Ask anyone to name an 80s comedy about time travel, and the first one that comes to their mind will probably be Back to the Future. However, coming up a close second is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
With a low budget, a weird concept and two unknown lead actors, few could have anticipated the 1989 film having quite the impact that it did, spawning a franchise that included 1991 sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, plus 2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music. Join us now as we unearth some facts you might not have known about this time-hopping teen comedy classic.
25. Keanu Reeves thought Ted would be the only role he’d be remembered for
Keanu Reeves was 25 years old and had been in the business for around five years when he landed the role of Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan. He did such a great job as Ted that for much of the 90s, audiences had difficulty separating Reeves from his Ted persona. This made it hard for some viewers to accept him in straight roles like Johnny Utah in Point Break, Jack Traven in Speed and Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Reeves recognised this, and once joked that he feared that on his death his headstone would read, “Here lies Keanu Reeves. He played Ted.” However, by the end of the 90s Reeves successfully found a new career-redefining role in Thomas Anderson/Neo of 1999’s The Matrix and its sequels. These days, Reeves is equally synonymous with the titular hero of the John Wick series.
24. The film originally featured a time-travelling van
You can’t talk about time-travelling comedies of the 1980s without talking about Back to the Future. In its concept alone, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure immediately invites comparison with Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic. Still, if the creators had stuck with the first draft of the Bill & Ted script, the similarities might have been even greater between it and Back to the Future.
Originally, Bill and Ted were going to travel through time in a 1969 Chevy van. However, the producers were not unreasonably worried that this was too close to Back to the Future, in which the time machine was of course a DeLorean sports car. It was ultimately decided to instead give Bill and Ted a time-travelling phone booth – although this too is a nod to the vehicle of another notable time traveller, TV’s Doctor Who.
23. The film almost didn’t get released after the production company went bankrupt
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was financed by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, an independent studio behind such films as Manhunter, Near Dark and Evil Dead II. While many of the company’s films are considered classics today, they weren’t doing well financially at the time, and the studio went bankrupt soon after Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was completed.
For a time, Bill & Ted seemed doomed. Director Stephen Herek recalls, “Everybody [hated] the movie… Somebody wanted to say that it was going to go straight to video and it’s not even worth the cost of the videotape.” Happily, the rights to Excellent Adventure wound up going to Orion Pictures, who had a little more faith in the material. Actor Alex Winter recalls that an early test screening “went over like gangbusters,” and after that the film’s theatrical release was secured.
22. Alex Winter still gets ‘thank you’ letters from History teachers (and complaints from English teachers!)
Like Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter was a relatively unknown actor in his early 20s when cast in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, aside from his supporting role as the vampire Marko in 1987’s The Lost Boys. Winter (who has worked primarily as a director since the first two Bill & Ted movies) says he has received many letters of praise from high school history teachers over the years.
These educators have thanked Winter for helping kids want to take more interest in researching past historical figures, just as Bill and Ted did. However, Winter says he also gets angry letters from English teachers, who complain that Bill and Ted’s simplistic means of self-expression has also affected the way students speak! We’re not sure that last charge is entirely fair: after all, Bill and Ted make proper use of some juicy words like “heinous,” “distinguished,” “resplendent” and so on.
21. A fan won the phone booth in a Nintendo magazine competition
For really serious film fans, few items are more desired than actual memorabilia that appeared on-screen in a popular movie. In the case of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, surely the single most iconic piece of memorabilia must be the pivotal time-travelling phone booth. One fan of the movie wound up the lucky owner of the original Excellent Adventure phone booth thanks to a video game magazine contest.
The coveted item was offered up as a prize by Nintendo Power Magazine in 1991, to tie in with the release of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure. The winner of this most excellent contest was one Kenneth Grayson, who would years later be quizzed on the matter on Reddit. The Reddit thread makes for an entertaining and occasionally eyebrow-raising read, as Grayson describes at length how owning the booth impacted him personally (and that includes his love life…)
20. Reeves and Winter also voiced Bill and Ted in the animated TV series
2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music has widely been said to be the third time Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have played Bill and Ted – but this isn’t quite true. The actors first reprised their roles in the largely forgotten animated TV series Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures. This cartoon hit the small screen in 1990, the year before Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was released.
Winter and Reeves were joined in the ‘toon by George Carlin, who also returned to provide the voice of Rufus. The three actors lent their vocal duties to the first season of the cartoon, for which 13 episodes were produced. In 1991, a second season of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures was produced with different voice actors. This ended after eight episodes.
