First Look: Cary Elwes' 'As You Wish'

The Dread Pirate Roberts talks about getting cast in 'The Princess Bride'
20th.Century Fox/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

The Princess Bride is one of the most beloved movies of all time, landing at No. 31 on THR’s list of Hollywood’s favorite films (though it took in just $30 million at the box office). And one of the fan-favorite characters is Westley, the stable boy turned pirate (Dread Pirate Roberts, that is) played by Cary Elwes.

Now, on the 25th anniversary of the movie’s 1987 release, Elwes has written the memoir As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride (Touchstone, Oct. 14).

Not only does Elwes recount his own memories about his breakout role, he interviewed fellow castmembers, including Robin Wright and Billy Crystal, and director Rob Reiner, and intersperses their recollections throughout the book as well.

In this excerpt, Elwes recalls meeting Reiner of the first time, auditioning and learning he got the part. Reiner, Crystal and producer Andy Scheinman weigh in with their memories as well.

Read on!

As a young boy I had traveled on vacation to the States in the ’70s with my American stepfather. After my first trip I became fascinated with all things American. There were many things to be excited about, and one of them was TV. You see, in England, we had only two TV channels, whereas in the United States the cable explosion was just under way. As soon as I arrived I devoured everything related to American TV pop culture, but I became especially fascinated with television sitcoms in particular The Dick Van Dyke Show, M*A*S*H*, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, and later on things like Soap and Taxi — essentially all the classic shows from the Golden Age of television in the ’60s and ’70s. Including, of course, all of Norman Lear’s shows. I had also listened to stand-up comedians from my stepfather’s record collection, becoming familiar with the likes of Bob Newhart, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Jonathan Winters.

So when I got the call that Rob was coming to see me, I’m not sure what made me more excited: that I was about to meet one of Hollywood’s most talented young directors, or that I was going to meet one of my TV idols. I understood exactly what was at stake in this meeting. There was no disputing the impact this role could have on my career.

As is often the case when meeting with a director, I knew that I was under consideration, but I didn’t have any idea whether I was a front- runner or merely one of many candidates vying for the role.

A German-sounding voice came over the phone from the front desk: “Zere are two gentlemen in the lobby here for you. Shall I send them up?” Rob and Andy had arrived.

“Yes. Send them up, please,” I said, hanging up.

What surprised me as I opened the door a few minutes later were two of the biggest smiles I had seen in a long time greeting me.

ROB REINER
Well, I try to get people who I know can do a part. I wouldn’t just hire friends for the sake of hiring friends. But if they’re right for the part, absolutely. The problem I had with The Princess Bride was that I had to get a young, dashing, swashbuckling kid, and a young girl to play opposite him. Oh, and a giant. So it wasn’t like I had a lot of friends that could fit those bills. I believe there was only one person that could play each of those parts. The movie has that kind of formal English, fairy-tale feel to it — that “In the days of yore” kind of thing. And so I wanted them to have an English accent. At least Westley and Buttercup . . . Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen and so on. I had seen Cary in Lady Jane, but that picture wasn’t a comedy. I thought, He certainly looks right. He resembles a young Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and he’s so handsome and he’s a terrific actor. But I didn’t know if he was funny, and this is like a very specialized kind of acting, where you have to kind of be very real and earnest, but at the same time there’s a slight tongue-in-cheek thing happening. You have to strike the balance. So we flew over to Germany, where Cary was filming a movie.

There was: the man who had created Marty DiBergi and Meathead — in my hotel room! The other smile belonged to his best friend and producing partner, Andy Scheinman, about half Rob’s size but with twice the energy. What struck me about these guys was their beautiful friendship. They seemed to finish each other’s sentences. I was immediately taken not only with their personal charm, which was considerable, but also with their passion for the project. Rob was not only legitimately funny (which is hardly surprising, since his father is Carl Reiner) but also very sweet, with an infectious laugh that could be heard in Detroit, as I like to say. In fact, the man I met was far from the beleaguered son-in-law of Archie Bunker. And man, was he a born storyteller. He was clearly very intelligent and a voracious reader, which is how he knew of Goldman’s work. As it turns out his father had also given him a copy of The Princess Bride to read as a kid — just as my stepfather had done for me.

