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Green Screen: The Oral History of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’

No one believed in a movie about four overgrown turtles who are trained in martial arts and named after Italian artists. Then it made more than $200 million, and launched a nationwide phenomenon.

Dan Evans

On March 30, 1990, four anthropomorphic reptiles named Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael made their movie debut. By then, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a cultural phenomenon. Beginning in 1984 as an independent comic book, the Turtles had since grown into far more than that: multiple comics, an animated TV show, a Dungeons & Dragons–esque role-playing game, and a bestselling toy line.

But neither the existence nor the success of a live-action adaptation was preordained. It’s nearly impossible to fathom now, but there was a time when Hollywood did not stockpile pre-existing intellectual property. For a stretch, no one seemed to be interested in bringing franchise cocreators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s brainchild to the big screen. Up until the late ’80s, the most serious interest Eastman and Laird had received was from B-movie king Roger Corman, who wanted to enlist comedians to play the title roles. “Sam Kinison, and Gallagher, and Billy Crystal, and Bobcat Goldthwait, wearing sort of green paint and shells and being the Turtle characters,” Eastman recalls. “It was a very hilarious treatment and concept.” Thankfully, that one never got made.

But eventually, Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest did agree to finance TMNT. But the production was a quagmire: The budget was low, there was infighting among the filmmakers, the cutting-edge animatronics developed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to power the Turtle costumes often broke down, and the young cast’s tolerance for physical and mental exhaustion was tested daily. Still, a mixture of technical wizardry, a clever director who cut his teeth making classic music videos, and a group of indefatigable actors saved Ninja Turtles from being a typical kids’ schlockfest—and that translated at the box office. Besides the movie being far better than anything about amphibious superheroes named for Italian Renaissance artists had any right to be, it also became a massive hit, pulling in more than $200 million worldwide and grossing the fourth-most money out of any movie in 1990.

“If you added up everything that could go wrong, it did go wrong,” says Tom Gray, then Golden Harvest’s head of production, “but the result of the baby was beautiful.”

The story of the birth of one of the strangest, most unlikely blockbusters of the past 30 years naturally begins—somehow, though perhaps fittingly—in the late 1980s with the manager of the watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher, Gary Propper, the late professional surfer turned event promoter who happened to come across an issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at a tour stop in Detroit, Michigan.

Part I: “Saved by a Butt Cheek”

Kim Dawson (producer): Gary calls me and says, “I found this comic. I think we could make a feature out of it.” He started going on about this Turtle thing. And Gary notoriously smoked a lot of pot. I said, “Gary, you’ve been smoking too much, dude. I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said, “OK, I’m gonna overnight the thing.”

Kevin Eastman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise cocreator): As you head into the end of ’88, the obvious evolution was a live-action movie. And we just had horrific grimaces thinking of movies that had somebody in a rubber suit. We were very concerned: “How do you pull off these extremely unique and visual characters in a way that could be believable?”

Dawson: What Gary was going on about was, “You don’t need big names, because they’re in costumes. You just get funny guys to do the voices.”

Eastman: In those days, 90 percent of everything that came into the studio, to Peter and myself, came through our agent, Mark Freedman. We were partners—a third, a third, and a third—in all things Turtles. Peter and I, of course, had final say in everything, but Mark was the one fielding and bringing ideas.

Dawson: I called Mark and I said, “I’d like to option the live-action rights to make a feature film.” And so we negotiated.

Eastman: I never met Kim in person. I talked to him once on the phone, I think.

Dawson: About that same time, I was working with Bobby Herbeck, a stand-up comic.

Bobby Herbeck (cowriter): Kim brought me the movie.

Dawson: We’re pitching everyone we know. Everybody in the business: Jerry Weintraub; independents and studios. Everybody goes, “OK, there’s two factors: Garbage Pail Kids, same idea—comic book heroes, ‘We’re gonna make ’em live action.’ Totally tanked. George Lucas’s Howard the Duck, same thing—totally tanked.”

