Dirty Dancing: Behind-The-Scenes Of An 80s Movie Classic

     March 17, 2019

The iconic dance-romance film Dirty Dancing is more than three decades old, but that hasn’t stopped it from being one of the most beloved films in history. Even during its release on August 21, 1987, no one — not even the actors — could have predicted its cultural impact.  
From start to finish, the film fills audiences with feel-good vibes that would be difficult to recreate. However, when the cameras stopped rolling, the vibes were very different, and filming was quite challenging. Even if you’re a “Dirty Dancing” fanatic, you probably haven’t heard all of these dirty, behind-the-scenes facts.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey Weren’t Picked First for Lead Roles

Can you imagine Dirty Dancing without Jennifer Grey or Patrick Swayze? It’s absurd to even TRY.

Outrageous as it may sound, these two weren’t actually the first choices for the film. Val Kilmer was initially offered the role of Johnny Castle, and both Sarah Jessica Parker and Sharon Stone auditioned to play Baby.

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Image via Vestron Pictures

The film almost happened without Swayze entirely. It was confirmed when filming began that Billy Zane was going to play bad-boy-turned-good Johnny, but he was pushed out of the film when people realized that he had no chemistry with Jennifer Grey.

Obviously, it was for the best.

Your Favorite Scenes Probably Weren’t Planned

Everyone remembers the film’s linchpin musical montage. You know the one: Johnny and Baby are practicing the Mambo for the big show, and Baby has a hard time stifling her giggles while Johnny looks ongoingly frustrated. That wasn’t planned.

You’re getting a real glimpse of Jennifer Grey being insanely ticklish and Patrick Swayze being fed up with his co-star.

Johnny and Baby in Dirty Dancing

Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

Remember the scene where the two are fooling around on the dance floor to Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange?” That wasn’t in the script either.

The two actors had no idea that the cameras were rolling, and they were merely getting into character to prepare for the scene.

The more you know.

It Wasn’t Summer When They Were Filming

When you watch the film, you may feel a nostalgic twinge inside that reminds you of summers during your youth. You’ll probably be surprised to find that it was absolutely freezing outside during the filming of the movie. The movie was filmed during a cold autumn in Virginia and North Carolina.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

To create the feeling of summer, they had to spray paint the changing leaves green. This means that during the scene where Baby and Johnny are practicing the famous lift in the water, the water was at a frigid temperature. That’s why the movie didn’t show any close-ups of the actors during the scene. Their blue lips would have given away the true season.

Patrick Swayze Was Battling a Knee Injury During Filming

In Swayze’s book, The Time of My Life, he discusses an injury he suffered during his Broadway days that interfered with his dancing in the movie.

Swayze was known for turning down roles because of a knee issue that was severe enough to put a halt to his career. But because Swayze was seen more as a “dancer-turned-actor,” he found it difficult to stay away from dance-centered roles.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

Even though Dirty Dancing was an exception, it didn’t mean that his pain was behind him. It was revealed that Swayze struggled to hide a severe pain episode during the lake-lift, but he managed to push through it.

As an audience member watching the scene, you would never have known.

After the Film, Jennifer Grey Had a Procedure That Changed Her Career

Thanks to Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Grey catapulted to superstardom in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It was during this time that Grey made a decision that would change her career forever.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

Grey had a rhinoplasty done in the early ‘90s, and many critics said that this decision derailed her acting career.

Grey ended up having to go under the knife a second time due to complications that popped up from the operation. After the corrective surgery, she was so unrecognizable that she considered changing her name to restart her career from scratch. Although she decided against it, the operation essentially put a huge dent in her acting career.

In Real Life, the Actors Were Far Older Than Their Characters

We see young adults playing teenagers all the time, and sometimes, it’s a little unrealistic. But in Dirty Dancing, the age difference between the actors and the characters didn’t jar audiences that much. In the film, Johnny is 24, and Baby is 18.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

Jennifer Gray was 26 when she was cast as Baby, a character that was intended to be fresh out of high school. When Patrick Swayze was cast to play the role of Johnny in the film, he was 34 — a staggering ten years older than his character in the movie.

But to be honest, does it matter considering they played the parts so perfectly? Not really.


The Movie Almost Had a Completely Different Name

Back when the film first came out in the late 1980s, the title Dirty Dancing was a tad scandalous. The title became such an issue that censorship officers were hesitant and assumed it was a porn film.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

Thank goodness this was the chosen title given that the alternative was “I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen.”

