Classic 1983 comedy Trading Places follows the tale of an upper-class commodities broker named Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and impoverished street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), whose lives become intertwined after they unknowingly become the subjects of a shady bet. Jamie Lee Curtis co-stars as a prostitute who gets caught up in the affair, but proves to be an unexpectedly powerful ally.
Here are some things you might not have known about this hilarious film that was one of the first big comedy hits of the 80s.
20. The film was originally set to star Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder
In the early 80s, when a comedy called for two leading men – particularly if they wanted one black and one white – the first duo to get the call was always Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. The iconic double act headlined 1976 hit Silver Streak, 1980’s Stir Crazy and later See No Evil, Hear No Evil). When Trading Places first went into development, the original title was Black and White, and Pryor and Wilder were courted for the lead roles.
However, the brakes were slammed on this when Pryor came close to death, being burned alive in what the troubled comedy legend later admitted was a suicide attempt. Studio Paramount then suggested Eddie Murphy – who had just shot action-comedy 48 Hrs. (in another role at one point ear-marked for Pryor). John Landis signed on to direct, and approved of Murphy’s casting – but the studio had some doubts about his other casting suggestions.
19. Paramount thought Dan Aykroyd couldn’t carry a movie without John Belushi
John Landis had previously directed Dan Aykroyd in 1980 comedy smash The Blues Brothers, alongside Aykroyd’s frequent collaborator John Belushi. Aykroyd and Belushi rose to fame together through TV’s Saturday Night Live, and were considered one of the great double acts of the era. Tragically, Belushi died in 1982 aged just 32, from multiple drug intoxication – and, aside from the tragedy of this loss, there were also concerns that Aykroyd was finished in the business.
Aykroyd was the only actor John Landis wanted to play Louis Winthorpe III, but Paramount had concerns. The director recalls, “conventional wisdom was that Aykroyd without Belushi was like Abbott without Costello, and that his career was over.” However, after Landis insisted on the casting, the studio execs eventually conceded.
18. The studio didn’t want Jamie Lee Curtis
Dan Aykroyd’s casting in Trading Places wasn’t the only thing Paramount had a problem with, as questions were also raised about who John Landis chose for the female lead. For the part of Ophelia, Landis hired Jamie Lee Curtis, with whom he had recently worked on a horror documentary – and the studio was not pleased. The director recalls, “I was called into the head of the studio’s office and he said, ‘This woman’s a B-movie actress,’ and I said, ‘Not after this movie!’”
Though Curtis was Hollywood royalty as the daughter of screen legends Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, she had starred almost exclusively in horror movies up to that point, including the first two Halloween movies, The Fog and Prom Night. The actress has since credited John Landis with “single-handedly [changing] the course of my life.”
17. The writers were inspired by a real-life pair of wealthy and competitive brothers
Although Trading Places is largely based around the three central roles of Louis, Billy Ray and Ophelia, these were not the characters the story was initially built around. Co-writer Timothy Harris says that Trading Places really grew from the characters of Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), the rich, snobby brothers who manipulate the fates of Louis and Billy Ray for a bet. Harris had real-life inspiration for the Dukes, modelling them on two wealthy brothers with whom he played tennis.
Harris recalls, “I think one very hot day I played with them, and I just came home and was fed up with it, and I just thought, ‘God, I just don’t want to play with these people, they’re awful.’” Then Harris says he “had the idea of them betting on a nature/nurture situation with somebody in their company,” also taking inspiration from the rundown, crime-ridden neighbourhood he lived in at the time.
16. The casting agent thought Don Ameche was already dead
When it came to casting the Dukes, Landis wanted two seasoned actors who hadn’t taken on especially villainous roles before. The director says, “I was thinking, ‘Hey, what about Don Ameche?’ And the casting woman said, ‘Don Ameche’s dead.’” Landis was fairly sure that the casting agent was incorrect – but it took a bit of digging for the director to finally confirm that suspicion. In fact, Ameche, aged 74 at the time, hadn’t made a movie for over a decade – although he had clocked up a number of TV roles in the interim.