Herbeck: I was already doing another movie for Golden Harvest, which does Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies.

Tom Gray (Golden Harvest head of production): He was working with me on a comedy that I commissioned him to write.

Dawson: Bobby kept bugging him about the Turtles.

Herbeck: He kept turning me down on the picture. He just said, “Finish the fuckin’ movie I’m paying you for.” He called it the “Ninjin Pinjin Turtles.” He said, “Don’t bug me with this Ninjin Pinjin Turtles shit, Herbs.”

Gray: I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think it would fly.

Herbeck: And then one day it dawned on me that he had a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old at home. We went and had a drink after work and I said, “Tom, I promise I won’t bring it up again.” He said, “Here we go.” I said, “You’ve got two kids at home. Ask ’em.” Before I got back to Long Beach—he lived in Beverly Hills—on my Record A Call, he said, “Herbs. Babes.” Those two words meant you’ve closed the deal. “Get your buddy up here tomorrow morning and let’s talk about it.”

Dawson: We’re having lunch and he’s going, “I don’t get it, I don’t get it.”

Herbeck: Tom had all but said no and he slid out; he had one bun out of the booth. We were saved by a butt cheek.

Dawson: I go, “You don’t have to hire famous actors. The actors are all gonna be scale actors, Tom.” And he goes, “Oh OK, lemme see.”

Gray: I said, “You know something, this is really simple. We have all these great stuntmen in Hong Kong. And we just put four guys in rubber suits. Look, we can knock this out for three million bucks.” So I sent a memo, which I still have, to the boss, Raymond Chow, and I said, “Look, here’s how we put all this together.” And I sent him the concept. He said, “You know, I think we can do this.”

From left to right: Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael
New Line Cinema

Part II: “Oh My God, That’s Insane.”

Golden Harvest planned on making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but how? The studio needed a director, a script, and a cost-effective way to design costumes that didn’t look too cartoonish.

Simon Fields (producer): My longtime partner then, Steve Barron, we were making music videos and commercials.

Gray: He had done “Billie Jean” and “Take on Me.”

Fields: We were friendly with Anthony Minghella and he happened to be adapting a film called A Night in Bangkok for Golden Harvest.

Steve Barron (director): While he was there, they mentioned that they had this comic book that they didn’t quite know what to do with or where to go with it and he suggested me as director. He put them on to me.

Fields: Golden Harvest said, “We want to make a kung fu movie that’s like a couple of million dollars and here’s the idea.” We said, “Great, but we’d like to do something different.” We didn’t tell him exactly what we wanted to do. But we knew it wasn’t kung fu.

Barron: I met with Peter and Kevin, and just said that I’d read their first graphic novel and I felt there were quite a few scenes, and a certain type of structure, that could work just straight out of that.

Eastman: The original series Pete and I did, he had gone through it and sort of postmarked different beats and moments to the point where you can actually see some of those moments brought to life on the big screen. He used those when he was working with Brendan McCarthy as one of his main storyboard artists.

Brendan McCarthy (storyboard artist): Steve Barron called me up and asked if I’d ever heard of something called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I said I most certainly had, and that it was a huge sensation in the comics world. I thought he’d be perfect directing it.

Fields: Eastman and Laird loved what we pitched them, which was completely different than the [script] written by Bobby Herbeck. And so I found another writer.

Todd Langen (cowriter): The somewhat-panicked L.A.-based producers began making inquiries around town as to who they might hire—cheap—who could capture the comedic tone of a Turtles movie and do so very, very quickly.

Barron: We went looking for writers and found Todd Langen, who was working on Wonder Years, and a good television writer. Had the good tone of reality and comedy.

Langen: It’s all a blur, but I remember presenting a detailed outline of the movie, sequence by sequence, working from a hand-written, rolled-out scroll of taped-together typing paper.

Barron: I worked with him for a number of months up in the Mondrian Hotel.

