The 80s may have given us some seriously intimidating robots like The Terminator and RoboCop, but the decade also gave us one of the most loveable hunks of metal ever to grace the big screen in Number 5 of Short Circuit. The family-friendly comedy adventure from 1986 sees a high-tech military drone struck by lightning and come to life. The movie touched the hearts of audiences everywhere, but did you know the following behind-the-scenes secrets?
25. Number 5 doesn’t rename himself Johnny until the very end of the movie
It’s well remembered that living robot Number 5 renames himself Johnny 5 in Short Circuit.
This is made all the more memorable by the film’s theme song, the title and refrain of which is ‘Who’s Johnny?’
However, you might not remember that Number 5 does not adopt this moniker until the very end of the movie.
In fact, literally the last words spoken in the film are the robot dubbing himself ‘Johnny 5.’
He would then be addressed almost exclusively by this name in 1988 sequel Short Circuit 2.
Viewers who watch closely will recall his official title is SAINT Number 5, the acronym standing for Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport – catchy!
24. The sound of Number 5’s laser was borrowed from Ghostbusters
If you’re listening closely, you might notice a familiar sound effect in Short Circuit.
Number 5 and his four robot brothers all sport shoulder-mounted laser cannons.
In reality a laser blast would be both invisible and soundless, but obviously that’s not exciting enough for a movie.
For this reason, we hear the robot’s lasers make a growl while warming up, and a roar when fired.
If you suspect you’ve heard that noise before, that’s because the filmmakers borrowed it from Ghostbusters.
That’s right, the noise of Number 5’s laser is the same as that of the proton packs worn by the heroes of the 1984 classic.
23. The Three Stooges sequence required 18 puppeteers per robot
Puppeteer Tim Blaney helped control Number 5 and provided the living robot with his distinctive voice.
Of course, Number 5 was such a complex puppet that Blaney could not bring him to life alone.
In fact, it generally took at least twelve people working together at any one time to make Number 5 work.
As you might expect, even more puppeteers were required for the more complex scenes.
For the scene when Number 5 reprograms three of his ‘siblings’ to impersonate the Three Stooges, this required as many as 18 puppeteers per robot.
Director John Badham once described that scene as “an absolute nightmare! The Three Stooges sequence was just horrendous, horrible. We were training people right and left.”
22. The writers originally had some weirder ideas about how to bring Number 5 to life
Short Circuit sees Number 5 imbued with life in a suitably enigmatic and symbolic way, when he is struck by lightning.
However, in the early stages of the script, writers Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson struggled to figure out how their robot could feasibly come alive.
Wilson initially suggested they put a human brain in a robot body, but this was dismissed as too “grisly.”
With that suggestion out, the writers contemplated using that old go-to trope for sci-fi: aliens.
Says Wilson, “We thought of aliens coming down and zapping the robot alive. We thought of aliens coming down and they are machines and they are alive.”
In the end, the writers “went back to the old lightning bolt gag, even though we didn’t want to… [but] we didn’t want the story to get bogged down with how Number 5 comes alive.”
21. Test audiences were uncomfortable with the romantic overtones to Number 5’s relationship with Stephanie
The real heart of Short Circuit is the bond that forms between the newly sentient robot Number 5 and Ally Sheedy’s Stephanie.
As Stephanie teaches Number 5 about humanity and the world, their relationship owes a lot to that of Elliot and his extra-terrestrial friend in E.T.
However, unlike E.T., there are moments when the bond between Stephanie and Number 5 seems to be a bit more than platonic love.
Short Circuit’s test audiences made it clear they were not happy with any suggestion that these two might be more than friends – hence the final film plays up a romantic angle between Stephanie and Steve Guttenberg’s Newton Crosby.
John Badham says, “The audience was obviously not happy seeing Ally Sheedy kiss and hug a robot,” recalling that such moments were met with boos and hisses.
We can understand why audiences might have been a bit creeped out – but even so, it’s a lot less creepy than the central relationship of another 1986 movie, Howard the Duck.
