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The Untold Truth Of Get Shorty

If there's one thing we've learned from Hollywood over the years, it's that those in the movie business love making movies about making movies. In turn, the business, art, and seedy underbelly of show biz have fueled the narratives of some of the most marvelously meta movies ever produced. The Player, Ed Wood, and Tropic Thunder are among the more prominent flicks lampooning the madness of making movies, even as they also lovingly embrace every absurd behind-the-scenes moment. Still, few of those "movie" movies have so incisively observed the line thin between satirical skewering and radiant adoration of Hollywood than 1995's crackling crime comedy Get Shorty.

That film found savvy Miami-based loan shark Chili Palmer (John Travolta) tracking a debtor all the way to the sunny/smoggy vistas of Los Angeles and eventually looking to leave his life of crime behind to start anew in the movie biz. It also found him learning the hard way that show business is every bit as cutthroat as the gangster game, with various industry "insiders" endlessly testing both his wit and his will. Those who've seen Get Shorty know full well that Chili's Hollywood adventure is as dangerous as it is hilarious. And those who haven't should know Get Shorty is a crime comedy masterpiece that should head to the top of your "must-see" queue with utmost haste. Either way, here are a few things you probably never knew about Get Shorty.

Danny DeVito was originally eyed for a very different part in Get Shorty

Get Shorty fans know the film is centered around Travolta's Chili Palmer and a handful of fringe-bound industry types trying to get a low-budget prestige picture made by landing one of Hollywood's premiere talents, Martin Weir. Fans also know Weir is portrayed by Mr. Danny DeVito, who delivers one of the best performances of his storied career as the shamelessly self-absorbed but undeniably talented actor.

What you may not know is that DeVito wasn't initially cast as Martin Weir. In fact, per a 1995 Los Angeles Times piece, it seems the beloved actor/producer/director was actually eyeing a much bigger part in Get Shorty, with he and director Barry Sonnenfeld believing him to be a perfect fit for the cocksure role of Chili Palmer. And yes, that bit of casting would've made Get Shorty a very different sort of flick.

As it happens so often in Hollywood, DeVito's casting didn't pan out, with the actor booking a directing gig on 1996's family-friendly Matilda, thus making him unable to commit to playing the lead. After an exhaustive search for a star, producers landed on John Travolta as the main character, and he positively owned the screen as Chili Palmer. Ditto for DeVito, who more than chewed the scenery in the supporting role he took, instead.

John Travolta needed convincing to take the lead role

Depending on your age and or generational affiliation, the name John Travolta can illicit dramatically different reactions from movie lovers. If you grew up in the 1970s, he's an absolute icon thanks to star-making turns in Saturday Night Fever and Grease. The '80s kids out there would no doubt point to more culty cinematic classics like Urban Cowboy and Blow Out to paint Travolta as a semi-fringe figure who's eclectic taste in projects didn't always translate to blockbuster results.

These days, most moviegoers would acknowledge Travolta's career has become a bit farcical and not in that cool Nic Cage sort of way. As for the '90s set, Travolta remains Hollywood's comeback kid with the actor's career earning second life on the back-to-back successes of 1994's Pulp Fiction and the film that followed a year later, Get Shorty

However, according to the Los Angeles Times, when Travolta was offered the role of Chili Palmer, he surprisingly turned it down — twice. Turns out, the man who finally convinced Travolta to take the role of Chili Palmer was his Pulp Fiction director, Quentin Tarantino, who reportedly told the actor, "John, this is not the one you say no to. This is the one you say yes to." Thankfully, Travolta did "say yes," and he cemented his "comeback kid" status with a Golden Globe win to boot.

The titular character in Get Shorty was based on a Hollywood icon

Authenticity can make or break a movie about movies. And pretty much everyone, from cinematic novices to those with decades in the business, agree Get Shorty is about as authentic a look at show business as has ever been committed to film — straight down to its depiction of the megalomaniacal superstar Martin Weir, whose name alone can get a film an instant green light.

Get Shorty's authentic vibes undoubtedly stem from its source material, the novel of the same name from famed author Elmore Leonard. You may not realize it, but Leonard's Get Shorty is based on many of his own adventures meeting with Hollywood types eager to adapt his work. And yes, Leonard reportedly based the character of Martin Weir on one such person, an actor by the name of Dustin Hoffman. 

Yes, that Dustin Hoffman, the two-time Oscar winning star of films like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and Rain Man. As the story goes (via NJ.com), Leonard met with Hoffman in the 1980s to discuss an adaptation of the author's thriller LaBrava. That film never happened, but Hoffman clearly left an impression on Leonard, who not-so-slyly wrote a way over-the-top version of him into Get Shorty. And in a fittingly Get Shorty-esque twist almost too funny to fathom, Hoffman was among the actors offered the role of Chili Palmer when the adaptation was being cast.

