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‘Dirty Dancing’: Behind-The-Scenes Movie Secrets You Never Knew

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze's off-screen relationship wasn't warm and fuzzy.

It’s not a stretch to say that “Dirty Dancing” is one of the most iconic movies of the 1980s — if not of all time.

The 1987 drama starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze quickly became a cultural touchstone following its release. “Dirty Dancing” not only told a great love story through the art of Latin dance, but it also addressed some of the biggest political issues of the day that are still relevant in modern times. The film is so influential that its most iconic lines can be heard in everything from movies and television shows to commercials.

But, as with every movie, “Dirty Dancing” has its secrets.

The Story Is Based On The Screenwriter’s Life

“Dirty Dancing” is based primarily on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s life. Bergstein told Cosmopolitan that when she was a kid, she used to compete in dance contests in the Catskills, the area of upstate New York where “Dirty Dancing” is set.

“I would do the mambo [at] these Champagne contests in the country,” said Bergstein, whose father was a doctor. “It was so bizarre to see this little girl doing all these mambo and cha-cha steps. I would win the bottle of Champagne, which my parents could drink … so those things came from my life, going to the Catskills as a little girl.”

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Nobody Puts Sarah Jessica Parker In A Corner

Jennifer Grey wasn’t the only actor considered for the part of Frances “Baby” Houseman. Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex and the City” fame also auditioned for the movie’s titular character and was seriously considered for the part. But the chemistry between Grey and Swayze was just too much to deny.

2017 Obie Awards - Arrivals
Getty Images | Jemal Countess

There’s Controversy Over Whether There Could Have Been Another Johnny

Although it’s hard to imagine any other actor playing Johnny Castle, people involved with the film have said that film executives tried out other actors, including Val Kilmer and Billy Zane, in the role. Grey has talked about Zane almost getting the role, but screenwriter Bergstein says Swayze was always the only Johnny.

Regardless of the controversy, the film’s choreographer summed up how we all feel about it: “I can’t imagine it with anyone but the two of them,” Kenny Ortega told People. “It was magical.”

Getty Images | Kevork Djansezian

Kellerman’s Was Inspired By Grossinger’s

The Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel was once a vibrant vacation destination that Bergstein and her family used to visit. She fashioned the fictional Kellerman’s to be a place filled with activities for families visiting from New York City, much like the Catskills resorts she visited with her family.

The resort in Liberty, New York, was sadly demolished in 2018 after having been closed since 1986.

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The Resort Featured In The Film Is Nowhere Near The Catskills

In the film, Kellerman’s was in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. In reality, the resort where the movie was filmed is called Mountain Lake Lodge and it’s located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The resort is proud of its connection to the film and hosts “Dirty Dancing”-themed weekends throughout the year that offer guests dance lessons and other Kellerman’s-inspired activities.

 

The Movie’s Name Came Before The Story

Before there was a story, there was the title. Producer Linda Gottlieb told Huffington Post in 2012 that she had invited Bergstein to lunch to discuss film ideas, and when the screenwriter’s original idea wasn’t hitting the mark, she turned it around.

“I said, ‘Well what’s the story?’ And she said, ‘I don’t really have a story, but it should involve Latin dancing…’ So I switched the subject and said, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ She said, ‘I grew up in Brooklyn, my father was a doctor, I was one of those kids who used to go across the tracks to go dirty dancing,’” Gottlieb recalled. “I said, ‘That’s a million-dollar title! Now we’ll figure out the story.’ We invented Johnny Castle at lunch.”

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It Was Rejected 43 Times

More than 30 years have passed since “Dirty Dancing” was released in theaters. And over those three decades, the film has garnered even more fans. But it almost wasn’t made. Gottlieb told Huffington Post that it was rejected 43 times — 43 times — before Vestron agreed to produce the film.

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‘Dirty Dancing’ Had A Tiny Budget

Vestron is a small studio, which means a small budget. When it agreed to make “Dirty Dancing,” Vestron only offered $4.5 million for the filmmakers to work with.

“We realized the only way we could shoot the Catskills was not to shoot in Catskills,” Gottlieb told Huffington Post. “It’s really hard to make a movie on that kind of budget.”

Lang Thomas Photography

They Almost Had To Change The Name

Bergstein said they almost had to change the title of the film. Authorities delayed their film footage at the Canadian border because “they thought it was a porn film,” she said. “When we thought we had to change the title, we were going to call it ‘I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen,’” Bergstein told Cosmo. Good thing that didn’t happen.