Langen: I met the pale Irishman poolside, where he was enjoying the Southern California sunshine shielded by sunglasses and a cocktail. He was also having trouble visualizing the death fall I had proposed for [the villain] the Shredder, particularly the mechanics of how [the Turtles’ rodent mentor] Splinter would bring it about. So I had to act it out for him. Standing next to a lounge chair. Fully clothed. While the rest of the Mondrian’s pool staff and arched-brow clientele watched. I did the voices, too. And Steve signed off on it.

Barron: I worked on The Storyteller with Jim Henson. We made all kinds of creatures.

Brian Henson (second-unit director–chief puppeteer): Steve brought me in first before I even brought him to the Creature Shop because he was trying to figure out how the heck to do it. And I can remember doing an illustration of a Turtle doing a back handspring, then a flip, then going down into a manhole cover and landing in a crash test below street level. I think of that at my age of 56, and I’m saying, “Oh my God, that’s insane.”

Barron: Jim was worried about the tone of the Ninja Turtles. They’ve got nunchucks, and they’ve got swords, and sais. And it’s all about quite heavy fighting. And that was very different from what the Creature Shop, or Jim Henson, had really gone to before.

Henson: When you’d say to my dad, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he’d have no idea what you were talking about. But he said, “Hey, if Steve wants to do it, if Brian wants to do it …”

Barron: I just said, “Jim, the spirit of this film is what it’s all about. It just cannot be mean-spirited in any way.” And he bought into that.

Gray: They said to me, “Look, I know it’s $3 million, but we can’t do it for that. Why don’t we go get Jim Henson?” And I said, “Well, there’s no way we can afford Jim Henson.”

Barron: Jim started doing all kinds of tests and things and putting together the budgets; their budget was $3 million alone. I said to Tom, “This is the way to go.”

Even with Henson on board, Golden Harvest still needed to secure an American distribution deal. Without that, there would be no movie.

Gray: I had a deal with Fox for $6 million for domestic. Everything was fine, and then there was a change at Fox: Leonard Goldberg left, and then came Barry Diller.

Dawson: He wiped the slate clean and there was no deal.

Gray: We went to New Line Cinema and Mitch Goldman and Sara Risher, who had children, really fell in love with the project.

Sara Risher (New Line Cinema president of production): My son was only about 5 at the time. And he watched the cartoons. He even had a Ninja Turtle birthday party. I knew all about it from that. And I knew about all the tie-in toys and what a big deal it was for kids.

Gray: They took it to Bob Shaye, the owner. Bob said, “I don’t think so.”

Risher: I think Tom was only asking for about $2 million. It wasn’t that much money, but for us, it was a lot of money. So Bob was very against it. He typed up a sheet of paper that he made Mitch and I both sign, that said if we lose money on this, that we would personally pay it back. Neither one of us could find that piece of paper afterwards because we wanted to frame it.

Gray: Along the way, costs were escalating. … The budget was now $6 million and going to $8 million, and it ended up at $13 million finally, but we had to start production.

Barron: We were left there with a couple of weeks to go till shooting with not enough money to make it.

Gray: I had the unsavory duty of calling the boss in Hong Kong, at 6 a.m. and saying, “Raymond, are you awake?” He said, “Yes, I’m going out to play golf. What’s up.” I said, “Well, I have some bad news. The Fox deal has collapsed.” And I said, “We can take legal action but I don’t know that’s the way to go. ... We need $6 million.” And he said, “We don’t have $6 million in this company. Where am I gonna get $6 million?” The only thing he did say in the end was, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “I promise you, we will not lose money on this film. I’ll get your money back.” He said, “Alright, give me 24 hours.” Twenty-four hours later, he calls back and says, “OK, I got $6 million.”

Part III: “It Was Like Stepping Into the Best Disneyland Ride You Ever Got On”

The TMNT cast, which included Sam Rockwell in his first movie role as a thug in the sinister Foot Clan, Elias Koteas as Turtles ally Casey Jones, and Skeet Ulrich and Scott Wolf in bit parts, had no idea what it was in for.