19. There was a live-action TV spin-off
After animated series Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures ended, there was another TV show bearing that same title, this time in live action. Actors Christopher Kennedy and Evan Richards, who had voiced Bill and Ted on the second season of the cartoon, returned to play the roles on camera. Rick Overton took over from George Carlin as Rufus, whilst Lisa Wilcox (known for A Nightmare on Elm Street Parts 4 and 5) was the new Missy.
Disregarding the events of sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the show kept our heroes in high school and followed them on further time-travelling adventures. However, the ratings were low and the critics were harsh, and the live-action Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures didn’t last long. Only eight episodes were produced and the show was promptly forgotten, not unlike such other movie-based 90s sitcoms as Ferris Bueller and Revenge of the Nerds.
18. Bill & Ted breakfast cereal used to be a thing
When Bill & Ted merchandising was at its peak, the characters were perhaps inevitably the face of a breakfast cereal. Released as a tie-in with the TV cartoon series in 1990, it was naturally named Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal. Produced by Ralston, the cereal consisted of cinnamon-flavoured toasted oat squares and marshmallow pieces shaped like musical notes.
The actors were not particularly well-compensated for their likeness being used on the boxes: as Alex Winter wryly recalls, “The cereal was particularly tragic… Not the most nutritious food item. And it was weird. To walk into a supermarket when you’re basically a regular schmo living in Venice in a s***ty apartment – we weren’t making the kind of money that actors make today for that kind of stuff – and there you are on a cereal box.”
17. Eddie Van Halen joked that he would have joined Wyld Stallyns if asked
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure famously sees Reeves and Winter’s hapless musicians plotting to enlist Eddie Van Halen to join their band Wyld Stallyns. The eponymous lead guitarist of legendary heavy metal band Van Halen was widely regarded the best rock musician in the world at the time. After seeing the movie, the guitar hero reportedly joked he would have joined Wyld Stallyns if they’d asked.
One wonders if he was entirely kidding, as despite the huge success enjoyed by Van Halen, the band had a rather tumultuous history, with personality clashes leading to multiple line-up changes over the years. Nonetheless, the band stayed together until the iconic guitarist sadly passed away in October 2020, after a long struggle with cancer.
16. George Carlin wasn’t cast as Rufus until the shoot was almost over
While Eddie Van Halen says he would have considered joining Wyld Stallyns, it turns out the filmmakers did briefly have him in mind for a role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: that of Rufus, the wise man from the future who travels back to San Dimas, 1988 to help Bill and Ted secure their destiny. However, up until quite late in production, the filmmakers still hadn’t cast the role, and didn’t know who to go with.
As well as Van Halen, a number of other major rock stars were considered for the role, including Ringo Starr of The Beatles and Roger Daltrey of The Who. At one point, even James Bond legend Sean Connery was on the wish list to play Rufus – as was Charlie Sheen, bizarrely. Eventually someone hit upon the idea of casting stand-up comedy legend George Carlin, and the rest is history.
15. ZZ Top were asked to play the Three Most Important People
One key scene in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure sees the not-so-dynamic duo accidentally wind up 600 years in the future. Here, they get a glimpse of the utopian society that has been constructed under the influence of their music. While there, they encounter the Three Most Important People. Whilst we learn basically nothing about these people, it’s clear they have a major role to play in this new world.
Fittingly given the film’s rock’n’roll theme, director Stephen Herek originally wanted to cast arguably the most famous power trio of the 80s: ZZ Top. This didn’t work out, but the filmmakers did cast some bona fide rockers in the roles: the Three Most Important People wound up being Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Fee Waybill of the Tubes and Martha Davis of the Motels.
14. A completely different opening with a musical number was shot for the film
We first meet Bill and Ted when they’re in the garage shooting a Wyld Stallyns promo video (if we can call it that). However, the film was at one point going to have a radically different, far more lavish opening sequence. Director Stephen Herek shot an elaborate musical-style scene which followed Bill and Ted on their way to school, doing air guitar.
Winter says the scene saw Reeves and himself, “at a bus stop waiting for the bus to go to school, and we break into this air-guitar dance number – this whole elaborate, choreographed thing” – which, in another rock’n’roll connection, the actors rehearsed in a dance studio at the home of singer Stevie Nicks. Alas, after all that work it was decided the introduction was wrong for the film, and it was cut.