DIRTY DANCING photo
Getty Images | Gustavo Caballero

Bill Medley Didn’t Want To Sing For The Film

The Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley, who sings “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” with Jennifer Warnes, wasn’t on board at first. When a “Dirty Dancing” music supervisor, Jimmy Ienner, approached him about recording the music, Medley turned him down because of the movie’s title: “It sounds like a bad porno movie,” he told Songfacts. But, months later, Ienner was able to convince him otherwise.

“We just went in to work together, to sing together, and little did we know it was going to be the biggest movie of the year,” Medley said. “Just unbelievable.”

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS photo
Getty Images | Ethan Miller

Lionel Richie Passed On The Soundtrack

Medley wasn’t the first artist to turn down the film’s music supervisors down. Another music supervisor, Michael Lloyd, told Rolling Stone that Donna Summer and Lionel Richie, as well as Daryl Hall and Kim Carnes, both passed on the chance to sing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.

“I went through all these people, and they said no,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t blame them — it was hard to imagine that this would have been something special.”

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There Was Friction Between Swayze And Grey

Swayze and Grey didn’t always have the best professional relationship. The late actor wrote in his autobiography, “The Time of My Life,” that there were some difficult moments after a long day of filming.

“She seemed particularly emotional, sometimes bursting into tears if someone criticized her,” Swayze wrote in his book, according to The Telegraph. “Other times, she slipped into silly moods, forcing us to do scenes over and over again when she’d start laughing.” Swayze wrote that he “didn’t have a whole lot of patience for doing multiple retakes.” However, the friction may have made sparks fly on screen, choreographer Ortega told People. “There was something there between the two of them that was unexplainable. They were human fireworks.”

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‘Dirty Dancing’ Wasn’t The First Film Swayze And Grey Did Together

The tension in Grey and Swayze’s relationship went back a few years. The two actors worked together in the 1984 action flick “Red Dawn” and didn’t get along during filming, which rolled over to “Dirty Dancing” in the beginning.

“He felt like she was a wimp,” Gottlieb, the producer, told Huffington Post. “She was genuine, naïve; you would do a take eight times and Jennifer would do it differently every time. Patrick was a pro; he would deliver the same thing again and again. She would cry easily, she was emotional and he sort of made fun of her. He was a macho guy.”

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The Tickle Scene Was A Happy Accident

Remember the dance rehearsal scene where a ticklish Baby laughs uncontrollably and Johnny is visibly frustrated? That wasn’t scripted.

“It was very late at night and we were all exhausted,” Bergstein told Cosmo. “Jennifer [Grey] is ticklish and she started to laugh, and Patrick got exasperated.” They’d forgotten about the scene until they were in the editing room, Bergstein said. “We just thought it was so funny that we used it and loved it.”

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The Lover Boy Scene Was Unscripted

The rehearsal scene is not the only unscripted part in “Dirty Dancing.” Grey and Swayze’s flirty floor dance wasn’t written into the film, either. The actors were just playing around on set when they started crawling on the floor — one of their warm-up exercises. Luckily for “Dirty Dancing” fans, the director, Emile Ardolino, loved the interaction so much that he decided to use the footage in the movie.

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Shooting The Lake Scene Was Awful

Arguably one of the most iconic parts of the film, the famous lake scene between Grey and Swayze was torture to shoot. Grey told the Sunday People last year that her late co-star had suffered a knee injury that left him in searing pain during filming. Nevermind that the water was near freezing temperatures, she added.

“You have to be really young and hungry to get in water that cold for that long,” Grey said in her interview. “It was not good. I ­remember thinking: ‘Can you die if your nipples explode?’ It just didn’t feel healthy to be in that water.”

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Swayze Hurt Himself Doing His Own Stunts

Swayze’s knee injury? It was partly the actor’s fault. According to Gottlieb, he insisted on doing all his own stunts, which caused him to hurt himself repeatedly.

“In the scene where they are dancing on the log, Patrick fell several times and we ended up rushing him to the hospital and draining fluid from his knee,” she told Huffington Post.

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Grey Was Genuinely Scared Of The Lift

Grey and Swayze may have nailed the famous lift in their initial audition, but the duo didn’t practice the move during filming. Grey told SELF in 2012 that she was too scared and waited until the last moment to pull it out.

“The day you see me do it in the movie is the first time I do it,” she said.

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The Leaves Were Spray Painted To Make It Look Like Summer

“Dirty Dancing” takes place in the summer, but the film was actually shot in the fall — mid-October, to be precise. That meant not only were most of the leaves orange, red and brown, but also that piles of dead leaves were all over the ground. To hide the changing of the season, set decorators spray-painted the leaves green, according to the Swayze biography “One Last Dance,” by Wendy Leigh.

