Starring the legendary Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore and a whole host of various – and slightly random – celebrities, The Cannonball Run was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1981. The story of an outlaw road race from Connecticut to California also spawned two sequels and was responsible for numerous movie firsts, lasts and oddities. Here’s a look at 40 facts about the original fast and furious series.
40. The Cannonball Run should have been a completely different movie
The Cannonball Run was initially supposed to be a much more serious racing movie. Indeed, none other than Bullitt star Steve McQueen was initially touted to take the leading role. However, following the movie legend’s passing, the studio was forced to head in a different direction. Burt Reynolds came on board instead, a more comical tone was added and the rest is history.
39. It turned Burt Reynolds into Hollywood’s highest-paid actor
It’s little wonder that Burt Reynolds was attracted to his role in the movie, given the seven-figure sum he earned for no more than a month’s work. Yes, The Cannonball Run’s leading man pocketed an astonishing $5 million for his performance in the 1981 original – achieving a particular milestone in the process. His salary officially made him the highest-earning star to grace Hollywood up until that period.
38. It shut down an entire town
The Governor of Georgia was more than accommodating when producers asked for his help involving a key scene. Indeed, the official agreed to shut down one of his state’s small town centers entirely. And as a result, an airplane was able to touch down safely in the area which had been closed off by the police.
37. It’s based on a real race
You wouldn’t expect The Cannonball Run to be grounded in any kind of reality. But, in fact, its outlaw national road race is based on an actual competition that was staged on four occasions throughout the 1970s. The race reportedly had just one rule, “All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner.”
36. Most of its stars only worked for three days
Reynolds certainly had to put in four weeks’ work to earn his bumper $5 million payday. But the majority of his co-stars pretty much left the movie’s set as soon as they arrived. Yes, with The Cannonball Run boasting such a big cast, most actors were only required to spend two or three days filming before being allowed to go home.
35. Its director shows up four times
The Cannonball Run’s director almost rivals leading man Reynolds for screen time. Indeed, Hal Needham can be seen or heard on no less than four occasions throughout the film. He first appears as an EMT, before voicing the policeman during the speed trap scene and then portraying the trucker who speaks to Roger Moore via CB radio. He lastly shows up in the blooper reel which plays over the film’s end credits.
34. Burt Reynolds’ stand-in plays another role
As you’d expect from such an action-packed, thrill-seeking movie, Burt Reynolds had a stand-in for the more elaborate stunts. But this lookalike also managed to get his own face in the movie. Yes, the man in question plays the highway patrol officer that stops Tara Buckman and Adrienne Barbeau’s characters.
33. A comedic legend was supposed to play Fenderbaum
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Rat Pack legend Sammy Davis, Jr. playing Morris Fenderbaum. But studio bosses initially cast another famous face as the conman who, alongside Dean Martin’s Jamie Blake, poses as a Catholic priest. In fact, iconic comic Don Rickles was initially the choice to play Fenderbaum.
32. There was nearly a TV spin-off
Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw’s natural on-screen chemistry very nearly resulted in a new network sitcom. Indeed, the country singer and football star inspired producer Albert S. Ruddy and director Hal Needham to shop the idea of a spin-off featuring their characters. The head of ABC was keen to make it a reality but lost his job just 24 hours before a key meeting. The project was subsequently left on the shelf.
31. Victor Prinzim was named after one of Reynolds’ friends
Burt Reynolds may well have been a footballing hero instead of a Hollywood movie star, had an injury not cut short his sporting career at Florida State University. And the actor gave a nod to his halfback beginnings when he christened one of The Cannonball Run’s characters. Dom DeLuise’s Victor Primzim was actually named in honor of Reynolds’ former teammate, Vic Prinzi.
30. It grossed over $100 million worldwide
Audiences couldn’t get enough of Burt Reynolds and co. back in 1981. Indeed, The Cannonball Run made back its $18 million budget an impressive five times, with its North American gross of $72 million making it the year’s sixth-biggest movie. Only Stripes, Arthur, Superman II, On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark did better at the box office Stateside. This put it ahead of star Roger Moore’s other big screen outing that year, For Your Eyes Only.
29. There’s a nod to one of its stars’ classic songs
“I Gotta Be Me” is one of the many songs that The Cannonball Run star Sammy Davis, Jr. made famous throughout his glittering career. And it can be heard in the film itself. Bert Convy actually sings the tune in the jaw-dropping scene in which he exits from an airplane on a motorcycle.
