By the early 1990s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on top of the world. His star power had risen throughout the 80s, and thanks to such monster hits as Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, and above all Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the Schwarz man had become the biggest box office draw around.
As such, when Arnie teamed up with director John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator) to make a big-budget action-comedy fantasy that blurred the lines between movies and reality, nobody thought they could lose. However, 1993’s Last Action Hero wound up being one of the most notorious box office flops of the 90s, one that took a serious toll on the careers of all involved. Here are some facts about the troubled blockbuster which you might not have known.
20. The film was originally entitled Extremely Violent
The original script that became Last Action Hero was entitled Extremely Violent, and was the handiwork of young, fledgling screenwriters Zak Penn and Adam Leff. Total newcomers to the film industry, Penn and Leff intended the script both as an homage and a pastiche of the action genre. Jokingly, they named their hero Arno Slater in homage to action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger – never imagining the actor himself would end up playing the role (the character would later be renamed Jack). To Penn and Leff’s astonishment, a bidding war ensued for Extremely Violent; ultimately Columbia Pictures nabbed it for $500,000, and some of the very people their script was sending up were interested in making the film.
Penn (above) went on to great success, co-writing Marvel’s Avengers, Ready Player One and the upcoming Free Guy; however, Leff’s writing career died out after 1996’s Bio-Dome. Leff has since moved into producing, with projects including the 2012 Native American lacrosse sports drama (yes, you heard that right) Crooked Arrows.
19. Carrie Fisher and Shane Black were among the (many) screenwriters who rewrote the script
As is the norm for Hollywood (for better of worse), the original writers of the soon-to-be-renamed Last Action Hero were promptly fired before other, more established screenwriters were called in to punch up the script. First came David Arnott and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), much to the bemusement of Penn and Leff considering they thought of their work as a spoof of Black’s work. Black (above) and Arnott massively reworked the script, which naturally the original writers were none too happy about; even still, the result wasn’t enough to please everyone.
Further rewrites on the movie were performed by William Goldman (The Princess Bride), Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October), and none other than Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher, who worked extensively as a ‘script doctor’ in the 90s. As is also alarmingly commonplace, such rewrites continued throughout the filming of Last Action Hero, which may at least partially account for the uneven tone of the final film.
18. Arnie and McTiernan were given only ten months to get the film made
Once Schwarzenegger was on board to star, John McTiernan – who had previously worked with the Austrian Oak on 1987’s Predator – signed up to direct. Things then rushed forward at an alarming pace, as Last Action Hero was given the green light by Columbia Pictures in August 1992, with a release set for June 18th 1993, giving them only 10 months to get the film made. Not long thereafter, Universal Pictures announced they had a major release of their own, which they had scheduled to open one week earlier than Last Action Hero: a new film from Steven Spielberg called Jurassic Park.
As astonishing as it may seem looking back, Columbia top brass didn’t consider Jurassic Park that great a threat, as Spielberg’s previous films Always and Hook hadn’t performed so well financially. Year later McTiernan expressed regret about both the production schedule and the release date, admitting, “in hindsight, we were arrogant.”
17. Schwarzenegger insisted his action figure didn’t come equipped with guns
As well as taking the lead, Arnold Schwarzenegger was also an executive producer on Last Action Hero, marking the first time he had taken this role on a movie. Schwarzenegger’s earlier hits Twins and Kindergarten Cop had seen him reach family audiences for the first time, and he didn’t want to lose this new, wider audience with Last Action Hero. As such, Schwarzenegger demanded the film tone things down for a PG-13 rating – no small feat, considering original title Extremely Violent was a fairly accurate representation of the content.
As part of keeping things family-friendly, Schwarzenegger also insisted that his promotional action figures should not be equipped with guns. Much of the more juvenile humour in the film (including but not limited to the curious appearance of an animated cat voiced by Danny DeVito) was incorporated at Schwarzenegger’s behest.
