In the early 80s, Richard Gere was emerging as one of the premier leading men of his generation. An Officer and a Gentleman took this to the next level, seeing the promising young star blossom into a full-blown romantic lead and heartthrob to millions, as well as boosting the careers of co-stars Debra Winger and Lou Gossett Jr.
Here are some facts about the 1982 smash hit that you might not have known…
20. The film’s title comes from an old Royal Navy expression
Stop to think for a moment: what does An Officer and a Gentleman actually mean? The title of the film actually derives from the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, recorded in an 1813 court martial against Colonel Sir J Eamer, “for behaving in a scandalous, infamous manner, such as is unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman…”
Over time, the phrase has been more commonly shortened to ‘conduct unbecoming’. Generally speaking, this means offences that do not match the ideals that the Navy has for its officers, even if these would not typically be prosecuted by the civilian authorities. In the film, Mayo’s unbecoming conduct is his continued fixation with his civilian relationship at the expense of his naval training.
19. Folk music singer John Denver was initially set to play the lead role
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Richard Gere playing the lead role of Zack Mayo, but it’s hardest of all to imagine the part going to folk music legend John Denver. Probably best known today for his song Take Me Home (Country Roads), the leap from studio to screen might not have been as unbelievable as you might first think.
For one thing, Denver had at the time only recently made his film debut – in a leading role, no less – in Oh, God! (1977), in which a supermarket manager is chosen by God to spread the gospel. Denver would go on to star in a handful of other films, included a Western set in his beloved Colorado, Walking Thunder, and Gere became one of the decade’s most beloved heartthrobs.
18. John Travolta turned the film down
Disappointed not to move forward with John Denver, the studio ran through a series of other actors before ultimately landing on Richard Gere. One was John Travolta, one of the biggest stars of the time in the wake of Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Travolta had a hit film in 1980 with Urban Cowboy, starring opposite none other than Debra Winger.
Presumably seeking to reunite the two leads for a more conventional romance, producers approached Travolta to star in An Officer and a Gentleman. However, Travolta turned the film down, and instead attempted to capitalise on the success of his earlier films, reuniting with Olivia Newton-John for Two of a Kind (1983). The film was a critical failure and a commercial disappointment.
17. Sigourney Weaver, Anjelica Huston and Jennifer Jason Leigh turned down the female lead
Much like the role of Zack Mayo, there was evident consternation over who would play the female lead, with Paula Pokrifki being offered to three actors before Winger: first Sigourney Weaver, who passed to make The Year of Living Dangerously; then Anjelica Huston, who also turned the film down.
Next, the role was offered to the far younger and lesser-known Jennifer Jason Leigh. Aged only 19 at the time, Leigh had recently dropped out of school to star in 1981’s Eyes of a Stranger. Ultimately, Leigh would drop out of An Officer and a Gentleman to instead star in the high school comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High – perhaps because Gere was 13 years her senior.
16. Debra Winger was forced to do a nude scene, which was then deleted
There’s a great deal of legal and contractual wrangling before shooting on a movie even begins. For Debra Winger, that bureaucratic morass ended up causing her significant issues on set. Winger represented herself throughout contract negotiations, based on the script she had received; unfortunately, scripts are notorious for changing quite drastically in the run-up to (and often during) filming.
When the script was altered to include a nude scene, Winger objected that she had never agreed to this. However, as she hadn’t included a no-nudity clause in her contract, she was obliged to shoot the scene. In the end, the scene in question was significantly cut down in order to keep the film from getting an R-rating.
15. Richard Gere and Debra Winger feuded behind the scenes
We all know that, behind the scenes, on-screen couples often struggle to get along, however authentic their relationship might seem. Such is the case for Richard Gere and Debra Winger, who constantly feuded between takes on Officer and a Gentleman. Winger, a notorious perfectionist, was regularly annoyed by what she perceived as Gere’s failure to emote, describing him as “a brick wall.”
Winger herself is unconcerned, saying in a 2002 Guardian interview that “I run in to Richard Gere quite a lot and he half jokes: ‘Are you still saying terrible things about me?’ … everyone has to get it into perspective.” For his part, Gere has been complimentary of Winger’s acting prowess. “She’s really a kind of true heart in the camera,” Gere said at a 30th anniversary screening of the film in 2012.
14. Louis Gossett Jr was kept away from the other actors in order to “intimidate” them
Besides ogling Richard Gere – which isn’t for everyone – Louis Gossett Jr is the best part of An Officer and a Gentleman. As Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley, Gossett is a brutally intimidating figure. Director Taylor Hackford was keen to make Gossett genuinely intimidating to his younger co-stars, and so insisted the actor maintain a distance from them off-camera.