13. The original ending was reshot because it was so boring
While he may have cut the original opening of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in favour of something less theatrical, director Stephen Herek wound up doing the opposite with the ending. The original climax as scripted and shot saw our heroes simply deliver a basic history report in their classroom. After this, our heroes proceeded to take the two medieval princesses to the prom, whilst dressed in tuxedos with shorts.
Everyone including director Stephen Herek agreed that this ending was “underwhelming” and “needed to be a bit more operatic.” Happily, the production was able to scrape together the funds necessary to shoot the larger, rock concert-esque history report sequence that made the final film. Reeves reflects, “It was cool that resources were made available to shoot the ending that’s in the [final cut] to give it some more scale, to tie in all the characters.”
12. Paulie Shore auditioned for both lead roles
A great many young actors were considered for the lead roles of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. One of those who didn’t make the grade went on to make a splash in the early 90s: one Pauly Shore. The actor and comedian was, like Reeves and Winter, largely unknown at the time of his Bill & Ted audition.
However, two years after the release of Excellent Adventure, Shore found fame via a movie that owed a significant debt to Bill & Ted: the 1991 comedy Encino Man (AKA California Man). With his uniquely nasal, self-consciously annoying performance style, Shore soon became one of the most simultaneously loved and hated figures in Hollywood. It was also rumoured that Shore’s 1996 movie Bio-Dome was originally concieved as a third Bill & Ted movie, but this claim has been discredited as bogus (literally).
11. The director turned down the sequel because he thought it was too dark
After the success of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, sequel plans quickly got underway – but one key figure from the original did not return. That was director Stephen Herek, who decided to pass on the second Bill & Ted movie because he didn’t like the direction that writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon were going in. The script that eventually became Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was initially entitled Bill & Ted Go to Hell, and Herek felt it was “mean-spirited.”
As anyone’s who’s seen the sequel will recall, it does get a bit darker than the first film, with our heroes killed off and forced to traverse the afterlife. In Herek’s absence, director Pete Hewitt took over behind the camera, and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was almost as big a hit as its predecessor. Herek, meanwhile, went on to direct such hits as Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, The Mighty Ducks and The Three Musketeers.
10. It was originally ‘Bill & Ted & Bob’
It’s hard now to envisage anyone other than Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as Bill and Ted. However, in their earliest incarnation, the characters were performed on stage by screenwriters Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson. Solomon and Matheson made up the characters as part of a comedy improv class they were taking in the mid-80s.
Moreover, in this earliest version of events it wasn’t just a duo but a trio, with a third character named Bob. In these ad-libbed sketches, the three ill-informed youngsters would talk about current events without actually knowing what they were talking about. However, the actor playing Bob pulled out after the first few performances, leaving Matheson and Solomon to further develop Bill and Ted on their own as a duo.
9. The original plot saw Bill and Ted starting major historical incidents like the sinking of the Titanic
In its original conception, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure had a different, perhaps less upbeat tone. Originally the dim-witted duo’s travels through time saw them inadvertently cause such historical catastrophes as the sinking of the Titanic and the spread of the Black Plague. Some of this may have been ditched due to similarity with the movie Time Bandits (which, for instance also features the Titanic).
Other changes were also prompted by the casting of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Bill and Ted were originally envisaged as nerdy, perhaps less sympathetic characters who were unpopular at school, not unlike later TV icons Beavis and Butthead. However, because of the innate likeability of Reeves and Winter, the filmmakers knew they had to rethink things.
8. San Dimas referenced the film in its 50th anniversary celebrations
Prior to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it’s fair to say that most people outside of California had never heard of the city of San Dimas. However, the 1989 comedy hit forever established San Dimas as the home of Bill and Ted in the memories of audiences worldwide. Famously, the final history report scene sees students tackle the question of how great figures from history would find life in San Dimas.
The movie also suggests that, six hundred years in the future, San Dimas will be one of the most important cities on Earth thanks to its association with Bill and Ted. Curiously, it seems that the city today celebrates the fame that it has enjoyed since Bill & Ted’s Excellent adventure. San Dimas celebrated 50 years of incorporation in 2010, and the official slogan for the celebration was “San Dimas, 1960 – 2010 – An excellent adventure!”
7. Reeves and Winter were cast after they were spotted messing around in a McDonald’s queue
The casting process for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was intensive, with literally hundreds of actors seen for the lead roles. For a time, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter were just two among a vast number of young actors under consideration. Screenwriters Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson have a great memory of the moment they knew Winter and Reeves were the duo they had to go with.