Josh Pais (Raphael): My agents called and said, “I have an appointment for you for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and I was like, “What?” I couldn’t connect those four words. “And you’re auditioning for the lead turtle.” And I was like, “Whoa. Alright.” I didn’t know anything. I did a first audition for Lynn Kressel, who was the casting director, and was pretty much sitting and just reading in a chair. And in Alphabet City where I was living, there were a lot of guys that were, as a survival strategy, almost trying to make themselves bigger than they were. Always on guard because of the possibility of some kind of violence. I kind of was like, “That would be an interesting element for this guy—well, Turtle.”

Michelan Sisti (Michelangelo): I was in the crocodile when I did Peter Pan. In Cabaret, when I was there with Joel Gray, I was his gorilla. I had a reputation for doing unusual things like that.

Leif Tilden (Donatello): I was working on Sesame Street and Jim Henson asked me to try out for it. It was the first movie that I ever did.

Judith Hoag (April O’Neil): My agent sent me the script, and he used to call it, “Teenage Mutant Ninjin Turtles.” He didn’t even know what they were.

James Saito (The Shredder): I really didn’t know what it was but there was a young guy who worked in the front office of my agency and when I called in to talk to the agents, he picked up the phone and said, “Ah, James, you’re in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! You’re the Shredder!” And I said, “What is this?”

Tilden: The original Ninja Turtles were vigilantes. They were all black and white and the only color was red, and that red was their bandanas and the blood that they produced. And so I was really into it. But this was not that—it was kind of the Hollywood version of the Ninja Turtles.

Sisti: They flew me out, I got to Heathrow at about 5 o’clock in the morning, and they drove me down to this Creature Shop.

Pais: There were all these guys, some of them in lab coats. It was like a fantasy laboratory. And I remember somebody was working on a wolf for some movie. The animatronic wolf was like, up on a table. And they had all these wires to make the whiskers above the eyes move.

Tilden: I had this body cast and I’m completely encased in papier-mâché. I have a straw in my nose and these Brits are like whistling Dixie to me. That was the beginning of this surreal experience.

Pais: They took me to a back room and suspended my arms on these strings and then they cast the back side of my body. And then they started doing the front of my body. And then they started doing my chest, and finally my face, sticking two straws in my nostrils. At that point I was freaking out. I couldn’t move. The plaster gets warmer as it settles. I was just going, “OK! OK! Lemme out.” I could just hear these Brits laughing.

Sisti: I took a freezing shower in the plaster shop, they took me to lunch, put me on a plane, and I was back within 24 hours. It was like stepping into the best Disneyland ride ever.

Eastman: It was really a magical/scary moment as we started getting photographs and some VHS clips of the development over at the Creature Shop in London. Pete and I were just floored. Seeing a person standing next to a full-size clay sculpture of one of the Turtles—it just sent shivers down your spine.

Hoag: I was doing pre-production on Ninja Turtles while I was wrapping up Cadillac Man with Robin Williams. I’d literally zip out of there every Friday then zip back Sunday night and shoot, and it was funny because it was Robin who asked me, “Where are you going? You are out of here.” And I said, “I’m shooting another movie.” And he said, “Well, what’s the title of the movie?” Now, I didn’t know there was a cartoon. I didn’t know anything about it. I’d never heard of Ninja Turtles beforehand. And so when he asked me, I was embarrassed. And I think I mumbled it a little bit. I was like, “Yeah, it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And he went, “What?” He lost his mind. Because he had the first comic book. He was a fan. And he said, “Are you playing April?” He was so excited. From then on I was like, “I’m in a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Judith Hoag as April O’Neil.
New Line Cinema

Part IV: “I Want to Kill Everybody in This Room”

TMNT takes place in New York, but Golden Harvest couldn’t afford to shoot the majority of the movie there. In the summer of 1989, the production set up shop in a slightly rickety studio in Wilmington, North Carolina, outfitted with a makeshift city skyline and underground tunnels.

