Meatballs premiered in 1979, envisioning it as a vehicle for stoner comedy double act Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, who had made their debut film Up in Smoke the previous year.
Cheech and Chong were interested in making Stripes, but demanded total creative control.
Unbeknownst to them, their manager also insisted on a 25% share of Reitman’s next five films, which he understandably wasn’t keen on.
Feeling this wasn’t going to work, Reitman decided to rework the project with Bill Murray instead.
Much of the stoner comedy element of Stripes was then shifted over to the character of Elmo, played in the eventual film by Judge Reinhold.
Harold Ramis is only in the movie because Bill Murray forced him to co-star
Harold Ramis was already on board Stripes as one of the screenwriters, having previously co-written National Lampoon’s Animal House and Meatballs.
Still, Ramis was not at this time so well known for his acting, and in 1981 had little interest in working in front of the camera.
All the same, and despite additional objections from the studio, Columbia Pictures, Bill Murray refused to make Stripes unless Ramis was cast alongside him as Russell.
This was largely due to the fact that Murray wanted Ramis to help him rewrite his dialogue and help him improvise his lines.
Luckily, despite some initial trepidation, Ramis agreed to take on the role, setting him up for a star turn in Ghostbusters a few years later.
Almost every scene was partially improvised (and Sean Young hated it)
A big part of why Murray was so insistent on having Ramis as his co-star was that they both had a grounding in improvisational comedy. Being good friends probably sweetened the deal.
This became absolutely key for Stripes, as the actors, encouraged by Reitman, pushed for a lot of improv on set.
Not everyone in the cast liked this approach, notably supporting actress Sean Young, who preferred sticking to the script.
She disliked Murray’s use of improvisation, feeling he took it to the extreme. (After all, isn’t shooting a movie without a script just messing around in costumes?)
Reportedly Young and Murray did not see eye to eye on the film, and they subsequently refused to ever work together again. The next year, Young made her most lasting impact on cinema with Blade Runner.
Bill Murray and P.J. Soles only managed three days of actor boot camp
Acting is all about preparation, and most actors have their own unique way of getting into character. Consider Jared Leto sending his co-workers various animals, dead or alive, while preparing for Suicide Squad.
P.J. Soles, who plays Murray’s love interest, Stella, has said that she and Murray had originally planned to do two weeks of boot camp to prepare for Stripes – but they gave up pretty quickly.
According to Soles, she and Murray managed only three days before it all became too much for the pair.
Soles did not particularly enjoy “getting up at 5 in the morning and jogging with the troops … I lasted a little longer than [Murray] did … We were trying to get into the spirit of it all.”
If anything, Murray’s very real inability to cope with military training made him all the more suited to his role.
The whole cast spent two weeks drunk after John Lennon died in the middle of production
In late 1980, while Stripes was in production in Kentucky, musical icon John Lennon was shot dead in New York City as he returned home from a recording session.
The news devastated millions, including most of Stripes’ cast and crew. They sank into depression, which they attempted to remedy by getting drunk – a state they reportedly maintained for two weeks.
As a result, whenever the actors appear tipsy or distracted, you can be sure they aren’t faking it.
John Larroquette, who plays Captain Stillman in the film, even admitted that he was drunk during the mud wrestling scene, which only added to its slippery chaos.
Even when filming moved to Los Angeles, the cast continued their bacchanalia. Murray and Oates decided to carry on the party and had a drunken evening beside the grave of the late actor Strother Martin.
Ivan Reitman deleted a sequence in which Murray and Ramis’ characters went to the jungle on LSD
The top brass at Columbia Pictures were reportedly delighted with a sequence in which Murray’s John and Ramis’s Russell are tripping on LSD.
Inexplicably, the two of them wind up fighting rebels in the Colombian jungle, with the cacophony of warfare and the effects of their substance use combining into complete madness.
In the end, Reitman opted to cut the entire nine-minute sequence; he felt it didn’t fit the film’s overall tone, with the substance-fuelled rampage more of a relic from the Cheech and Chong incarnation.
This was despite the fact that the studio and many of the cast felt the sequence was a major highlight, but they were powerless in the face of Reitman’s final cut privilege.
However, if you want to see this elusive scene, you can find it on the extended edition of Stripes.
Murray and Ramis were too famous to get buzzcuts like the rest of the cast
While the buzzcuts in Stripes don’t seem severe by modern standards, it was a bit much for the cast at the time, who thought they’d signed up for a comedy romp.
