When My Cousin Vinny arrived in theaters on March 13, 1992, nobody had any idea we’d still be talking about it 30 years later. A midmarket, fish-out-water comedy about a streetwise Brooklyn attorney (Joe Pesci) who travels to Alabama with his plucky girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) to help his innocent nephew (Ralph Macchio) beat a bum murder rap, the film didn’t get much promotion out of the gate. Instead, the studio that produced it, 20th Century Fox, invested heavily in higher-profile offerings like Alien 3 and White Men Can’t Jump. Wayne’s World had been the top movie in America for more than a month, and Basic Instinct was about to become a phenomenon. And when Vinny premiered, critics were unimpressed.
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called it “pure no-brain bunk.” Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs-down, despite praising the performances of Pesci as attorney Vincent Gambini and newcomer Tomei as the sassy Mona Lisa Vito, an unlikely automotive expert who takes the witness stand in the climactic scene to dismantle the prosecution’s case. “It’s the kind of movie home video was invented for,” Ebert wrote. “Not worth the trip to the theater, but slam it into the VCR and you get your rental’s worth.”
Those words would prove prophetic. While My Cousin Vinny earned a respectable $53 million at the box office — and even won upstart Tomei an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress — it was VHS rentals, DVD sales, and nonstop airings on cable television that gave the movie staying power, turning it into one of the most beloved comedies of the past three decades. Those endless replays are the reason you can say, “What is a ‘yute?’ ” and anyone in earshot will know what you’re referencing. They are the reason Macchio is often asked to sign cans of tuna by complete strangers. (It’s what his character accidentally steals from a convenience store where the clerk later ends up dead.) They are the reason Antonin Scalia name-checked the movie during a 2006 Supreme Court hearing and even invited My Cousin Vinny screenwriter Dale Launer to his private quarters for a meeting.
To celebrate the movie’s 30th anniversary, we conducted extensive interviews with the cast and crew for an oral history packed with previously untold anecdotes, surprise casting decisions, behind-the-scenes drama, and the sad reason that one of the actors wishes he never agreed to his role in the first place. (Note: Pesci is largely retired from show business and declined the invitation to participate. We were also unable to speak with Tomei, though she did recently do a Last Word interview with us where she discussed her Oscar win and the movie’s legacy.)
I. The Screenplay
The basic concept for My Cousin Vinny came to Dale Launer when he was a college student in 1972, after a friend in law school told him about a guy who took the bar exam 13 times before passing.
Dale Launer (screenwriter): I wasn’t a film major at the time. But I joked, “What if you’re traveling through the deep south and you’re arrested for a murder you didn’t commit and the only lawyer that can help you is the guy who flunked the bar 12 times and passed on the 13th?” I just thought it was a funny idea.
He didn’t do much with the idea over the next couple of decades, but after making a name for himself writing movies like Ruthless People and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he came back to it.
Launer: I was a fan of the comedian Sam Kinison. He was great with hecklers, since he would just humiliate them. I thought it would be fun if the guy who plays the lawyer is actually a smart guy, but for certain reasons, it took him a number of times to pass the bar. And if he was in the courtroom and just took apart witnesses. I also used to be on the debate team in college. I knew that when you get a little fired up, you get better.
Two of his friends were dating at the time, and their intense dynamic inspired Vinny’s fiery exchanges with Mona Lisa.
Launer: They would argue in front of me, and it was a little like a performance art thing. One of them might say something horribly vicious and you’d think, “This relationship has to be over. He said something really, really mean.” And she’d say, “Oh, that was good. That was a good one.” It was more like they were having fun in a good, dark way.
Knowing little about the South besides what he’d seen in movies like Easy Rider, Launer traveled down there to find inspiration.
Launer: I flew down to New Orleans, picked up a Ford Probe, drove up to Mississippi, went over to Jackson, and went east from there into Alabama. I stopped off in Butler, Alabama, knocked on the door to an assistant district attorney, and sat with him for at least an hour. He became the model for [Jim] Trotter. As I was talking to him, I thought, “This is great. Lane Smith should play this guy.” Lane ended up getting the part, which was great.
Launer’s car got stuck in the mud while driving down a divided highway in Mississippi. A tow truck pulled it out, but it continued to make a strange clanking sound afterwards.
Launer: I didn’t know what was wrong, so I took the car to a wheel and tire place. There was a Black guy working there that had a star embedded in his front tooth. He became a character in the movie. He said, “Sounds like you got mud in your tire.” “Mud? How does mud get into the tire?” He said, “It’s just a manner of speaking down here. It means you got mud inside the wheel, and it’s throwing it out of balance.” So they cleaned it out and the car was fine. He also said, “We’re famous for our mud.” And so that went in the script, too.