28. There’s a meta Frankenstein reference
Jack Elam portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in 1979’s Struck by Lightning. He also plays a doctor, Nikolas Van Helsing, in The Cannonball Run, which nods to his TV past. Indeed, Burt Reynolds’ J.J. implores Dom DeLuise’s Victor before the race, “Get me Dr. Kildare. Get me Dr. Livingston. Get me Dr. Frankenstein. Just get me a doctor!”
27. There was a Cannonball Run-themed pub
There was a time when you could get a drink and a bite to eat in a place dedicated entirely to The Cannonball Run. The film’s screenwriter, Brock Yates, once owned an establishment in his Wyoming hometown that used to stage yearly reunions for the real-life race’s participants. But sadly, The Cannonball Run Pub has since close its doors for good.
26. The name of the real race is much longer
The real-life race that The Cannonball Run is based on has a name that doesn’t quite trip off the tongue. Indeed, the original cross-country contest was titled The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The race began at New York City’s Read Ball Garage on 31st Street and concluded at Redondo Beach’s Portofino Inn in California.
25. Needham used his own vehicles in the movie
Hal Needham did his bit to help cut costs on the movie – several of the vehicles seen onscreen actually belonged to the director. Indeed, he really owned the Ferrari 308 that’s used in the race. And the ambulance that also pops up is actually the same vehicle that he and scriptwriter Brock Yates drove during the real-life contest the film is based on.
24. Its scriptwriter conceived the original race
Brock Yates was obviously a man of many talents. Not only did he pen the script for The Cannonball Run and open up a pub themed around the film, but he also conceived of the original real-life race. Yes, Yates came up with the idea for the madcap competition while working as a journalist for Car and Driver. He also published a book about it named The Sunday Driver.
23. It gave Jackie Chan an early Hollywood appearance
Jackie Chan was already a major star in his native Hong Kong by 1981. And he’d already appeared in a Hollywood movie, The Big Brawl. But his appearance as a Subaru driver in The Cannonball Run was the first time that most U.S. audiences became aware of his comic and action hero talents.
22. There are numerous James Bond references
007 fans will no doubt have already spotted the multitude of nods to James Bond that are scattered throughout the film. As well as starring the legendary Roger Moore himself, the movie also sees his character driving the same vehicle as Sean Connery in Goldfinger, the Aston Martin DB5. James Bond’s producers later remarked that they should have sued The Cannonball Run’s director Hal Needham as a result.
21. Freddie Mercury bought Burt Reynolds’ mustache
Freddie Mercury is responsible for one of the most famous mustaches in showbiz history. And he also owned another. Yes, the late Queen frontman paid some $25,000 at a charity auction to get his hands on the facial hair that Burt Reynolds sported in The Cannonball Run. The winning bidder initially remained anonymous until bandmate Brian May let slip several years later.
20. The Jaws sequence had a double meaning
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Richard Kiel and Jackie Chan’s competitors see their vehicle transform into a submarine after driving it into a lake. The iconic score from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws plays over the sequence. And this music actually has a double meaning. Kiel portrayed the villainous Jaws in two 007 movies, Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me.
19. The bloopers reel inspired one of it stars
The Cannonball Run was one of the first Hollywood movies to show a bloopers reel during its end credits. And one of its stars liked the idea so much that they borrowed it for their later films. Jackie Chan was reportedly inspired for showing various on-set mishaps in his own martial arts movies.
18. Jackie Chan was upset about his character’s origins
The Cannonball Run may have given Chan a boost to his Hollywood career. But the action hero certainly wasn’t happy about one aspect of the film. Indeed, the Chinese star was reportedly a little dismayed after discovering that his Subaru driver character didn’t share the same country of origin and was, in fact, from Japan.
17. The sequel was Frank Sinatra’s last big screen appearance
Following in the footsteps of his fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra joined The Cannonball Run series for its 1984 sequel. And the film would prove to be the last time that the iconic singer would appear on the big screen. Indeed, only his voice would be heard in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while 1995’s Young at Heart was only ever screened on TV.
16. It’s responsible for one of Roger Moore’s main regrets
You wouldn’t expect turning down a role in The Cannonball Run II to be a major regret for a star of Roger Moore’s caliber. The legendary James Bond actor did appear in the 1981 original after all. But in his autobiography, Moore admits that after learning that the sequel had cast Frank Sinatra, he immediately rued his decision not to return to the series.
15. The Cannonball Run II is the final Rat Pack film
The Cannonball Run II might not be considered a typical Rat Pack movie. But it was the last film ever to feature three of the legendary group’s three biggest stars – Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Shirley MacLaine, once labelled a Rat Pack Mascot, also appeared in the 1984 sequel.