The real Chili Palmer made a cameo in Get Shorty

Get Shorty is most famous for exploring the shady machinations of Hollywood, but it also works because it feels equally authentic in its depiction of low-level mobster shenanigans. Not surprisingly, author Elmore Leonard took his cues on the crime front from someone with first-hand knowledge of the scene. That "someone" was a semi-retired private investigator whom Leonard had befriended while researching several of his past novels. And as you might've guessed, the private investigator's name was Ernest "Chili" Palmer, whose friendship and guidance Leonard eventually repaid by giving Palmer's name to the hero of Get Shorty.

Palmer's involvement with Get Shorty didn't stop there, though. According to the New York Daily News, when Leonard's book found itself getting the full-on Hollywood treatment a few years after its publication, the real "Chili" earned an invite to set, and he even landed a cameo in the film. If you're wondering where you can see the man in the flesh, he turns up early in the action, standing at the side of Dennis Farina's fast-talking gangster, Ray "Bones," as one of his silent, intimidating tough guys. And we gotta say, Palmer more than carries the role with a fine bit of "look at me" staring that would put Martin Weir to shame.

Get Shorty breakout Delroy Lindo wasn't the first choice for the role of Bo

It's a well-known fact in Hollywood that casting a movie is as vital to the process as writing, directing, and shooting combined. It's hardly a surprise then that great casting is a big part of what makes Get Shorty such a smashing success, with Danny DeVito, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, and John Travolta chewing up the scenery in their varied roles. It seems one of Travolta's prior costars was tabbed for a key role in the film, too, as Samuel L. Jackson (fresh off a breakout turn in Pulp Fiction) was initially eyed for the role of gangster and wannabe producer Bo Catlett.

That role was played to utter perfection in the film by the great Delroy Lindo, who spilled that Jackson casting nugget in an interview with The A.V. Club, claiming his own work with Spike Lee — combined with MGM's failure to close a deal with Jackson — allowed him to claim the role of Bo Catlett. As he explained, "Malcom X, Crooklyn, and Clockers opened the door directly to Get Shorty." He went on to add, "I think [the producers] couldn't work it out with Sam [Jackson]. ... I was thrilled to be there."

And as much as the world would've loved to have seen Travolta and Jackson again trading barbs on the big screen for Get Shorty, Delroy Lindo absolutely owned the role in a legit tour-de-force performance.

John Travolta fought to keep Elmore Leonard's original dialogue intact

For a movie to attain both the level of critical and commercial success that Get Shorty did, a lot of things have to work out. Perhaps most importantly, a crackerjack piece of screenwriting is essential in kicking a production off on the right foot. And historically speaking, adapting the often wordy work of Elmore Leonard had proven difficult for most prior to Get Shorty. Tasked with translating the dialogue-heavy book to the screen, Scott Frank (Out of Sight, The Queen's Gambit) delivered the goods by doing what most screenwriters hadn't before — staying as faithful to Leonard's source material as possible.

What Frank delivered was a script steeped more in languid delights than plot-moving contrivance. Turns out Frank had some help in keeping his Get Shorty screenplay true to Leonard's vision, and that help came from none other than John Travolta. The actor himself fell in love with the novel after being offered the role of Chili Palmer. As Travolta told Time in 2001, he was so impressed with Leonard's verbiage that he agreed to do the movie on the condition that much of the book's dialogue be faithfully restored in the screenplay, which even Frank had changed up in places. As Travolta to put it, "I said I'd do the movie, but they had to put back everything they paraphrased." Producers wisely heeded the request, with many of those classic Leonard flourishes feeding some of the film's most memorable moments.

Dennis Farina ended up playing his favorite character from Elmore Leonard's novel

Get Shorty's history is spotted with Tinseltown talent who picked up Elmore Leonard's book purely because they wanted to work on the adaptation. Dennis Farina wasn't among them. In fact, the legendary character actor told The A.V. Club in 2017 that he'd read Get Shorty purely for pleasure before being called in for an audition. And as it turns out, Farina was actually brought in by the Get Shorty team to read for his favorite character in the book. "I read the book ... because I'm a big Elmore Leonard fan. I remember saying to myself, 'Boy, I would sure like to play Ray Bones.' ... I don't know how long afterwards, I got a call to go to a table reading. ... They wanted me to read Ray Bones." 

If you've seen Get Shorty, you know the role couldn't have been better cast, with Farina delivering career-defining work of scene-stealing order. The actor went on to detail what initially drew him to the all bluster and no brains character. "I thought he was the most honest guy in the whole story. He wanted his money, and that was it. ... I thought he was funny, but I don't think he thought he was funny. He thinks he's very serious and that he should be taken seriously, but no one else took him seriously." Farina's brilliant read on the character couldn't have been any more on point. And the proof, as they say, is in the performance.

Gene Hackman was worried he couldn't play funny

It's easy to say nabbing the talents of Travolta, DeVito, Lindo, and Russo helped elevate Get Shorty's profile to near-prestige picture status. But it was the casting of B-movie producer Harry Zimm that really made Get Shorty legit, as the film's producers landed the mammoth talents of a bona fide Hollywood titan for the pivotal role in screen legend Gene Hackman. By the time Hackman signed up for Get Shorty, he was already a two-time Oscar winner with little to prove in the movie biz, but even with so much success and acclaim to his name, it seems Hackman was quite wary of playing Harry Zimm.