Henson: State representatives came to London to talk us all into going and shooting in North Carolina. The Dino De Laurentiis studio had bankrupted and the bank had basically said to the state, “What can you do?” So when we shot Ninja Turtles, the state actually owned that studio and were trying to drum up business.

Eastman: We went down to the set in Wilmington when they started shooting in July of ’89. This hot, sweaty North Carolina location. Walking through the maze of the backlot, getting to where they were doing a night shoot, we come around the corner of New York City lit up in all its grandeur, and see all the actors fully dressed in the suits. That’s the first time we’d seen them live and up close and in person. It was just jaw-droppingly mind-blowing. Holy shit, you guys did it. You pulled it off.

Henson: Every day we thought, “What we’re doing is impossible.” You can’t have a bunch of animatronic turtles with people inside the costumes fighting in a burning building and flying through windows and doing backflips and going through manhole covers.

Fields: The heat was just revolting.

Pais: The costumes were super intense. They weighed 70 pounds.

Tilden: I am pretending to be easygoing and positive Donatello but inside I’m like, “Oh my fucking God, I want to kill everybody in this room.”

Tilden: We did the opening sequence, where the four Turtles come around the corner in the sewer system and it kind of ramps up. There was this whole camera move where we sort of had to run all together and turn the corner. So many problems were happening then. We were slipping and falling and the reality of not really being able to see was right in our face. We did 36 takes. After Take 14, I was on my hands and knees.

Pais: You’d hear all of a sudden one of us freak out, and go like, “Take the head off! Take the head off! I need the head off!” And the crew didn’t want to do it because it would slow things down.

Hoag: Those suits would just fill up with perspiration. You could wring them out. More than once, they were passing out.

Barron: We built them these little horses to sit on. That was the only comfortable position they could rest, rather than take the head off and spend half an hour putting it back on. They would go into these resting positions. It was sort of like a Damien Hirst exhibition.

Pais: If we didn’t finish too late, sometimes I would just walk on the beach because I needed to feel that much space around me without being enclosed.

Henson: It was completely stressful.

Gray: We were very close to the Wilmington airport. So we’d get ready to shoot and then all of a sudden [the animatronic heads would] start talking because of the frequency.

Barron: It was interference from the short-wave radio control. Suddenly Michelangelo’s mouth would get crazy, like spinning. And his eyes would just go dead and his lids would just shut.

Henson: And Leonardo’s right eye is stuck shut. And that means I’d have to tell Dave Forman, who was inside Leonardo, you’ve gotta make sure that the camera doesn’t see your left eye.

Hoag: I remember meeting Jim Henson because it was the day we were shooting the scene in the sewer. Where I wake up and say, “Why don’t I ever dream of Harrison Ford?” And I was sitting on the back of the couch, and I wake up, and I sit up, and in my sight line was Jim Henson. And I lost my mind. And I was like, “Keep going. You’re doing a scene here.”

Tilden: I’ve never met anyone like Jim in the business, ever before. The no. 1 thing that he is as a creator is a collaborator. He loved that. It was his nourishment. When he landed at work, it was like, “Hey what are we doing? What are we doing?”

Pais: Some people you could imagine, they do this magical work and they’re just bitter assholes. But he was not that. He really had a twinkle in his eye.

Tilden: Jim Henson was all about bowling.

Henson: We were shooting all night often. And we became friendly with the owners of the bowling alley. So we said, “Look, I know it sounds crazy but can we have pizzas and hamburgers and stuff? Because we’re just switching over to the graveyard shift.” And the bowling alley sort of went with us and flipped their schedule so that we’d all come rolling in to the bowling alley a little after sunrise.

Tilden: He was a great bowler. You couldn’t beat Jim.

Henson: My dad and I would get very competitive in ping-pong and when we were bowling.

Tilden: And he would stay behind. I remember once he was the only person in the bowling alley. We would go, “Jim, we gotta go to bed.”