The studio stuck to their guns, and Dirty Dancing was born. Patrick Swayze, on the other hand, despised the film name. During a 1987 interview with reporter Bobbie Wygant, Swayze admitted, “I hate the title Dirty Dancing…I absolutely hate it. We all really fought to have it not called Dirty Dancing. That’s what the studio went with, so that’s what we have to be stuck with and publicize…”


The Ending Was Almost Very Different Than the One We Know

The line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” is one of the most iconic lines in film history. Can you imagine a world where this line didn’t exist to use at our leisure?

Well, Patrick Swayze had a deep hatred for the line, and producers almost cut it completely.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

Swayze believed that the line was just TOO corny. In his book, The Time of My Life, Swayze wrote: “We did a lot of rewriting for the big final scene, but one line that I hated stayed in. I could hardly bring myself to say: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” It sounded so corny. But, seeing the finished film, I had to admit it worked. And, of course, it became one of the most quoted lines in the movie.”

The Whole Film Was Created in Just Under Three Months

Yes, the entire movie was made in a short amount of time, and it had an incredibly tight budget. The film was put together in just under three months, which included two weeks for rehearsals. (It took only two weeks for the actors to get the complex dance movements down). The overall shooting of the footage was completed in 44 days, and we don’t even want to know what the actors’ shooting schedules were like.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

They also shot the final dance scene in a single take. Grey was extremely nervous about the lift (just like her character in the movie), and she didn’t want to practice ahead of time. When the time came to film it, the pair nailed it in a single take, which is the one you see on screen.


Everyone Thought the Film Would Flop (and It Did at First)

The film officially wrapped on October 27, 1986. However, Vestron executives thought the movie would flop. During the test screening, 39 percent of viewers had no clue that there was a subplot about Penny’s (Cynthia Rhodes) terminated pregnancy.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

After the testing, distributors were considering sending it straight to home video. However, the repeat viewings (and enthusiastic response) to the movie’s August 21, 1987 release made it an instant hit.

The film earned $64 million in North America and $170 million worldwide. The year after its release, the film won an Oscar for Best Original Song, (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life, and broke the record for being the most popular home video rental of the year.


The First Person Cast in the Film Was Cynthia Rhodes

Cynthia Rhodes was hired to play Penny before any of the other characters were cast. Rhodes was building up her resume as an actress at the time, appearing in films such as Flashdance, and Staying Alive with John Travolta. Dirty Dancing, was the film that slingshotted her career forward.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

The only issue that the director and producers had with Rhodes was her beauty. During the scene where Penny was supposed to be in excruciating pain, Rhodes’ performance wasn’t convincing enough because she still looked “too beautiful.” (Imagine having that problem.)

Stylists had to cover her in makeup to make her look bland and sweaty. She rode out the high of her career by joining Los Angeles pop group Animotion as their lead singer and stayed with them until 1990.

The Film Was Largely Based on Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s Experiences

The screenwriter of the film, Eleanor Bergstein, based the movie on her experiences during the 1960s. Her family was originally from Brooklyn, and her father was a doctor. Like Baby, Bergstein and her family visited the Catskills every summer where she would get into different shenanigans like Baby and her sister do in the film.

It was during their trips to the Catskills that Bergstein earned the nickname “Baby” which stuck with her until her twenties.

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Image via Vestron Pictures

Where did the dancing portion stem from? Bergstein had an experience with a dance instructor who was way older than she was.

We love a good scandal, especially when it inspires an incredible movie!

Dirty Dancing Wasn’t the First Movie Swayze and Grey Did Together

The first movie that the two actors starred in together was the 1984 film Red Dawn. Rumor has it that this is where the tension in their relationship began. Perhaps that’s why producers were hesitant to cast Swayze opposite Grey in the movie.

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Image via MGM/UA Entertainment Company

Regardless, the pair were able to look past their differences (sort of) long enough to make a classic, culturally seminal movie. Years after the film, Grey admitted to The Hollywood Reporter, that “…his fearlessness with my fearfulness…together was like a marriage where you have two opposites. He’d do anything, and I’d be scared to do anything.”

Excuse us… WE JUST NEED A MOMENT ALONE.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey Didn’t Exactly Get Along

It may be disappointing to hear, but the two actors didn’t exactly have a natural connection on set. It’s rumored that although the pair shared undeniable chemistry on film (that’s good acting!), they would get into arguments before the cameras started rolling.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

In Swayze’s autobiography, he recalled: “We did have a few moments of friction when we were tired after a long day of shooting. She seemed particularly emotional, sometimes bursting into tears if someone criticized her. Other times, she slipped into silly moods, forcing us to do scenes over and over again when she’d start laughing.”

However, we refuse to accept this little tidbit because Johnny + Baby = Forever.

Swayze Said the Film Endured Because of Its Heart

During an interview with AFI, Swayze felt he had a pretty good idea as to why the film has endured with audiences for so long.

