The Little-Known History of RoboCop
Two men enter a room.
“Ok, so, first imagine robots. You with me? And now imagine cops, ok? Now…combine them.”
“But wait wait wait….this robotic cop? Is basically Jesus.”
“Yeah, and Detroit is Jerusalem! Or Rome or…the world?”
“One of those! So, can we have $13 million?”
How else could the pitch for RoboCop have gone? How else would you describe it? And yet, here we are, 27 years later, primed for a remake. But how did such an initially silly-sounding concept become something of a cultural touchstone? Well, it almost didn’t. Several times over. In fact, the story about how the whole thing came together might surprise you.
How RoboCop Started
If you told me that the idea of RoboCop came about from two dudes smoking weed and playing Atari, I would have bought it hook, line, and sinker. After all, the name RoboCop has all the aesthetic appeal of, I don’t know…Time Samurai or Nordic Space Berserker or–oh my God. Those are literally the best ideas I’ve ever had. BRB, making culturally-relevant masterpieces that stand the test of time even decades later.
Aaaaaand we’re back. So, the whole thing got started when writer Edward Neumeier saw a poster for Blade Runner. When asked what is what about, a friend told him “A cop that hunts robots.” Then, his eyes got wide and he was all like, “But what if the cop WAS a robot?” And then his friends called the paramedics because that’s the line of thinking only a sociopath has.
As to how the film made it out of the bongatorium (“writer’s room”) and into Hollywood? Legend has it that the film’s writers were stranded at an airport, and just happened to be sitting next to a high-ranking film executive. They passed the time discussing their movie. So next time you tell me that God doesn’t work in mysterious ways, I’ll thank you to consider RoboCop, sir or madam.
Nobody Wanted to Direct it–Not Even the Director
The film needed a director. And as you might imagine, most directors were hesitant to attach their names to The Adventures of Cyber Jesus vs. the Midwestern Walmart Megalith! (In Technicolor). In fact, eventual director Paul Verhoeven threw the script away after one reading. It wasn’t until his wife fished it out of the dumpster and gave it a read that she realized that the script was rich with imagery and allegorical content. If you don’t believe me, check out the sizeable “Themes and Analysis” portion of RoboCop’s Wikipedia page, and then notice that The Owls of Ga’Hoole doesn’t even have one–a film which most critics credit as “the finest owl-based CGI action movie of the last 150 years.”
And Nobody Could Fit in the Suit
Originally, Verhoeven wanted to cast a big, beefy A-lister to star as the eponymous cop, like Rutger Hauer (Hobo with a Shotgun) or Arnold Schwarzenegger (Hercules Goes Bananas). But the problem with being a big, beefy A-lister is that sometimes you’re too beefy to fit into a RoboCop suit. That’s, uh, pretty much what happened here.
So, Peter Weller was selected, both because of his slender frame–which would allow him to actually fit in the suit–and because the exposed lower half of his face (ahem) “could adequately display pathos.” To which Peter Weller responded: “thank….you…?” before looking up what “pathos” meant, and trying to figure out how to hold his lower lip just so.
The Suit that Showed Up Was Different Than They Planned–and 3 Weeks Late
Question–how would you describe RoboCop’s movements? Clunky? Belabored? Then it might surprise you to know that the original idea was for RoboCop’s movements to be “snakelike” and “elusive.” So much so, in fact, that Peter Weller hired Moni Yakim, the Head of the Movement Department at Juilliard (THE HEAD OF WHAT!? WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!?) to coach his motions. Problem was, the final suit arrived on the first day of shooting Weller in his suit (three weeks after its due date), meaning he had no time to get used to the new design. This caused a 3-day delay in which Verhoeven, Weller, and their professional mime coach–who works at a prestigious school and is probably pulling $150K a year, and by the way, how’s your law degree working out?–finally came to the realization: “maybe let’s slow the robot down and move like a robot?”
But, the movement wasn’t the only issue. As it turns out, the suit was bulky enough that Weller couldn’t fit into a police car. In fact, most of the scenes of RoboCop driving a car were filmed with Weller only wearing the top half of his suit (his RoboBlouse, if you will). He was in his underwear from the waist down. This is my favorite mental image of the last 12 months, by the way. Also, in order to circumvent the trolls, Verhoeven included scenes of RoboCop entering his car feet first, before cutting just seconds later, so it appeared like he wasn’t in his skivvies.
And let’s not forget about the heat. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Weller revealed that he was losing THREE POUNDS of water weight EACH DAY, because that’s what happens when you wear an all-metal suit while filming in Dallas, TX (oh yeah, they filmed in Pittsburgh and Dallas, despite the setting being “Detroit.”) They eventually had to outfit the suit with an internal fan. That’s three pint glasses’ worth of hot, salty sweat, drop by drop, on a daily basis.