When he got back, he arranged a series of meetings with attorney Doug Noll to learn more about the law. It was important to him that every tiny detail of the court proceedings be legally accurate.
Launer: I took extensive notes. I’d ask him, “What class in law school do you learn criminal court procedure?” He said, “You don’t.” I said, “You don’t? Then how do you learn?” “Well, you either go to court and watch and listen and learn, or the firm that hires you teaches you.” I said, “If Vinny goes in and he’s never really been in court except to fight a ticket once, he won’t know what he’s doing.” Doug laughs and goes, “Yeah. He’s going to be fucked.” I go, “Wow, this is great!”
Once he finished his research, it took Launer about six weeks to write the screenplay. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a big hit the previous year, so it didn’t take long for 20th Century Fox to pick it up.
Launer: I remember my first creative meeting with Roger Birnbaum, who was the president of Fox, and Riley Ellis, who was the senior vice president. I remember word-for-word how Roger started the meeting: “Good work. Very funny. Good work. Do you think you could cut the character Lisa out of the movie? She has so many great lines, it would be great to give those to Vinny, since it makes her look smart.” I laughed and said something to the effect of, “That’s a little like saying ‘I like the script Easy Rider. Do you think you could cut this lawyer out?’ Roger, you just pointed to the best thing in the script.”
Launer refused to back down.
Launer: I said, “You gotta understand that when Vinny puts her on the stand at the end, Vinny has to know where she’s going. Vinny has to know everything she knows. It’s just more impressive coming out of a woman’s mouth. And because they have a bit of a row, this becomes a romantic thing for them. And when she realizes she’s up there to help him win the case, she’s in her element. It becomes an important part of the movie.”
He won this battle, and Mona Lisa stayed in the script. But when British director Jonathan Lynn was hired to direct the movie, the studio asked him to do the production rewrite of the script instead of Launer. This led to some problems.
Jonathan Lynn (director): Dale’s script was absolutely terrific, but it was too long. It would have taken about three hours of screen time. That meant cuts had to be made. I don’t know for sure why they didn’t just have Dale do it, but I think it was because he was about to make another picture called Love Potion Number Nine and they didn’t want him distracted.
Launer: In my original script, there’s a line where [the arrested kids] Bill and Stan ask Vinny why it took him so long to pass the bar. He says, “I’m a little dyslexic.” Jonathan took it out. And then the judge hands him a book that’s three inches thick on criminal court procedure in Alabama and says, “You’re going to read this book over the weekend.” A guy that has a reading disability having to read that book is funny. But it’s also endearing. It creates a sense of sympathy for the character. But that wasn’t there.
Lynn: I don’t remember taking that out, but it might have been part of some lengthy scene that had to go.
Launer: Some of the reviews said it doesn’t make sense why Vinny flunked it so many times. That explains it. Somebody who is dyslexic sometimes has this fear of being perceived as [stupid]. That’s one of the reasons he doesn’t want Lisa’s help. He wants to do this himself. He’s got a sense of pride there. He’s trying to prove something. It’s a crucial bit of information about the character.
Lynn: I think Dale perhaps worries unnecessarily about that, but I’m sorry I took it out if it bothers him.
Paul Schiff (producer): Dale was very protective of the script, as he has every right to be.
Launer: I tried to take everything Jonathan put in the script back out. This is a guy that wrote and directed Nuns on the Run. That was a silly movie. His brand of humor would often not just be silly, but cliché. I’m thinking of the scene where Vinny is stuck in the mud and Lisa steps on the gas and mud hits him in the face. That’s that stuff Jonathan would add. Not scenes, a silly gag. When we got to that point in the script, I said, “Jonathan, the scene where she steps on the gas and the wheel spins and puts mud in his face, I don’t know. I think I’ve seen that before.” At this point he was angry and went, “Yes, you’ve seen it before, and you’ll see it again. You want to know why? Because it’s funny!” I don’t know if you could describe a hack any better than that, but that’s what I was dealing with with his stuff.
But the most quoted line in the entire movie did come from Lynn.
Lynn: One of my first meetings with Joe Pesci took place at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City. We were going through the script, talking about what he would like and what he wouldn’t like. He said to me, “There’s these two yutes.” I said, “What?” He said, “Two yutes.” I said, “What did you say?” He goes, “What?” I go, “What’s a ‘yute?’ ” He said, “Oh. Two youtthhhhhs.” I just wrote that into the script.
When Launer wrote the screenplay for My Cousin Vinny, he had a very particular look in mind for the main character.
Launer: Vinny was supposed to be a heavyweight boxer. It was mentioned in the screenplay, but got cut out. But he was supposed to look like a big thug, like muscle for the mob. I saw him as six feet four and 220 pounds.
That’s why Andrew Dice Clay was one of the early candidates to play him.
Schiff: Andew Dice Clay was a big deal at the time. The studio did express interest in him. It didn’t go terribly far.