During pre-production, the writers had gone into a nearby McDonald’s for a bite, when Winter and Reeves walked in together. Reportedly the actors were messing around in a way that perfectly captured the spirit of the characters. The writers are said to have immediately remarked to one another, “Those guys should be Bill and Ted!”
6. The phone booth was nicknamed ‘The Death Box’ because filming in it was so unpleasant
Bill and Ted having a time-travelling phone booth was an interesting twist for audiences used to seeing more formidable-looking time machines in their movies. However, by all accounts the booth itself didn’t necessarily make for the most pleasant working environment for the cast. Reportedly Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves wound up giving the booth the less-than-flattering nickname of ‘The Death Box.’
Winter recalls, “We’re all in a regular phone booth with our boiling-hot costumes and varying degrees of body odors intermingling, you know?” As for the rollercoaster ride circuits of time sequences: “there were nine or ten of us teetering on this thing, duct-taped to a hydraulic unit against a green screen in a studio in outer Tempe, Arizona, like a death ride canoe from the worst carny ride you’ve ever been on.”
5. The film was so popular in Germany that it altered their language
You might not have known that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure proved particularly popular in Germany. The German dub of the film actually became a cult classic in its own right, to the point where it started affecting the German language itself. For starters, the German Bill & Ted coined the words ‘hoschi’ and ‘granatenstark’, which mean ‘dude’ and ‘excellent’ respectively. No translation of these words had ever existed in Germany before, but they became commonplace after the movie.
As if that wasn’t enough, the phrase ‘volle kanne, hoschi’ meaning ‘party on, dude’, became popular among German youths after the movie came out. The German Bill & Ted’s translation of ‘be excellent to each other’ also has a profound ring to it, as translated out of German it actually means ‘colourful and excellent is the being’.
4. It’s one of three productions to star Genghis Khan and Abraham Lincoln together
After watching Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it’s easy to assume that the collection of historical figures have never been seen on screen together before. You would be right to think that the full cast of famous people from history have never all appeared together, but certain pair-ups are actually more common than you might think. Specifically, several projects involving time travel have brought Genghis Khan and Abraham Lincoln together on screen.
If for some reason you want to watch something else featuring the two historical figures after watching Bill & Ted, you only have to tune into Clone High, an animated adult sitcom that began in 2002, which sees several famous figures of history go to high school together. If that’s not enough, there’s always the Star Trek: The Original Series episode The Savage Curtain, where Lincoln and Khan (Genghis, not Noonien Singh) also appear together.
3. The script was written in just four days
The characters of Bill and Ted were originally born and developed in an improv group, so when it came to making a movie, a lot of their story had been developed already. That made writing a script a lot easier, since the premise of two high schoolers who knew nothing about history was already established. Still, even though writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon weren’t starting completely from scratch when they wrote the Excellent Adventure script, it’s still surprising just how quickly it got written.
Solomon and Matheson took just four days to write the script from beginning to end, and they did it all by hand too. The pair spent part of each day holding meetings at various local coffee shops, and that’s where the bulk of the writing got done. That might explain the uniquely fast and funny pace of the film, since both of them must have been seriously caffeinated after a week of coffee shop writing sessions.
2. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter looked so cool that the characters were changed from nerds
Like most major films, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure went through changes during production. Surprisingly, Reeves originally auditioned for Bill whilst Winter read for Ted. After they were cast, the first thing that changed was who was playing who, which the actors only found out about when they showed up to wardrobe and were given the other character’s signature clothes.
The other change is that the characters were originally supposed to be losers, who the popular kids in high school hated and bullied. Reportedly one scene was shot in which Bill and Ted were sneered at by the popular kids at school, but as Ed Solomon recalls, “once you cast Alex and Keanu, who look like pretty cool guys, that was hard to believe.”
1. It was never supposed to be a sci-fi movie
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a difficult film to categorise in many ways, thanks to its wacky premise. With that said, the inclusion of time travel puts it solidly in the science fiction category, at least according to the writers. Chris Matheson originally wanted to stay away from sci-fi to avoid comparisons with his father Richard Matheson (author of I am Legend and The Incredible Shrinking Man), an influential writer in the genre.
Originally, the time travel idea was just one among a number of Bill and Ted skits they considered turning into a full length script. Ultimately, it was Richard Matheson himself who told his son and co-writer Ed Solomon that the time travel idea was the best of them. Co-writers Matheson and Solomon also appear in the movie as the ice cream waiters.