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The Farrelly Brothers’ Oral History of “Kingpin,” Twenty Years Later

Celebrate the 20th anniversary of what’s quietly become regarded as the Farrelly Brothers’ best movie, with this oral history.

The Farrelly Brothers’ Oral History of “Kingpin,” Twenty Years Later
Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson in Kingpin, 1996 [Photos: courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]

A lot can happen over the course of a couple decades. In Kingpin, the second film by goofy directing duo The Farrelly Brothers, as the 1970s slide into the ‘90s, former bowling champ Roy Munson fades right past obscurity and into poverty. (His hair fares even worse than his reputation.) Now that it’s been 20 years since Kingpin’s release, though, it’s clear that the film bore the brunt of time’s cruel damages far better than its protagonist.

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Peter and Bobby Farrelly[Photo: David Shankbone, via Wikimedia]

Coming off a 1994 breakout hit, Dumb & Dumber, the Farrellys expected their sophomore outing to be equally massive. They cast Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and Bill Murray in a funny movie about bowling that beat The Big Lebowski to market by two years. However, when the film opened in the late summer of 1996, it rolled a gutterball. Kingpin made only $25M worldwide, about a tenth of what their previous film had made, and quickly disappeared. The Farrellys looked like they were potentially headed for Movie Jail, until their next film, There’s Something About Mary, went on to become a far larger critical, cultural, and financial hit than Dumb & Dumber. The debacle of Kingpin was instantly forgiven and forgotten.

But just like disgraced bowler Roy Munson, Kingpin itself has enjoyed quite a redemption arc over the past 20 years. A lot of Farrelly fans consider it their funniest film, featuring what is quietly a Top-Five, all-time Bill Murray performance. Watching it now, the only thing that has aged poorly is the dreadful animation in its title sequence. The jokes are still crisp, the performances crackle, and there’s even a true beating heart beneath all the jokes about bull-milking and Randy Quaid’s dinner plate-sized nipples. Kingpin developed a cult following soon after it landed on video, but looking back 20 years later, that seems like an injustice. This film should have been a huge hit.

As Bobby and Peter Farrelly ready their first foray into the world of TV series–Loudermilk in 2017–Co.Create spoke with them about the making of Kingpin, and where they went right.

Following Up Freshman Hit, Dumb and Dumber

Peter Farrelly: We never had a long-range plan. I don’t know any guys that really do. When we finish a project, we just kind of see what drops into our laps. Sometimes, in the case of Kingpin, someone says, ‘You should read this script [by Mort Nathan and Barry Fanaro] that’s been sitting around for a while, it’s really pretty funny.’

Bobby Farrelly: Pete and I were working with Motion Picture Corp of America, the company that helped us make Dumb & Dumber. They found this script and sent it to us. And it was so much like a comedic take on say The Hustler, The Color of Money, one of those kind of things, but it was set in the silly world of bowling. So we thought it was hysterical. We just thought it would be a perfect follow up to Dumb & Dumber. It was the same sort of humor, it was right in our wheelhouse.

PF: We liked this world and we liked the characters. It just seemed like something we could have a lot of fun with. So we went in and re-wrote it and it became our next thing. But it wasn’t easy to get made.

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Developing the Screenplay

Bobby Farrelly: We did sit down and do a pretty extensive rewrite on it. We thought that if it’s just joke after joke with no heart at all, it would be tiresome. So we did purposefully try to put a little bit more heart in there than, say, we did in Dumb & Dumber. I mean those guys were almost too dumb to have the kind of heart that Roy Munson had with his dad. And I think that was important in the telling of this story.

Peter Farrelly: One of the big changes was the ending. We didn’t like the original ending. Woody loses the big tournament at the end but then goes to the casino and puts a quarter in and wins a million bucks, which just seemed like you might as well have a UFO come down and drop off some cash. It was too easy. We knew the audience was thinking he’s gonna win the big thing, and we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted him to lose. It wasn’t about the victory in a bowling tournament, it was a bigger thing. So then we added the thing where he gets endorsed by Trojan just so he’d be able to help out Ishmael’s family.

