The Secret of My Success
There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Brantley Foster took two weeks.
Studio: Universal Pictures :::::::::: Release Date: 8th April 1987
Director: Herbert Ross :::::::::: Starring: Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater
Budget: $12-18M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $25.4 – 38.2M
U.S Box Office: $66.9M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $142.1M
Brantley Foster has dreams of making it big in the world of business. Coming to New York, he gets a rude awakening and ends up having to call upon a distant relative for a job. But starting in the mailroom might not be such a bad thing, especially when he starts leading a double life as executive Carlton Whitfield. If he can survive the advances of his aunt, the corporate sharks and his suspicious boss, he might just make it to the top.
If one type of person summed up the 1980s, it would be the yuppie. Young businessmen and women, dressed for success and earning thousands in the corporate world. Their money-making matched only by their extravagance; the yuppie was equally lauded and despised, yet was a true product of the decade of excess. Hollywood took notice and the smartly dressed businessman and his multi-million dollar empire became the new villain, and just occasionally, the hero. This is probably nowhere more evident than in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, yet it would be another 1987 picture set in the same world, that would make big money at the box office.
The Secret of my Success took the age old rags to riches story and gave it an 80s twist. At the helm would be Herbert Ross, taking on what would be his 18th feature. The veteran director had actually started his career as a dramatic actor, before moving into the role of choreographer for the American Ballet Theatre. This in turn led to choreography work on Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones and the Cliff Richard pictures The Young Ones and Summer Holiday. By 1968 he'd moved up to director of musical numbers on the Barbara Streisand flick, Funny Girl and a year later made his feature directorial debut on Goodbye, Mr. Chips (for which Peter O'Toole would be Oscar nominated). He would reteam with Streisand on the 1975 picture, Funny Lady (for which the actress won an Academy award) and also worked with Woody Allen on Play It Again, Sam. He directed Richard Dreyfuss to an Oscar for his work on The Goodbye Girl, and with writer Neil Simon made The Sunshine Boys and ensemble California Suite.
Ross didn't abandon his theatrical work either, though it did take a backseat as he became more in demand as a feature director. He managed to combine the two in the critically acclaimed picture, The Turning Point, a dramatic tale set in the ballet world. Yet despite 11 Oscar nominations, Ross and the film came away empty handed. While he may not have seen such high praise again in his career, he did become a very profitable director. One of his most successful pictures, the 1984 musical drama Footloose, set him up to take on The Secret of my Success. Footloose starred a young Kevin Bacon, moving to a town where rock music has been banned, and clashing head on with the local minister, played by John Lithgow. The $8.2M production was a smash hit, making over $80M in North American cinemas. Its soundtrack was also a major seller, spawning a number of hit singles. Ross would direct one more picture, the Goldie Hawn vehicle Protocol, before signing on board The Secret of my Success - a script Universal Studios had been developing.
At the time of writing the story, AJ Carothers was already a successful screenwriter for both film and TV, having begun his career in the 1940s working as story editor on the show Studio One. He soon graduated to scriptwriting and became close friends with Walt Disney when he worked as a contract writer for the company during the 1960s. He turned out a number of projects, notably the script for The Happy Millionaire and Never a Dull Moment (starring Fred MacMurray and Dick Van Dyke respectively). Carothers continued to write, creating the 1970 show, Nanny and the Professor. He even branched out into speech writing for the likes of Nancy Reagan and Patrick Stewart. As it turned out, The Secret of My Success would be the final script he produced for the screen, and while it was never explicitly stated by Carothers, it would owe a huge debt to the stage musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Universal took on the script but executive Frank Price felt the characters needed fleshing out, so turned to Jack Epps and Jim Cash. The duo was about to have huge success in the summer of 1986 with the movie Top Gun, for which they'd produced the script. They were given only eight weeks to knock the Success script into shape and quickly set about the job. The original screenplay featured the nephew and uncle scenario, but the character of Christy was a high class call girl, favoured by the uncle, and someone who the nephew falls for. Epps and Cash altered this, turning Christy into a high powered fellow executive, who also happens to be the CEOs mistress. They also introduced the character of Aunt Vera, a further complication for the nephew. The studio signed off on the script and gave the picture a spring 1987 slot. All they needed now was a cast, and they had one very particular actor in mind for the lead.