Launer: I’m not sure how much of this I can say, but fuck it, why not. The studio vice president had been dating Andrew Dice Clay’s manager. [The VP] met Dice and he said something horrible to her. She said to me, “Can we take him off this list?” I said, “Fuck it.” That was it. I think he would have been good in the movie.
Lynn: I heard later Danny DeVito was attached to play Vinny and direct. For some reason, that didn’t happen.
Launer: I had a meeting with Danny. I’m sitting there with a legal pad and a pen. He says, “The script just doesn’t go.” I said, “You want more ‘go?’ ” And he laughed. That was pretty much the tone of the meeting. He ended up dropping out of the project because he thought my heart wasn’t in it. And my heart wasn’t in it, because I don’t know what the fuck he wanted.
Other possibilities for the role of Vinny were Peter Falk, Robert De Niro, and Jim Belushi. They came closest to making it happen with Belushi, but passed since he was attached to an early version of A League of Their Own in the role that went to Tom Hanks a few years later.
Lynn: None of them would have been right except De Niro. It needed a real Italian American.
They eventually turned their attention to Pesci. He was originally known as a dramatic actor thanks to movies like Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America, but he’d recently found huge success in comedy with Lethal Weapon 2 and Home Alone. At the time, he was finishing up work on Goodfellas.
David Rubin (casting director): Vinny is an underdog who triumphs in spite of his limitations. He does expose his insecurities in those early scenes, but he covers it in a bravado. So you’re rooting for him to tap into that bravado in the climactic scene. The natural confidence that Joe Pesci has was perfectly suited to that arc.
Schiff: The idea of going from Goodfellas to Vinny was pretty thrilling because he brought all of that credibility playing a guy who was pretty damn tough. But putting that tough character in a situation where he is over his head and struggling to win this complicated case was just a really funny, rich situation. Joe has a particular intensity that is very credible. He has that streetwise swagger that just played into the character beautifully.
The roles of the two college students wrongly arrested, Bill and Stan, ultimately went to Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield, respectively, but it took a little while to get there.
Ralph Macchio: From Fox’s perspective at that point in 1991, I had sort of plateaued. I was, for lack of a better description, yesterday’s news.
Rubin: Ralph had presence and notoriety from The Karate Kid, but we did go through a lot of kids. There was a moment towards the end of our process where we had heard about a new kid who was just shooting a TV series called Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We auditioned Will Smith for Rothenstein. His talent was evident.
Macchio: Both Ben Stiller and Will Smith were on their list.
Mitchell Whitfield: It came down [to] me and Will Smith, which is funny, because that’s probably the last time I ever beat out Will Smith for a part.
Rubin: It really became an honest conversation about how having an unjustly arrested young Black man in the deep South would change the dynamic of the narrative. As talented as Will was, we made a determination that it was too intrusive to the central thesis of the movie.
Macchio: That was equally true with Ben Stiller. A young, Jewish person in the South, all of a sudden you’re moving the perspective of the movie, especially at that time.
For the role of stuttering public defender John Gibbons, they went with longtime stage actor Austin Pendleton.
Austin Pendelton: I knew Jonathan Lynn going back to the 1960s. He’s a lovely man and we’ve been close for decades. He sent me the script for My Cousin Vinny and I flipped through it. I saw that the part was a stutterer. Well, I stuttered since childhood and it never completely went away, despite a lot of hard work. I called up Jonathan and said, “What kind of joke is this? I’m not doing it.” But he was persistent and he offered to take me out for dinner at a nice Greek restaurant. After two bottles of retsina and a nice Greek meal, I succumbed.
Fred Gwynne, best remembered for his role as Herman Munster on The Munsters, was given the part of Judge Chamberlain Haller. Veteran character actor Bruce McGill was cast as Sheriff Dean Farley.
Bruce McGill: I’d known Joe Pesci for years. We were golfing buddies. When I first got there to the set, I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks. He said, “I told them it was OK you had this part,” which meant he had casting approval. I instantly got on [one] knee, kissed his ring, and said, “Thank you, Godfather.” He said, “Get the fuck up. What the fuck are you doing?”
The hardest part was finding an actress to play opposite Pesci as Mona Lisa Vito.
Lynn: The studio offered it to any Italian American they could think of with any name value. They all passed. I think they thought the part wasn’t big enough.
Launer: Lorraine Bracco was discussed, but I think she passed. Also on the list was Carole Davis. She’s an actress and a hip-hop singer. We’re friends, and I called her when I was down in Butler, Alabama, doing research for the movie. I remember she said, “I bet the Chinese food down there is terrible.” I thought that was funny, so I took it and gave it to Lisa.
