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Facts About Three Amigos! Most Of Us Didn't Know

In the midst of an '80s Western revival — which included big hits like Silverado and Pale Rider — came Three Amigos!, a loving parody of the genre and a send-up of Hollywood. Three Amigos! was a landmark in comedy collaboration, starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short under the direction of John Landis (Animal House) with a script co-written by Martin and Saturday Night Live mastermind Lorne Michaels. 

While drawing elements from films like The Magnificent Seven, the plot was novel in that a group of movie stars are mistaken for actual heroes and get into some potentially deadly circumstances, an idea later borrowed by Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder. In this case, it's bolero jacket- and sombrero-clad silent-screen gunfighters Dusty Bottoms (Chase), Lucky Day (Martin), and Ned Nederlander (Short) who wind up in the Mexican village of Santa Poco after responding to a plea to help stop the villainous El Guapo and his criminal gang, initially thinking it's a movie offer.

Three Amigos! is a cult classic, what with its comic nonsense, musical horses, singing bushes, and widely imitated Amigos "salute." But even if you've seen the film multiple times, there are quite a few facts that even die-hard fans don't know. From the movie's origins to behind-the-scenes shenanigans, here's a look into the wild world of Three Amigos!

Three friends wrote Three Amigos!

It's a definitive movie of the mid-'80s, but Three Amigos! began life way back in the '70s, before co-writer Steve Martin was a movie star or had even done much screenwriting at all. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Martin was inspired after hearing the theme song of the 1944 Disney animated feature The Three Caballeros. "It was the late '70s when I came up with the idea of the three actors going to perform a show, and it becoming real," Martin told Empire. So, he enlisted two writers to convert that idea into a workable, marketable screenplay, but "that didn't work out." Martin says that it "was just very different. Very based on puns." 

Some years later, Martin was visiting his friend, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, at the latter's home on St. Barts. He showed Michaels the script, who thought Martin had a good concept but that he should abandon the screenplay and write a new one from scratch. Martin agreed, then recruited singer-songwriter Randy Newman. These three amigos then worked together on that script at Martin's house together, off and on for seven months.

The Three Amigos were almost played by different people

Not only did it take the writers a while to get a workable Three Amigos! script, but the long lead time gave way to some monumental changes to the projected cast. From the get-go, the film was meant to be a vehicle for three big comedy stars who'd honed their chops on Saturday Night Live. "It was going to be me, Chevy [Chase], and [John] Belushi," star and co-writer Steve Martin told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015, adding, "And then Belushi said no." Of course, the actor's death in 1982 would've ultimately precluded his involvement. 

In an early '80s interview with Playboy (via Vulture), Martin mentioned that at another point, the movie, then titled The Three Caballeros, was set to star himself, Belushi, and Belushi's frequent screen partner and SNL cohort Dan Aykroyd. At one point, Steven Spielberg was considering directing Three Amigos! as his follow-up to the action comedy 1941, and he wanted Martin to co-star with Bill Murray and Robin Williams. However, he made E.T. the Extra Terrestrial instead, John Landis got the directing job, and the final trio turned out to be Martin, Chase, and Martin Short, with his first-ever leading role in a movie. "He called himself the cheap amigo," Martin said.

Three Amigos! was supposed to help Lorne Michaels segue into filmmaking

Three Amigos! stars three performers known for their association with Saturday Night Live — cast members Chevy Chase and Martin Short and frequent host Steve Martin. Additionally, the film was co-written by Lorne Michaels, creator of SNL and hands-on producer of the series since 1975, except for a five-year period in the early 1980s when he needed a break from the grind of making a weekly live television series and wanted to try other things. 

Michaels was in a prime spot to make a big splash in Hollywood the way SNL stars like Chase, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy would. After all, he'd created a Friday night primetime sketch series called The New Show that wound up the third-least-popular show of the 1983-84 season, so movies seemed a better route. "I wasn't really focused on much other than Three Amigos! I'd spent the better part of 1984 writing it," Michaels said in the SNL oral history Live from New York. By spring 1985, the film was shooting under the direction of John Landis, and that's when NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff called Michaels and asked him to come back to SNL, which was in danger of cancellation. Michaels returned to his creation, abandoning a promising feature film writing career that began and ended with Three Amigos!