Michael J. Fox was born in 1961 in Edmonton, but moved around a lot during his early years due to his father's military (and later police) career. The family finally settled in Vancouver once his father had retired, and Fox attended a local school where he was encouraged by his drama teacher Ross Jones to try out for a new sitcom entitled Leo & Me. He landed the role of 'me', giving him his first acting break - though the show would not be screened until 1981. But Fox had got the acting bug, and his work on Leo & Me led to a part in the TV movie, Letters From Frank. When a casting agent suggested Fox move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, he jumped at the chance. Upon arriving and attempting to secure work, the young actor found out he'd need to join the screen actors guild, but as there was already a Michael Fox, he had to either change his name or use an initial. Forgoing the use of his actual middle name (Andrew), Fox took the J from character actor Michael J. Pollard, someone he admired.
Minor roles in Class of 1984 and Midnight Madness (his first US feature) followed, but Fox struggled to find well paid-long term work. He appeared in all eleven episodes of the drama Palmertown, USA before landing an audition for a new sitcom created by Gary Goldberg entitled Family Ties. The only problem was that Goldberg wanted Matthew Broderick for the role of Alex P. Keaton, but Broderick refused to be tied to a long term commitment. This rejection led Goldberg to instantly despise any other casting choice put forward for the role - the first one being Fox. Casting director Judith Weiner pushed for the young actor, feeling he was right for the part, and Goldberg eventually relented and gave Fox another audition. This time around he played the character a little less of a smart Alec, and managed to win Goldberg over. Fox, almost destitute by this point, negotiated his contract via payphone, telling Goldberg's people that he'd only be in 'his office' between 3 and 4pm.
Family Ties was a sitcom which saw two ex-hippie parents clash with their conservative children, Fox's Alex P. Keaton in particular. In fact, the show was sold on the tagline "Hip Parents, Square Kids". The initial idea was to focus on the parental figures played by Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney, but so positive was the audience's reaction to Alex, that by the fourth episode the focus had shifted to him. While not a huge success straight off the bat, Family Ties hit its stride (and then some) when slotted after The Cosby Show. According to figures released at the time, more than a third of America tuned in. In comparison, at its height, Seinfeld commanded 20% of America's audience.
When Meredith Baxter-Birney fell pregnant, shooting on Family Ties was delayed, allowing Fox to take on the role of Scott Howard in the movie Teen Wolf. It was whilst shooting that picture at the tail end of 1984, that the cast and crew came across another production team, scouting locations for a project called Back to the Future. There's some conjecture regarding when Fox got offered the role of Marty McFly. One story goes that during Family Ties' second season, Robert Zemeckis sought Fox for the part, but Gary Goldberg refused to allow the director to approach him. Meredith Birney-Baxter was working reduced hours and in her absence Fox's role in the show was elevated further - and Goldberg couldn't risk allowing the actor to take time off to work on the film. The shooting of Back to the Future was delayed a number of times because of casting issues, and Eric Stoltz eventually won the lead role. But after only four to six weeks of filming, he was released from the production, Zemeckis claiming that the actor didn't give the right type of performance for the humour involved. Due to the delays, Birney had now returned to Family Ties full time and Goldberg was willing to give Fox the chance to work on Back to the Future - as long as he also kept his commitment to the show.