That's mostly because he'd never really done a proper comedy prior to appearing in Get Shorty. As such, Hackman was reportedly worried he couldn't play funny. Per the BBC, the actor needed serious convincing to take the part, at one point telling director Barry Sonnenfeld, "I don't do comedies. I don't want to be the guy who looks like he's trying to be funny." Luckily, Hackman was convinced to jump aboard. And to the surprise of no one, he delivered a hilarious, scene-devouring turn more than worthy of his celebrated cinematic oeuvre.

Both McConaughey and Buscemi were considered for a key role

It's safe to assume that once Scott Frank's whip-smart screenplay for Get Shorty started making rounds in Hollywood, with Barry Sonnenfeld attached to direct, dozens of performers were eagerly lining up to audition for even minor roles in the project. And it just so happens that some very big names were in line to play the part of Bo Catlett's right-hand man, Ronnie Wingate.

Get Shorty fans can tell you said part was played by character actor extraordinaire Jon Gries (Real Genius, Napoleon Dynamite). They'd also tell you Gries was utterly brilliant in the role, bringing just the right amount of tough guy machismo and sub-moronic gangland naiveté to the mix. But it seems even Gries was surprised he landed the role because he was competing for the part against a couple of soon-to-be major stars during an extensive audition process, "I was probably the 250th person they saw for that," he told The A.V. Club. "They saw Matthew McConaughey, Steve Buscemi, a lot of people. Getting it was kind of an anomaly."

"Anomaly" or not, it's all but impossible to imagine anyone but Gries in the role of Ronnie at this point, even if it might've been just as cool to see a young McConaughey or Buscemi playing the part.

Ben Stiller's Get Shorty scenes ended up on the cutting room floor

Being a behind-the-curtain sort of Hollywood flick, it's no surprise that the cast of Get Shorty is comprised of big-time talent (even Bette Midler appears in an uncredited cameo) and actors then on the fringes of stardom (including Lindo, Gries, and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini). Turns out Sonnenfeld and company landed a few other "fringe" players for various roles in the film, one of whom was a young Ben Stiller.

If you're struggling to remember Stiller in Get Shorty, it's because he didn't make the final cut. Luckily, Stiller's deleted scenes were included as an extra for Get Shorty's special edition DVD release. And those of you who've seen Stiller's "Graveyard Scene" via that DVD know the moment is downright hilarious.

For those who haven't, the scene is much like the one Rene Russo's character, Karen Flores, bemoans having spent the day shooting when she meets "Chili" for the first time. And let's just say her already funny description of such a day doesn't even come close to doing Stiller's deleted scene justice, with the actor ripping up the moment opposite Hackman as a cocky young director trying to do way too much with what's clearly C-movie material.

Get Shorty director Barry Sonnenfeld didn't like his final cut of the film

During the screenwriting process for Get Shorty, John Travolta and scribe Scott Frank insisted Elmore Leonard's dialogue make it into the film unsullied. But as noble as that was, their endeavor apparently caused serious problems for director Barry Sonnenfeld. In fact, according to Jon Gries, the director was so worried about the wordiness of the film that he continually insisted his actors "make it faster." In fact, he even sped up their line readings in hopes of shortening certain scenes, which clearly fed the rapid-fire feel of the film.

As rumor has it, Sonnenfeld still believed Get Shorty was too talky when he locked the film's final cut, which he wasn't particularly happy with. As noted by Gries, that was partially the result of a less than enthusiastic cast and crew screening of the film. It's safe to assume Sonnenfeld's opinion changed once Get Shorty hit theaters as critics and audiences alike feasted on its pitch-perfect blend of underworld grit and quippy comedy. In turn, many believe Get Shorty to be the best film Sonnenfeld has ever been a part of, which is impressive for the man who shot the Coen brothers' Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing and directed the blockbuster hit Men in Black.

Get Shorty novelist Elmore Leonard absolutely loved it

While Barry Sonnenfeld may have been on the fence about his final cut of Get Shorty, the film quickly found favor with audiences the world over, debuting in the number one spot at the box office. And as far as fans of the film go, it seems Sonnenfeld and his Get Shorty crew also found a fan in the man who wrote the book, Elmore Leonard. That's saying a lot as Leonard hadn't been particularly happy with any adaptations of his work prior to the release of Get Shorty. Still, after seeing the movie in person, he told The New York Times, "It's the best adaptation I've had."

Leonard went on to add that he believed this adaptation worked because Frank and Sonnenfeld took seriously even the most ridiculous of his kooky characters and small-time mobsters — all of whom Leonard points out take themselves just as seriously. Turns out the author had even sort of missed many of his own punchlines in the book, as he claimed he hadn't quite seen the story's full comedic potential himself. "I saw the movie and thought, 'I didn't know the book was so funny." It was. And it still is. Likewise, over two decades after its release, Get Shorty remains the pinnacle of big-screen adaptions from the late author's prized literary canon.