Lynn: I started auditioning lots of people. They all came in to read, and nobody was right. I was getting very worried. By chance, John Landis phoned and said, “I’m finishing shooting Oscar this week,” which was a film with Sylvester Stallone and Danny DeVito. “Would you like to come down to Paramount and look at the amazing set before it’s broken down?” I said sure. Marisa came onto the set and did her little scene. I said to John, “Who is this? She’s really good.” She was playing a 1920s blonde flapper, nothing at all like Lisa, but I could see she had good timing.
Schiff: She came in and just blew us all away with this fiery, fierce, funny, witty performance. When she walked out of the room, we all looked at each other and, as cliché as it sounds, we said, “We found her.” Then we realized, “OK, this is going to be a fight.” She was relatively unknown. There was pressure from the studio to cast a star.
Lynn: I said to Fox, “I know who I’m going to cast.” They said, “We want to see a screen test of your first three choices.” I said, “OK.” We did a test of three women, including Marisa. Then I took the test to Joe Pesci, who was filming Goodfellas. I said, “I’ve got these three screen tests. I want you to know if you think it’s the same person I think it is.” He said, “Yeah, Marisa Tomei.” I said, “Right, I agree.” I then went to Fox. They picked somebody else from the screen test. We had an argument with the president of the studio for about half an hour. Finally I produced my trump card. I said, “Joe Pesci thinks it should be Marisa.” Studios never want to have a fight with a leading actor, especially shortly before a film begins. There was a pause and then he said, “Look, it’s your film. You cast who you want.”
III. Heading to Georgia
Before Atlanta and New Orleans became the production hubs they are today, lots of Hollywood movies that supposedly take place in the South were filmed either on Hollywood backlots or even in Canada for tax purposes. But for My Cousin Vinny, there was never an idea to film anywhere but the actual South.
Schiff: It was very important to us to shoot the movie where it was scripted: in the South, in a small town with a town square and a great courthouse exterior. It was also very important to us to hire many local folks as extras and for small roles. That was a great experience. The whole town was excited to have us there. We were excited to be there. I think that seeped into the movie in a very palpable way, so you really believed that these urban creatures were parachuting into a Southern town that was, to them, like landing on Mars.
Lynn: I went down there by myself with the location scout, and we just drove around Georgia to find places to shoot. It had to be Georgia instead of Alabama, where the movie takes place, because they had a film crew there and equipment. Alabama wasn’t set up for filmmaking.
Frank Capra III (assistant director): We set up shop outside of a town called Greensboro, which is halfway between Atlanta and Augusta.
Schiff: We found this golf resort [now called Reynolds Lake Oconee] just outside town where the whole cast and much of the crew lived.
Capra: The country club had not opened yet. We all ended up shacking up together in these spec houses along the golf course. Our production office was the clubhouse of the country club. It was very comedic in its own way. It also brought all of us together as a kind of film family that really, in my opinion, came out on the screen.
McGill: I would wake up in the morning to the sound of people teeing off on the golf course.
Schiff: We had every meal together. We spent every weekend together. We hung out after shooting together. It was a really lovely bonding experience for Joe and Marisa, for Jonathan and all of his cast, for all of us. It was our version of summer camp.
Whitfield: Ralph and I became really close during the shoot. We had a blast. We were working six days a week, since you don’t have these locations for long. By Sundays, we were all pretty exhausted. But Ralph and I would go to the mall in downtown Atlanta to eat and go shopping.
Macchio: It was the first time I ever went to a California Pizza Kitchen.
When they started filming, one of the first issues they had to address was the 22-year age gap between Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei. To make Pesci seem younger, they slathered him with makeup and inserted a device into his toupee to pull his face back.
McGill: That was a trip. They had these weird things that went up into his hair. It was sort of like a non-surgical facelift, and if you get the wrong light on it, things got difficult. But it was worth it to make that relationship more plausible.
Lynn: Joe did a lot of things with his makeup to make himself look younger. It didn’t seem to bother anyone in the end, but I was worried about it.
Macchio: If you look at still images of Goodfellas, even the poster, you can see that he was experimenting with that back then. Part of building a character is not just emotionally and mentally, but physically as well. That was important to him. There were times we had to wait around for that [device] to work as well as everyone wanted it. And if you study the film, you can see some inconsistencies with it.
The dynamic between Vinny and Lisa is the heartbeat of the movie, and they spent a lot of time off-camera perfecting it.
McGill: [Joe] pretty much monopolized [Marisa’s] time off set. She wasn’t going out to dinner with the rest of us, nor was Joe. I think he just lived the relationship they had in the film and took a lot of time with her.
Capra: Joe really took Marisa under his wing. He really knew how to bring the comedy out in Marisa.
McGill: Joe may not tell this to any interviewer, but it was a Svengali relationship. He, at the time, felt responsible for how good she was, and not without reason.