16. One character left young cinema-goers in tears
Given how keen the studio were to make Last Action Hero more family-friendly, it’s surprising that the film opens on such a dark and scary note. Last Action Hero’s first scene sees Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slater facing off against The Ripper (Tom Noonan), a terrifying, scar-faced maniac wielding an alarmingly big axe, with which he’s threatening to kill Jack’s pre-teen son, a scene repeated in the final reel with Austin O’Brien’s Danny. What’s even more surprising, considering how heavily the original script was rewritten to accommodate younger viewers, is that this sequence was not a leftover from Penn and Leff’s first draft.
Indeed, Penn was appalled by the scene, and has vehemently denied any responsibility for it. The writer recalls confrontations with disgruntled parents: “‘Why did you have a kid thrown off a roof in the opening sequence? It made my kid cry.’ ‘I didn’t write that!’”
15. Charles Dance showed up to work in an ‘I’m Cheaper Than Alan Rickman’ T-shirt
As Last Action Hero’s movie world thrives on stereotypes, it was a foregone conclusion that a bearded, well-spoken British guy had to be the main villain of the piece. Naturally, top choice to play the dastardly Benedict was McTiernan’s Die Hard star Alan Rickman – but the actor was wary of being typecast, and demanded more money than Columbia was willing to pay. Ultimately the role went to Charles Dance, who reportedly showed up to set on his first day in a T-shirt bearing the words, ‘I’m Cheaper Than Alan Rickman.’
For such a distinguished actor, Dance has a curious habit of landing roles in major films which under-perform (think Dracula Untold, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Your Highness, to name but a few). Still, Dance’s iconic turn as Tywin Lannister on TV’s Game of Thrones more than makes up for all that in our estimation.
14. Most of the film’s celebrity cameos were the result of Schwarzenegger calling in favours
Cameos include Schwazenegger’s previous co-stars Robert Patrick (Terminator 2) and Sharon Stone (Total Recall), who make blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances in the movie world. Later, the real world movie premiere sequence boasts such stars as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chevy Chase, Little Richard and MC Hammer playing themselves.
13. The writer was supposed to have a cameo role, but he was deliberately kept out of shot by the director
From the sound of things, Last Action Hero’s set wasn’t the happiest place to be, with egos clashing all over the place. While Zak Penn had been fired as the film’s writer, he did still spend some time on set, having been cast in a background role as a cop. However, it seems a disgruntled John McTiernan made a point of ensuring that Penn would not be seen on film at all.
Penn recalls, “After a couple of weeks, another actor turned to me and said, ‘Zak, I hate to tell you this, but if you look at where the camera is, you’re never in frame. McTiernan has basically blocked you out of the movie.’ I did laugh about it later, but it was so silly – why didn’t they just tell me to go home?”
12. Child actor Austin O’Brien was left unconscious shooting a stunt sequence
Playing action-mad kid Danny, actor Austin O’Brien – who turned 12 just weeks before Last Action Hero was released – got a little too close to the action at times. One of O’Brien’s more precarious scenes sees him dangling from a gargoyle atop a building in New York, having been thrown from the roof. Unsurprisingly, this was shot on a controlled set rather than a real building, though the child actor was still dangling a good distance off the ground in a harness.
O’Brien recalls, “It was so tight that I literally couldn’t breathe, but I was too nervous to say anything and I passed out for a few seconds. People were cutting my clothes off and it got kind of scary.” The actor recalls being consoled by the under-pressure McTiernan: “‘I don’t care what’s happening, you tell me and we’ll fix it… You haven’t done anything wrong, but we cannot afford to stop shooting.’”
11. There are at least 68 references to other movies
As Last Action Hero’s concept plays on audience familiarity with Hollywood conventions, it makes sense that the film itself is very self-referential. The sheer number of references in the film is quite staggering: IMDb lists 68 movies which are in some way directly referenced. This ranges from films that are mentioned by name, including The Wizard of Oz, Batman and Gone with the Wind. Then there are the films from which Last Action Hero borrows dialogue, most obviously in its use of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator catchphrase, “I’ll be back.”