14. Sinatra didn’t waste any time on set
It’s fair to say that Frank Sinatra wasn’t the most sociable of actors while filming The Cannonball Run II. The swing legend turned up so early to film his parts that he ended up leaving the set before the rest of the cast had even arrived. Indeed, Sinatra shot the entirety of his office scene with doubles of the movie’s stars.
13. Jaclyn Smith was supposed to play Veronica
Following on from Farrah Fawcett’s appearance in The Cannonball Run, another Charlie’s Angel, Jaclyn Smith, was initially touted to play Veronica in the sequel. But for reasons unknown, the actress decided to pass on the role. Smith’s loss was Shirley MacLaine’s gain, as the veteran actress was hired as her replacement.
12. Its Godfather spoof contained three Godfather actors
One of the most memorable scenes from The Cannonball Run II is its spoof of The Godfather. But did you know that three actors in this scene actually acted in the real thing? Indeed, Alex Rocco and Abe Vigoda both showed up in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 original, while Michael V. Gazzo enjoyed a part in the 1974 sequel.
11. Sinatra wasn’t a fan
One of the The Cannonball Run II s biggest critics was one of its biggest stars. Indeed, Frank Sinatra wasn’t particularly enamored with the film’s ending, in which his character emerges victorious. The legendary swing singer couldn’t comprehend how the fictional Frank could win when he only joined the race on its last leg.
10. Sinatra drove one of his own vehicles
You wouldn’t expect a star as big as Frank Sinatra to bring his own vehicle to a movie’s set. But that’s exactly what Ol’ Blue Eyes did while filming The Cannonball Run II. Indeed, the 1984 Dodge Daytona Turbo that his character is seen behind the wheel of actually belonged to the singer himself.
9. The third film had many titles
The third film in the series appeared to suffer something of an identity crisis. In fact, it was released around the world under no less than four different names. Alongside the more familiar Speed Zone, it was also titled Cannonball Run III or Cannonball Fever in various countries. And to make matters even more confusing, the Japanese laserdisc was named The Cannonball Run III: Speed Zone.
8. Only one actor appears in all three films
Much of the original film’s cast returned for a second helping of cross-country racing. But the same can’t be said for the third film. In fact, only one actor can lay claim to appearing in each installment of the series. And that’s Jamie Farr, who played wealthy competitor Sheik Abdul ben Falafel. Reynolds passed on the chance to reprise his role due to concerns it would harm his serious acting ambitions.
7. The third film pays tribute to the first
Who knew that the third and final chapter of the racing movie series went surprisingly meta? Indeed, in one particular scene, John Candy’s parking valet Charles Cronan can be seen watching a movie in his office. And that particularly movie just happens to be the one and only original The Cannonball Run.
6. John Schneider makes a cameo
Best known for his role in The Dukes of Hazzard, John Schneider briefly shows up as a Lamborghini driver in the third film’s opening scene. His character isn’t given a name, but it seems this slightly confused whoever was responsible for the end credits. Indeed, Schneider is listed as playing Donnato – but Donnato is an entirely separate character whose voice can be heard on the police station’s telephone.
5. The poster features a car that isn’t in the movie
Perhaps promoters wanted to fool audiences into thinking that Jackie Chan was returning for a third installment. Or perhaps it was a genuine mistake. But the black Mitsubishi that Chan drives in the 1984 sequel can quite clearly be seen in the Speed Zone poster. And yet neither the car nor Chan show up in the actual movie.
4. The third movie brings things full circle
Speed Zone might not have been an official part of The Cannonball Run series but it still cleverly managed to bring things full circle. Indeed, the drivers in the film end their madcap race at the Santa Monica Pier. Of course, this is the starting point of the race in the 1976 original.
3. Rick Moranis turned down a role
Speed Zone essentially doubled up as a SCTV reunion. Indeed, alongside Eugene Levy and John Candy, several other stars of the seminal Canadian sketch show also took parts in the film. However, one SCTV alumni, Rick Moranis, decided not to join his former colleagues, passing on the part of Whitman.
2. It was originally developed by Cannon Films
Speed Zone was produced by Orion Pictures but it was initially developed at another iconic, if now defunct, 1980s film studio. Famous for their low-budget action movies, Cannon Films first got their hands on the project. However, the company was forced to abandon their plans when it went into bankruptcy.
1. A remake could be on the way
As unlikely as it seems, we might not have seen the last of The Cannonball Run franchise. Indeed, 35 years after the original made it into cinemas, Warner Bros bagged the rights to the series. Etan Cohen was initially touted to helm a remake, before Doug Liman’s name entered the frame alongside scriptwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon.