Ethan Alter·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainmen tOctober 2, 2020·11 min read
Arnold Scwharzenegger was already an internationally-recognized celebrity by the mid-1980s, but Hollywood’s Schwarzenegger Era officially began 35 years ago on Oct. 4, 1985 with the release of Commando. Directed by Mark Lester, the lean, mean action movie awarded the Austrian bodybuilder his first starring role that didn’t involve him playing a sword-swinging barbarian or a killer robot from the future. Instead, Schwarzenegger played contemporary super-soldier, John Matrix, who embarks on a bloody mission to rescue his kidnapped daughter, Jenny (12-year-old Alyssa Milano), from the clutches of mercenaries led by an old ally-turned-adversary, Bennett (Vernon Wells).
Filled with one-liners and over-the-top action set-pieces, Commando set the tone for so many of the action favorites its star would make throughout the ’80s and ’90s, from Predator and The Running Man to True Lies and Eraser. “Arnold was already a larger-than-life character, and the producer, Joel Silver, kept saying, ‘Remember, more ER, ER,’” Lester tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Exaggerated reality!’ It was a great, great shoot and a great movie.”
But there was one instance where actual reality got in the way of the fun. In the script — which was initially penned by Teen Wolf collaborators Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman, and then heavily re-written by Steven E. de Souza — Matrix was supposed to take a time out from adding to his body count to enjoy a love scene with Cindy, the civilian flight attendant who inadvertently gets caught up in the commando’s mission. (Matrix is a widower in the film, although it’s never specified how his wife passed on. “I don’t know what happened to his wife,” Lester says, laughing. “That’s a good question. I don’t know what happened.”) Originally written for a white actress, the role eventually went to rising star Rae Dawn Chong. “We had forty white actresses — including Sharon Stone and all the usual suspects — read for the part, but she was the best one,” Lester remembers. “She was the most comedic, and did the best reading. We were way ahead of our time in that way.”
Even as the producers and executives at 20th Century Fox signed off on Chong’s casting, they promptly pumped the brakes on the scene where John and Cindy would have gotten intimate while on a flight to rescue Matrix’s daughter. “They were afraid that Southern theaters and drive-ins wouldn’t play the film, because we had a Black woman and a white man,” the director says now, adding that both Schwarzenegger and Chong had no qualms about performing the scene. “There was no real nudity or anything; they were just going to be making out. This was only 35 years ago, so it shows you how times have changed.”
The studio also came up with a movie-specific excuse to abandon plans for an interracial love scene, arguing that at that moment in the story, Matrix had more important things on his mind than making out. “They said, ‘He’s on his way to save his daughter — why is he taking time to make love to this woman? It’s not going to make him look very good.’” Lester recalls, “They were probably right about that, but I think it was more about the interracial aspect at that time.” With that scene lost, the director ensured that the final moments of the movie hinted at a happily every after for the couple. “It’s intimated that they’re going to end up together,” Lester says of the closing scene, which shows a reunited John and Jenny getting on a plane with Cindy, all three of them grinning from ear-to-ear.
Interestingly, there is a love story that remains in the film. Early on in production, Lester gave Wells some insight into what motivates Bennett to make Matrix’s life hell. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to play it like you hate him, but also that you love him,’” the director says. “You’re so in awe of him that you’ve got to kill him.” The actor took that note and ran with it, embedding a layer of homoerotic tension into the film that audiences still pick up on today, although Lester swears he didn’t notice it during production. “Everybody has said that since, but I never picked up on it. I did direct him like that, though, so I guess it came through!”
Here are some other Commando secrets that Lester shared with us 35 years after the movie’s release, from the discarded original ending to the reason why there was never a sequel.
Lester learned the hard way that Schwarzenegger wasn’t Superman
Although Commando employed a full stunt team, the star was insistent that he do all his own stunts for one simple reason: no body double could match his particular body. “At the time, he was in peak form,” Lester says of the world’s most famous muscleman. “He never believed that a stunt person could have a body like his, and then his fans would know it wasn’t his body.” And Lester’s camera captured every bulging bicep in an effort to persuade the audience that Matrix — and Schwarzenegger — was a real-life superhero. It got to the point where the director believed that his star was capable of anything, be it lifting an entire phone booth with a man inside or dangling a guy over a cliff with one hand. “I think I was becoming delusional that he actually was that strong,” Lester says, laughing.
In both of the above cases, Schwarzenegger had to set him straight. For the phone booth scene, Lester remembers telling the actor: “‘Arnold, just lift up that phone booth. It weighs 200 pounds and you’re lifting 350-pound weights.’ And he said, “‘Are you crazy? I can’t lift that phone booth with a man in it!’” In the end, the production built a balsa wood booth that the star could more easily toss. As for the cliff scene, the poor guy on the receiving end of Matrix’s anger was held up by a harness and not just Schwarzenegger’s arm strength. “I thought he was the Terminator, and he kept having to say no,” Lester says.