Now, that didn’t exactly make us unique, but it certainly inspired a sense of kinship. I knew the story, and I knew a little about the history behind the attempts to translate it to the screen. I also knew that in the right hands it had the potential to be both hilariously funny and heart-warming. I sensed that Rob, given his body of work and his sensibility, was the right man for the job.

I offered them each a bottle of water from the mini-bar. I have a distinct recollection of Andy being unnerved by the very prospect of being so close to Chernobyl, that he didn’t want to touch anything, let alone drink the water.

“So as you probably know, we’re making a movie about The Princess Bride and we think you’d make a great Westley,” Rob said, after settling into a chair. Rob has that easy way of getting straight to the point in a funny manner. The “as you probably know” sounded almost lyrical, almost as if he were dragging it out in a singsongy way. I think my response was something fairly innocuous, like “Yeah, I heard. That’s great!” In my mind, I was thinking, Please don’t make me have to read.

“Well, we’re prepping in London already, and we’d like to talk to you about coming on board.”

This was getting better by the minute. His demeanor was casual and friendly. He had a wonderful way of putting you at ease, and as we began to chat, my anxiety slowly melted away. Rob seemed surprised to learn that I had spent considerable time in America and was intimately familiar with the world of 1970s television. Here I was, a British actor working on a film in Berlin, and our conversation revolved largely around my recounting favorite episodes of All in the Family. We segued into a larger discussion of comedy and pop culture, then Bill Cosby came up and somehow — I don’t quite recall how — I found myself doing a Fat Albert impersonation, which Rob seemed to like. I explained to them that I had gone to Sarah Lawrence College, as well as having attended the other prestigious establishments in New York.

We talked about Saturday Night Live. Again, Rob seemed pleased that I was such a fan of SNL. I didn’t understand at the time why this was so important to him, but it wouldn’t be long before I’d get the point. I knew a certain look was required for the role of Westley, and I suppose I fit the bill in that regard, but, then, so did a thousand other young actors. But they were also looking for someone with a sense of humor. And maybe I had a chance at being able to make these guys laugh. Which I had surprisingly accomplished with the Fat Albert impression. It was looking good, right up until tragedy struck.

“Look, I already think that you might be the right guy for this,” Rob said. “But do you mind if we just read a couple of lines? Just so I can hear it?”

Why? Why did he have to make me read? It was going so well up to that point.

Okay, here goes . . . the moment of truth. Reading the lines. The fact of the matter was that I had gotten more work from straight offers than from auditions. But I couldn’t think about that now. I had to put on a brave face.

Rob reached into an envelope he had brought with him and pulled out a copy of the script. He opened it to one of Westley’s monologues — the one in which he recounts to Princess Buttercup how he became his alter ego, the Dread Pirate Roberts — and handed it to me.

I cleared my throat and slowly began to read. I was cold and unprepared, but luckily I knew the story and the tone of the novel. I also knew that many of the film’s best lines would have to be delivered with a barely perceptible wink.

After just a few sentences, Rob held up a hand. “Okay, that’s enough,” he said.

I wondered for a moment whether I had blown it already. I had barely read half a page.

“Really? Are you sure?” I replied.

“Yeah. So how much longer do you have left on this movie?” he asked.

I took a deep breath, trying to hide my excitement. “A couple of weeks, give or take.”

“Perfect,” Rob said. “We’re going to have a lot of fun making this movie, and hopefully, if the studio agrees, we’d like you to be a part of it.”

I stammered out something in response, the basic gist of which was “Yes, I’d love to. Thank you!”

Was that an offer? Oh, my God, I think it was! But then again, he had said “if the studio agrees.” Why would they question Rob Reiner, a man who had already shown great skill at casting his other hit movies? I quickly changed the subject, trying to act as cool as I could. I asked them both when they were headed back to London. Maybe I could get them to stay for dinner and convince them that, even though I knew the reading sucked, I was still the right guy for the part. But Rob replied that they were in fact on their way to Paris that very afternoon. This was a whirlwind trip for him and Andy. It turns out they were in the process of trying to track down a world-famous wrestler for the role of Fezzik. Which is about all they could tell me.