BF: We saw it as more of a redemption story where Roy Munson didn’t have to win the bowling tournament. That would’ve been too predictable. So we tweaked it so it was more about Roy winning back his own self-esteem, that was the victory he got.

PF: Also, the way he loses the arm and all that stuff–I don’t believe that was in there, originally. But I can’t even remember what was there and what wasn’t.

BF: We learned an awful lot on Dumb & Dumber, and we liked the people we worked with. So when it came time to actually make our second movie, one major thing we did was we hired the exact same crew, surrounded ourselves with the exact same people because we had had such a good time making Dumb & Dumber we thought ‘Hey, why mess with that?’

Woody Harrelson, Vanessa Angel And Randy Quaid in Kingpin, 1996

How The Kingpin Cast Came Together

Peter Farrelly: I always encourage our casting people, I say just keep it down to a few people, like just try to bring in four or five, and if we don’t find anyone, then we’ll bring in four or five more, but I don’t want to look at 50. I just really hate saying no to people.

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Bobby Farrelly: Any time you make a movie, whoever you have in mind when you write it is never exactly who goes into the movie. You wait and see, you talk to actors, you see who really responds to the material—who sees it like you see it. That’s real important.

PF: Even though we were coming off Dumb & Dumber, a lot of people were looking at that as we were lucky to be there, and it was a Jim Carrey movie. It wasn’t like people were clamoring to work with us next. So we had to kinda sell ourselves. We had a few people attached at different times that ended up falling through. At one point, we had Michael Keaton attached in Woody’s role. And then we also had Chris Farley, he wanted to play the Amish guy, Ishmael, the Randy Quaid role, but unfortunately he was locked into doing Black Sheep after Tommy Boy. He couldn’t get out. He wanted to do this but he couldn’t. But it all works out. I mean, Jim Carrey was the 150th guy we offered Dumb & Dumber to.

BF: Chris Farley was definitely on our radar. Before we had cast anyone we thought he’d make a great Ishmael. He’s just so good and he has that naïveté side to him. He’s very funny but he’s also very sweet too. It was a disappointment to Pete and I that we never got a chance to work with Chris. Because when he did pass on that, we had spent a lot of time with him, and we sort of all were in agreement that ‘Hey, it’s not this one but one day we’re gonna do something together.’ And we never did. But It definitely would have been a different movie with him instead of Randy. It’s like it was supposed to be him.

PF: As much as we wanted Chris Farley, I can’t imagine that movie with anyone but Randy Quaid, He was sensational. He just came up with little things that make it, like ‘I’m gonna watch you,’ those kinds of things. It’s a very charming thing that he does.

PF: Woody’s just one of those guys who can obviously do comedy but he can also do regular, real acting, too. And that was important for this role. He wasn’t the first guy we went to, but when we started thinking, ‘Hey, what about Woody,’ we realized he was perfect.

BF: We happened to have known Woody Harrelson beforehand and we loved him. When Pete and I moved out to LA, we had another friend from Rhode Island, a guy named Rob Moran, an actor who is also in the movie. He was a fellow Rhode Islander who had gone out to LA to try his hand at acting. Rob and Woody had spent a little bit of time together in New York, so when Woody moved out to LA, he called Rob. Rob said ‘Hey, my buddy Woody’s coming over,’ and then we met. He hadn’t had any success in the industry at all. We knew him before he even got the role on Cheers. He was just one of the guys that we’d hang out with and play basketball. He was a funny guy and we were fast friends, and we’ve stayed friends ever since.

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We had a lot of people pass on Dumb and Dumber, including Woody. We learned a valuable lesson about the casting process from that. Obviously Jim Carrey was the perfect guy for the role, so it’s not the first guy you think of but it’s almost like the universe has a hand in it, fate takes over. The right person will come to the role.

PF: Vanessa [Angel] was sensational as Claudia. She had the exact right edge on her that we wanted. She did a fantastic job. We wanted somebody who could really blow Woody away. And she came in and she was just perfect. I’m sure we read a lot of people for it but she was really the only one we wanted.

BF: The Last Detail is the performance we had in mind when we cast Randy Quaid. We thought jeez, remember how good he was in that movie?’ And we thought, ‘Well, we just have to get that kind of sincerity out of the guy,’ and then he delivered it in spades.