Midway through the shoot, Pesci flew to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards. He won Best Supporting Actor for Goodfellas and gave one of the shortest acceptance speeches in Oscars history: “It was my privilege. Thank you.”
Schiff: As a producer, there’s nothing better than a member of your cast coming back to set with an Oscar in his or her hand. We were all completely ecstatic and so happy for Joe, but also happy for our own project. It was really fun, since he returned the next morning to go to work. It was a pretty jubilant set.
Macchio: We all huddled around the television when he won. Everything was happening right for him at that point with Goodfellas and Home Alone. He was on fire. He brought the Oscar on the set when he came back.
Whitfield: I remember thinking, “Don’t touch it. It’s bad luck.” It was like seeing the Stanley Cup: “No, I can’t hold it. It’s bad luck.”
Lynn: We shot the scene that day where he’s lying in bed in the jail during a prison riot. We did one shot with Joe lying there asleep holding an Oscar, and sent it to the studio. And then we did it properly.
IV. The Courtroom
The outdoor scenes were shot in a variety of little towns around Greensboro, but they headed to Covington, Georgia, to film all of the courtroom sequences.
Whitfield: It was the same stage where they shot In the Heat of the Night. They had just wrapped filming when we came in.
McGill: It rains a lot in Georgia. And when it rained, that warehouse was useless to record sound. It was like a tin roof, like being inside a drum. We’d have to stop filming all the time and wait for the rain to stop.
Whitfield: It was also really hot in there. I remember watching Joe sweat like he was three people. Ralph and I had to sit there for weeks on end. I’d say to Ralph, “Remind me to tell my agent, ‘No more long courtroom movies. We’ve served our time.’”
For Macchio and Whitfield, maintaining focus was especially hard when Austin Pendleton came in to film his scene as a stuttering public defender who’s barely able to get a word out during his opening statement.
Macchio: The most difficult thing, perhaps to this day, with all the on-camera stuff I’ve done in my lifetime since 1979 when I started in this crazy business of show, was holding it together for Austin Pendleton’s most brilliant public defender. You can still watch our shoulders bobbing up and down like Simpsons characters. Even Joe sometimes had to turn the other way.
Launer: It was the only time in my life I had to hide behind the camera so the other actors couldn’t see I was laughing uncontrollably.
Whitfield: I kept losing it and they needed a clean reaction shot of me. I eventually pulled him aside and was like, “Austin, listen, I love you. You’re killing me here, though. Do me a favor: When you do this next time and the camera is on me for my reaction, don’t act it all out. They don’t need your voice for this take.” He was like, “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. Let’s do this.” And then Jonathan calls “action” and he does it bigger. More stutters, louder than he’d ever done it before. He looks at me and goes, “Is that what you meant?”
But nobody had any idea what the scene was doing to Austin emotionally.
Pendelton: It brought back the worst years of my teenage years. I thought, “Oh, I wish I wasn’t doing this.” I just hated doing these scenes.
Rubin: I’m not sure that kind of a character would exist in films today since there’s a sensitivity to marginalized people, including stutterers. That might keep us from having scenes like that today. But it’s still funny.
Fred Gwynne did an amazing job as the stern judge, but things started out a little rough.
Lynn: The first day that Fred came on set, he started playing the judge like Herman Munster. I was horrified. I stopped the take in the middle and sent everyone away for coffee. I took Fred aside and I said, “This is not Herman Munster. This is playing for real.” He said, “Oh, I presumed you wanted Herman Munster.” I said, “Absolutely not.”
McGill: Joe felt Fred Gwynne was quite jokey as the judge. He’d rather they had Wilford Brimley. I knew Wilford very well. We were dear friends. But you needed Fred Gwynne in that part. Wilford would have been straight ahead, no tongue in cheek. The whole “What’s a ‘yute’ ” sequence would have been much dryer.
Lynn: After I spoke to him that first day, he did it really well. He died really soon afterwards. We had no idea he was sick. I heard about it when I was making my next film, The Distinguished Gentleman.
Whitfield: Fred was very physically intimidating. He seemed to always have a scowl on. It felt like you had to approach him very carefully.
McGill: Fred Gywnne was the most wonderful guy. He was also a fantastic storyteller. There were really long setups between filming, but instead of going back to his trailer, he used to stand at craft services and tell us stories. This is a guy that drank a lot and smoked a lot and didn’t go outside in the sun much.
Whitfield: The original Game Boy came out right around this time. During lunch break at one point, I was playing Tetris and Fred walked by. You can imagine the look he gave me. He could raise one eyebrow in a way that was somehow both frightening and humorous. He walked past me, backtracked, and then was like, “What is that?” I said, “Oh, it’s a Game Boy. This is Tetris.” And then I showed him how it worked. “The shapes drop and you move them.” He goes, “Can I try it?” I gave it to him, and he’s so big that it looked like a piece of chewing gum in his hands. He’s just this huge guy, and he’s hunched over and playing it. He gave it back to me and said, “I’m going to get one.” The next day, he came in and was playing Tetris on his own Game Boy, smiling and nodding to me.