Ameche’s career had slowed down so much that he no longer had an agent, so Landis got in touch with Ameche the old-fashioned way: he looked him up in the phone directory, called him directly and offered him the part of Mortimer Duke. Appearing in Trading Places gave Ameche’s film career a second wind; a key role in 1985’s Cocoon followed, which won Ameche the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
15. The writers got drunk with real traders as research
Something that might not have occurred to you on first glance is that the title Trading Places has a double-meaning. The first, and most obvious of these is that it sees Murphy’s down-and-out Billy Ray and Aykroyd’s pampered playboy Louis literally trade places in society. However, it also refers to the practice of commodities trading, which is Louis’ profession until the Dukes conspire to disgrace and fire him, then groom Billy Ray to take over his job.
As research, writers Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod had to school themselves in the complex art of commodities trading, and both admit it was a struggle: Harris likened their research to “studying for an exam… you kind of understand it the day of, and then 24 hours later you can’t remember how anything works.” Weingrod meanwhile recalls getting wild hanging out with Los Angeles traders: “because it was three hours behind New York, (they) had their happy-hours very early in the day. You can imagine what they were like by, maybe, 2pm.”
14. Sir John Gielgud was offered Denholm Elliott’s part
Once any seasoned British actor reaches a certain age, there’s one role they’re almost certain to play in Hollywood at least once: the butler. So it was that Denholm Elliott, best known to most 80s kids as Marcus Brody in the Indiana Jones movies, took that role in Trading Places. However, despite Elliott being that bit hotter after 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was not the first choice for the part of Louis’ servant Coleman.
That honour went to Sir John Gielgud, one of the most acclaimed British actors of stage and screen in the 20th century. However, Gielgud had not long since played a butler (see, told you!) opposite Dudley Moore in 1981’s Arthur, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts, and apparently he wasn’t too keen to repeat himself.
13. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Swedish accent was an ad-lib because she really couldn’t do an Austrian one
As tends to be the case in modern comedies, at least a couple of the funniest moments in Trading Places were ad-libbed. One particular scene that sports improvised dialogue comes when the characters don disguises, with Jamie Lee Curtis’ Ophelia clad in Austrian lederhosen. However, when speaking in this disguise, Ophelia introduces herself as “Inga from Sweden” – and the dialogue addresses this inconsistency.
These lines were improvised purely because Curtis was unable to do a convincing Austrian accent, but could manage a Swedish one. We’d have to wonder if Curtis would have done a better job of it 11 years later, after she co-starred with Hollywood’s most famous Austrian – Arnold Schwarzenegger – in 1994’s True Lies. (Regrettably, this sequence also sees Aykroyd dress in blackface and pretend to be Jamaican, but perhaps we should just try to overlook that for the moment…)
12. Don Ameche apologised to the crew whenever he had to swear on camera
Don Ameche was very much an old-fashioned Hollywood gentleman, having risen to fame as an actor back in the 1930s. As such, certain aspects of his role in an R-rated John Landis comedy posed a challenge to him – in particular, the use of bad language. Much to Ameche’s chagrin, the role of Mortimer Duke required him to utter two of the most unseemly forms of profanity: the F-word, and worse yet the N-word.
Years later, Jamie Lee Curtis claimed in an interview with Larry King that Ameche would show up to set early when shooting scenes that involved curse words, so that he could apologise in person to every crew member beforehand. In addition, Ameche is said to have refused to shoot more than a single take of his final scene, when Mortimer cries “f*** him!”
11. John Landis didn’t know who Eddie Murphy was
Today, all the central players from Trading Places are long-established screen stars, but it was a different story when the film went into production. Eddie Murphy, in particular, was still an almost complete unknown (his debut movie 48 Hrs. hadn’t been released yet). Indeed, John Landis himself has confessed that when Paramount executives first suggested Eddie Murphy for the film, the director didn’t know who he was.