“When we get back, we’ll get in touch with your agent, and if all goes well, we’ll see if we can work it out,” Rob said. “If that’s all right with you?”

“If that’s all right” with me? Heck, yeah, it’s “all right.” It could not have been more “all right.”

“Of course,” I stammered. We shook hands warmly and said our good-byes. And I’m pretty sure I was on the phone with my agent before their elevator even reached the lobby.

“I think I’ve got this one,” I said, out of breath with excitement. “Okay,” Harriet said. “Just sit tight. I’ll give them a call.”

As soon as I hung up the phone I immediately started having an anxiety attack. Was Rob serious? Maybe he offers roles to all the actors he meets to make them feel better? I felt he was a man who could be taken at face value. Best not to waste energy fretting, I thought. Another role would come along soon enough. But you never can fool yourself. I knew in my heart, this one was different. I really wanted it.

ANDY SCHEINMAN
Well, every once in a while we’ve found ourselves in a weird position. There was one woman who didn’t even have to read for the part, as she was a well-known actress. She came in for a meeting and said, “I’m prepared, let me read for you.” And after she left, Rob said, “Oh no. She can’t do this.” But he’d already offered her the role!

ROB REINER
Cary was very funny. He did a Bill Cosby impersonation. I didn’t ask him to do that. He was just kind of a naturally funny guy, and I thought, “Wow, this guy could really do it.” He was the only guy I saw that I thought could play that part. The same went for Buttercup and Fezzik.

ANDY SCHEINMAN
Casting was interesting. For many of the parts, we didn’t have a second choice. We didn’t have someone else to choose. We didn’t have a second for Buttercup, we didn’t have a second for Fezzik — for sure! And we didn’t have a second for Westley. If we didn’t find those people — I believe the last of whom was Cary — then we didn’t have a movie. To say Cary was the last piece of the puzzle isn’t quite true. Cary was the puzzle. I mean, André was very important, but Cary was the movie, you know? And we didn’t have anyone. We wanted Errol Flynn, and he had to be funny, which I don’t think Errol Flynn was. It’s not that you have to be funny, but you have to get the sense of humor. It’s not go out and be hysterical, but you have to play the part with a little twinkle in your eye, which Cary pulled off beautifully.

I remember we sat down and Cary opens the script, and he reads maybe four words, and we go, “Well . . . this is the guy.” I don’t remember exactly how long the meeting was, but it was just like, boom! That’s him! Rob does this sometimes, and he’s great. I mean, it doesn’t happen a lot, quite frankly. But once in a while someone will read, or they’ll come in and they’ll have worked like all night preparing for this big audition, and they’ll be halfway through the second line of a four-page scene, and Rob will say, “That’s enough. I don’t have to hear anymore. You got it. It’s yours.”

BILLY CRYSTAL
I remember Rob coming back from Germany and saying, “Wait till you see this guy. He’s Douglas Fairbanks Jr. but he’s also really funny and he does impressions.” He’s a very alive guy, Cary. A very alert guy. And, you know, I love that about him. He’s always so in tune with what’s going on at the moment. When I met him, I got the same feeling as Rob: this guy was in the same ballpark with Fairbanks Jr., a young Errol Flynn; kind of your dashing, sensitive leading man, who also could hurt you if he had to.

The next morning, Harriet called again. “Are you sitting down?”

“Yes.”

“You got it!” she said. “They offered you the part.” I was speechless.

This was no small leap of faith on Rob’s part. I was hardly a household name. They could easily have cast any number of recognizable, bankable British actors who probably would have been deemed “right” for the role. But they chose me. In retrospect, it almost seemed too easy. Certainly, auditions don’t always go so smoothly. And sometimes a meeting is just that. Sometimes you get the job. Sometimes you don’t. You just never know. I guess Rob knew what he wanted, and I was fortunate enough to be in his field of vision.

Excerpted from As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (Touchstone, Oct. 14). Copyright Cary Elwes. Reprinted with permission.

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