Pesci was the focal point of nearly every courtroom scene, and the pressure sometimes caused him to squabble with Lynn.
McGill: He was very hard on Jonathan Lynn, which I thought was just terribly unfair. I was privately a little embarrassed at some of the exchanges. At one point, I was looking through the cracks in the courtroom doors and waiting to make my entrance in a scene. They were out in the vestibule. I could see Joe giving Jonathan a tongue-lashing again. I just said, “Oh, God.”
Whitfield: There were some tense moments. That can happen on a movie set. From the outside looking in, Hollywood has a sort of fairy-tale aura about it. But at the end of the day, it’s like any other workplace. There are tensions that flare up. People aren’t perfect.
Macchio: I think there were moments of frustration. Joe put a lot on himself.
McGill: One day Joe stormed off the courtroom set. Any courtroom comedy or tragedy is tedious, because they need to set up a lot of shots from a lot of different angles. You just get tired of it. Something happened and Jonathan laughed, and Joe just turned and said, “What? Do you think I’m here to entertain you?” He threw a bit of a hissy fit. He said, “Find something else to shoot. I’m leaving.” And he actually walked off the set.
They shot around Joe as much as they could for the next few hours, waiting for him to calm down after practically living out a real-life scene from Goodfellas.
McGill: I was getting ready to go change out of my wardrobe at the end of the day and I hear a knock on the door. It was Joe. He said, “Bruce, Bruce, come here. Was that bad?” I said, “It’s nobody’s favorite thing, but you said to find something else to shoot, and we did. I don’t think there’s any big loss on the day, but nobody liked it since everyone is uncomfortable when somebody gets crabby.” That’s the only time something like that happened.
The courtroom scenes culminate with Vinny calling Mona Lisa to the witness stand. They’re in the middle of a fight and she’s furious with him at first, but she slowly realizes he needs her to solve the case. By the time she’s done, the prosecution drops all the charges. The whole sequence is a master class of comedy and timing. It’s also one of the single greatest courtroom scenes in the history of American cinema.
Schiff: The whole movie is constructed to set up that moment when Marisa takes the stand and they have to work out their relationship while also winning the case. That was the genius of Dale’s idea and his execution. Those two tracks, the legal track and the relationship track, intersect in this climactic scene where it all gets resolved in this incredibly satisfying way.
Macchio: That was the perfect marriage not only of the actor to the role, but of the screenwriter to the page to the screen. It really is the whole “positraction” and the “Pontiac Tempest” and the “Buick Skylark” [of Mona Lisa’s argument]. That’s why they study that movie in law school. The breakdown in the sequence is how you’re supposed to do it.
Whitfield: I remember sitting there watching it happening live. It was just magical, absolutely magical. She had to do it again and again, and she was equally brilliant every time.
Macchio: There was just one person to play that part. I felt that way about Pat Morita and the Mr. Miyagi character. Nobody else could have done what they did with those roles. A lot of people imitate her, but she created this character, and it was perfect.
Whitfield: Jonathan was generous enough to take me into the editing room to watch the dailies. When we watched Marisa on the stand, I turned to him and said, “Mark my words: She will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.”
V. The Release
The initial cut of My Cousin Vinny was two hours. Most studio comedies are just 90 minutes, and Fox initially wanted them to trim off about a quarter of the running time.
Schiff: We really believed that if we had cut down on the setup, the payoff would have been damaged. We really, really needed to invest that time in our characters and the situation so we have a really big payoff in the end. There was some anxiety about this at the studio and lots of discussion. We finally convinced everyone, “Let’s just screen the movie with an audience before we make any changes or cut into the setup.” It was one of the best audience screenings of my career. It was absolutely explosive. Huge laughs. Just waves and waves of laughter. The payoff was just so successful, so satisfying, and so fun for the audience that after the screening, the studio said, “Lock it. Don’t make any changes. Don’t trim the setup. You’re golden.”
My Cousin Vinny grossed $7.4 million its first weekend and eventually pulled in $52 million, but Launer feels the decision to show the scene in the trailer where Whitfield’s character says “The Klan’s here. They’re inbred. They sleep with their sisters” doomed it in the South, even though the movie truly avoids nearly all stereotypes about the region.
Launer: It died on the vine in the South because of that line in the trailer. But the people who actually saw it in the South didn’t think it was insulting at all. But in New York, the movie was like E.T. or something. It played forever.
And when Academy Awards nominations came around early the next year, Marisa Tomei was nominated for Best Supporting Actress alongside Joan Plowright for Enchanted April, Judy Davis for Husbands and Wives, Vanessa Redgrave for Howard’s End, and Miranda Richardson for Damage. Much to the shock of many in Hollywood, Tomei won.