In Charles Dance’s rooftop monologue, the actor reels off a slew of movie antagonists he plans to bring into the real world, among them King Kong, Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter. Also, the film’s score by Michael Kamen directly ‘quotes’ Kamen’s earlier scores for Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, at points when those films are nodded to.
10. Schwarzenegger snuck an in-joke for his best friend into the film
As well as piling on the movie in-jokes, Schwarzenegger ensured a little wink to an old friend of his made it into the Last Action Hero mix. As Danny sits down to watch Jack Slater IV, the opening credits read, ‘A Franco Columbu film.’ Franco Columbu was a longtime buddy of Schwarzenegger from his bodybuilding days; the two men had trained and competed together, and even ran their own bricklaying business when they first moved to Hollywood.
Columbu appeared alongside Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron, and had small roles in Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator and The Running Man, while 1993 also saw Schwarzenegger cameo in Columbu’s movie Beretta’s Island. Sadly, Columbu passed away in August 2019, aged 78; Schwarzenegger paid tribute to him as “my best friend.”
9. AC/DC wrote and recorded Big Gun especially for the film
Back in the early 90s, every big action movie needed a song and music video to help push it on MTV, and Schwarzenegger knew just who to get for the job on Last Action Hero. As executive producer, Schwarzenegger himself approached rock legends AC/DC to compose and record an original song for the film. The Aussie superstars were happy to oblige, and came up with Big Gun, an air-punching rock anthem in the band’s usual idiom.
Schwarzenegger also made an appearance in the accompanying music video, dressing up like AC/DC’s iconic guitarist Angus Young. This wasn’t the action star’s first rock video, however – he had previously been featured in the Guns N’ Roses video You Could Be Mine, which was similarly a promotional tie-in with Terminator 2.
8. They finished shooting only three weeks before the release date
It’s not unusual for filmmakers to still be editing a film right up to the time it hits screens, but Last Action Hero took it to an extreme. According to John McTiernan, “It was something like three weeks from the end of shooting to when [Last Action Hero] was in the theatres.” As such, at a time in production when other filmmakers might be fine-tuning their editing to get the film just right, McTiernan and his team were rushing to have something assembled at all.
The director explains, “There are enormous sequences in the film that are literally how it came out of my camera. We cut the heads and tails off, and that’s the sequence; it wasn’t edited at all.” This probably further explains the uneven pace of the film, not to mention the excessive 131-minute running time.
7. John McTiernan called the film “the worst time I’ve ever had in this business”
With Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October to his name, John McTiernan was justifiably one of the hottest directors around by the early 90s. However, many of those involved in the production feel McTiernan’s hiring was where things started to go wrong on Last Action Hero, as the straight-laced director wasn’t used to the comedy that became so prevalent in the film. With the short schedule and constant changes, the pressure piled up: the director recalls “getting pushed in a lot of directions,” and was apparently regularly working 18 hour days in the final weeks of shooting.
McTiernan would call Last Action Hero “the worst time I’ve ever had in this business” – which is saying something considering he’s done jail time for lying to the FBI about illegally wire-tapping his producer on 2002’s Rollerball (also a troubled flop). Still, McTiernan managed to make a couple more hits in the 90s, in 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance and 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair.
6. Theatre usher Nick was supposed to be the Devil
Last Action Hero’s mystical plot device – a magic ticket which sends young action nut Danny (Austin O’Brien) into the movie – comes courtesy of projectionist and theatre usher Nick (Robert Prosky). However, while Nick is a kindly, Willy Wonka-ish figure in the final movie, the original script revealed him to be something else entirely: the Devil himself (hence the name ‘old Nick’). The idea was that the old red guy with the horns was responsible for creating action movies, and was using them to steal the souls of Danny and other kids like him.