20. White actor Fisher Stevens has since apologised for playing an Indian character
Short Circuit has long been controversial for the casting of Fisher Stevens in the role of scientist Ben Jabituya.
While the character is an Indian man, actor Stevens is in fact a white American of Jewish descent.
- Credit: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images
Short Circuit (and its sequel, in which Stevens reprises the role of Ben) attracted a lot of criticism for this at the time, and since.
While Stevens has voiced some pride in Short Circuit, he has long since admitted regretting his casting in an Indian role.
The actor recently told Yahoo! that the role of Ben in Short Circuit and its sequel “definitely haunts me.”
“I still think it’s a really good movie, but I would never do that part again. The world was a different place in 1986, obviously.”
19. When Stevens was first hired, Ben was not going to be Indian
There’s a curious footnote to the controversy over Fisher Stevens’ casting in an Indian role.
When Stevens first auditioned to be in Short Circuit, Ben was actually written as a white American.
However, whilst the script was in development before production began, it was decided he should be Indian.
Stevens was then asked if he could play an Indian man, to which he replied, “Yeah, I can do it. Let me learn.”
Though regrettable, Stevens’ decision is understandable considering he was a young actor who needed the work.
The actor reflects, “It’s a weird thing when you’re 21 and you’re trying to get a job.”
18. Bronson Pinchot almost replaced Stevens as Ben
While Fisher Stevens was the first actor offered the role of Ben, he was very nearly replaced.
When the filmmakers decided to change Ben’s ethnicity, they fired Stevens in favour of Bronson Pinchot.
While also a white actor (of Italian and Russian descent), Pinchot was known for portraying foreigners.
The actor had a small but memorable role as Serge opposite Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.
Pinchot became best known for portraying another comedy foreigner, the Greek immigrant Balki Bartokomous in sitcom Perfect Strangers.
In fact, it was his Pinchot’s casting in Perfect Strangers that forced him to drop out of Short Circuit, clearing the way for Fisher Stevens to return.
17. Indian audiences thought that Bollywood actor Javed Jaffrey was playing Ben
While Fisher Stevens’ casting in Short Circuit has long been controversial, at the time most audiences didn’t realise Stevens was really white.
Nor was it simply western audiences who were under the assumption the Ben actor was genuinely Indian.
In fact, Stevens’ performance caused a lot of confusion when Short Circuit was released in India.
Apparently a lot of viewers in India were convinced that Ben was portrayed by actor Javed Jaffrey.
Bollywood star Jaffrey had not long since risen to fame in India with the movie Meri Jung, in which he sports a similar beard and glasses to those worn by Stevens in Short Circuit.
A lot of viewers continued to assume Jaffrey had appeared in Short Circuit until the actor clarified the case of mistaken identity in interviews.
16. Austin Pendleton says the original script was “heartbreakingly beautiful” but the movie is “bland”
Short Circuit co-stars Austin Pendleton as Dr Howard Marner, president of Nova Robotics.
In the years since Short Circuit was released, the actor has spoken openly of his disappointment with the end result.
Pendleton said in a 2009 interview, “the script was just heartbreakingly beautiful to read. And now it’s a nice little slightly bland kids’ movie.”
The actor also felt that Short Circuit’s lead actors, Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg, were both miscast.
Pendleton said, “The two leading roles were cast with really talented, attractive people who were not right for the parts.”
“I said to John [Badham, the director] when it was about to open, ‘Why did you cast them?’ And he said, ‘That was what the studio insisted on.’”
15. It gave El DeBarge a hit single
You might be surprised to learn that the soundtrack album for Short Circuit was not made commercially available back in the 80s.
This is in spite of the fact that it boasts two memorable songs specifically recorded for the movie.
The movie did spawn one hit single in Who’s Johnny (Short Circuit Theme) by El DeBarge.
As well as topping the R&B singles chart, Who’s Johnny reached number three in the Billboard Top 100.
Short Circuit’s other specially recorded song was the romantic theme Come and Follow Me.
This was co-written and performed by Max Carl (formerly of Grand Funk Railroad) and Marcy Levy (who would later use the stage name Marcella Detroit, and joined Shakespears Sister).