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Image via Vestron Pictures

He said: “It’s got so much heart, to me. It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves, this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things. On a certain level, it’s really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because [of] what she’s got in her heart.”

We’re not crying…you are.

Penny’s Pregnancy in the Movie Was A HUGE Deal

Many brands caught on quite early that the film would be a big hit with young people. The famous acne skin-care company Clearasil initially wanted to join as a promotional sponsor, but they pulled out.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

In the 1960s, when Dirty Dancing takes place, terminating a pregnancy was illegal in the U.S., and because of Penny’s subplot in the film, Clearasil decided to back out.

Producers begged screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein to take out the storyline, but she refused, saying, “Hey I would love to, but I can’t, because if I take it out, everything will fall apart. There’s no reason for Baby to meet Johnny, for Penny not to be able to dance, for Baby to learn to dance with Johnny, for her to make love with Johnny – there’s no story without that.”


After the First Film’s Success, Studios Wanted to Pay Big Money for a Sequel

After the first film’s success, studios wanted to cash in on a sequel immediately. Swayze was offered big money —$6 million, to be exact — to return for the sequel as Johnny. Swayze, who wasn’t a fan of doing sequels, declined.

Swayze knew that they wouldn’t be able to reprise the magic of the first film, and fans applauded him for his decision.

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Image via Lions Gate Films

Studios ended up doing a second film anyway, called Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and it (obviously) didn’t compare to the original. Billed as a “re-imagining” of the original, the film released in 2004, a full 17 years later. The only thing the two films had in common were the words Dirty Dancing in the title.


Filming Was a 24/7 Party

During the lodge staff’s dancing scenes, the goal was to create a realistic party setting. To make that happen, director Emile Ardolino pretty much threw a party every day. Dance rehearsals often turned into disco parties, and the cast would have drinks and dance around to let loose.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

This tactic ended up being an excellent way for the actors to get to know each other and  create a more relaxed atmosphere. It also led to a lot of improvising by the cast while the cameras were rolling, which was encouraged.


The Role of Stan Was Wayne Knight’s Big Break

Watching the film today, you might be surprised to see a big-time actor like Wayne Knight playing such a small role. Well, when Knight received the part, he had only done a few minor television and commercial roles. It was after his portrayal of a hilarious comedian who performed in the lodge talent show that his career blew up.

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Image via Vestron Pictures

He went on to star in other films such as Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Basic Instinct. After seeing his role in Basic Instinct, Steven Spielberg cast him in Jurassic Park.

He would go on to land the recurring role of mailman Newman on Seinfeld.


The Cast and Crew Believed the Set Was Cursed

When everyone finally buckled down and filming began, there was a sudden halt to production. On the sixth day, things started going haywire. In just a short period, some of the crew’s property was stolen. There was flooding on the streets surrounding the set, and one of the vans was destroyed. One of the set decorators fell off a ladder and hurt himself. The second assistant director broke her wrist, and the wardrobe assistant broke her toe. Then, three of the crew members wound up with food poisoning.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

A month before the end of the shoot, the lead makeup artist quit and went home for personal reasons. That same day, a wasp infestation was discovered, and Jennifer Grey’s arms were covered in stings.

By the time filming was complete, one producer was so dissatisfied with the footage that he suggested they should “burn the negatives and collect the insurance.”

Mountain Lake Lodge Still Has ‘Dirty Dancing’ Weekends

If you want to experience the setting of Dirty Dancing first-hand, then you can stay in the Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia. Not only can you stay there, but the resort also hosts three Dirty Dancing-themed weekends every year.

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

During these weekends, you can take dance lessons, enjoy a walking tour of the grounds, participate in a Dirty Dancing-themed scavenger hunt, and play trivia games.

Heidi Stone, the hotel’s manager, says, “It’s amazing how many thousands of Dirty Dancing fans we meet every summer. We have guests from all over the world that come to Mountain Lake Lodge just for the Dirty Dancing weekends.”


‘She’s Like the Wind’ Wasn’t Made for the Film

The soundtrack for the film was a hit, and people fell in love with the dramatic ballad “She’s Like The Wind,” that plays during Johnny and Baby’s goodbye scene.

The song was originally written by Patrick Swayze and Stacy Widelitz for the movie Grandview U.S.A, about Swayze’s relationship with Jamie Lee Curtis’s character, but it was dropped.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

As a last resort, Swayze showed it to the Dirty Dancing producers who immediately fell in love with the tune and wanted it in the movie.

Had the song not been picked up by producers, Swayze would have let the song sit and waste away.