PF: We had a lot of people pass on the Big Ern role. We were thinking of Bill Murray and it seemed like a long shot, but Randy [Quaid] was like, ‘I know Bill!’ And we said, ‘You do?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I made that movie [Quick Change] with him. I’ll call him.’

BF: We had a few guys in mind. Some were guys we had already worked with, whether it was Charlie Rocket, who was in Dumb & Dumber, guys that we knew were good actors and could get it done. But when Bill Murray’s name came up it was like, Bill Murray? Bill is a god. The chance to work with Bill Murray would be incredible. I mean the other guys are great but when Bill comes on the screen it’s like ‘Oh God, here we go.’ He’s a comedic genius.

PF: Randy called and the next day he said ‘Yeah, he said he’d do it.’ We were like, ‘Really? So what do we do next, Randy?’ He goes, ‘Oh, I told him when to show up.’ And then we were three weeks into production by the time Bill came along. So we had this fear that he wouldn’t show up but sure enough, seven o’clock on the day he was supposed to arrive, we were shooting that night, he suddenly just comes walking in. There you go.

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BF: We didn’t have a way to contact him, he didn’t have a phone number. We didn’t have anything. He just said he’ll be there on Thursday. And on Tuesday of the following week, we’re like is Bill comin’? I mean is Bill Murray actually coming, we haven’t heard anything. And then all the sudden we got a call, ‘Oh, Bill’s at the airport, have someone pick him up.’ You’re on pins and needles until then, but boy is it worth it.

Kingpin, 1996

How the Actors Made The Characters Their Own

Bobby Farrelly: Randy Quaid and Woody Harrelson did less improvising than Bill Murray. But that’s mainly because their roles were better written. Ernie was a great idea on paper but he didn’t really have the lines until Bill showed up. Bill had nothing to work with, it was kind of a thankless role as written and he turned it into just a beautiful character. Bill just threw all the pages away and just said, “I get it, trust me,” and we did and every line he came up with was better than the line that was scripted. ‘You’re on a gravy train with biscuit wheels.’ Like, where the fuck did that shit come from? It was genius.

Peter Farrelly: When Bill showed up on the set, he said, ‘Hey, I have an idea, I thought the guy would start with a big Afro and then he’s bald when we see him seventeen years later.’ And we said ‘Well, actually, Bill, we already did that for Woody. He’s got long blonde hair and then later on, he’s going bald.’ And Bill goes, ‘Yeah, so it’ll be both of us.’ And we’re like: perfect!

BF: He’s like, ‘Well, that makes it even better, you know?’ When we saw him, he came out of his trailer with the wig on and we’re like, ‘How do you not go with that?’

PF: Woody really shaved most of his head. I’m sure we looked at doing a bald cap but those never look right. You gotta shave it. We didn’t want it to look silly.

BF: We gave Bill sides in the morning, the dialogue of what we’re supposed to read that day, and he’d take a look at it like, ‘What are you giving me?’ And he’d just crumple it up, throw it in the trash. He’d go, ‘Let me run with it.’ And it was better than what we wrote. You can’t really tell Bill how to be Bill because he’s gonna do it better than you can come up with. He’s a world-class improviser. He makes it his own. He’s not gonna read the words that you wrote verbatim. He’s just not going to do that. But we never had a moment where we thought ‘Gee, I wish he would’ve read our joke.’ He just was making stuff up all the time and was just making us laugh.

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PF: At the very end, after Big Ern wins, there was no dialogue. He just wins and he’s supposed to celebrate and we just keep the camera on him. But on the day of, Bill’s saying ‘I can’t believe it, I’m above the law, I can do anything I want and get away with it.’ That shit was like gold. And it was all unscripted.

BF: The whole diner scene. When he looks over at those girls, those were just extras sitting behind him. And he looks over at the end of the scene—we had learned by then, don’t cut, just let him roll because you never know what he’s gonna do. He looks over, he goes, ‘Hello?’ The girl says, ‘Hi.’ He says, ‘Not you. You. Helloooo.’ And that was just complete ad lib. More than any movie we’ve ever made, it’s the one role where an actor just went off the page and created something incredible.