A comedy legend shot a scene that wound up cut and lost

Three Amigos! is obviously loaded with comedic talent. Not only do Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short headline the movie, but 1980s Saturday Night Live stars Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz appear in smaller roles. The film was originally slated to include even more familiar, funny faces. Sam Kinison was one of the era's most popular and influential comedians, known for his darkly funny, screaming rants about the frailties of modern society. In 1986, he made his first major forays into movies, appearing as Professor Terguson in Back to School and filming a brief but wild scene for Three Amigos! 

"Sam Kinison did a cameo as a savage mountain man, wearing chicken bones, with a bloody ax in each hand. Steve and Marty were caught in his trap and kept shouting at Chevy to shoot him," director John Landis told Empire. "It was very funny and insane." But sadly, the footage didn't make it into the final cut. Kinison and Chase didn't get along, and according to the late comedian's brother, Bill, Kinison believed Chase forced Landis to delete the scene. Landis, however, had a more reasonable explanation. "The film was too long, and I was looking for stuff I could lift without damaging the plot," he told Maxim in 2011. "I wish we could find that footage because it was outstanding."

Three Amigos! was shot on old Western sets

While set primarily in the small Mexican village of Santa Poco, Three Amigos! didn't film there — mainly because Santa Poco isn't a real place. The production never ventured into Mexico at all, in fact. While rumors persist that it was filmed in the same Mexican town as the classic Western The Magnificent Seven, Three Amigos! filmed extensively in the Southern California locale of Simi Valley. (The town the Amigos wander into — Old Tucson — was, however, where the John Wayne classic Rio Bravo was shot.) Beyond that, Three Amigos! was mostly shot on location in California's Mojave Desert.

However, the silent movie sequence in the film was shot in authentic, Old Hollywood environs. The production used the oldest still-standing exterior set on the Universal Studios lot, which had been built for an early 20th-century Western starring the once popular but now largely forgotten Tom Mix. As director John Landis recalled, during filming, trams full of visitors on the Universal Studios tour would come through "every ten minutes, and the boys would shoot their six-guns and dance for them."

The director didn't get final cut

It's got a running time of 104 minutes, but Three Amigos! could've been much longer had director John Landis filmed everything in the script and kept everything he filmed. According to star Steve Martin, one scene was too costly to shoot. "We get buried up to our necks by some weird tribe," he told Empire. "I clear my throat and announce, 'If you don't set us free, I'm going to make the sun go dark.'" Then the sun does darken, which would've been a pretty expensive shot. 

There was also a detailed opening number set in 1910s Hollywood. "We did a very elaborate tracking shot following the Amigos as they walked to the studio head's office. Past open-air stages where things were being filmed — a jungle epic, a pie-fight, a contemporary melodrama, then finally The Duelling Cavalier, with Fran Drescher in a Marie Antoinette costume swooning over her lover," Landis recalled. Sadly, all of that was deleted was from the final cut.

That sequence was a casualty of Landis losing control in its post-production phase. "I was on trial and could only work at night," Landis said, referring to the involuntary manslaughter charges he faced after three actors died during a helicopter mishap on the set of 1983's The Twilight Zone: The Movie on his watch. "When I turned the movie over to the studio, Orion, they took over and removed a lot of stuff that I actually thought was great."

Chevy Chase didn't much care for Three Amigos!

Chevy Chase has two parallel reputations. The first is that he consistently makes excellent comedy films, like Vacation, Caddyshack, and Fletch. On the other hand, he's reportedly tough to work with and can be quite mean. That Chase was apparently in full force on the set of Three Amigos! According to Nick de Semlyen's '80s comedy history Wild and Crazy Guys, Chase didn't realize his microphone was live while waiting for a shot to be set up on the edge of a precarious cliff, and he made a dark joke about how three actors had died when Three Amigos! director John Landis had helmed part of The Twilight Zone: The Movie. A fistfight nearly broke out when Landis heard Chase's remarks, which came on the heels of other snide comments about how Landis' choices had soiled their previous collaboration, Spies Like Us.

In December 1986, Chase appeared on The Tonight Show to promote Three Amigos!, and he stuck around the stage when critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert came on to talk movies. When asked by host Johnny Carson about his least favorite Christmas season release, Ebert glibly replied, "Three Amigos!" Chase eased the tension, quipping, "Looking forward to your next picture." After the taping, Chase reportedly approached Ebert in his dressing room and said of Three Amigos!, "I don't think it's so hot either."