Launer: They were largely these middle-aged women she was up against, mostly grand dames of British theater, though one [Judy Davis] was Australian. We figured they would divide that vote. Also, Vinny made more money than all those movies put together.
Lynn: For the nine months before the nomination, everyone told me that they loved the film. They’d go, “And who was that amazing woman playing Lisa?” Everybody in the business asked me that question. I wasn’t surprised when she was nominated. We all know that comedy is harder than drama or tragedy, but they give almost all the awards to drama and tragedies.
Whitfield: Maybe the outside world was shocked when she won, but if you were there every day watching like me, you were not shocked that she won the Oscar.
Schiff: We were all surprised, but I have a theory about it. When My Cousin Vinny came out, it was the first or second year that videotapes were distributed to Academy members, so they could sit in their homes and watch all the movies for nominations and the ultimate awards. That year, there were a couple of Merchant Ivory movies and some very highbrow, pedigreed, important films. I’m not sure that the Academy membership would have gone out to see My Cousin Vinny in a theater, but I know they did watch it on video at home. I think we really benefited from that. Academy members wanted to take a break after watching some very serious movies and check out this comedy.
In the early years of the Internet, an urban legend spread that Oscar presenter Jack Palance was drunk that night and mistakenly said Tomei’s name while Vanessa Redgrave was the actual winner. It’s not true. And had he done that, Oscar officials would have immediately come onto the stage and corrected him, as happened in 2017 when La La Land was accidentally named Best Picture over Moonlight because Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope.
Schiff: That urban legend is really cruel and unfair to Marisa. It’s a completely bogus, silly conspiracy theory. Completely ridiculous.
What is true is that the movie has become a favorite of lawyers and judges all over the country. The American Bar Association named it the third-greatest legal movie of all time.
Lynn: Several judges have said to me that it’s the only Hollywood trial movie where everything is correct. Nothing is wrong. I’m told the film is taught in law schools everywhere when they teach the laws of evidence.
Whitfield: I’ve gone to speak at courthouses to lawyers and judges. We watch the movie and talk about it afterwards. The way that the law and the legal process is represented still holds true. A lot of lawyers and judges swear by the process that the film takes to get where it goes.
Schiff: To this day, it still comes up in first-year law classes as a good example of procedure. That’s a great source of pride for all of us involved in the movie.
Launer: Kamala Harris says it’s her favorite movie. I met Scalia because of this. I sent a letter to the information officer on the Supreme Court. I sent a few quotes where he’d said he liked the movie. I asked if he was interested in meeting me when I was in DC. [Scalia] said he’d love to meet me. “Come in Monday at 11:00.” It was so much fun to get into a cab and say, “The Supreme Court, please.” And then walking up those steps. I went through some very informal security checks. Within almost 90 seconds, I’m in the chambers with Anton Scalia. He said it wasn’t his favorite movie, just his favorite legal movie.
Just about the only person with mixed feelings about the movie is Austin Pendleton. His reasons are quite understandable.
Pendelton: I regret doing it. It almost ended my career. Directors and casting agents said, “Oh, you’ll never be this good again.” What a horrible thing to say about any actor under any circumstances. And with one exception, I’ve never appeared in a major film again.
He also received sacks of angry letters from stutterers after the movie came out.
Pendelton: One came from this kid in Canada that was maybe 10 or 11 named Lucas. It was so pure and touching. He talked about how painful it was to sit in the audience. It took me several months to respond. It’s the only one I responded to. I said, “I was very touched by your letter, and I stuttered at your age.” I said, “You have to try to have a sense of humor about it. It’s like almost anything. If you have a sense of humor, it really does help you to get through it. And I wish you all the best in the world.” I got a letter back from his mother saying Lucas was so excited to get the letter and that he used to never talk in school, and now they can’t shut him up.
Despite being able to help Lucas, Pendleton says the movie still causes him tremendous pain.
Pendelton: It haunts me. It haunts my steps. Strangers recognize me all the time. No other film I’ve made has had that effect. Sometimes after [a theater] opening, I’d go into an Italian restaurant and there would be a big family having dinner, and they’d call me over and say, “Hey, stutter for us.” Oh man, it’s awful. And I guess they meant well, but I would sort of politely demur and then they would just hound me, and I would refuse to do it. I guess people that don’t stutter, they don’t understand the pain of the whole thing. I wish I’d never done that movie. The only thing that made it worth it was that letter from Lucas.
VI. The Phantom Sequel
Lynn: I think a sequel could have worked. I don’t know why it didn’t happen. I never saw a script. I think Joe and Marisa were not that keen to do another one. Sometimes it’s a good idea just to leave a hit the way it is. Most sequels don’t work very well.