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Baby’s Mom Was Cast For A Different Role

Kelly Bishop, who plays Baby’s mom, Marjorie Houseman, was cast as another character initially. But the original actor cast playing Marjorie had complained of fatigue and weakness on the first day of shooting and was sent home. Her exit left a hole in the cast, leaving producers with a dilemma that needed to be addressed immediately.

“We realize [Bishop] has one strong thing going for her: she is here,” Gottlieb wrote of the recast, according to Den of Geek. You may also recognize Bishop from her role as Lorelai on “Gilmore Girls”

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A Dance Coach Filled In On A Role

Marjorie Houseman wasn’t the only character that was recast. The film’s assistant choreographer, Miranda Garrison, stepped into the role of Vivian Pressman, who Bishop was set to play originally. Despite her part in the film, Garrison also remained Swayze’s off-scene dance coach.

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There Was A Health Scare On Set

The first week of shooting did not go smoothly, to say the least. In addition to the last-minute casting changes, one actor suffered a health scare. On the fifth day of filming, Paula Trueman, who played the innocent-seeming hotel thief Mrs. Schumacher, had collapsed on set, but recovered, fortunately.

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Day Six Of Filming Was Particularly Bad

Day 6 of filming was plagued with problems. The rehearsal space was burglarized. Severe flooding blocked the roads, making the trip for replacement materials difficult. The set decorator injured himself after he fell off of a ladder. Three crew members got food poisoning. A wardrobe assistant broke her toe and the second assistant director broke her wrist. It was a lot of drama in just 24 hours.

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The Problems Didn’t End There

Shooting for “Dirty Dancing” lasted 44 days. But just a few weeks before the end, the lead makeup artist left production due to personal issues, Grey’s arms were badly stung by wasps that infested the set, the new makeup artist exited after breaking her wrist and two of her fingers, and one of the film crew, who had recently left prison, was arrested for driving without a license. 

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Swayze Hated The Movie’s Most Famous Line

If Swayze had his way, Baby may have stayed in the corner. The late actor admitted back in 2009 that he hated the line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” and tried to have it cut. He didn’t want to utter the line, but Bergstein convinced him to say it once.

“‘[A]nd then the next time, just go up and do the speech and maybe we won’t use it,’” the screenwriter told Swayze at the time, according to Huffington Post. Luckily, they did decide to use the line.

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There Was Pushback On The Film’s Political Themes

Bergstein revealed that she received “so much pushback and resistance” for the film’s political undercurrent. Because the film was set in the summer of 1963, when Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, people behind the scenes questioned the relevance of Baby’s interests in politics. But that didn’t deter the screenwriter, who knew that the country was facing many of the same issues in 1987, when the film was made, that it did in 1963, when the film takes place. 

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The Film Went From Low Budget To Box Office Success

By all means, “Dirty Dancing” was a low-budget movie. The filmmakers only had $5 million to work with — and not a penny more, according to Bergstein. But “Dirty Dancing” went on to gross nearly $214 million in theaters worldwide and more than $31 million in home-market performance. According to IMDB, it is the 10th most popular feature film of 1987.

Patrick Swayze Memorial in Lake Lure
Getty Images | Davis Turner

‘Dirty Dancing’ Almost Wasn’t Released

But “Dirty Dancing” almost didn’t make it to theaters. Test audiences largely panned Ardolino’s first edit of the film and, at one point, executives seriously discussed the possibility of releasing the movie straight to video. Ardolino’s later cut, though, hit the mark and “Dirty Dancing” became a box office hit.

Singing ‘Time Of My Life’ Really Was A Good Time

Medley and Warnes weren’t simply singing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” — they were also representing older versions of the movie’s main characters. Warnes told Rolling Stone that to get into the headspace of Baby and Johnny, she and Medley recorded the song while “Dirty Dancing” played in the studio.

“We sang to each other and to the movie,” she said. “When he raised her up in the air, I knew it had to be joyful, and that’s why there’s a real spirit and joy in the vocals. That’s not fake. We were having a good time.”

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Swayze’s ‘She’s Like The Wind’ Was A Late Addition

“She’s Like the Wind” wasn’t an original soundtrack listing. But Swayze offered up his song after Lloyd put out the word that they were looking for more material. “Patrick said, ‘I have a song we could do,’ and we said, ‘Bring it on,’” Lloyd told Rolling Stone. “It worked out perfectly as if it were written for the movie.”

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‘Time Of My Life’ Won A Grammy And Oscar

Good thing that Medley and Warnes changed their minds and decided to do“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” because their choice paid off. The song hit the top of the charts in November 1987, selling more than 500,000 copies. The number also won a slew of awards, including the 1988 Academy Award for Best Original Song and the 1987 Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals.

righteous brothers photo
Getty Images | Michael Loccisano