14. The film had to be made cheap because so much of the budget was spent on robots
Short Circuit may have been a hit, but by Hollywood standards it was a relatively low-budget movie.
The film had a budget of $15 million, which isn’t a whole lot of money for a sci-fi adventure.
As you might expect, a good portion of that money went on the special effects.
The film features five robots, the most complex of which was of course central character Number 5.
It cost $1.4 million – almost 10% of the entire Short Circuit budget – to bring the robots to life.
Because of this, costs needed to be kept down in every other area, explaining why the film doesn’t have too many big set pieces.
13. Number 5’s puppeteer provided the robot’s voice live on set
The key person in control of Number 5 during scenes was a young puppeteer named Tim Blaney.
Blaney was relatively new to the industry and had never worked on a feature film before.
Short Circuit proved to be a big break for Blaney, as on top of puppeteering Number 5 he had another key role.
Blaney also provided the voice of Number 5, live on set with the other actors.
The filmmakers had considered dubbing in another actor afterwards, but director John Badham felt having the character voiced live on set would be more natural.
This approach clearly worked, as Blaney repeated the same duty on Short Circuit 2. The puppeteer’s later credits include Flight of the Navigator, The Abyss and the Men in Black movies.
12. Trickery was employed when Number 5 tossed the coin and flipped through the books
As you might expect given the money they spent on him, Number 5 was a sophisticated puppet.
Even so, he wasn’t quite advanced enough to do all the things we see him do in the movie.
One of Number 5’s most famous tricks is his ability to speed-read books at an incredibly fast pace.
The robot’s hand wasn’t literally flicking the pages: instead, a high-powered air hose was used out of shot.
Similar off-camera trickery also had to be employed for a moment when Number 5 repeatedly tosses a coin.
This was achieved by means of a carefully hidden wire which pulled up the coin and flipped it.
11. The movie was shot in the same town as The Goonies and Kindergarten Cop
Short Circuit is for the most part set and shot in the real-life city of Astoria, Oregon.
For anyone familiar with 80s movies, the mere name ‘Astoria’ is likely to ring a bell.
That’s because it’s the very same town in which 1985 family favourite The Goonies is set.
Nor is The Goonies the only beloved movie to have used Astoria as a location.
A few years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 action comedy Kindergarten Cop was also shot there.
Other movies to shoot in Astoria include Free Willy and its sequel, as well as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III and The Ring Two.
10. Number 5’s design was based on real advances in military robots
To design Number 5, the makers of Short Circuit hired esteemed conceptual artist Syd Mead.
Celebrated as a ‘visual futurist,’ Mead had previously worked on Blade Runner and Tron.
Mead’s initial designs were then taken to the next level by the film’s robotics supervisor Eric Allard.
The look of Number 5 and his fellow robots drew heavily on real advances in robotics at the time.
This included an organ-playing Japanese robot that had camera eyes in order to ‘read’ sheet music.
The tank track feet and shoulder-mounted weapon were included as these were deemed feasible for military applications.
9. Director John Badham included a nod to his own earlier film Saturday Night Fever
Short Circuit features a memorable sequence in which Number 5 stays up all night watching TV.
The newly sentient robot imitates the things he sees, all of which informs his playful personality.
Notably, one of the things Number 5 watches is the classic 1977 disco movie Saturday Night Fever.
Viewers might not have realised that this moment, in which the robot imitates John Travolta’s moves, is an in-joke.
Both Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit were directed by the same person: John Badham.
Badham was a successful blockbuster filmmaker throughout the 80s and 90s, although in recent years he has mostly worked in television.
8. Ally Sheedy and John Badham previously worked together on WarGames
Short Circuit gave 80s teen icon Ally Sheedy one of her few leading roles in a major movie.
Before taking the role of Stephanie Speck, the animal lover who befriends Number 5, Sheedy had worked with director John Badham on an earlier hit.
That film was 1983’s WarGames, the iconic computer hacker thriller which cast Sheedy alongside Matthew Broderick.
Outside of these films, Sheedy is best remembered as one of the key members of the ‘Brat Pack.’