Kingpin, 1996

An Ongoing Ensemble Supporting Cast Is Born

Bobby Farrelly: Willie Garson, who is also in Something About Mary, had just become pretty well known on Sex & The City. But we thought he had a great look. He was a good actor, and there was just something about him. He was just one of those guys. When he comes in and reads, you’re like, ‘That guy, we gotta put him somewhere.’ A look is so much in acting, it’s about ninety-two percent of the battle in my opinion and Willie Garson’s got that.

Peter Farrelly: Our friend Rob Moran, who was also in Dumb & Dumber, he wears eyeliner throughout Kingpin. And the reason is because I’m pretty sure Ray Liotta wore eyeliner in Something Wild, which is one of my favorite movies. I was hugely influenced by that movie and I swear his character had eyeliner in that, and it did something to him. There was something about that look, and yet he’s a tough guy.

BF: New Line Cinema put the money up for Dumb & Dumber, and the head of New Line was Bob Shaye. He came to us and said ‘Hey guys, you’re making this film. I got a sister, I’d love you to consider putting her in somewhere.’ And we’re like, ‘Okay, great,’ probably secretly rolling our eyes a little bit. But Lin [Shaye] came in and auditioned for us, and we’re like ‘Wait a minute, this girl is really good.’ And at the time we didn’t have very much to give her so we gave her that small role at the beginning, as one of the dog owners. She made us laugh so much on the day that we were filming, though, it was certainly no inconvenience to us to put her in the movie. So when we were casting Kingpin, we had the role of the landlady.

Lin comes in, in character. We didn’t know she was coming in or anything. She found out we were auditioning. When she came in, we thought it was a homeless person off the street. She had this cigarette going, dangling from her lip. She was really disheveled and she just was that character. We thought, ‘Let’s be nice but try to usher out this homeless woman somehow.’ And finally she went, ‘I got you!’ And we’re like ‘Well, that’s it, we’re not auditioning anyone else, she’s got the part.’

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PF: We’ve always been big fans of Jonathan Richman. He grew up near where we grew up. So we knew of him, and we loved his stuff. We loved to watch him perform. We had a moment where we’re like, ‘Hey we could show him performing live and the characters just happen to come into it.’ And we thought that’d be a nice way to put a song in the movie. And of course by doing that, it gave us the idea to use him more extensively in There’s Something About Mary as the troubadour.

There’s Something About Mary, 1998[Photo: 20th Century Fox]

Not All Bowlers Are Created Equal

Peter Farrelly: Woody was horrible. He was shockingly bad. Like, he never got better. We made the movie for 10 weeks, and we were in bowling alleys all the time. So in between, when we’re setting up shots, we’d be off to the side, having little matches. I had a 233 one day, I had a 213, a couple of 207s. I mean we were getting good. Randy Quaid was really good. He could shoot around two hundred. And I don’t think Woody ever broke 100 the whole time we were bowling. Bill was excellent, though.

Bobby Farrelly: When we did the final tournament scene, we had a thousand people in the National Bowling Center in Reno. And when you’re shooting over a long day, you’re afraid of losing people. They get bored, they wanna go. And we were trying to keep people interested so we were like raffling off things, and Bill was up there talking to people. But when we got to the final part and Bill had to get three strikes in a row, I figured it could take 10 to 15 rolls. It’s gonna take a while for him to get three strikes. But I explained the situation to the audience: ‘It’s the last frame, he needs a turkey here. And so on the first one, you guys clap big, and then the second one, you clap bigger, and on the third one, you explode because he needs all three.’ Of course, Bill gets up there: first one, strike. Everybody goes nuts. Second one, strike, the place goes crazy. Third one, strike. Three in a row. They were really blown away. Like, Bill just threw three strikes in a row when he had to and they erupted. It was not fake at all.