There was an even greater lack of familiarity between the young leads of Trading Places, and the elder supporting actors. Ralph Bellamy once recounted that on the first day of shooting, “I said, ‘Why, this is my 72nd movie.’ And Don [Ameche] answers, ‘Why, this is my 56th.’ And Eddie Murphy looks embarrassed and said, ‘Boys, this is my first. Ever.’ It broke everybody up, and the movie became my biggest hit.”
10. There are a number of hidden cameos in the film
Trading Places squeezes in a number of fun, fan-pleasing cameos for the more eagle-eyed viewers in the audience. Probably the easiest one to spot is Frank Oz, the director and sometime actor still best known as the voice and puppeteer of The Muppets‘ Miss Piggy, and Yoda in the Star Wars series. Oz has a small but prominent role as the arresting officer of Aykroyd’s Louis, following the wealthy trader’s fall from grace. This cameo is a callback to a similar role Oz played in The Blues Brothers.
Another noteworthy cameo comes from Jim Belushi, brother of Landis and Aykroyd’s late friend John; although he’s for the most part unrecognisable behind a gorilla suit. Nor is Belushi the only cameo actor with a familial link, as we also have a brief appearance from Kelly Curtis, sister of Jamie Lee, as country club girl Muffy.
9. Louis’ arrest number is a tribute to John Belushi
Trading Places was in some ways a bittersweet reunion for actor Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis, as their previous collaboration, The Blues Brothers, had been with the late John Belushi. However, Trading Places does still go about keeping the comedy legend’s spirit alive, albeit in a subtle way. One thing Trading Places shares with The Blues Brothers is prison.
Whilst The Blues Brothers sees Belushi’s Jake Blues being released after completing his sentence, Trading Places sees Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe jailed. Take a close look at the mugshots for Belushi’s character and Aykroyd’s character, and hopefully you can spot the connection. Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe has the exact same number on his mugshot card (74745058) as Belushi’s Jake Blues.
8. Part of the film was shot during real-life trading hours at the World Trade Center
Some of Trading Places’ most memorable moments take place on the Commodities Exchange floor at the World Trade Center in New York. If these scenes seem realistic, this would be because the cast and crew shot there for real, during actual trading hours. Landis recalls, “They were basically trading like 8 or 9 hours a day, so we were in there for 3 to 4 hours on two days between opening and closing, and we got a lot done.”
The director recalls being “quite taken aback at how physically rough it was – they really elbowed one another… It was like a contact sport.” And of course, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy themselves were right in the middle of all that pushing and shoving for the pivotal climactic scene.
7. The Duke Brothers return in Coming to America as vagrants
As demonstrated by the subtle callback to The Blues Brothers in Trading Places, director John Landis likes winking to the audience with references to his previous hits. Landis would do so again on his next film with Eddie Murphy, the 1988 smash hit comedy Coming to America. As fans of the film will recall, Coming to America stars Murphy as a naive African prince who flees to New York to avoid an arranged marriage, and adopts a working-class lifestyle in the hopes of finding a woman who will love him for who he is.
Coming to America refers back to Trading Places with a brief cameo appearance from Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as Randolph and Mortimer Duke. The cameo shows that these formerly rich characters are now living rough on the street, where they are given some money by Murphy’s Prince Akeem.
6. The film inspired a new financial regulation dubbed ‘the Eddie Murphy rule’
Believe it or not, Trading Places was the real-life inspiration for brand new regulations on the financial markets. In 2010, Trading Commission chief Gary Gensler stated: “We have recommended banning using misappropriated government information to trade in the commodity markets.” In Trading Places, part of the Duke brothers’ nefarious scheme is “to profit from trades in frozen concentrated orange juice futures contracts.”
Most significantly, the Dukes plan to do this “using an illicitly obtained and not yet public Department of Agriculture orange crop report.” The new regulations introduced in 2010 banned any such activity – and, brilliantly, came to be known as ‘the Eddie Murphy rule.’ The irony is, Murphy admitted that he himself didn’t really understand how commodity trading worked at all.