The actress earned this title on the strength of her appearances in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire.
However, like her Breakfast Club co-star Molly Ringwald, Sheedy retreated from the limelight in the 90s, starring mostly in smaller independent films.
7. Three different heads were built for Number 5
Again, as sophisticated as Number 5 may have been, one machine couldn’t do everything required.
A part of the puppet that needed particular attention was, of course, the robot’s face.
This area required changeable expressions throughout the film, and one was not enough.
For this reason, no less than three alternate heads were made for Number 5.
One of these was almost entirely inexpressive, and identical to the other heads worn by Numbers 1 to 4.
Number 5’s other two heads boasted more articulated movement, and could variously be used to show joy, fear and anger.
6. It outperformed other 1986 classics like Pretty in Pink and Little Shop of Horrors
Short Circuit was released to theatres in the United States on the 9th of May 1986.
With opening weekend takings of almost $5 million, the film went straight to number one at the box office.
By the end of its theatrical run, Short Circuit had taken a little over $40 million in the US alone.
Today, a film would seem like a flop with those kind of numbers, but in the mid-80s it was a very decent haul.
Still, Short Circuit’s $40 million earnings were small change compared to 1986’s biggest hit Top Gun, which made almost $177 million in the US alone.
5. The sequel was a box office bomb
Two years after Short Circuit, studio TriStar Pictures released follow-up film Short Circuit 2.
Director John Badham and stars Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg did not return for the 1988 follow-up.
Instead, Kenneth Johnson called the shots, and Fisher Stevens’ Ben was promoted to (human) leading man.
While some fans enjoyed the film, following the renamed Johnny 5 in New York City, the box office numbers were lower.
Like the first film, Short Circuit 2 cost only $15 million to make, but it wound up making only $21 million from ticket sales.
This was only just over half the earnings of the original, and made Short Circuit 2 only the 45th most successful film of 1988 at the US box office.
4. A planned third film was scrapped
Despite the under-performance of Short Circuit 2, there had initially been plans to make it a trilogy.
A script for Short Circuit 3 was written in 1989, and the project was briefly in development.
Unfortunately for fans of the series, studio interest in another Short Circuit movie soon petered out.
The script which had been written was not considered good enough, even after rewrites.
Plus, considering that Short Circuit 2 hadn’t been a big hit, it was feared that audiences wouldn’t be interested.
As the 90s came in, and blockbusters started getting bigger and more spectacular than ever, it was feared that Short Circuit just couldn’t compete.
3. A remake is currently in development
All these years later, Short Circuit remains a well-remembered and well-loved family-friendly sci-fi property.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that plans for a remake have been bubbling away on the back burner for some time.
Work first began on a Short Circuit reboot back in 2008, when Dimension Films snapped up the rights.
A number of different directors were linked to the project in the years that followed, but it failed to gain momentum.
However, the Short Circuit reboot may be heating up again, as the rights were recently snapped up by another film company.
It was announced in November 2020 that Spyglass Media Group are now working on a new movie, said to focus on Latin American characters.
2. Short Circuit’s writers went on to create Batteries Not Included and Tremors
The original screenplay for Short Circuit was written by screenwriter duo S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock.
This was the first script written by Wilson and Maddock to be made into a feature film.
As well as returning to write Short Circuit 2, Wilson and Maddock co-wrote some other notable hits.
The following year, they provided the script for another cute robot movie, Batteries Not Included.
Then in 1990, Wilson and Maddock co-wrote 1990’s cult classic monster movie Tremors.
They went on to co-write Ghost Dad, Hearts and Souls and Wild Wild West, as well as working on a few of the direct-to-video Tremors sequels.
1. It was adapted into a video game
Like a lot of hit 80s movies, Short Circuit was the basis for a tie-in computer game.
British game publisher Ocean Software released a game based on the movie in 1987.
It was released for the old school home computers the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC.
While the game might appear primitive by modern standards, it was mostly well-received.
It got some favourable reviews in such computer magazines as Crash, CVG, Zzap! 64 and Your Sinclair.