HEAT VISION

'Tommy Boy' at 25: Why an Entire Generation Misquotes Star Wars' Most Famous Line

Director Peter Segal concedes his film may have contributed to a misremembering of the key revelation in 'Empire Strikes Back': "I apologize — deeply."
Paramount Pictures/Photofest
Director Peter Segal concedes his film may have contributed to a misremembering of the key revelation in 'Empire Strikes Back': "I apologize — deeply."

In recent years, a phenomenon called “the Mandela Effect” has come into focus as certain generations have started to recognize their collective false memories in relation to pop culture. One of the most notable examples of The Mandela Effect, a term coined by paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, relates to the Berenstain Bears children’s book franchise and how many people thought it was actually spelled Berenstein Bears.

Of course, this phenomenon is perhaps most prevalent amongst famous movie quotes. Field of Dreams’ memorable line, “If you build it, he will come,” is often rendered as “If you build it, they will come,” since people likely conflate the quote with the film’s ending. When Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) first meets Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter never actually says, “Hello, Clarice.” He merely says, “Good morning.” But the most famous example of an iconic line being misquoted is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’s “No, I am your father,” which evolved into “Luke, I am your father.” While some people may have added “Luke” to better contextualize the quote, most casual viewers overlooked the difference since the line was directed at Luke Skywalker.

In some instances, the root of the false memory can be identified by revisiting other popular works that may have referenced a particular line or moment, such as The Cable Guy’s misuse of “Hello, Clarice” in 1996. In the case of Empire Strikes Back’s illustrious misquote, the likely culprit for a certain generation of fans is Peter Segal’s classic 1995 comedy, Tommy Boy, and its scene where Chris Farley says, “Luke, I am your father,” into a rotating desk fan. While the film made little impact at the domestic box office, grossing just $32 million, it would go on to become one of Paramount Pictures’ most popular home video releases, standing shoulder to shoulder with The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark. This groundswell of popularity helps explain why the misquoted line would take on a life of its own.

As Tommy Boy celebrates its 25th anniversary, director Peter Segal would like to set the record straight regarding his beloved film’s famous misquote.

“I apologize — deeply,” Segal tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Look, I would describe this movie as sort of a Caesar salad. We had no script to start with, and any ingredients that we thought might congeal into the thinnest thread of a story were put into the script. That was one of those moments where I stupidly spoke into the vibration of a fan, and I came up with that and thought, ‘OK, that might work. Let’s just put that in the movie.’ That’s just an example of how that was cobbled together.”

In his recent conversation with THR, Segal also discussed why he treated Farley like an athlete on set, what it’s like to make a movie that people expected to fail and how he wrote the script during production.

First things first, I misquoted The Empire Strikes Back’s famous “I am your father” line for a good 20 years, and I’m convinced Tommy Boy is the reason why. So, Peter, do you feel responsible for my generation’s oversight?

(Laughs.) I apologize — deeply. Look, I would describe this movie as sort of a Caesar salad. We had no script to start with, and any ingredients that we thought might congeal into the thinnest thread of a story were put into the script. That was one of those moments where I stupidly spoke into the vibration of a fan, and I came up with that and thought, “OK, that might work. Let’s just put that in the movie.” That’s just an example of how that was cobbled together.

Once you shot the scripted material that you did have, would you point the camera at Chris and Spade and just tell them to run wild?

I wish I could say that’s how it worked, but no. There was very little improv in this movie. There was a lot of stuff that Dave and Chris added to the movie, the dialogue and the jokes, but for various reasons, we lost the window of opportunity to shoot the movie during SNL’s summer hiatus. We actually began filming in September, which is the month that SNL turns the lights back on again. We had to start shooting with half a script; it was only 66 pages. I realized years later that the reason why Lorne Michaels is so fearless is because he starts every Monday with a blank page and by Saturday, he’s got 90 minutes of live television. So starting a movie with only half a script was a luxury to him, but for me and the production, it was hard to plan. So, as the guys would fly back and forth from New York to Toronto, we wrote as we could. The days off that they had from our movie were days that I could sit at the computer and write with Fred Wolf.

If Lorne wasn’t a producer on Tommy Boy, there’s no way you could’ve cast Farley and Spade in the midst of an SNL season, right?

Correct. This movie could not have been made without Lorne. What’s cool about it is, it’s a product of Saturday Night Live, but it was not based on a sketch from Saturday Night Live. At the time, that was the only kind of movie that was being made out of [Michaels' production company] Broadway Video; there was Wayne’s World, Coneheads, et cetera. So, we actually made this movie at a period when the talent on SNL was arguably at its all-time greatest. You had Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade. And yet, the ratings were the worst in the many years that the show had been on; it got a lot of critical drubbing. So, to launch a movie with two of the castmembers and not base it on a sketch was considered kind of risky. That is a badge of honor we now wear since we were able to survive.

So when did it start to occur to you that Tommy Boy’s post-theatrical life was gaining steam en route to becoming a classic?

