'Stand by Me' turns 30

Posted at 6:15 AM, Aug 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-22 06:15:15-04

Thirty years after its release, "Stand by Me" remains one of Hollywood's best coming-of-age films.

Directed by Rob Reiner and based on Stephen King’s novella "The Body," it tells the story (narrated by Richard Dreyfuss) of an unforgettable summer when four boys -- all best friends -- set off to look for the body of a dead boy.

It wasn't expected to do well and was originally released Aug. 8, 1986, in a limited number of theaters. But it quickly found an audience, opening wide on Aug. 22, 1986, and became one of the biggest hits of the year, grossing over $52 million at the box office and launching the careers of its four young stars -- Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell and River Phoenix, who died at age 23 from a drug overdose.

Here are 5 reasons why it became such a hit:

1. Its Cast

"Rob Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played," Wheaton, now 44, told NPR in 2011. "I was awkward and nerdy and shy and uncomfortable in my own skin and really, really sensitive; and River was cool and really smart and passionate and even at that age kind of like a father figure to some of us; Jerry was one of the funniest people I had ever seen in my life, either before or since; and Corey was unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain and had an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents."

Or as Reiner put it to The New York Times in 1986, "Corey was the only boy who could play that kind of anger." He called Wheaton "an extraordinarily intelligent kid, and his intelligence comes through." As for Phoenix, Reiner told the Times, the actor originally auditioned for Wheaton's role, sensitive, misunderstood Gordie, but felt Phoenix, who was older than the other boys, was a better fit for Chris, the leader and peacemaker. "River has all the strength the character has," he said.

Meanwhile, Reiner, now 69, took a chance on O'Connell. "Jerry is not scared and nerdy like Vern, but he sounded like Vern," Reiner told the Times. '"He had had no experience. Could he do on film what he did in a reading? I wasn't going to pick him, but he was so Vern in his attitude that, at the last minute, I said, 'Let's take a chance.'"

2. They Bonded Before Filming Began

For a week, the four boys, director Reiner and occasionally some of the writers and crew members would meet in a hotel suite in Oregon to play games from Viola Spolin's "Improvisations for the Theater."

"Theater games develop trust among people, and her book is the bible," Reiner told The New York Times in 1986. They also went to carnivals and did river-rafting together. Not until the second week did the boys even look at the script.

"Rob kept us together," Phoenix told the Times in 1986. "The first three weeks were the most fun. We took all the hotel pool chairs and threw them into the pool. We soaked Corey's clothes in beer, and they dried and he smelled like a wino. Wil Wheaton is a video whiz. He fixed the machines in the hotel so we got free games. I took the blame. I said, 'You do it for me, and I'll take the blame.'"

Later, their on-screen chemistry led to off-screen friendships. Wheaton became especially close with Phoenix, describing him as "one of the kindest people I'd ever been around."

"We stayed friends after we worked on the film, and I went and visited his family," Wheaton told NPR. "I guess around the time that I was turning maybe 15, we just drifted apart, and I always felt really sad about that."

3. Reiner Acted Out Their Scenes First

Although three of the boys already had previous experience acting, including Feldman, who starred in "The Goonies" the year before, Reiner, who once starred in "All in the Family," often called on his own skills as an actor.

"I would stand behind the camera and act nearly every scene out for them so they could hear what the part should sound like," Reiner told the Times. "That's part of the benefits of being an actor myself. I didn't want the kids to be acting. I had some trouble with Corey, who would say, 'You're not letting me act.' And I would say, 'This has to be real.'"

4. Reiner Kept Expectations Low

Reiner knew his film was a tough sell and, he told the Times, just hoped it would "find a small audience that would enjoy it." He even told his screenwriters, Ray Gideon and Bruce Evans, "There's no way this picture is going to do business, because no one who went to 'Rambo' will go to see our film."

Even Coca Cola, which purchased producer Norman Lear's company before filming began, refused to buy the film because they saw no potential profit, so Lear ponied up the money himself.

As it turned out both the soft drink company and Reiner were wrong. The film became a sleeper hit, grossing more than five times what it cost.

5. Reiner Found the Perfect Location

Brownsville, Oregon, the town that stood in for fictional Castle Rock, became as famous as the cast after the film's release. Reiner chose the town for its small, 1950s feel, hiring nearly 100 residents as extras in the film.

Ever since, fans from all over the world have flocked to Brownsville to retrace the spots where their favorite scenes were filmed. And since 2007, Brownsville has held a "Stand by Me" Day every July, complete with pie-eating contest, guided tours and, of course, a screening of the film.