'Spaceballs' at 30: Bill Pullman Says Crew Worried Blue Screen Would Make Them Go Blind

"Mel used to do these power naps where he'd lay down for just five minutes, and I have never seen anything like the spirit that would return to him," the actor recalls.
MGM/Photofest
'Spaceballs' (L to R) John Candy as Barf, Joan Rivers as (voice) Dot Matrix, Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa and Bill Pullman as Lone Starr.

Of all the fond memories Bill Pullman has of working on Spaceballs, explaining how the crew feared that working with a special effects blue screen could make them pass out or go blind is the tale which makes him laugh the hardest recounting.

Now a household name, the then 32-year-old actor was an unknown with only one film credit under his belt (Ruthless People) when Mel Brooks discovered him in a play called Barabbas at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It was at that point — after Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks both turned down the lead role in his sci-fi parody — the iconic writer/director offered Pullman the part of Lone Starr. 

As the beloved Star Wars spoof turns 30 (June 24), Pullman granted The Hollywood Reporter an in-depth interview to discuss his zany adventure of working with Brooks, the late John Candy's frustrations with his costume and how Pullman's makeup artist scolded him for not acting like a star, among other cherished memories. 

Sunglasses. That's what comes to mind when Pullman reminisces about Spaceballs. And that thought makes him laugh so hard, it takes a moment before he can explain. 

"They had a belief back in those days that the blue screen was bad for your eyes," Pullman said. "I can't remember if it was Mel or the assistant directors who heard this, but they would call cut and everyone would put on their sunglasses."

Even though they were warned the screen could damage their optic nerve or make them pass out after a while, some of the actors ditched the shades, Pullman said. 

He added: "It was so hard to work the comedy in between takes when everyone was wearing sunglasses."

One of the great joys for Pullman was acting opposite the late John Candy. Playing Barf, the Chewbacca-inspired best friend and co-pilot to Lone Starr, Pullman recalled a sweet man who had a tough shoot, at least in the beginning. 

One of the first scenes shot was the introduction of the unlikely hero duo; Barf fixing a snack with Bon Jovi blasting and Lone Starr asleep at the wheel of their ship, a space Winnebago.

Candy's makeup wasn't complicated, but the mechanical ears and tail had issues which caused the actor serious frustration.

"That was a trying day for John," Pullman remembered. "He wanted to play it a certain way, Mel wanted it a different way and then he had to deal with the mechanical issues of the ears and tail. John's sense of comedy was so ephemeral, it was these shy, short moments and there was real difficulty delivering that while trusting the ears and him wanting more control over the tail."

Still, Candy was a consummate professional.

"It was a real testimony to his character that he never yelled," Pullman said. "He never got angry. He would sit down, say he needed a break and everyone would just back off. Then he would get up and say 'OK, let's try it again.'"

Pullman may have been playing a Han Solo-esque character, but that didn't mean much to him at the time since he hadn't seen Star Wars

"I missed it the first time around," Pullman explained. "I just needed Mel to tell me what was going on. I didn't need to see Star Wars to know what the whole thing was." 

Brooks may have joked that he "couldn't get a Tom, so he got a Bill" for his Lone Starr, but Pullman said it was clear in the beginning that the Blazing Saddles creator was nervous — nervous about the part and nervous about the actor.

"I think Mel was having trouble writing Lone Starr," Pullman said. "It was the last character he felt conformable with because there wasn't a voice or shtick or something that was clear. So we worked hard. I had to bump up my game fast because I had never worked in Mel's style before."

For weeks leading up to preproduction, Pullman and Daphne Zuniga, who played Princess Vespa, rehearsed with Brooks and screenwriters Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan.

"I remember at one point during rehearsals Mel asked, 'Does this tire you out?' I must have had a look of exhaustion. I told him I was fine, and he said 'Well, I just don't want you to be doing the press tour and go, 'Oh, I know how to play the line now!'" recalled Pullman of his director encouraging to nail it from the start, no second guessing. “And just that term, 'I know how to play the line now' taught me a lot."

Portraying Lone Starr's archenemy, Dark Helmet, was Rick Moranis, who Pullman said didn't necessarily butt heads with Brooks, but they worked comedy in two very different fashions. 

"Rick really pushed the envelope more than Mel would," Pullman said. "I think it was a part of him being younger and edgier. Mel's style was more 'let's refine the line,' but he would let Rick riff. Rick and John had more of a conceptual style. Sometimes it would be tense. No one wants to say 'that's not funny' when you're working."

Brooks had an interesting method to deal with hitting a creative wall, Pullman recalled. 

"Mel used to do these power naps where he'd lay down for just five minutes, and I have never seen anything like the spirit that would return to him," Pullman said. "He'd come back with all these great ideas and solve problems. It was quite dazzling." 

One of Pullman's favorite memories from his Spaceballs experience was the day he pissed off makeup artist Bob Mills, who he described as an "old-school professional who wore a tie and blazer everyday to work." 

Pullman drove a 1972 Plymouth Valiant that he loved, but it would break down on a regular basis and someone from the crew would have to bring him to the set. One day, Mills had enough.

"He said, 'Don't you know you need to behave like a star?! You come in here with that car like you're a farmer!' He was schooling me," the actor recalled, laughing.  

Pullman also got some sage advice from the late, legendary costume designer Donfeld. 

"He told me, 'Don't worry kid, I am going to make you into a star.' He would grab the back of my pants and crunch them up and go, 'See, this is going to be the secret that you carry through your whole career. You gotta get that part tight around your butt,'" Pullman said. 

Pullman, who has numerous projects in the works, such as the comedy film Battle of the Sexes and a western titled The Ballad of Lefty Brown, along with a new USA Network series, The Sinner, said Brooks imparted some wisdom on him 30 years ago that really stuck. 

"Mel had this thing where he said 10 percent of anything is good," Pullman explained. "It was this way of saying that in art and being creative there are things you have to brush off, suggestions, ideas, whatever to get to that 10 percent that is really good. It's that idea of looking for the exceptional, and knowing it is rare and you have to always be aware of how hard you have to look for that 10 percent." 

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