References to other Steve Martin movies abound

By the time Three Amigos! hit movie theaters in late 1986, star and co-writer Steve Martin had established himself as one of the most prominent comedy figures of the era, jumping from an extremely popular career as a stand-up comedian to acting in films like The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, and All of Me. Martin's movies were such a part of the common cultural knowledge that Three Amigos! filmmakers could get away with throwing in a couple of nods to those emerging '80s classics. 

For example, a running gag in the detective movie send-up Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid finds Martin's character, Rigby Reardon, repeatedly shot in the left arm. That's where Martin's character in Three Amigos!, Lucky Day, is also shot and injured. And when the Amigos chant in order to awaken the Invisible Swordsman, Lucky utters, "Farley-farley-farley-farley-farley-hfuhruhurr!" In The Man with Two Brains, Martin played the ridiculously named Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr.

How Three Amigos! made a bush sing

Randy Newman is one of America's most familiar musical voices, a man known for his distinctive singing style, routinely Oscar-nominated compositions for Pixar, and bitingly humorous novelty songs like "Short People" and "I Love L.A." Randy Newman is not much of a screenwriter, with just one film credit to his name — Three Amigos! The film has so many songs in it that it's basically a musical, and writing all those ("The Ballad of the Three Amigos," "My Little Buttercup") marks Newman's primary contribution to the script (primarily the work of Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels). 

He also provided some voice acting, with substantial pitch-shifting and modulation, to one of the movie's most memorable characters — the Singing Bush. Aptly named, it sings so loudly and obnoxiously that it doesn't even notice when the Three Amigos ask for it to confirm that it is, in fact, the Singing Bush of which they've heard tell. "That was in the screenplay," director John Landis told Movies.com, adding, "There were huge discussions about whether or not it should be animated or if we should see its lips moving. I said, 'Bushes don't have lips! I'm just going to make it look as ridiculous as possible.'"

The Three Amigos of pranks

Lorne Michaels co-wrote Three Amigos! during a break from Saturday Night Live, and by the time the film was released in late 1986, he was back in charge of the NBC late-night sketch comedy institution. He could also unabashedly use the show as a promotional tool for Three Amigos! On December 6, 1986, six days before the film opened in movie theaters, all three amigos — Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short — co-hosted SNL together. (The musical guest was none other than Three Amigos! co-writer Randy Newman.) And a highlight of the episode was a bit where Martin and Short came out on stage in suits, but Chase was dressed in his Three Amigos! costume — giant hat and all. 

It's played off as a prank at Chase's expense. But according to Empire, there's a minor show business legend that Chase and Martin actually pulled this stunt for real at the film's premiere. "It almost happened," Short said. "The plan was that we were going to show up in our costumes, then at four o'clock it was decided we weren't. And their joke was, 'What if no one tells Marty?'" Martin said it would've been very funny, but that they ultimately opted against it, but then he and his castmates "tried to create a myth that it had happened."

Is there a possibility for more Three Amigos?

Three Amigos! seems like a natural candidate for a sequel, as Lucky Day, Dusty Bottoms, and Ned Nederlander could've embarked on all kinds of Western-style adventures. But according to director John Landis in Empire, sequel thoughts ended "as soon as it didn't do well." Three Amigos! took in $39.2 million in theaters, a surprisingly low figure for a film with big stars like Chevy Chase and Steve Martin. But since the film became an enduring favorite thanks to home video and cable TV airings, and since all three main cast members are still kicking, why not another? "I don't think it's for us," Martin told the El Paso Times in 2019. "Maybe for someone younger."

That someone younger could be Chris Hemsworth. At the 2019 ACE Comic-Con Midwest, he floated the idea of a reboot with fellow Avengers: Endgame stars Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. "That was so sad about kind of finishing Endgame, was just, were we ever going to get to hang out again?" Hemsworth said (via LadBible). "And I immediately started thinking, 'What else could we do?'" His first thought? "We could remake the Three Amigos! or something."

And if those actual superheroes don't bring it back to screens, somebody else might take it to the stage. On a 2017 episode of The Tonight Show, Three Amigos! co-writer Randy Newman said that he "heard a rumor that they want to make a musical of it very possibly."