Kelly Bishop Got the Role of Baby’s Mom by Chance

Kelly Bishop may have looked like she was made for the role of Baby’s mom, but that wasn’t the role she was given originally. She had initially been cast as Vivian Pressman, the cougar who seduces Johnny during their “dance lessons,” while the role of Mrs. Houseman was given to Lynne Lipton.

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Image via Netflix

The role was given to Bishop after Lipton caused scheduling problems due to an illness that forced her to leave the set regularly. When Bishop took the part of Mrs. Houseman, the role of Vivian was given to assistant choreographer, Miranda Garrison. After the film, Kelly Bishop was cast as Emily Gilmore on Gilmore Girls.


Patrick Swayze Did All His Own Stunts

Ok, so Dirty Dancing wasn’t a film full of blazing gunfire and insane stunts. Nevertheless, Swayze was adamant about doing all his scenes on his own.

In the scene where Johnny and Baby dance on the log over the river, Swayze kept falling off. Apparently, he hit his already-injured knee a few times, causing even more damage.

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Image via Vestron Pictures

He had to have the fluid drained from his knee to reduce the swelling and avoid a bigger problem. Seeing as he was already suffering from a knee problem beforehand, the situation had to be handled with the utmost delicacy.
Regardless, knowing that Swayze did everything on his own makes the movie even more iconic.

Bill Medley Thought He Was Hired to Make a Song for a “Bad Porno”

Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes were the voices behind the famous song, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” but at first, Medley was confused about what the song was for. Medley quipped, “It sounds like a bad porno movie.” He rejected the song because his wife was expecting a child.

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Image via Vestron Pictures

It took months of convincing to get Medley to do the song. After finishing, he didn’t think that the movie would be popular.“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. Just unbelievable,” he later reflected.

The song wound up selling more than 500,000 copies.

There Are Many References to the Film in Today’s Pop Culture

The final lift scene has become iconic over the years and has made plenty of appearances in pop culture.

In the 2012 movie Crazy, Stupid, Love with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the two actors reference the movie and give the lift a go. During the scene, Gosling admits to Stone’s character that he gets women to do the move with him as a ploy to get them into bed.

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Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Jennifer Grey admitted when she saw the film that she was totally shocked. She told Yahoo!: “I’m just such a fan of Ryan Gosling and all of a sudden he’s saying my name [in the movie]. I’m just in the theater with my husband, and I look at him like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Gosling just said my name. What’s going on?’”


On ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,’ Medley and Warner Represent Older Versions of Johnny and Baby

Bill Medley told Rolling Stone,: “I’m kind of supposed to be Swayze on the record, and Jennifer’s voice kind of fit Jennifer Grey’s character.” The two singers wanted to connect with the characters as much as possible, so they recorded the song with footage from the film rolling in the studio.

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Image via Vestron Pictures

Medley recalls: “We sang to each other and to the movie. 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.”


The Film Reflected Eleanor Bergstein’s Jewish Upbringing

Kellerman’s Resort may have been a fictional place, but it was based on a real resort. The concept of Kellerman’s was based on the Borscht Belt — a number of vacation resorts in the Catskill Mountains that once attracted a lot of Jewish Americans.

Jewish American families would come and visit these resorts for the summer between 1920 and 1980, Bergstein’s family included.

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

There have been a handful of famous A-listers who started their careers performing at these resorts, including Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.

Bergstein even pointed out to TabletMag.com, “It’s a Jewish film, if you know what you’re looking at.” Many of the resorts have since closed their doors and no longer exist.


Johnny Was Originally Supposed to Be Italian

We can’t think of Johnny Castle being any other way than how Swayze embodied him, but producers originally had a different idea when it came to the famous bad boy.

In the original script, Johnny Castle was an Italian dancer who had a “dark, exotic look.” This is probably why Billy Zane was the original choice for the role.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

The issue with Billy Zane was that he was lacking in the dance department. The producers’ saving grace was finding Swayze, who had an extensive background in dancing on Broadway.

The only problem? He didn’t look Italian! Producers decided to change Johnny Castle’s heritage to Irish.


The Characters Were Based on Real People

It’s already been mentioned that Baby was based on Bergstein’s experiences growing up, but other characters were also based on real people from Bergstein’s childhood.

Although many of the characters were inspired by people from her summers in the Catskills, she couldn’t contact them for help. She has mentioned, “My old partners are either in jail or out on parole….it was a very rough neighborhood.”

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Image via Great American Films Limited Partnership/Vestron Pictures

When Bergstein began researching for the film, she met dance instructor Michael Terrace in the Catskills, who was the basis of Johnny Castle’s character. It sounds like Dirty Dancing is basically a biography about Bergstein’s life!

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