A real army barber was brought in for the scene where the casts’ heads are shorn, apparently unbeknownst to them.
It seems that when John Candy clutches his shorn hair looking devastated, we’re seeing someone truly upset at the loss of his luscious locks.
As such, when Candy almost punches out Ramis for singing Hare Krisna at him, that might not have all been acting either.
Murray and Ramis had been allowed to keep their hair longer as they were bigger stars at the time.
Warren Oates’s Sgt. Hulka was originally supposed to be killed off but the cast liked him too much
When drill instructor Sgt Hulka (Warren Oates) is sent plummeting to the ground after a stray mortar impact, the character was originally intended to die.
He would then be replaced by his twin brother, who would also be played by Oates. Now that’s what we call a money-saving casting decision!
However, as everyone liked the character and wanted to keep the tone light, they decided Hulka would just be badly injured and survive the film instead.
According to Reitman, he had “great respect” for Oates and felt his deadpan reactions added to the film’s humour.
Reitman also explained how Oates’ presence on set inspired the other actors, saying “Bill Murray was in awe of him.” Sadly, Oates passed away just a year after Stripes was released.
Murray was uncomfortable playing a soldier
Although the film proved to be a big hit, helping to further elevate Bill Murray’s star status, the actor has admitted he had some misgivings about his role in Stripes.
Murray stated, years later, that he felt “a little queasy that I actually made a movie where I carry a machine gun.”
However, Murray squared his locked-and-loaded performance by emphasising his character’s noble intent, saying he “felt if you were rescuing your friends it was okay.”
Murray also commented on how the film was a relatively accurate depiction of army life, explaining that Stripes “wasn’t Reds or anything, but it captured what it was like on an Army base,” referring to Warren Beatty’s hyperrealistic 1981 drama.
“It was cold,” Murray said, describing Stripes’ overlaps with real-life soldiering. “You had to wear the same green clothes, you had to do a lot of physical stuff, you got treated pretty badly, and had bad coffee.”
It popularised the singing of Do Wah Diddy Diddy in real-life military drills
One of the most memorable moments in Stripes comes when, during a marching drill, John and Russell prompt their fellow troops to sing Do Wah Diddy Diddy.
This was a popular hit song from 60s band Manfred Mann (although it was originally recorded by The Exciters, whose effort sank in segregation-era America).
As a result of the popularity of Stripes, troops on US military bases have been known to sing the song during drills in years since.
Murray also got another chance to show off his singing voice: in the scene where John sings the jingle from the armed forces recruitment television commercials from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“Pick a service, pick a challenge, set yourself apart, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines!” Murray sings. “What a great place, it’s a great place to start!”
Bill Murray didn’t turn up until the third day of filming
Murray agreed to star in Stripes just two weeks before filming started, which left him very little time to prepare.
In fact, Bill was so wrapped up that he didn’t turn up to the set until three days after filming had started, much to the director’s surprise.
According to Murray, he had been attending Chicago Cubs baseball games instead.
Murray is a huge baseball fan, and even part-owns the St. Paul’s Saints independent baseball team, whose games he occasionally travels to see.
Murray also owns shares in several other minor league baseball games, including the Charleston River Dogs and the Hudson Valley Renegades.
Murray married his wife during filming
Not only was Murray preoccupied with baseball, but there were some other distractions at play during his time filming Stripes.
Murray married his first wife, Margaret Kelly, on 25th January 1981, a day which some die-hard football fans might just recall.
An avid sportsman, Murray was keen to get married on Super Bowl Sunday; luckily for him, his soon to be long-suffering wife agreed.
The couple had two children together, but the marriage ultimately ended in divorce after 15 years.
According to Murray, this was largely due to his affair with Jennifer Butler, whom he subsequently married (and subsequently divorced).
Oates was furious when a surprise during one scene saw him chip a tooth
During the filming of one of the obstacle course scenes, Reitman instructed the other actors to grab Oates and drag him into the mud.
There was just one small problem: Oates was completely unaware of this plan.
Reitman decided not to tell Oates so that his reaction would be completely genuine.
Unfortunately, this move didn’t quite go to plan and Oates ended up getting his tooth chipped.
He voiced his frustration at Reitman for orchestrating the scene, especially after discovering that he’d chipped a tooth during the roughhousing.
John Diehl stayed in character as a dimwit the whole time he was on the set
In Stripes, John Diehl plays Cruiser, a character whose main contribution to the film is being a little dim-witted.