But there were also moments where Schwarzenegger didn’t recognize his limits. “There’s this scene where Matrix is testing knives, and I wanted to use one of the bodybuilding doubles to do that because we were just seeing his hand,” Lester recalls. “But Arnold said, ‘No, you see part of my stomach! It has to be me!’ And that’s when he got hurt — the knife went right into his hand. We lost five hours while he went to the emergency room and have stitches. He never wanted to listen and do every possible thing, because his body was so awesome. You couldn’t get anyone else to look like that.”
There was some competition between Rambo and Commando
These days, Sylvester Stallone and Schwarzenegger are good buddies, on-screen and off. But back in the ’80s, both were eager to hold the crown of the world’s biggest action star, and Lester hints that he could sense the rivalry. Months before Commando arrived in theaters, Rambo: First Blood Part II became a massive hit and 20th Century Fox hired that film’s editing team of Glenn Farr, Mark Goldblatt and John F. Link to work on Lester’s movie. “They were brought on to compete with the Rambo films,” the director says, adding that he shot another Rambo-esque scene that was eventually cut from the theatrical version. “We had a whole scene that explained who Arnold’s character was, which was like the scene in First Blood where Richard Crenna gives a whole speech about Rambo.”
Over the years, some have said that Commando’s ultraviolent ending — where Matrix kills an entire army of mercenaries before turning his attention to Bennett — was also inspired by the kill-a-thon that ends the second Rambo movie, but Lester shoots down that rumor. At the same time, he does acknowledge that the final act underwent an on-the-fly rewrite after the studio expressed budgetary concerns about what was scripted. Originally, Matrix and Bennett were supposed to have a big boat chase before their climactic knife fight. “The studio saw this and realized the cost would be astronomical. So they said, ‘Listen, just go on the 20th Century Fox lot and find a place to shoot the ending.’ I wandered around the lot all day and ended up in the boiler room; I thought, ‘Wow, this is perfect!’ So that’s why they have their big fight in there at the end. And I actually think it’s much better, because it’s confined.”
Alyssa Milano was the first and only choice for Jenny
While Lester auditioned dozens of actresses to play Cindy, the role of Jenny was set from the start. “The casting department at Fox said to me, ‘This is the best girl for the part,’” the director says of how he found Milano. At the time, the actress was already a household name thanks to the hit sitcom, Who’s the Boss?, and showed up to the Commando set with all her youthful exuberance and professionalism intact. “Arnold didn’t have any kids at the time, so he was quite happy to show his movie daughter around,” Lester remembers. “Alyssa was amazing: She took perfect direction, and brought the right emotions to every scene.”
Lester also didn’t get a say in which actor was going to play the movie’s other villain, Arius, an exiled South American dictator who hires Bennett as part of an elaborate scheme to stage a coup in his native country. The director wanted to give the role to Puerto Rican star, Raul Julia, who had just appeared in the acclaimed film, Kiss of the Spider Woman. But he was overruled by a studio casting director, who offered the role to Dan Hedaya. “He did a good job,” Lester says of the Brooklyn-born character actor whose later credits included The Addams Family and Dick. “But Raul would have been totally amazing.”
Many sequels were written, but none were shot
Commando grossed more than $50 million during its original theatrical run, and has enjoyed a long afterlife on home video and cable. (You can currently catch it on HBO Max.) But even though the ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel, 20th Century Fox never turned it into a franchise. “They had scripts written,” Lester says. “I read one once, but they never made it. So many people have stolen the story and plot; it’s been redone a hundred times in other countries. Russia’s made, like, three Commando movies!”
At one point, Lester says that he even tried to buy the rights to remake the movie from the studio, but was thwarted by talking up its popularity a little too much. “I was on a plane once, sitting next to the executive in charge of production at Fox,” he remembers. “I said, ‘When we land, I’m going to write you a check for $2 million for the remake rights.’ He said, ‘Why would you want that film?’ And I said, ‘I made the movie, and it’s famous all over the world!’ The next day he announced it as a remake!”
Of course, that remake never came to pass, but now that 20th Century Fox is owned by the franchise wizards at Disney, there’s a chance that John Matrix could rise again. “Arnold’s been doing Terminator movies as an old Terminator,” he notes. “So he could come back to mentor somebody.” And since Commando was inspired, in part, by James Bond, in Lester’s ideal world, that “somebody” would be soon-to-be ex 007, Daniel Craig. “I was a big fan of the James Bond films growing up, so I had Arnold read those one-liners like Bond, and he did a marvelous job. He was already such a great entertainer from his years of the bodybuilding, and now he knew how to captivate the audience with his smiles and winks on the big screen.”
Commando is currently streaming on HBO Max.