PF: The most challenging part was the bowling stuff because there’s so much bowling in the movie and we didn’t want to be just looking at a lane with a thing coming down there, we had to shoot it from a lot of different angles, and move the camera and make it a little more exciting. Like, we didn’t want bowling to be boring. So our assistant director, he spent a month just hanging around bowling alleys and coming at it from so many different angles: having the ball come right at the audience, the camera moving above the ball, all sorts of things so that when we got in the editing room, we could really mix it up and it wouldn’t get bored watching bowling. And he added a lot to it. He really made it work for us.

Dumb and Dumber, 1994[Photo: New Line Cinema]

Today’s Flop Is Tomorrow’s Classic

Peter Farrelly: It was our second movie and the first one did really well, and I thought if you made a really good movie, they did well. I was under that impression. That was the first time I realized that sometimes that has nothing to do with it.

Bobby Farrelly: Kingpin opened the very week of the summer Olympics in Atlanta. And there was the bomb that went off, all sorts of things happened that kept people out of a movie theater. And it was like, ‘What?’

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PF: It was in the middle of the 1996 Olympics and they had no ads for our movie on the Olympics. The studio said, ‘That’s not your crowd.’ I said, ‘What? The world is not our crowd?’ They said, ‘No we’re gonna do it on bowling and this and that.’ I said, ‘No!’ And then they give you the old ‘Bowling is the most popular sport on television.’ That’s a bunch of bullshit. I don’t know where those stats come from. There is no way it is.

PF: I remember the next day, on Saturday. First of all, the week before, they had told us it was going to open to 18 million, which was great. That was more than Dumb & Dumber. And then they went, ‘No, it’s probably 13.’ Then they said 10, and then it opened to five. So it was a crusher. And then the next morning. They did very few ads for this movie. Saturday, one of the studio guys calls me, and I don’t want to say who, but he says ‘Hey, it did five million.’ I said, ‘Well what did you expect? You got no ads on the Olympics, you got no ads here.’ He goes, ‘Hey, Pete, the movie didn’t work. It didn’t work. Now look within yourself, don’t blame people.’ What are you gonna say? How do you argue that?

BF: It was not a box office hit. So Pete and I did have a feeling at that time that our career may be in trouble. We were afraid, ‘Uh-oh, jeez, there goes our track record. We had a big hit and now we don’t.’ And we were wondering if we’d ever get another movie. We weren’t entirely sure.

PF: The one thing that kept us going was on that Sunday morning, Siskel and Ebert came on and they gave that movie the best review of any movie, ever. And I mean to the point where they looked into the camera and said, ‘Okay, guys, we’re talkin’ to the filmmakers now: thank you. Because you have no idea how many times we go to these comedies and never laugh. And here we just howled and we’re grateful. Thank you for giving us this movie.’ And I’m telling you the truth, that thing, that review, I held onto that review for the next six months. It was like, ‘Okay, maybe I’m not a hundred percent wrong.’

BF: Six months later, it was number one on video four weeks in a row. And that was the first time that had ever happened for a movie that was never in the top four in the box office. It was number five its opening week and then it fell way off. And then four weeks in a row it was number one and all of a sudden I started hearing about it. Thank God. It started to feel like not such a disaster. And in some ways it’s almost cooler to have a movie that’s a cult hit. If it’s a bit hit and everybody knows it, that’s one thing but I probably had more people come up to me about Kingpin in my career than Something About Mary.

PF: Fortunately we met a guy, a big wig at Fox Studios, and he called us in and he said, ‘Hey guys, I saw Kingpin, and I just think that movie is hysterical. I wanna let you know, if you made that movie here, that would’ve been a smash hit.’ We’re like ‘Oh, well thanks! We’re very proud of it.’ And he goes, ‘I want you to make a movie here for us, what do you got?’ And we just happened to be circling this movie, There’s Something About Mary. We said, ‘Well, this is what we’re looking at right now.’ And he looked at it and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And he saved us. Because honestly, we were afraid we might be done.

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BF: Later on in life, we thought hey Kingpin would be fun to revisit. But we never really gave it much serious thought. You know, though, Ernie McCracken? I’d love to see what Ernie McCracken is doing nowadays. It’s gonna be something interesting, man. He’s just that guy. You could do, I mean, you could just do a story on him. Just follow him on a different adventure. By now, he’d probably be in politics.

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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