For the duration of the shoot, Hackford insisted Gossett stay in a condo 20 miles from set. “The purpose of the forced separation,” Gossett writes in his memoir, An Actor and a Gentleman, “was so that I could intimidate my men more during my scenes.” Hackford was also keen for Gossett to treat Gere as brutally as possible, insisting that he “lay it on him” – and Gossett certainly delivered there.
13. Full Metal Jacket’s R Lee Ermey was the film’s military advisor
Originally, a different actor was poised to play Gunnery Sergeant Foley: none other than R. Lee Ermey, the real former drill instructor who became an icon with his performance in Full Metal Jacket. Ermey was working as a technical advisor on An Officer and a Gentleman, and almost played Foley before director Taylor Hackford decided it was important that the character be African-American.
This also resolves a minor controversy in the world of cinema: that Ermey supposedly stole his derisive “steers and queers” comment from a Louis Gossett Jr. ad-lib in An Officer and a Gentleman. In fact, it derived originally from Ermey, who coached Gossett to use it, then went on to use the line himself in Full Metal Jacket.
12. Richard Gere hated the film’s ending
Everyone remembers An Officer and a Gentleman’s ending: Mayo arrives at Paula’s factory, angelic and radiant in his naval uniform, and carries her away to the sound of Up Where We Belong. And Richard Gere hated that ending. Well, it’s more accurate to say that Gere hated the ending as it was written in the script, which said nothing of the music.
While shooting, however, his opinion began to change. On filming the scene, extras in the factory began to whoop, cheer, and cry. But, even then, Gere wasn’t fully convinced. “After we shot it I still didn’t think it would work,” Gere said at the 30th anniversary screening, but admitted that seeing the final cut, “I got chills on the back of my neck seeing it because everything was right all of a sudden.”
11. There was a stage musical version
If there’s nostalgia for it, you can make a stage musical out of it, and that’s exactly what Doug Day Stewart – the writer behind the original film – aimed to do for An Officer and a Gentleman. Premiering in Sydney, Australia, the 2012 production had an original score composed by Robin Lerner and Ken Hirsch.
Unfortunately, the musical attracted venomous reviews as a “bloodless facsimile” of the film. “If there is a laborious, lifeless way to have a conversation, get across a plot point or express an emotion,” Deborah Jones’ review continues, “[they] have found it.” The musical was pulled after six weeks, but was later re-launched in the UK as an 80s ‘jukebox’ musical.
10. Lou Gosset Jr. was the first man of colour to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar
An Officer and a Gentleman saw Louis Gossett Jr. win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Foley. Gossett was the first black man to ever win this award. The first Academy Award won by a black actor was Best Supporting Actress, recognising Hattie McDaniels’ work in Gone with the Wind (1939), followed by a Best Actor win for Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field (1963).
While important and historic in their own right, both of these roles were African-American characters in either literal or economic servitude. Gossett’s win marked something different: a win for a black character in a position of authority. “There I am, in 1982,” Gossett said in his book, “a black father figure making a man out of a white playboy. This made quite a statement…”
9. The motel where Sid kills himself is now a tourist destination
Perhaps the darkest moment of An Officer and a Gentleman sees Sid Worley (David Keith) commit suicide in a motel room after being rejected by a woman. A real motel was used for this sequence: The Tides Inn in Port Townsend, Washington. This has now become a tourist destination for fans of the movie (and if you think that seems a bit macabre you’re not alone).
While the inn has been extensively refurbished since the film premiered, the older part of the building remains intact. Apparently Worley’s room is the first on the left past the office. A small plaque denotes that the location was used in An Officer and a Gentleman, though whether it says exactly what for is a mystery to us.
8. Richard Gere kicked Louis Gossett Jr in the groin while shooting the fight scene
In typical 80s style, An Officer and a Gentleman features a full-on fight scene. Since Mayo is meant to be a martial artist and Foley has been a tough guy throughout the film, Gere and Gossett had to train at length. “Shooting the movie and then every hour I had outside of the actual shooting of the movie I was working with a karate master to learn karate stuff,” said Gere.
“But Lou was also learning karate… But for some reason he wasn’t able to get the routines.” Frustrated by his co-star’s inability to keep up, Gere accidentally kicked Gossett in the groin for real. “He said, ‘Okay. That’s it. I’m out of here,’ and he left. And rightly so.” Producers were forced to fly in a body double from New Orleans to shoot portions of the fight. Thankfully, Gere and Gossett are now good friends.
