Disney might be an unstoppable media empire today, but back in the 1980s it still wasn't a major Hollywood player. Back then the studio was known primarily for its children's fare. Disney Studios had a well-earned reputation after more than four decades of popular animated movies beginning with 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
Fast-forward to the early 1980s when the film industry was booming thanks to VHS rentals and cable television. Disney Studios wanted in on the action but knew they would have a hard time breaking from the kids-only stigma. Their solution came in the form of Touchstone Films. Utilizing what is known as market segmentation, Disney launched a separate arm of the company, Touchstone Films (later renamed Touchstone Pictures), to produce more mature, live-action content. The first film produced under the Touchstone umbrella was "Splash" in 1984.
"Splash" is literally a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy. The movie stars Daryl Hannah as a mermaid who falls in love with a New York human and attempts to acclimate to life outside of the ocean. Tom Hanks would star opposite Hannah as her love interest. The movie is rated PG and has brief nudity, mild profanity, and sexual innuendo. In other words, something unfathomable for Disney at the time — but not for Touchstone.
The film was a hit and Touchstone would grow quickly. But it begs the question, how did a relatively unknown Tom Hanks land the starring role? If you ask him, it's because at the time no one else wanted to work for Disney.
Disney's Studio Looked Like 'A Greyhound Bus Station'
Long before Tom Hanks became a megastar, he cut his teeth in television. In 1982 he made a guest appearance on the ABC sitcom "Happy Days." In an interview with Andy Cohen Hanks joked, "I'm legendarily the first guy to strike Fonzie. I kicked him through the stained glass window of Al's drive-in."
Coincidentally, the writers of that episode also wrote the screenplay for "Splash." And burgeoning young director and former "Happy Days" star Ron Howard was slated to direct Touchstone's first film. There was just one problem — they couldn't find anyone to star in it. Hanks said:
"It was at Disney. No one wanted to work for Disney and no one would take the job … I remember going over to the Disney Studios and it had not been refurbished. They had built it in like 1958 and it hadn't changed a wit. It looked like a Greyhound bus station in Selma, Alabama."
Despite the shabby studio space, Hanks was interested in working with the "Happy Days" writers and Howard. However, he had no idea he was being considered for the lead. "I went in for a couple of auditions thinking I was auditioning for the wisecracking brother or something like that." Hollywood's lack of interest proved to be Hanks' gain. The actor scored his first starring film role, and the role of wisecracking brother would go to John Candy.
Once Hanks was cast, he went to work right away helping Howard snag the film's other top star, Daryl Hannah. It seems that even when people did want to work for them, Disney tried to screw it up.
Disney Didn't Want Daryl Hannah
After Tom Hanks secured the lead in "Splash" he started to see firsthand why no one wanted to work for Disney. Despite Daryl Hannah's recent success, director Ron Howard was struggling to convince the studio that she should star as the film's mermaid. Hanks said:
"I knew who Daryl Hannah was, she'd already been in 'Blade Runner' and she'd already been in a couple of really great movies, she was already quite formidable. For some reason the geniuses that ran Disney at that time were saying, 'Oh we don't know, you know, is she funny, blah blah blah.'"
Howard asked Hanks to come in for a screen test with Hannah to prove to Disney that she was right for the part. Hanks, still new to the film industry, had a funny question for Howard. "I don't know what that means," Hanks admitted to Howard. "Is it possible that I help you do this screen test and Daryl gets the job and I get fired?"
The screen test worked, Hannah was eventually cast opposite Hanks, and the film went on to gross nearly $70 million according to Box Office Mojo. It was a huge success for Disney in its attempt to diverge from youth-oriented content and would soon have no problems finding people to work with them. "Splash" also made our list of top Tom Hanks films. The actor would star in two more Touchstone films, "Turner & Hooch" and "The Ladykillers."
Touchstone remained as a division of Disney until 2017 and released massive hits such as "Pretty Woman" and "Armageddon." For a trip down memory lane, I recommend the Out of Touchstone podcast. The show's hosts work in the movie industry and offer deep dives into Touchstone Pictures releases through the years.
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