However, during an interview Fox gave to James Lipton in 2005, he stated that five weeks after bumping into the scouting crew, Goldberg called him into his office and gave him the script. He explained that since Stoltz had been let go, Spielberg and Zemeckis wanted him for the lead, and that they'd need him to start work within the week. As stated previously, he gave the actor his blessing, on the proviso that he continued to work on Family Ties. There's a possibility that at the time, Fox wasn't aware of the earlier (failed) approach by Zemeckis. Either way, the actor accepted the part and began to work out how he would juggle his commitment to the show and work on the movie. As he would soon find out, it was a difficult and exhausting task. Fox rehearsed Family Ties from 10am to 6pm, and then rushed to the set of Back to the Future and shot until 4am. He kept this schedule up for two solid months, and while many an actor wouldn't have made it, Fox reveled in it. Having gone from selling his couch for food money to working on not one but two projects, he wasn't about to complain. By the end of that summer, he would see it was more than worth the effort.
Back to the Future was a phenomenon. A huge hit at the box office in North America and around the world, it introduced Fox to a global audience who by and large weren't aware of his Family Ties work. It would go on to make over $380M worldwide, from a budget of only $19M, and became the quintessential 80s movie. Thanks to the film's success, Teen Wolf, released in August 1985 also got a huge boost, with Fox's involvement being milked by the studio for all it was worth. The $1M picture made $33M in North America and at one point, the actor held the top two positions at the US box office. Next up would be the drama, Light of Day, in which Fox attempted to prove he could play the dramatic role as well as he did the comedic one. The picture reviewed well, but struggled to find a substantial audience. The public wanted Fox goofing around, and in The Secret of my Success, they were about to get it.
It was the perfect vehicle - allowing him to play a romantic lead, while throwing in more than a dash of slapstick and 1980s style big business. Thanks to his success in 1985, Fox was able to command $5M for the role of Brantley Foster (aka Carlton Whitfield). While budgetary figures for the film aren't available, it's safe to assume that that salary made up a good portion of its costs. Playing opposite Fox in the role of Christy Wills was to be Kristy McNichol, a young actress who had already made her mark in the TV show Family, for which she earnt two Emmy awards. Her career had gone from strength to strength, and she won much acclaim for her performance in the coming of age flick, Little Darlings, opposite Tatum O'Neal. Aged only 19, she earnt an unprecedented six figure sum for her role in The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, and won a Golden Globe for her turn in Only When I Laugh.
But having been acting for so long, and in such demanding roles, McNichol had a huge emotional breakdown while shooting Just the Way You Are in 1982. When the film broke up for Christmas, she refused to return and it would be a further year before shooting would resume. Rumours of drink and drug problems made studios fearful of offering her parts. It would take some time before her career recovered, and she lobbied hard for the role of Christy. Ross was more than happy with her audition and gave her the part, but two weeks before shooting, executives overruled the director for fear the production would be thrown into disarray if McNichol had another episode. [In a 1989 interview, the actress stated that it wasn't the first, or last time, she was passed over for a part because of her early 80s breakdown]. Ross was now left with no female lead and a shoot that was set to commence in less than a fortnight.
In the end the role went to Helen Slater, who was still recovering from the failure of Supergirl some two years previous. She'd been an odd choice for the role, having just one other credit on her resume (an after school special entitled Amy & The Angel) but Alexander Salkind and his son, Ilya, chose her over more established actors such as Demi Moore and Brooke Shields. Despite success with the Superman series, the Salkinds couldn't transform Supergirl into box office gold, and it flopped with only $14M in takings. Slater then won the lead in The Legend of Billie Jean, opposite Christian Slater (no relation). Early hype had the picture pegged to become a hit, but it was largely ignored by the public, making only $3M. When she was called in for The Secret of My Success, Slater was a month or so away from scoring a hit with the comedy Ruthless People, in which she played an inept kidnapper opposite Judge Reinhold.
The other two major roles, that of Howard and Vera Prescott, went to Richard Jordan and Margaret Whitton. Jordan was a notable theatre actor and director of some standing, who managed to mix stage work with movie roles for the duration of his career. Similarly, Margaret Whitton had a successful off-Broadway career before winning acclaim for her work on the 1982 picture, Love Child. Filling out the remainder of the relatively small cast would be John Pankow, Gerry Bamman and Carol Ann Susi as Carlton's secretary, Jean.