Launer: I wrote a sequel. It starts with Vinny in England. Marisa has been arrested and he gets involved with the British legal system to try and get her out. I went to England to do research for it.
Schiff: Why didn’t it happen? That’s a question for the studio. I think it was an issue of timing and getting the band back together.
Launer: Marisa dropped out. I was told she was committed. I was told there was a contract, but they weren’t going to sue her to do it. She didn’t want to do a sequel. She wanted it, and then she didn’t want it.
Launer asked the studio to simply replace her with another actress.
Launer: [20th Century Fox chairman] Joe Roth said we couldn’t do that. I said, “It’s been done before.” “Where?” I said, “The most successful film franchise in film history. You’re the head of the studio and I have to tell you? It’s James Bond!” He says, “Well, that’s James Bond.” I say, “That’s your answer? ‘That’s James Bond?’ How about on TV, on Bewitched, when they changed the Darrins. Didn’t hurt the ratings. You can do this. She’s a very good actress, but there are other very good actresses.”
Roth refused to consider the idea of casting someone else as Lisa, and asked Launer to simply remove her from the story and introduce a new girlfriend for Vinny.
Launer: I went, “What?! That’s a terrible idea!” Anyways, I eventually got fired off my project. My own movie! And they had someone else to write it. I read it and said, “There’s not one laugh in the entire thing. It just looks like a bad sequel.” They gave the script to Joe Pesci. He hated it so much that he stopped talking to Fox.
As the years went by, Launer grew so frustrated with the impasse that he tried to finance it himself.
Launer: I was meeting with multimillionaires, billionaires. On occasion, I’d find one that wanted to finance the movie. I went to Fox with the money, and they still didn’t want to do it. They said it still costs a lot of money to market the movie. I said, “It won’t cost as much because it’s a sequel.” That makes sense to you and me, we’re reasonable people. But we’d never run a studio, because you have to be an idiot to run a studio. It’s so crazy. Then I went to them with money for marketing, and they didn’t return my calls… Right now, I’m working on a prequel to Vinny that’s going to be a musical, a stage production. But I’m doing it on spec.
VII. The Legacy
Nearly everyone involved with the movie looks back on it with incredible fondness and nostalgia.
McGill: It gets rerun more than anything I’ve done except maybe Animal House. My wife and I saw it on a flight recently. I was hysterical because the flight attendants were standing behind and watching me watch myself and laugh.
Lynn: I’m delighted that people still love and watch it. Someone told me this morning that they saw it on television last night. I thought, “How great.” Some films are just irresistible. When they come on, you watch them.
Macchio: I always call it the late-for-dinner movie, since, if it’s on, you’re just going to be late for dinner.
Capra: As my grandfather [Frank Capra] always said, the hardest type of entertainment to make is comedy. It’s very hard to engage the audience for an hour and a half, two hours, and make them laugh. Vinny definitely did that. For me, it’s one of the movies I’m proudest [to be] affiliated with.
Macchio: When Deflategate happened with Tom Brady and the balls not being properly inflated, Bill Belichick was doing a press conference. I heard it on the radio when I was driving. He started talking about the science behind it, the amount of PSI in the football. He said, “I don’t claim to be the Mona Lisa Vito of inflation.” I almost drove into a telephone pole.
Schiff: Jonathan Lynn and I were both approached separately by David Mamet. He told us that My Cousin Vinny is the best American comedy ever written. It’s quite a testament to that script and how that film all came together. It was at the perfect storm of what was going on with Joe at that time and just the explosion of Marisa flying off the screen.
Macchio: I kept the can of tuna. It’s somewhere. But I’m never opening that can. And I have signed many cans of tuna for fans. One fan brought me a can of tuna and asked me to sign it. He said to me, “Can you sign it, ‘I Shot the Clerk.’ ” I said, “Only if I can put a question mark at the end of it.”
Schiff: People often ask me about the movies that I’ve made. When I mention Vinny, nine times out of 10 people stop to tell me the story of the first time they saw it, or they will launch into an impersonation of either Marisa or Joe. It’s either “My biological clock is ticking like this” and stomping their feet, or it’s the “yutes” exchange between Joe and Fred Gwynne.
Macchio: It wasn’t too long ago I was talking to Francis Ford Coppola. We were talking to a bunch of middle-schoolers about The Outsiders. We concurred that what defines a great movie is time. Very few people can rattle off what won the Oscar the last two years. But if you talk about Apocalypse Now or The Godfather or On the Waterfront or West Side Story or Rocky, they know them instantly. My Cousin Vinny is like one of those movies. It was successful when it came out, but it wasn’t like “Stop what you’re doing and see this movie. You’re going to be quoting it for the next 30 years, I promise you.” The only thing that does that to a movie is time.