Cary Elwes hasn’t changed much in the 27 years since filming The Princess Bride. He’s still got a mess of blond hair and “eyes like the sea after a storm,” which now crinkle slightly when he smiles, but Elwes pretty much remains the spitting image of his iconic character, farm boy-turned-pirate Westley.
When we meet, Elwes seems to be channeling a contemporary Man in Black, wearing a leather jacket, a Rolling Stone T, and Chuck Taylors. He’s surprisingly soft-spoken, but articulate, and is nothing but effusive about his time working on The Princess Bride.
After feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia during the film’s 25th anniversary celebration at Lincoln Center in 2012, Elwes decided to pen his own tribute (along with Joe Layden) to S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. Based off of the actor’s experiences on and off set during the shoot, As You Wish is the ultimate Princess Bride fanatic’s peek behind the scenes at the cult classic that almost didn’t get made.
Thanks to director Rob Reiner’s tenacity and his love of William Goldman’s book, The Princess Bride finally made it out of the development hell where it had languished for more than a decade, declared by studios an impossible film.
Today, it seems inconceivable that the movie was only a modest success when it premiered in 1987. Elwes recalls being a little disappointed with the initial turnout at the box office, but like a fine wine (sans iocane powder), the movie’s popularity got better with age. “The film quietly went away,” Elwes explains. “It wasn’t until the VHS and cable markets started booming that the film found an audience. Then it took off and became this incredible thing.”
As You Wish combines Elwes’s memories and stories on set with countless anecdotes from his colleagues on the film, including Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Mandy Patinkin, and Chris Sarandon. From tales about André the Giant’s epic farts to rare photos from the set, this is for the fan who can’t get enough of Florin. Here are some of the highlights from our chat with Elwes, reminiscing about The Princess Bride and its place cemented in pop culture today.
The Princess Bride endures as one of the most quotable movies of all time, and the cast still find themselves hearing their old lines even three decades after the film first came out.
“Oh, please,” Elwes laughs. “I do have it easier than, say, Wally Shawn. He gets one word thrown at him if he misses an elevator or plane, and someone is screaming at him.”
While Elwes has an abundance of quite quotable lines, there is one that stands out above all the rest.
“Obviously, I get the title of the book a lot, which is why it took the publishers all of two seconds to come up with that,” Elwes says. “Billy [Crystal] gets mutton, lettuce, and tomato — he can’t go into a deli or a restaurant without a waiter giving him a quote. It’s done! It’s incredible! But that’s the testament of Bill Goldman and what an incredible writer he is.”
“Have you ever broken a toe?” Elwes asks. “Don’t wish it on anyone. People think it’s just a toe, but it actually affects your entire foot.”
Elwes knows this pain all too well. During filming, André convinced Elwes to go for a joyride. “My hubris exceeded my aptitude by mistakenly taking a ride on André’s all-terrain vehicle,” Elwes says. Before he knew it, his left toe was bent at an excruciating 90-degree angle.
Despite his left toe being completely broken, Elwes tried to pull one over on Reiner because he was nervous about being let go from the film…especially because they had yet to shoot Westley and Inigo’s epic sword fight.
“I tried to hide it from him,” Elwes admits. “Of course that was silly, because, you know, I’m on a set with people with walkie-talkies…He said, ‘Listen, we’ll work around it if we have to. Don’t worry about it.’ That’s just the sweet, nurturing guy that he is.”
With a splint and a few weeks’ worth of healing time, the show went on and Elwes trained for the fight even with his injured foot, working on the choreography with just his arms. “In a strange way, it actually helped me become more proficient as a fencer,” Elwes says. “It was almost a blessing in disguise.”
In the book, Elwes reveals a friendly competition developed between himself and Patinkin over swordplay. Elwes hadn’t been much good at fencing in school, so picking up a sword for The Princess Bride‘s “Greatest Sword Fight in Modern Times” was a daunting task. He and Patinkin trained eight hours a day, five days a week with some of the best swordsmen in Hollywood, learning the whole fight scene backwards and forwards — including each other’s moves.
“Always look at each other’s eyes,” Elwes says of sword fighting. “Never take your eyes off of your opponent, like Bruce Lee says in Enter the Dragon. Your eyes will telegraph what your next move is going to be. Always. If you try to look at the arm or the body, you’ll miss it.”
During the scene in which Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max coaxes some life out of the mostly dead Westley, it turns out that much of the cast was chased off set because they couldn’t hold it together during Crystal’s improvisation.
“Billy ruined it for me and Rob and Mandy,” Elwes laughs. “Rob came over to me and said, ‘OK, we want you to lay on this table, and because you’re mostly dead, we can’t see your chest move, so you’ve got to hold your breath while Billy’s doing his dialogue, because the camera can see if you’re breathing or not.’ And I thought, ‘Greaaat. That’s gonna be a challenge.’ And then he walked over to Billy and threw away the script and said, ‘Just do what you want to do.’ “
That meant everyone on set was left trying to stifle their laughter.
“Billy doesn’t need much prompting,” Elwes explains. “But it gave him free rein to do medieval standup, which he did for the next hour. The first person to be banished from the set by the sound department was Rob, because his laugh can be heard in Detroit. I was the next, and they replaced me with my rubber dummy, the one that André carries around. Then Mandy, who was trying so hard to keep his laugh inside, bruised a rib…which I didn’t think you could do from holding a laugh, but you can!”
In As You Wish, Elwes recounts André the Giant’s drinking prowess and ability to down 100 beers without getting tipsy. Once, after the first script reading, André passed out cold in a hotel lobby, only to stay there until the next morning, when he brushed himself off and walked out like nothing had happened. Out of context, it might sound humorous, but Elwes says the situation was more heart-wrenching than gut-busting.
“The poor guy really was in a great deal of pain because of his back issues,” Elwes explains. “He was due to have an operation after the movie, but in order to get through the film, the doctors didn’t know how much painkillers to prescribe a 450-pound, seven-foot-five person…so the only painkiller he could take was alcohol.”
Ever the professional, André stuck it out on the shoot despite his back pain.
“He never missed a day, he never flubbed a line, he never complained,” Elwes says of André. “He had this permanent smile on his face — it was just the most beautiful smile. He could light up a room the minute he walked in. Forget the presence and the magnitude of the man — the smile is what I remember. I miss him to this day.”
“No. To the Pain.” — Westley
Throughout the story, Westley battles plenty of formidable foes and challenges — Prince Humperdinck, R.O.U.S.s, the Machine, and the Fire Swamp, to name a few — but which of Westley’s foes would Elwes himself take on?
“I’m not sure I’m as much of a hero as Westley is in real life,” Elwes says. “I’m not good with fire, so that’s out. I’m not fond of rodents, I should say. Not sure I’d face that one. Probably Humperdinck, I would think.”
Finally, one of Elwes’s more bizarre anecdotes from the book involves a fan with an “As you wish” tattoo on her neck. She and her mother eventually met Elwes and gave him an odd request: Would he sign her neck so she could get that permanently inked as well? Initially, Elwes was hesitant, but luckily for the fan, she didn’t have to hear, “Get used to disappointment,” because her mother actually talked him into it.
“Well, I first said, ‘Are you sure?’ to this young lady,” explains Elwes. “Her mom said, ‘Yes. Yes, she is. She’s very sure. So am I.’ It turns out she was a big fan of the film, so I think it was partly her idea…the whole thing. What was I going to say? I try to make my fans happy…but God bless her, somewhere in the world is a young lady with my name tattooed on her neck.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 15, 2014