Shooting would take place in and around New York during the summer of 1986. At least three different locations would make up the Pemrose building, with the lobby of 599 Lexington Avenue being used for the water fountain fantasy sequence. Filming appeared to have gone off without too many issues, though David Watkin found himself replaced by Woody Allen's cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, for reasons unknown (years later, writing in his autobiography, Watkin would confess he still had no idea why he'd been replaced). The only other somewhat minor issue was the height difference between Fox and Slater, resulting in some adjustments being made during sequences in which they kissed or walked side by side. With the shoot completed in August 1986, Ross and editor Paul Hirsch had 8 month to assemble the picture to ensure it met its April 10th release date.
Movie soundtracks enjoyed huge success in the late 1970s, a trend that escalated in the 1980s. Studios used popular artists and bands of the time to provide the music which added not only an extra (and long lasting) revenue stream but was used increasingly as a promotional tool for both the artist and the movie in question. Music videos would often feature clips from the accompanying picture or were specially commissioned with stars featuring either as themselves or their characters. Ross had already seen Footloose's soundtrack become a smash hit, and with the music from Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop (to name just two of many) also selling incredibly well, Universal weren't about to miss out.
They commissioned David Foster to write and produce the soundtrack album, having already performed similar duties on St.Elmo's Fire. Foster was already a hugely successful songwriter, providing tracks for all manner of artists including Earth, Wind and Fire, Boz Scaggs and Chicago, whose massive resurgence in the early 80s was thanks primarily to Foster's work. For The Secret of My Success, Foster would write or co-write seven of the ten tracks, along with providing its score. The Who's Roger Daltrey supplied vocals for The Price of Love, Restless Heart sang Don't Ask the Reason Why (which was bizarrely given a different title on the track listing) and Night Ranger performed the title track. The film would go on to feature other tracks that didn't appear on the official soundtrack including Yello's Oh Yeah and Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and The Waves (which was a missed opportunity given that it featured extensively in the trailer and also played during a major scene in the movie itself)
Reviews for the film were mixed - while no one doubted the charm of Michael J.Fox, they felt the big business story was at odds with the slapstick sequences, particularly the bedroom farce it became in its final quarter. Roger Ebert commented that the picture felt like a 1950s script that hadn't been updated, and more than a few reviews echoed that it was too similar to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - though how much that would have influenced the public's decision as to whether to see the film, is debatable.
The Secret of My Success was set to open on April 10th 1987. It would face the second weekend of Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, and the third of the Bruce Willis/Kim Basinger comedy, Blind Date. It would also be Fox's first major release since Teen Wolf, though he was still riding high with Family Ties. The film easily took the top spot during its opening frame, making a decent enough $7.7M from its 1,336 screen roll out. A week later and it lost just 5% of business, adding another $7.4M - the Matthew Broderick thriller Project X offering no real competition. Weekend three saw the film still safely in the top spot, as its overall total approached $28M - easily covering any estimated costs associated with it. Seven days later, and with only Creepshow 2 as competition, The Secret of My Success fell just 17.5% on its previous weekend‘s total. In only a month, it had already out grossed Teen Wolf, and showed little sign of stopping there.
The film would stay in the top spot for a further week, before being unseated by the Warren Beatty - Dustin Hoffman bomb, Ishtar. Even with the release of Beverly Hills Cop 2 at the end May, The Secret of My Success held steady in third place, behind the other new release of the week, Ernest Goes to Camp. By weekend number nine, it was still in the top five and had amassed almost $55M. In total the picture stayed in the top ten for an incredible twelve weeks, and ended its domestic theatrical run with $66.9M. Overseas, thanks to the success of Back to the Future, it made a further $44M, for a total global finish of $110M ($233.7M in 2015 dollars). In terms of movies released in 1987, The Secret of My Success was the 7th most successful, beating out Predator, Robocop, The Living Daylights and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It was also incredible successful on video, ringing up almost $30M in rentals.