Part V: “He Wanted to Cold-Cock Me”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a kids’ movie. But its creators managed to sneak in some emotional depth, particularly during the memorable pre-climax scenes set at April’s family farm, where the Turtles recuperate and train after suffering a painful defeat.

Langen: The farmhouse sequence, as it was referred to, was something that came about in large part because of my love of Star Wars, and particularly The Empire Strikes Back. I saw Splinter as a Yoda-like figure, and wanted to show that true ninja mastery. Like mastering the Force, it was a matter of not just body, but mind and spirit.

Pais: By that time we had really acclimated to the suits to a large extent and it was great to get out of the tunnels. … We had gone through our own battles and had our differences and this was like a healing and a celebration.

Sisti: That was one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever had as an actor. And I was inside a rubber suit.

Pais: I just remember hugging Leif. It was beautiful.

Henson: Steve is a romantic at heart. He likes things very pithy. He wanted to bring a real story to what the audience would assume was just gonna be goofy. And he has a dark sensibility, so the movie was gonna be dark.

Barron: When I showed [Golden Harvest] the film, they said, “It’s too dark, it’s too dark. This is crazy. This is for kids. It’s gotta be colorful. It’s gotta be bright.” I just dug my heels in.

Gray: I always say this categorically: We had incredible fights.

Henson: There’s a little bit of guerrilla filmmaking going on. And that is part of the appeal of the movie.

Gray: I was in constant disagreement with Simon because of money. I just didn’t have the money.

Fields: There’s a reason I got Domino’s [in the movie]. It was because we needed some free pizzas.

Barron: We didn’t get it all done. We had at least 10, 12 pages of script that we never had time to shoot. Unfortunately we never quite got there. They kind of pulled the plug, and said, “That’s it, we’ve got no more money.” You’ve gotta just carry on.

Henson: He was up against a brick wall.

Barron: So I went into the cutting room with [Quentin Tarantino’s future editor] Sally Menke to try to make it work.

Henson: Everything that Quentin Tarantino says about Sally is right. She always had this sort of solid-as-a-rock positive energy. Sally could figure out how to get in there and edit and make it all look effortless and create these really exciting scenes. Honestly, she was really an editorial genius the likes of which the world has not seen since.

Barron: She got it to a point where it worked with clever editing, which is actually pretty similar to the film you see now. And then I sat down with Jim Henson and said, “I’m so disappointed that it’s not quite the film that I wanted to make, but I’m really proud of it.” So he said, “Well, what do you need? How much do you need?” And I said, “We need another week’s shooting. It’s probably another $750,000.”

Henson: My dad was a strong supporter of Steve Barron.

Barron: Jim said to me, “Look, I’ve become really friendly with [studio head] Jeffrey Katzenberg,” who’d just moved to Disney. He said, “If you want to, go to him. I’ll talk to him. Go to him.” … So he arranged for Simon and I to bring the film to his screening room. At 6 a.m.—because Jeffrey Katzenberg was a 6 a.m. guy.

Gray: That’s true.

Fields: A terrible thing to do.

Barron: At the end of it, the lights came up, and they said, “It’s kind of interesting.” And Jeffrey said, “Why don’t you spend a few more weeks in the cutting room and then come and see me again.” I said, “Well, this is under the radar.” He said, “Well, whatever you want to do.” So of course we went back a couple of weeks later, took the film out again, Sally cut it for us. We didn’t sneak it out, but obviously I wasn’t telling New Line, and I wasn’t telling Golden Harvest. I showed it to him again and he said, “I like it, I like it.” But he wouldn’t say, “I’ll give you the money” or “I’ll negotiate.”

Dawson: I was in Tom Gray’s office the next day and he gets a call from Jeffrey Katzenberg and he says, “Hey Tom, I saw the picture last night. You know I turned it down before but would you consider letting us release it, because we think it’ll be a success.” And Tom goes, and I can remember his exact words, “You know, I think we have a home run so we’re gonna stick with New Line. Thanks very much.”

