Hollywood Flashback: 'Cool Runnings' Was a Gold Medal Hit 25 Years Ago

Photofest
From left: Leon (as Derice Bannock), Rawle D. Lewis (as Junior Bevil), Malik Yoba (as Yul Brenner) and Doug E. Doug (as Sanka Coffie) in 'Cool Runnings.'

Director Jon Turteltaub reflects on the loosely factual tale of the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics as he reveals who he originally wanted for John Candy's role and why Jeffrey Katzenberg called him at 1 a.m. threatening to fire him.

For The Hollywood Reporter, 1993's Cool Runnings was a "near-perfectly executed tale" that centered on "one of the nuttiest and most inspiring modern sports stories." The Jon Turteltaub film is the loosely factual tale of the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. (Three decades later, the Pyeongchang Games begin Feb. 9, and there's a 25th anniversary screening of Cool Runnings a day earlier at the El Capitan in Hollywood.) 

"It's the timeless story of the underdog," says Jeff Sagansky, who acquired the script in 1989 when he headed TriStar Pictures. "And here, the underdog was going to the Winter Olympics from a country with no snow."

As difficult as it was for Jamaicans to make it to Canada, so it was for the film to get made. When Dawn Steel became head of Columbia Pictures in 1987, she became aware of the Runnings script because TriStar was a sister company. After she left in 1990, Steel made it the first film she did under her new production deal at Disney. "To me, it was Rocky," said Steel, who died in 1997.

The $15 million production ($25 million today) went on to earn $155 million worldwide ($263 million). Along the way, the script went from a drama at TriStar to a family comedy at Disney. Hiring John Candy as the team's coach was a key piece of casting. "[Studio chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg was the one who said we were going with John," says Turteltaub. "Up until then, we were thinking 'Olympic coach? Kurt Russell.' And Kurt ended up playing [Herb Brooks] in Miracle. I guess he was born to be an Olympic coach."

Turteltaub's most vivid memory of the shoot was being awakened at 1 a.m. on location in Calgary and told by Katzenberg that he'd be fired unless he could get the cast to speak in an understandable Jamaican accent. "He said, 'If you can't make them sound like Sebastian the Crab in The Little Mermaid, I'll find a director who will.' So the next day I told the cast I'd be fired if they didn't start sounding like Sebastian the Crab. And they laughed and found the in-between." 

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.