A year later Michael J.Fox was back in New York for what could be described as the anti-Secret of My Success. Bright Lights, Big City saw the actor play a more mature role than what the public were used to, as a fact checker whose life is falling apart - heavy partying, drug taking and the departure of his model wife all taking their toll. The actor received a number of positive notices, but the film failed to recoup its $25M production budget. Fox then returned to the Back to the Future series, shooting back to back sequels released in 1989 and 1990. Both were smash hits, but another foray into adult fare with Casualties of War struggled to find an audience, though again, Fox's work alongside Sean Penn won praise. In 1991 he made the romantic comedy Doc Hollywood, and it was whilst shooting the picture that he noticed a twitch in one of his fingers. Over the course of the shoot it got worse, and a visit to a specialist revealed he had the early onset of Parkinson's disease. He battled with the condition but kept it to himself and his family, and continued to work.
But he struggled to find the right roles after Doc Hollywood. Life with Mickey, For Love or Money and Greedy all failed to light up the box office, though turns in The American President, The Frighteners and a cameo in Mars Attack kept him in the public eye. In the meantime he'd returned to TV, in the popular sitcom Spin City. He stayed with the show for four years, before Charlie Sheen took up the mantle. In 1998 he went public about having Parkinson's disease and has since become something of a spokesperson for fellow sufferers. He has lobbied for an increase in stem cell research and through his own charity, has raised over $100M dollars. He continues to act and do voiceover work, and returned once again to TV in 2013 with The Michael J. Fox Show.
Helen Slater starred in Sticky Fingers after The Secret of My Success, and appeared opposite Billy Crystal in City Slickers. Since then she has mixed TV movie work with guest appearances in various shows including Smallville, Grey's Anatomy and CSI:NY. She has also ventured into music, releasing a number of albums. Continuing his stage and screen career, Richard Jordan appeared in The Hunt for Red October in 1991, along with numerous theatrical acting and directing jobs. In 1993, while shooting The Fugitive, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and had to withdraw from the production. He died in August that same year. Margaret Whitton continued to dabble with film, appearing in Major League and its sequel and in Mel Gibson's The Man Without a Face. She returned to the stage in 1995 and has since become an independent film producer. After her role as Jean, Carol Anne Susi appeared in numerous film and TV shows, including reuniting with Herbert Ross on My Blue Heaven. In recent times she had lent her voice to the unseen mother of Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory. Susi succumbed to cancer in November 2014.
Director Herbert Ross had a misfire with Dancers, but scored big with the popular weepy, Steel Magnolias. He re-teamed with Steve Martin for My Blue Heaven, which he followed up with Undercover Blues and True Colors. Boys on the Side, a drama starring Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Barrymore would be his final directorial effort. He died in 2001 aged 74. Screenwriters Jack Epps and Jim Cash produced the scripts for the Tom Hanks hit, Turner & Hooch, the Warren Beatty project, Dick Tracy, and Anaconda. Cash passed away in 2000, and Epps retired from the industry in 2004, after writing the Anaconda sequel, The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Finally, David Foster continued to work in the music industry, providing Whitney Houston with the smash hit, I Have Nothing, for The Bodyguard. He would produce debut albums for Josh Groban and Michael Buble, amongst others, as well as providing music for the 2002 Winter Olympics. He is currently the chairman of Verve Records.
Because it focused so heavily on the culture and fashions of the 1980s, The Secret of My Success has not aged well. Its theme of big business-corporate takeover seems very much of the times too but there is still much to enjoy. Michael J. Fox anchors the film, providing many of its best moments - whether that's evading his boss in a mid-film chase sequence, attempting to charm a co-worker or fighting off the advances of his aunt. Largely forgotten by all involved (the film doesn't even warrant a mention in Fox's memoirs), The Secret of My Success is a slice of pure 1980s entertainment worthy of re-discovery.