Midnight Cowboy was the first studio film to receive an X rating, and the first X-rated movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture – it grossed $44 million and saved the careers of its actors and producers, most of whom had fallen on hard times.
Here are 10 more fun facts about a film you should definitely see, if you haven’t already.
#10. The movie’s famous line – “I’m walking here!” was improvised.
The scene was filmed with a backdrop of real pedestrians and traffic, and director Schlesinger wanted to do it in one shot. It was a difficult request (if you’ve ever walked in NYC you’ll understand why), and a rogue cab nearly ruined the whole thing, Hoffman explained.
“I guess the brain works so quickly, it said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character.’ So I said, ‘I’m walking here,’ meaning, ‘We’re shooting a scene here, and this is the first time we ever got it right, and you have f*cked us up.’ Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and re-did it two or three times because he loved it.”
#9. They didn’t want to hire Dustin Hoffman.
Everyone in Hollywood knew Hoffman as the clean cut kid from The Graduate, and it took Schlesinger seeing Hoffman in an off-Broadway play to convince the director that Hoffman could play a different part.
#8. And the director of The Graduate tried to talk Hoffman out of taking the role.
Mike Nichols thought Hoffman should maintain his romantic lead image, Hoffman told Peter Travers in an interview.
“Mike Nichols, in fact, called me up. And he says, ‘Are you crazy?’ He says, ‘I made you a star. This is an ugly character. It’s a supporting part to Jon Voight.’ He says, ‘What are you doing? Why are you sabotaging?'”
Strong words that thankfully, Hoffman didn’t heed.
#7. Jon Voight worked for scale.
Voight wanted the part so badly that he said, “Tell them I’ll do the part for nothing.”
They took him at his word, and Voight made minimum wage for Midnight Cowboy – the even sent him a $14.73 cent meal bill on the last day of filming.
#6. The director doesn’t think anyone would make the movie today.
Schlesinger tells this story about pitching his “idea” to a producer in 2000. “I said, ‘If I brought you a story about this dishwasher from Texas who goes to New York dressed as a cowboy to fulfill his fantasy of living off rich women, doesn’t, is desperate, meets a crippled consumptive who later pisses his pants and dies on a bus, would you–” and he said, ‘I’d show you the door.'”
#5. Hoffman thought it would ruin his career.
When he attended a preview of the movie and noticed people walking out “in droves” he got more than a little nervous, the actor later told Larry King.
“Twenty minutes into that movie Jon Voight has a gay sex scene in the balcony with a kid who was played by Bob Balaban, and people would get up at that point and just walk out of the theater. We said, ‘we have big problems’ when we heard we got an X-rating and we thought this could end everybody’s career. As a matter of fact, I was talked into doing a movie I wished I hadn’t done, because they had me so frightened that I had buried myself and reversed whatever good The Graduate did.”
#4. But Voight felt sure it would become a classic.
As the film wrapped, Schlesinger had a momentary panic that they’d made something “ban*l and vulgar” that would ruin everyone involved – but Voight was there to snap him out of it.
“He’s having an anxiety attack and I grabbed his shoulders to shake him out of it. I said, ‘John, we will live the rest of our artistic lives in the shadow of this great masterpiece.’ He said, ‘You think so?’ I said, ‘I’m absolutely sure of it.’ The only reason I said such an extravagant thing was because I wanted to get him out of it and nothing would take him out of it but that. But the statement turned out to be true.”
#3. The leads were competitive with each other in other ways, too.
Their onscreen chemistry is great, maybe because Hoffman and Voight were constantly competing.
“We were like…two fighters going at it,” Hoffman told the LA Times. “We knew the movie depended on the bond between us. All through shooting, we’d say to each other, out of the side of our mouths, like a fighter in a clinch, ‘Buddy, is that the best you can do?'”
#2. A speakeasy in Austin is named after the movie.
It’s located inside a former massage parlor that was busted by the FBI and is marked only by a red light – you have to reserve your seat at the bar online, then buzz the box and give the password (Harry Craddock).
#1. Hoffman put pebbles in his shoe to help with his limp.
It was a shortcut, to free up his mind to worry about more important aspects of his character.
“Why pebbles? It’s not like you’re playing a role on Broadway for six months where you’re so used to it, limping becomes second nature. The stone makes you limp, and you don’t have to think about it.”