Fields: [Gray] was furious with me. He wanted to cold-cock me. I’m lucky he didn’t. I don’t blame him, to be honest. We were a couple of cheeky boys. And he said, more out of pride, “Absolutely not.” We stayed where we were.

Barron: A few days later I got this notice from Golden Harvest, basically cutting me and Simon out of the film.

Gray: One of the producers, David Chan, who had worked with Bruce Lee, went back in and kind of opened up more master shots to show the kicks and more of the kung fu, more of that ballet kind of stuff.

Fields: There was a lot of pushing and pulling. Luckily the film is the way it is because we won a lot of those battles. It would’ve been a bunch of guys just doing kung fu kicks and stuff.

Gray: When you sit back 30 years later, yeah, we had a lot of disagreements, but in the end, we got it done. It worked out. So be it. Every film has problems. That’s the way it is.

Part VI: “If You Want to Be Fascinating, Be Fascinated”

TMNT was slated for an early spring release. Hollywood didn’t exactly view it as a sure-fire hit.

Fields: We went to New York to finish the film off. And one night we were filming outside of the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West. And Tony Scott was walking across the road at the time. He knew Steve Barron and he said, “Hey, what are you guys doing? What is this?” And I said, “Well, it’s a film called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He was like, “Oh, right,” and he just walked off. You got a sense that we got no respect for this film. Because it looked so weird and cheap.

Eastman: When we were approaching March of 1990 with the launch of the film, they did some early screenings and some of the executives from Playmates Toys sat in. They thought it was the worst movie they’d ever seen. They felt like it was something that was gonna kill the toy line.

Gray: At ShoWest in 1990 around February, that’s the big festival in Las Vegas. The big picture at that festival was Hunt for Red October and I remember the Paramount guys were up there. I had been to Paramount three times to sell [TMNT]. They laughed and said, “Forget about it.”

Dawson: New Line wanted to test the film. I just happened to be there because Gary was still with Gallagher.

Gray: We stacked the room with a whole bunch of kids from the local schools. And brought in all of these exhibitors from around the country who were just really skeptical. It blew the roof off. The kids went incredibly crazy.

Dawson: They came back with scores in the 95, 96 range. It was off the chart. Mitch looked at that and called London, where Deluxe Labs was making the prints, and said, “I’m gonna double the order.”

Fields: It gets released in New York and I’m in L.A. It’s raining in New York. I said, “That’s OK.” So I get a call from my then-sister-in-law, who says, “I just walked ’round the cinema, there’s lines around the block.” I was like, “What! You’ve gotta be kidding.” I kind of looked at Steve and said, “Yeah, it seems like a lot of people want to see it.”

Tilden: We were doing something that was gonna explode. Our friends that have kids were like, “Oh my God, my kid has all the Ninja Turtles bedspreads.”

Hoag: One of the things that threw me out of the water was when I went to the premiere. … I was like, “Where are the guys?” I had no idea they were gonna replace their voices.

Sisti: We each got a chance to audition for our characters. The only one that they chose was Josh, of course. He had a homegrown New York accent, which fit perfectly. The guy who did my voice was Robbie Rist. Corey Feldman did one of the voices.

Tilden: Even if you don’t know Corey Feldman, everyone’s seen The Goonies. I love The Goonies. There was a little moment outside [the premiere] when we were kind of introduced to each other. He didn’t even say anything, he just kind of flashed me a gang sign.

Gray: We opened at like $25 million, broke the all-time [non-holiday, non-summer] record. And what was good was that the second week we did another $[19] million. And then we were off to the races.

Risher: It was a huge success for us at the time. And certainly the biggest thing that ever happened to us. And I remember I met Bob Shaye and his wife at the Ivy Restaurant in L.A. for brunch and we drank champagne until 3 in the afternoon. And then on Monday, all these television crews came into the office to interview Bob. And he took full credit for it from then on.