Much to the annoyance of the other actors on the set, Diehl decided to go method, staying in character the entire time.
He later apologised to Reitman for being “so dumb,” even when he was in between takes, which must have made directing an even greater challenge.
Stripes was only Diehl’s third film appearance, at a time when he was best known for playing “delinquents, wackos and psychos.”
Since then, Diehl has gone on to build a successful career as a character actor, most notably in Jurassic Park III as the mercenary known only as Cooper.
The ‘Czechoslovakia’ scenes were filmed in Kentucky
If you thought the actors in Stripes got a cushy European holiday as part of the bargain, think again: the scenes set in Czechoslovakia were not filmed on location. Instead, they were shot in Kentucky.
More specifically, filming took place just off the northern boundary of Fort Knox, at the beginning to the ‘Bridges to the Past’ historic trail.
This is despite the director/producer commentary on the DVD saying that the Czech border scene was filmed in Louisville.
Reitman may have chosen Czechoslovakia because he was born in the country, and lived there until he was four.
Czechoslovakia no longer exists, and instead was separated into two different countries in 1993: Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Or, if you’d like to be controversial, you could call it Czechia.
Reitman is “still amazed” he was allowed to film on the army barracks
The Army are notorious for being intensely… private when it comes to their barracks – no pun intended – but it seems they made an exception for Stripes.
The production was even given permission to use the Army’s commercial, with Reitman having commented that he’s “still amazed” they were allowed to shoot at Fort Knox. They were even provided with assistants in order to make production as smooth as possible.
Reitman explained that he had approached the Department of Defence with a view to filming other projects with their cooperation, prior to and after making Stripes, but to no avail.
According to director Goldberg, Private Benjamin was being filmed at the same time as Stripes, yet the DoD denied their entreaties.
On the set of Stripes, “a couple of army guys” were instructed to keep tabs on the film crew, following them around to ensure insignias and room decorations were correct in order to make the film as accurate as possible. And probably to stop Bill Murray doing something naughty, the scamp.
It was the second collaboration between Murray and Reitman
Stripes was the second film project Murray and Reitman had worked on together, and Reitman was effusive in his praise of the actor.
According to Reitman, Murray is by far “the funniest white man in America”.
The pair began their working relationship with Meatballs (1979), which was only Murray’s second film appearance.
After this collaboration, the Reitman went on to work with Murray on his next project, Stripes.
Murray also starred in Ghostbusters and its sequel, both of which were also directed by Reitman.
It was hard to find women to appear in the movie
Stripes is a relatively male-dominated film, hardly surprising considering it’s based around the Army in the late 70s and early 80s.
According to Reitman, they had “a very hard time finding two women who would agree to be in the movie.”
Kim Basinger had agreed to play the role of Stella, but her agent demanded a fee of $200,000, which the studio could not afford.
However, Reitman felt that this worked in his favour in the end, as the role ended up going to P.J Soles.
Reitman explained that Soles and Murray had a “great thing going together”, and that Soles was a “terrific partner for Murray”.
Reitman said the amount of deleted scenes taught him a lesson
On the extended version of the DVD, Reitman discusses all the extra footage that was shot and not used in the final edit.
According to the director, the experience taught him a valuable lesson: a little goes a long way.
Reitman explained how even before the point in the film where Winger and Ziskey joined the army, there were pages and pages of script which ended up unused.
After filming these scenes, Reitman and Murray realised that the audience could already relate to the characters, and decided to cut straight to the military action as “that’s where the film really begins”.
The pair also wanted to make sure that Winger and Ziskey joining the army was convincing, so they spent lots of time filming the build up to this.
Reitman said he was “embarrassed” by the end of the film
According to Reitman, despite his best efforts to set up the scenes where Winger and Zisky go to war, the events were “still a bit of a stretch”.
The creative team were forced to cut corners in order to overcome potential plot holes. For examples, Ziskey is quickly shown with a manual so the audience knows he can operate the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle. (We can’t even build a chest of drawers from a manual, never mind pilot a high-octane military asset.)
Reitman remarked that the scene where Ziskey and Winger ‘borrow’ the vehicle is the “cheesiest cheat in the movie”.
Reitman explained that he “was almost embarrassed by the simplicity and goofiness of their storytelling at the end, but the audience just wants to see them go kick ass.”
The film was produced in the days before CGI existed, meaning that all the explosions and stunts were actually real.