5. It launched the professional partnerships of Murphy/Landis and Aykroyd/Curtis
To date, all the key players of Trading Places have never made another movie together, but members of the team have reunited. It was the first of three times Eddie Murphy headlined a film directed by John Landis, the duo later reuniting on 1988’s hugely popular Coming to America and 1994’s Beverly Hills Cop III. Aykroyd would later take supporting roles in Landis’ Into the Night, Susan’s Plan and the deeply troubled Twilight Zone: The Movie, as well as taking the lead in the ill-advised 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000.
Aykroyd and Curtis, meanwhile, went on to co-star another three times to date: in 1991 comedy-drama My Girl, its 1994 sequel My Girl 2 and 2004’s Christmas with the Kranks. Meanwhile, Murphy and Aykroyd (who were originally intended to reunite in Ghostbusters) only worked together once more, again directed by Landis, in a music video for blues legend B.B. King.
4. The film has become perennial Christmas viewing in Italy
Trading Places can often be found listed alongside the likes of Die Hard and Gremlins, two other 80s films which prompt seemingly endless debate about whether or not they’re actually Christmas movies. Though the events of the film take place around the Christmas holiday period, it’s arguable that Christmas as a theme isn’t vital to the Trading Places plot. More to the point, Trading Places wasn’t even released to cinemas around Christmas time, instead opening in July 1983.
Nonetheless, for many fans of the film, Trading Places is fully accepted as a true Christmas classic. However, it’s perhaps surprising that the film has become standard Christmas TV viewing not in the US or UK, but in Italy. The comedy has been a staple of Italian Christmas TV viewing for over two decades, screening every year and drawing large audiences on channel Italia 1 since 1997.
3. It was one of the biggest box office hits of 1983
Paramount’s fears that a comedy headlined by Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy wouldn’t fare well at the box office proved to be unfounded. Having cost $15 million to make, Trading Places ultimately made $90 million at the US box office alone. This made it the second highest-grossing R-rated film of 1983, behind Flashdance (which made just over $92 million), and the fourth-biggest US box office hit of 1983, the top three earners being Flashdance, Terms of Endearment ($108.4 million) and Return of the Jedi (a whopping $252.5 million).
Small wonder, then, that from that point on Aykroyd and Murphy became two of the most bankable stars of the 80s. Aykroyd would next make his signature movie, Ghostbusters, whilst Murphy took the lead in comedy thriller Beverly Hills Cop. These would be the top two highest-earning films of 1984.
2. It won two BAFTAs
Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t exaggerating when she said being cast in Trading Places changed her life, as it saw her awarded her first major accolade. Curtis was named Best Supporting Actress at the 1984 BAFTA Film Awards, the UK’s equivalent of the Oscars, beating significant competition from Maureen Lipman, Teri Garr and Rosemary Harris. Trading Places also landed Denholm Elliott with the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA, with Elliott beating Bob Hoskins, Burt Lancaster and Jerry Lewis.
The film was also nominated twice at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, and Best Actor: Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Eddie Murphy. Unfortunately, Trading Places lost the Best Musical or Comedy Golden Globe to Yentl, whilst Murphy lost out to Michael Caine in Educating Rita.
1. It’s a new take on an old story
The main focus of Trading Places is the switching of social positions between a vagrant and an upper-class commodities broker. It’s by no means an accident that this premise directly echoes a classic from 19th century American literature. The film is an update of Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince and the Pauper, in which two boys from different walks of life use their physical resemblance to switch places temporarily.
Obviously the physical resemblance aspect was out with Trading Places, but otherwise the core idea – and its underlying social commentary – are much the same. The premise of Trading Places has also been compared to that of Mozart’s 1786 opera The Marriage of Figaro, in which a wealthy master attempts to marry the bride-to-be of his lowly servant, until the servant strikes back.