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'Ghost' at 30: How Tina Turner nearly played Whoopi Goldberg's part

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·11-min read

Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore may steam up the screen as Ghost’s doomed lovers, but it’s Whoopi Goldberg who walks away with Jerry Zucker’s 1990 blockbuster, which premiered in cinemas 30 years ago this week.

As the psychically-included Oda Mae Brown — who finds herself able to converse with Swayze’s Sam after his untimely death — Goldberg gives the movie a live-wire comic energy that still cracks audiences up three decades later. She also made Hollywood history: At the 63rd Academy Awards, Goldberg became only the second Black actress to win the Best Supporting Actress statue, five decades after Hattie McDaniel’s win for Gone With the Wind.

Accepting her Oscar, Goldberg credited Swayze with helping her land the role, but in a new interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Zucker corrects the historical record. “For some reason, there’s this persistent rumour that Patrick said to the studio, ‘I won’t [make the movie without Whoopi],’” the director says. “If that’s true I never heard about it. Patrick loved Whoopi, no question about it, but the rumours of him getting her the role are apocryphal.” (Watch our video interview above.)

Whoopi Goldberg and Patrick Swayze in Jerry Zucker's 1990 hit, 'Ghost' (Photo: Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Whoopi Goldberg and Patrick Swayze in Jerry Zucker's 1990 hit, Ghost. (Photo: Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s not apocryphal that Zucker — who was transitioning to drama after directing such beloved comedies as Airplane! and Top Secret! — took a little while to come around to casting Goldberg, though. “I didn't want a comedian playing Oda Mae, and my image of Whoopi was her comedian side,” he explains. Instead, he and Paramount Studios had another person in mind: music superstar Tina Turner, who recorded a memorable audition tape.

Read more: Tony Goldwyn says people hated his Ghost character

“She was in London and sent in a video, and the studio was very excited about the idea,” he remembers. “At the end of the video, she was like, ‘Jerry, I really want it!’ I was like, ‘I can die now.’” While Paramount wanted to move ahead with Turner, Zucker had nagging doubts. “She did a credible job, but she wasn’t quite an actress. Maybe she could be, but there was a big difference. So I had to go in and make a case why I wanted Whoopi and not Tina.”

Tina Turner performs on stage at Ahoy, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 4th November 1990. (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)
Tina Turner performs on stage at Ahoy, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 4th November 1990. (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

What sealed the deal was a trip that Swayze and Zucker took to Mississippi where Goldberg was shooting another film. “We read her and Patrick, and man you could just see it. For me, it’s so great to see someone just doing it. Ghost was my first drama, and I was terribly afraid of not getting it right. So I was really fortunate that Patrick and Whoopi were able to read together so that I could see it in front of me and go, ‘Yeah, that works.’” (Swayze died in 2009.)

Here are four other stories that Zucker shared with us about the making of Ghost, which is getting a new Blu-ray edition in North America.

Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer almost played Sam and Molly

Swayze and Demi Moore in 'Ghost' in roles that were almost played by Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer (Photo: ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost in roles that were almost played by Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. (Photo: ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Tina Turner wasn’t the only casting near-miss: There’s a universe in which Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer would have been throwing pots as Sam Wheat and his beloved Molly Jensen. “The studio wanted Harrison Ford in this so badly, and I did, too. I loved Harrison Ford. They took him out to lunch, and he was very honest about it. He said, ‘Why are you making this? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? It’s very weird.’ And a lot of people thought that, he was certainly not the only one that didn’t see how it was going to mix.”

Read more: Paul Hogan says he turned down Ghost

Meanwhile, Paramount was also hoping to land a big star to play Molly, and Michelle Pfeiffer was at the top of their list. “We looked at a lot of names, and Michelle was in consideration at the time,” Zucker reveals. (Funnily enough, Ford and Pfeiffer would go on to star together in a very different kind of ghost story a decade later. The two played husband and wife in Robert Zemeckis’s 2000 horror film, What Lies Beneath.)

ITALY - SEPTEMBER 02:  Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in Venice, Italy on September 2nd, 2010.  (Photo by Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
ITALY - SEPTEMBER 02: Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in Venice, Italy on September 2nd, 2010. (Photo by Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

With Ford and Pfeiffer out, Zucker turned his attention to Swayze and Moore. “To my shame, I really didn’t believe in Patrick, and his agent finally called and said, ‘Patrick wants this so much, he'll be willing to audition.’ So he came in, and I just saw the whole movie working at a much higher level than I had ever imagined. And that was it; he instantly got the part.” Meanwhile, he found himself drawn to Moore because of the young actress’s on-screen presence. “We always saw Molly as being a strong woman, and Demi certainly has that.”

Zucker remembers experiencing a brief moment of concern about his casting decisions, though, when Moore showed up on set with a new haircut. “She had her hair cut very short, and Patrick’s hair was really long, because we had told him to grow it before we’d cut it. I thought, ‘This is my first romantic drama, and I’m going to be a laughingstock!’ But then I started videotaping some of the rehearsals, and when I looked through the viewfinder, she looked beautiful. We’ve talked about this since, and I always tell her, ‘Thank you for cutting your hair without asking me, because I definitely would have said ‘No.’”

