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One of the biggest hits of the summer of 1985 was the gentle fantasy Cocoon, a film that proved a challenge to make because of its mix of so many opposing ingredients. The movie blends genres (comedy, drama and sci-fi); various storytelling methods (equal parts visual effects and ensemble acting, as well as multiple plot threads with no central character); and even wide-ranging ages of its key creative artists. Three of the leading players, for instance, are old pros Don Ameche (age 77), Hume Cronyn (74) and Jessica Tandy (76). Joining them are younger veterans Maureen Stapleton (60), Gwen Verdon (60) and Wilford Brimley (51), and directing them all is Ron Howard, a mere 31.
The story concerns members of a Florida retirement home who discover a fountain of youth thanks to a swimming pool, some strange pods (cocoons) therein, and the efforts of extraterrestrial aliens in the form of neatly dressed tourists. The aliens have been collecting the cocoons and storing them in a swimming pool used by three elderly men from the retirement home for their daily swims. The cocoons cause the water to have a rejuvenating effect, and the men suddenly find their youthful strength, vigor, and passion flowing back into their bodies. Naturally, their fellow retirees and spouses soon want the same, and questions of life, death and even departing Earth eventually come into play.
Tom Benedek's screenplay was based on David Saperstein's unpublished novel, which had been floating around the Fox studio since 1980, stymied by continual changes in studio administration. Originally Robert Zemeckis was to direct, but when his Romancing the Stone (1984) ran into delays, he had to pull out, and Ron Howard, fresh off Splash (1984), replaced him. The film was shot in St. Petersburg, Fla., over three months on an $18 million budget; it earned $76 million in domestic box-office receipts alone.
And chief among the reasons for the success was Don Ameche, beloved leading man of 1930s and '40s classics like Midnight (1939) and Heaven Can Wait (1943). Though Ameche had never really stopped working, his career had fallen into the doldrums in recent decades, until his inspired casting in the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places (1983). That film ushered Ameche into a remarkable final act of his career, a resuscitation that once again made him a bankable movie star as he reached age 80 and beyond. Cocoon cemented this comeback, although, remarkably, Ameche wasn't even the first choice for the part -- he replaced Buddy Ebsen. Still, Ameche made such an impression in Cocoon that Playboy Magazine named him, in 1985, one of America's ten sexiest men.
On location in Florida, Ameche took a four-mile walk on the beach every morning before filming. He later reflected on the modern moviemaking process: "There are no sustained scenes in this picture," he said. "They're all short. Maybe one or two longer scenes in the whole picture. Vignettes everywhere. Which is probably good for today's picture making. They want to keep things moving. It's different from the old days."
In one sequence, Ameche's character breakdances in a nightclub. Ameche later admitted he had "never seen breakdancing prior to this film. I didn't know what it was." He rehearsed with a 19-year-old dancer for four weeks, but most of the final dancing was performed by a stunt double.
Other stunts, like the diving and flipping into pools, were in fact done by Ameche and his fellow veteran actors. Director Ron Howard had been planning to use stuntmen, but the cast insisted on doing it themselves. "They really taught me that you can't generalize about what people can, or cannot, do because of age," Howard recalled.
Howard, too, had to prove to his cast that he could handle the many facets of this movie, and he gained their approval with flying colors. Maureen Stapleton said at the time, "[Ron] seems like he's been doing it for years. He has common sense, and you trust a man with common sense." And Ameche said, "Ron is so professional that I never stopped to consider his age."
Howard has called Cocoon one of his favorites of his own films, and he said that he developed a lot as a director while making it. The actors all had different methods, for instance, forcing Howard to reconcile the performances into a unified whole. "Wilford Brimley," Howard said, "is a brilliant improvisational actor, but subscribes to no film technique at all. As a matter of fact, he sort of militantly refuses to embrace anything remotely like film technique because he thinks it makes his performance phony and false... Don Ameche, on the other hand, is really old school. Hit the marks, say the lines that have been written, and go home. Trust the director and do the day's work. Hume Cronyn is highly disciplined. Jack Gilford was an old song and dance man. Everybody had a different approach. Yet it was important to find cohesiveness. As a young director it was a real challenge."
Howard also learned to "talk to [the special effects artists] like actors, talk to them like creative collaborators, and they could do extraordinary things."
In addition to striking box-office gold, Cocoon got good reviews from critics, with Variety calling it a "mesmerizing tale... perfectly focused," and The New York Times declaring, "Mr. Howard brings a real sweetness to his subject. The older players are the film's greatest asset... The cast functions as a graceful ensemble, with a warmheartedness that seems genuine without getting out of hand."
In early 1986, Cocoon was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Supporting Actor (Don Ameche) and Best Visual Effects. It won both. After Ameche won his Oscar®, he received a congratulatory phone call from Irving Berlin, whose association with Ameche dated back to Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), 47 years earlier.
Some final notes on the cast:
This was the sixth of nine movies to feature real-life husband-and-wife actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, dating back to The Seventh Cross (1944) and Blonde Fever (1944). They also acted together in numerous television shows.
Tahnee Welch, daughter of Raquel Welch, makes her debut as an alien named Kitty.
And Tyrone Power, Jr., whose father and Ameche were good friends, appears briefly in the role of Pillsbury.
by Jeremy Arnold
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Ben Ohmart, Don Ameche: The Kenosha Comeback Kid