You always get a feeling when people mention it to you, or you’d hear something while riding up in a hotel elevator. A couple years after the movie came out, some kids were saying, “Housekeeping, you want towel?” and I said, “Don’t say the rest of that joke.” (Laughs.) When you’re watching an NFL game and one of the announcers says, “Holy schnikes! That’s gonna leave a mark.” That’s when you go, “Oh, OK. It seems to be sticking.” But, it wasn’t until 10 years after the movie came out that Paramount was doing a special edition DVD. They were re-interviewing the castmembers and flying crews all over the country to catch up with them, such as Brian Dennehy in Santa Fe. I thought, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” and they said, “Well, it’s a top-10 seller.” I said, “I don’t understand what you mean. Is it top 10 this year on home video?” and they said, “No, historically, for Paramount Pictures Home Video, it’s a top-10 seller.” And I said, “You mean with The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark? That top 10?” They said, “Yeah.” So, even though it only made $32 million in its domestic run and was never even released internationally because no one knew who Spade and Farley were overseas, it really made its mark in the home video market.

Do you think a major studio would make Tommy Boy today since broad comedy now seems to be an afterthought to everyone but Netflix?

You know, it’s a good question. I don’t know. I’ve landed at a studio the last couple years — STX — and I love working with them because they’re one of the last few studios making midrange comedies. I did Second Act a year and a half ago, and My Spy, which was thwarted by the corona push as we’ll call it. They pushed it a month, and now we don’t know if that month is even enough of a push. We have no idea what’s going to happen. It opened in 17 territories, and unfortunately, the foreign territories didn’t move. So it opened on Friday and closed on Saturday, along with all the other movies. But that’s a whole different story. So, yeah, I don’t know if Tommy Boy would be made today. I think comedy is cyclical. Things change. There were R-rated, raunchy comedies back in the '80s, then it went into gross-out comedies, then it went into joke-book comedies and much more honest comedies dealing with adolescence today. Now, I’m not sure what studios would take the risk of making a midrange comedy because things are so different today than they were in the '90s when Tommy Boy was made.

I’ve used the “the butcher” line in arguments for most of my life. Where does that rank as far as the quotes you’ve heard the most over the years?

(Laughs.) “Of course, I can get a hell of a good look at a T-Bone steak by sticking my head up a bull's ass, but I'd rather take the butcher's word for it.” That is so wordy that I haven’t heard a lot of people say that, but I’ve heard others. If you can manage to get that out properly and not screw it up the way Tommy did, then good on you.

I distill it down to “Sometimes, you’ve gotta take the butcher’s word for it,” and people usually recognize the point and reference being made.

There you go; that’s good. Sometimes, when my son likes something, he just says, “Bull’s ass." That’s great. (Laughs.)

It's not just the movie’s 25th anniversary; it’s also the 25th anniversary of being asked the same questions. With that in mind, what memory of Chris has stuck with you the most from the making of the film?

(Laughs.) Well, I remember so many things, but one in particular. We were going to meet Brian Dennehy at The Palm restaurant to talk him into doing the movie, and Chris got in my car to drive to Beverly Hills. Again, because Saturday Night Live was sort of in the doghouse with the critics and the ratings, he looked at me and said, “Pete, everyone expects us to fail. Our only victory is going to be a success.” I realized that was kinda cool. It was our Band of Brothers moment, where we realized that we had to prove everybody wrong, and they expected us to not do that. So that was a good one; I’ll never forget that.

You’ve worked with so many big personalities in your career, such as Farley, Jack Nicholson, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, et cetera. Is there a particular trick of the trade that you’ve applied to ensure a successful working relationship with each actor?

Recently, I made some strange analogy to Phil Jackson in that you have to be sort of zen about how you work with certain big personalities and certain egos. There’s no one way to do it. You can’t bark orders like in the old days when directors wore riding breeches and had a crop and megaphone. You have to treat everyone differently. With Chris, he was an athlete, and he was a lot better athlete than people may realize. He would almost treat performance like a play in football, and he would get very upset with himself if he didn’t do it right. So sometimes I literally said, “Hey, dude, just drop and give me 20.” He’d do 20 push-ups and calm down, and then he’d try it again. When we were shooting at this university in Toronto, I said, “Hey, run around the quad twice and come back,” and he did it. I think he liked the structure of that, and it calmed him down; he got out of his head. Obviously, I would never do that with Jack Nicholson or Lauren Bacall, but with Chris, that worked. I think you have to know your audience and know who you’re working with. You just have to try to find something that you can use to relate to that particular actor.

Has anyone figured out if Rob Lowe has one of, if not the largest, uncredited roles ever? Uncredited roles happen all the time, but they’re usually not substantial parts like this.

I don’t really know, but at the time, none of us really thought we were working on a big, hit movie. He might’ve just been doing it, A, as a favor for Lorne; and, B, wanting the protection of anonymity in case the movie completely sucked. I don’t know if he would do that again. I’ve seen him many times over the years, and obviously, that’s one of the movies that he’s most noted for. Like I said, I think it might’ve been protective camouflage at the time. 

As we wrap up, were you planning to block-shoot all of Heels, your upcoming Starz show starring Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig?

I was two weeks away from the start of production, and I was literally sent home on Friday the 13th [March], the same day that I heard My Spy was closing just 20 hours after it opened in 17 European territories. Obviously, I’m still doing whatever prep I can on the first block. I’m doing a couple of the blocks; maybe three of the four. I’ve never done block-shooting before, and that was like prepping a couple of movies back to back, which is a fun challenge, but definitely something that’s very different for me.

Oddly enough, My Spy was my last theatrical experience before the shutdown. It played really well at my press screening, especially that explosion gag.

(Laughs.) I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

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Tommy Boy’s limited edition steelbook is now exclusively available at FYE.

  • Brian Davids
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