The pottery scene was a sensuous affair

Demi Moore and Swayze in 'Ghost' in roles that were almost played by Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer (Photo: Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)
The famous pottery scene in Ghost. (Photo: Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)

If you think the pottery scene plays hot and heavy onscreen, Zucker says the mood on set was pretty steamy as well. “I think Demi was feeling the heat,” he laughs. “Patrick’s a handsome guy, and he’s there with his shirt off and you’ve got your hands on him and all of this clay. I didn’t sense that either of them were going to run out and have an affair, but they were good collaborators!”

As evidence of their stellar collaboration skills, Zucker points to the moment when Moore’s pot collapses, which was an on-set accident. “When the pot fell, it was one of those great accidents, and I didn’t yell ‘Cut,’ thank god. Their reactions are pretty spontaneous. There’s this one moment there where Patrick kind of goes “Oooh.” Walter Murch, who edited the movie put it in, and I said, ‘That’s weird, he looks feminine or something.’ It bugged me. Walter said, ‘Leave it in, I think people will like it.’ And sure enough at the first screening, there was an audible reaction from the audience! So I said, ‘OK, whatever you want from now on, Walter.’”

Besides the pottery hijinks, the star of that scene is the Righteous Brothers classic “Unchained Melody,” which plays on the jukebox in the lovers’ apartment. Zucker says that song was picked well before shooting began by the film’s producer, Lisa Weinstein. “When I listened to it, I was like ‘It’s like they wrote it for the movie.’ It was perfect.” The director played the song on set to get the actors in the mood, but shut if off while the cameras were rolling to avoid interfering with the dialogue. But “Unchained Melody” was booming from the speakers in the love scene that follows. “We played the song then because there was no dialogue, just kissing, and it helped them get into the scene.”

The pottery scene has enjoyed a long afterlife with numerous parodies in everything from a Wallace & Gromit cartoon to the NBC sitcom, Community. One of the best send-ups was overseen by Zucker’s brother, David, with whom he directed all of his ‘80s favourites as part of the famous Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (ZAZ) team. The year after Ghost, David Zucker helmed The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, which featured Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley standing in for Sam and Molly. “I loved it,” Zucker says, chuckling. “Leslie Nielsen taking over for Patrick Swazye — it’s perfect. You know, it came down to casting Swayze or Leslie Nielsen in Ghost. It was tough, but I think Leslie was busy, so...”

He wouldn’t change the “use my body” scene

Goldberg and Moore in 'Ghost' (Photo: ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Goldberg and Moore in Ghost. (Photo: ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s established in a hilarious scene midway through Ghost that phantoms can leap into Oda Mae’s body and temporarily take possession. That device lays the groundwork for the emotional climax of the film, where she invites Sam to “use my body” in order to enjoy one last embrace with Molly. But where Goldberg remained on camera during the earlier possession scene, this time she’s replaced by Swayze. When the film was released, several critics — most notably Roger Ebert — chided Zucker for not showing the two women holding each other. “In strict logic, this should involve us seeing Goldberg kissing Moore, but of course the movie compromises and shows us Swayze holding her — too bad, because the logical version would actually have been more spiritual and moving,” Ebert wrote in his two-and-a-half star review.

“I never questioned it,” Zucker says now. “In fact, in the early screenings I remember you could hear that people were uncomfortable. And actually, they started to giggle a little bit. I got worried, like, ‘This is not a place we want people giggling.’ If it had been two women, you would have had people laughing, and I don’t think that would have been the right decision. It had nothing to do with what's politically correct or what's acceptable or anything like that to me.”

Zucker adds that he’d make the same choice today, even at a time when Hollywood — and moviegoers — are accepting of seeing two women sharing a romantic moment. “Above and beyond political correctness or what we think about two women being together, for me, it wasn’t about that at all. You want to give that moment to Patrick and Demi. They don’t really have a lot of them in the movie after he dies, so to have one moment where they dance to the music. The emotion would not have been the same with Demi and Whoopi.”

You have to go to Zucker’s house to see the Ghost jukebox

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 08: Film producer Jerry Zucker speaks onstage at the screening of 'Top Secret!' during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. 26657_003  (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM)
Jerry Zucker at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM)

Next time you visit London’s Hard Rock Cafe, be aware that the “jukebox from Ghost” that they claim to have isn’t the real deal. That’s because the actual jukebox is on display in Zucker’s home office, and it’s still in perfect working order, as he demonstrated for us. “My wife and I were at the Hard Rock in London and I saw a sign that said ‘The jukebox from Ghost’ and I went, ‘What?’” he says, laughing. “Paramount was kind enough to give me this when we finished shooting,” the director tells us. “I told them I’d loan it back to them if there was every a sequel... but I lied.”

For the record, Paramount did very much want a sequel to Ghost, but Zucker and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin never saw a viable way to continue the story. “My feeling was that it was a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The movies that make great sequels are those with characters like James Bond, who you can put in any country or any situation. But a story like this is so much harder, so I didn’t have any interest in it, and fortunately the cast didn’t seem to either.” That said, he’d be fine to see a Ghost remake if it involved the right creative team. “It’s all about the writer; Bruce wrote a brilliant script. So I think someone could take the bones of the film and remake it, but how do you hit that kind of magic again?”

Ghost is streaming on NOW TV with a Sky Cinema Pass.

— Video produced by Jon San