I should note that at no point in my research could I find anything about the smell. Let’s assume “all the locker rooms,” because I’m scared to Google “What does 3 pounds of Peter Weller’s sweat smell like?”
One final, fascinating note about the portrayal of RoboCop. Peter Weller tried to stay in character the entire time, and even when the camera wasn’t rolling, he would only respond when people called him “Robo.” This only lasted a few weeks until Paul Verhoeven told him to cram it with walnuts.
Let’s Talk About the Nazi-Inspired Villains
There are two principal villains in RoboCop–Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker. Of these, the more fascinating–from a historical standpoint–is Boddicker, not only because he was portrayed by Red Forman from That ’70s Show, but because of how much thought was put into his character’s appearance.
As it turns out, Paul Verhoeven intentionally cast Kurtwood Smith (Boddicker) because he was a brainy type. The thought was that a big, hulking villain could be outsmarted or overpowered by RoboCop, but an egghead would be deadlier. In fact, Verhoeven chose Boddicker’s rimless glasses specifically because they reminded him of Heinrich Himmler. No no, no need to Google. There’s only the one. So, if you’re keeping track at home, that’s Techno-Savior vs. the Nazi Super-Genius (which is also a movie I would watch).
And Releasing the Film Wasn’t Any Easier
While filming, Paul Verhoeven and producer Jon Davison realized that they were running behind schedule–and over budget. So how do you wrest more money about your midwestern mechanical Messiah of Motor City? You intentionally skip the scene that ties it all together.
For those who have never seen the movie, how on earth have you made it this far into an article about RoboCop with no knowledge of the source material? That’s some strange, mildly misguided dedication. Anyway, so the whole crux of the film is that a real life, flesh and blood cop gets killed in a warehouse shootout. His remains are what get turned into RoboCop. Realizing that they’d run out of money, Verhoeven and Davison just didn’t film the scene. It’s RoboCop’s origin story, and the basis for the entire movie (remember, the film is full of Christ allusions. RoboCop needed to “die” and “come back to life”). And the film couldn’t exist without it. When the director and producer showed up at the studio with everything filmed but that one scene, what could the studio do? So, they begrudgingly coughed up some more money, likely between f-bombs.
OK. SO. They got their director. They got their actor. They got their suit. They got their villain. They filmed their movie and cheated the studio out of juuuuuuust a bit more money. Time to release it, right? Nope. Not with an X-rating.
It’s true–RoboCop was rated X due to the amount of gore. Now, this is all kinds of vexing since 1) most X-rated movies feature sexual content and 2) only 30 people died in RoboCop. Thirty! To put this in perspective, 836 people died in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But still, the MPAA wouldn’t budge. So, Verhoeven and crew edited the film, removed some gore and an eye-stabbing (!) scene, and resubmitted. And it came back with….an X.
This happened a total of 11 times before finally getting the movie to the northern border of R, which is where it stayed. Incidentally, you can see some of the original versions on DVDs of the movie today.
Finally, the film was released to pretty positive acclaim. But that wasn’t the end of the story of RoboCop. There are two interesting footnotes.
In Sacramento, shortly after the film was released, a real-life robbery suspect was fleeing from the cops. He ducked into a movie theater where RoboCop was playing (you fool! Don’t run towards the robot!) Engrossed in the film, he hung back and watched the ENTIRE. THING. After the show, the lights came up, and the fella found out that the police had been quietly evacuating the rest of the audience. The robber was alone, surrounded by policeman. Y’see kids? RoboCop’s criminal-busting prowess extends to the non-fictional world as well, like a regular Last Action Hero! Also, good on the cops for letting him finish the movie.
And finally, in perhaps the greatest publicity photo since the infamous pic of Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T’s lap, Richard Nixon was hired to help promote the VHS release of RoboCop. Here’s a photo. Obviously, because of the 4th directive, RoboCop clearly couldn’t have launched Nixon out of a 30th-story window for that whole Watergate thing (although how great would that have been? “B-but RoboCop! I’m not a crook! I got a pardon from Ford and everything!” “Pipe down, creep” *indiscriminate justice is dispensed*). It also helped Nixon’s cause that he donated all $25,000 of his appearance fee to the Boys and Girls Club of America, which is a decidedly pro-bono RoboCop-approved move. The fee was paid for, one would presume, with the $89.98 price tag that the video cassette garnered (actual retail price. It was a renter’s market.)
Will the new RoboCop hold up to the old one? Not for me to say ‘til I’ve seen it. That said, I have a hard time believing the production will yield such colorful stories.
Brian Cullen really, really enjoys robots but doesn’t understand how they work. He also enjoys drinking beers, and has a pretty solid understanding of how that works. You can read about his musings about both on Twitter @BucketCullen.
Brian predicted the future (sadly it doesn’t include RoboCops) in The Terrifying Future, Part 2!