Given that the bulk of the cast and crew of Last Action Hero had built their careers on action films, it’s hardly surprising they weren’t too happy with this message. Happily, action fans wouldn’t have to wait too long to see Arnie fight Satan: he did just that six years later, in 1999’s End of Days (which was most definitely not a PG-13).
5. The first draft of the script sent teenage Danny on a killing spree
The harsh critique of the action genre and its influence on children went even further in Last Action Hero’s original script. The real world sequences in the film show us that Danny doesn’t have the greatest life: dead father, frequently absent mother, a life lived close to the poverty line in a crime-ridden neighbourhood. As originally written, part of Danny’s joy in entering the movie world was finding that he himself had near-superhuman powers there, thanks to his knowledge and understanding of action movie rules.
The final act initially saw the youngster go on a gun-crazy massacre in the movie world, venting his rage from the suffering he had endured in reality. Such a sequence would doubtless have proved massively controversial, and would never have been allowed in a PG-13, so it’s hardly surprising it was thrown out early.
4. The Hamlet scene is all that remains of the original Extremely Violent script
After the extensive rewrites, only one sequence from Zak Penn and Adam Leff’s original script made it to the screen as written. This is Danny’s early dream sequence of Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in an action movie version of Hamlet. The sequence comes as Danny is at school being shown the 1948 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play on video, but finds it a little too pedestrian for his early 90s tastes. Given that the Hamlet scene made it unscathed from the original script, there’s a certain irony it’s probably the best scene in Last Action Hero (in our opinion at least).
Surely Arnie has delivered few lines as funny as, “To be or not to be… not to be.” (Explosion.)
3. The studio bought advertising space on a NASA shuttle, which didn’t end up launching until after the movie came out
Last Action Hero was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time; as such, the studio and the filmmakers were thinking big on all levels. This included the film’s publicity campaign, for which some very big ideas indeed were cooked up. In one of the most extravagant marketing moves ever, Columbia Pictures spent $500,000 to have Last Action Hero slogans plastered all over a NASA space shuttle. This shuttle had been scheduled to launch in May 1993, a month before Last Action Hero opened – however, extenuating circumstances saw the launch delayed by several months.
By that time, Last Action Hero had long since opened to lower box office takings than expected – its final haul was $137 million worldwide, or less than the film had cost to make and promote. They really could have used that rocket.
2. There was another major marketing misfire in New York
The space shuttle wasn’t the only expensive mishap on the part of Last Action Hero’s marketing team – there’s also the matter of what happened in New York. Killing two birds with one stone, an enormous inflatable effigy of Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater was erected in Times Square, both to be featured in the film’s movie premiere sequence and to be left up in promotion of Last Action Hero’s summer 1993 release. However, this inflatable – which originally had a shotgun in one hand, and a bundle of dynamite in the other – was erected mere days after the February 1993 World Trade Center truck bomb attack, which resulted in six deaths.
Naturally, the sight of an Arnie balloon clutching an explosive device was deemed a tad bit insensitive in the wake of such horrific events, and the dynamite was hastily swapped for a more innocuous police badge. Not long thereafter, though, the inflatable was removed from Times Square altogether and placed on a barge off the harbour. Talk about being out at sea…
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger blamed the film’s box office failure on Bill Clinton
While Schwarzenegger would bounce back from Last Action Hero’s failure with the far more successful True Lies in 1994, his career was never quite the same afterwards. This was at least in part why in 2003 he put his acting career on hold to run for the Governorship of California, a position he ultimately held for eight years. Reflecting on Last Action Hero years later, its star – a Republican – had an interesting scapegoat for the film’s commercial failure in 1993: the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as President the previous year.
Schwarzenegger told Business Insider in 2017: “the press somehow made the whole thing kind of political. [They said] the action hero era is over, Bill Clinton is in, the highbrow movies are the ‘in’ thing now, I couldn’t recuperate.”