7. Debra Winger later disappeared from Hollywood
In the 80s and early 90s, it seemed like Debra Winger had it all – then she mysteriously disappeared from Hollywood. This wasn’t just a case of the job offers drying up: Winger made a conscious decision to leave it all behind. “I wanted out for years,” Winger told New York Magazine in 2002. “I got sick of hearing myself say I wanted to quit. It’s like opening an interview with ‘I hate interviews!’ Well, get out!”
Despite her three Oscar nominations for An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands, Winger all but vanished after 1995 romantic drama Forget Paris. Rosanna Arquette directed a documentary, 2002’s Searching For Debra Winger, exploring why she quit Hollywood. In the two decades since, Winger has clocked up several film and TV credits, mostly in smaller supporting roles.
6. The film was such a smash it made a return on investment of 2166%
Nowadays, it’s not unheard of for a film’s box office takings to surpass the $1 billion mark; then again, these are films that are made on generous budgets. An Officer and a Gentleman made an astonishing $130 million from a paltry $6 million budget. Do the math, and this means it made a return on investment of more than 2166%.
For a sense of perspective, the second-highest grossing film of all time – Avengers: Endgame (2019) – made $2.798 billion from a budget of $356 million. That’s a return on investment of approximately 785%. What makes it even more impressive in the case of An Officer and a Gentleman is that the film was released with little hype and didn’t do great business in its first few weeks, but gradually word of mouth saved the film.
5. Dwight Yoakam is in the band at the ball
As one country and folk music legend passed on the film, in John Denver, another entered: Dwight Yoakam. Today Yoakam is one of the most successful country music artists of all time as well as a successful actor, but back in the early 80s he was still a relative unknown trying to get his big break in show business.
Yoakam makes an early screen appearance in An Officer and a Gentleman, as one of the singers with the band at the ball. He went on to sell upwards of 25 million albums, has acted in over 20 films (including Sling Blade, Wedding Crashers and Cry Macho), and has made more appearances on The Tonight Show than any other musician.
4. Paula’s dead dad is played by the film’s screenwriter
An Officer and a Gentleman’s screenwriter Doug Day Stewart wrangled a sneaky cameo appearance which has an impact on the plot of the film. When Paula shows Zack the picture of her dad graduating from naval college, it isn’t just a random picture – it’s Doug Day Stewart on the day of his actual graduation from naval college.
Stewart had indeed served in the Navy during the Vietnam war, and trained as a Navy aviator shortly after graduating regular college with a liberal arts degree. The script for An Officer and a Gentleman draws heavily on his real-life experiences; the writer describes his military training as “the most difficult, nightmarish 13 weeks of my life.”
3. A Navy tradition reveals Mayo and Foley’s friendship
It’s never properly explained in the film, but the lasting connection between Mayo and his sergeant, Foley, is made clear through a simple Navy tradition, one that involves a shiny silver dollar. At graduation, it’s customary for the new ensigns to give a silver dollar to whoever gives them their first salute. Naturally, since it’s at graduation, this is almost always the officer who trained them.
Since it’s the Navy, and everything is measured by absolute precision, it’s also a tradition for the officer to then place the dollar in their left pocket. Instead, Foley puts the dollar in his right pocket, signifying that Mayo is a memorable and exceptional graduate. This is a subtle but important moment, especially given Foley’s position as a father figure to the reckless young ensign.
2. Producer Don Simpson hated Up Where We Belong
A powerful ballad with a strong hook and heroic sound, Up Where We Belong is a perfect fit for this naval romance. However, producer Don Simpson despised the song and lobbied for it to be dropped. According to the DVD commentary, Taylor Hackford recalls Simpson complaining singer Jennifer Warnes had never had a hit, and even bet them $100 the song would flop.
It’s worth remembering that the song was a strange beast, featuring as it did the saccharine voice of Warnes and the gruff tones of Joe Cocker, who previously had only been known for rock and soul. The song ended up being a number 1 hit across the globe. Simpson’s choice, On the Wings of Love, was another successful song, but pales in comparison – it peaked at number 29.
1. Louis Gossett Jr feared he’d be targeted by racists
Louis Gossett Jr.’s Oscar win for An Officer and a Gentleman may have broken new ground racially, but the actor feared his performance in the film would provoke ire from racists. Writing in his book, Gossett notes that “Unlike in ‘Roots,’ when Kunta Kinte had been whipped, in ‘Officer’ I had beaten a white man, a popular movie star, fair and square.”
“Since that movie door was opened,” Gossett continues, “even today I have had to be extra careful to stay away from bars. I’m aware that there can always be one hotshot anxious to take me on and prove that what happened in ‘Officer’ was pure Hollywood.” While he recognises that the response to the role has been “overwhelmingly positive,” the actor has still felt forced to leave venues by the back door in certain instances.