David Forman and Josh Pais as Leonardo and Raphael.
New Line Cinema

Eastman: That was a trifecta, where you had full-on Turtlemania. No. 1 toy, no. 1 cartoon show, no. 1 movie. That’s like a “Holy fuck!” kind of moment.

Tilden: Barbara Walters contacted the group to do the Barbara Walters Special. … Barbara Walters filmed this thing with the Turtles like eight months before the Oscars. In costume. And we rigged up this whole thing. Because every time she interviewed someone back then they cried.

Sisti: Donatello was going to break down and cry and the Creature Shop had made a little squeeze pump with a tube up to his eye holes. And we tested it out and they turned it on and water came spraying out.

Tilden: It malfunctioned. It was a flood of water. I had to pretend I was having a nervous breakdown.

Sisti: Leif was turning his head side to side, he got both sides of her and up and down the dress. She was not pleased about that. But it was very funny at the time.

Pais: I was on Regis and Kathie Lee not in costume and I think we did a People magazine spread. But other than that, we were kept hidden in a sense. And [the studio] had said, “We don’t want the audience to identify with you guys. We don’t want the audience to think of you guys.” Which I understand. But also as an actor trying to build a career it was very odd.

Saito: No one knew that I was the Shredder. There was no real effect on me. I wear that mask. It’s not like being Harrison Ford in Star Wars.

The movie’s massive success spawned two sequels over the next three years, neither of which came close to matching the quality of Barron’s original.

Gray: I heard from every single studio, calling me, “Congratulations, Tom! Fantastic! Too bad we didn’t see it. What about the sequel rights?” And I said, “Guess what, guys, the sequel is staying with New Line. They were believers.” These were big-name guys. This is the way it works here: Fear. They just didn’t want to have Howard the Duck Part 2 on their name.

Dawson: The movie does boffo business and everybody’s happy. The Monday after it opened, Tom Gray calls up and says, “We exercised the option for no. 2.”

Barron: Straight away they were talking sequel. I had the rights to do the sequel and I didn’t want to do that. I felt we’d done it and I felt like they were gonna do it very colorful and very bright. It was the sort of thing where you go back inside yourself a bit, where you have such a phenomenal hit. I got hundreds of offers of other things and I just kind of stayed away from it a bit.

Fields: We were young, probably too proud. We wanted to do something different.

Henson: I know that Steve, he had very mixed feelings about it. Being asked off the movie is not what anyone directing wants. But to see it do so well was certainly satisfying.

Tilden: Here’s a great quote that Jim said when we were in North Carolina. He said, “If you want to be fascinating, be fascinated.” ... If you’re fascinated, you are in a state of fascination, you then will be fascinating. Your art will be fascinating.

Herbeck: It’s one thing to get a movie that’s a hit but to get a movie that continues all these years? It’s part of the culture.

Robbie Rist (Michelangelo’s voice): If you think about how much kids’ entertainment has come out since 1990, we’re really only talking about a handful of things still.

Hoag: I started doing comic cons a couple of years ago at the behest of so many people saying, “Please come to our comic con,” and I was kind of coming at it from the Galaxy Quest point of view, which is, “This is the last job you do before you die.” And I was like, “No, I’m not doing it.” And [a friend said], like, “Go meet your fans. This is like, a deal.” And he was absolutely right.

Pais: I remember several times, these grown men, guys that obviously work out a lot, they would come up to me and they would roll up their sleeves and there was a Raphael tattoo.

Barron: I went to the BAFTAs in London, and two seats in front of me was Sally Menke, before she passed away. And I hadn’t seen her for years and years, and she turned around and went, “Steve!” And I was like, “Sally!” And she said, “Oh my God, Quentin come and meet Steve.” Quentin comes over and Sally says, “Tell him! Tell him what you always tell me.” And he said, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Uma said to me, ‘Who’s gonna edit our film?’ And I said, ‘Sally Menke.’ And she said, ‘Who’s Sally Menke?’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, Sally Menke made Donatello fight!’”


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