I saw THE BLACK HOLE on the big screen in December of 1979 with high hopes that we would get Walt Disney’s ultimate answer to STAR WARS. I was 11 years old. What I remember seeing, however — after what seemed like five minutes of “Where’s the movie?” during John Barry’s wonderfully bombastic overture — was a mish-mash of STAR WARS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, retro-Sci-Fi that felt stuck in the ’50s, over-compensating cutesy robots, and a surprisingly Gothic horror vibe in a haunted-mansion style spaceship, all capped with the trippiest, most confusing ending I had ever seen.
I walked out of that theater confused. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. It was just — there. And for four decades, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
As the years went by and many people slammed THE BLACK HOLE as being terrible, I grew to love it. I felt the need to champion it. I look back at the film’s swirling title maelstrom, colorful palette, and kid-friendly marketing (books, records, puzzles, bedsheets, lunch boxes, cereal prizes, action figures, etc.) with genuine nostalgia.
So imagine the joy and sense of honor it was for me to be able to chat at length with THE BLACK HOLE director Gary Nelson along with the film’s stars, Joseph Bottoms and the now-late, great Robert Forster, to get some brand-new tales and insights on the occasion of the film’s 40th anniversary for The Hollywood Reporter.
What. A. Thrill. Read my piece below.
“We Never Had an Ending:” How Disney’s ‘Black Hole’ Tried to Match ‘Star Wars’
By David Weiner
Forty years later, director Gary Nelson, along with actors Joseph Bottoms and the late Robert Forster, look back at the big-budget space adventure: “Expectations were so high.”
“A journey that begins where everything ends…” That was the tagline on the poster for The Black Hole, Disney’s $20 million sci-fi gamble in the post-Star Wars game, essentially spelling out its reality in the marketplace in 1979.
With its starfield setting, stormtrooper-like sentries, swashbuckling laser battles and high-end special effects work — not to mention saturated merchandising by the Disney machine — The Black Hole was clearly a response to the 1977 George Lucas juggernaut and was destined for direct comparisons when it arrived in theaters two-and-a-half years later.
Moreover, the film was Disney’s challenge to demonstrate that it could compete with a new breed of technically proficient blockbuster entertainment, despite operating more with old-school techniques and resources.
What the Mouse House ultimately delivered, however, was more akin to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in outer space with throwback trappings: an uneven mix of Gothic drama, kiddie adventure, clunky dialogue and characters, cool-but-derivative robot designs and retro-styled rockets amid a very colorful palette, a wonderfully moody John Barry score, and spectacular visuals thanks to signature animation techniques and ingenious, matte-based special effects.
And despite the studio’s efforts to eschew its traditional branding with an edgier film that would also appeal to a more mature audience (it was the first-ever Disney film to flaunt a PG rating), it still resonated as good old-fashioned Walt Disney entertainment — albeit with a serious atmosphere of dread and darkness and topped with an unexpectedly mind-blowing, off-the-rails ending.
“We deliberately went after the PG rating, just to get away from the G rating,” director Gary Nelson told The Hollywood Reporter. “At first we didn’t know exactly what would make it PG. So we decided that we would say that it was ‘too intense for younger audiences.’ Plus, ‘damns’ and ‘hells’ never appeared in Disney films until The Black Hole.”
“It’s a little more of an adult kind of movie,” said Robert Forster, who played one of the film’s heroes, Captain Dan Holland. “It splits the difference, I’m sure.”
“It was my idea to remove the Disney logo for the picture and use Buena Vista Productions,” Nelson said. “Up to that point, all Disney films were sort of directed for a younger audience, and I didn’t want older people — anybody over 18 — to stay away from the theater if they thought it was just a typical Disney film.”
That was Ron Miller’s sentiment and directive. The producer of the film and president of the studio (who also happened to be the son-in-law of Walt Disney) was angling to broaden the appeal of Disney movies, make them less predictable and usher the studio into a new direction that would include more innovative filmmaking (such as the computer graphics-driven TRON in ’82), the creation of The Disney Channel and the establishment of more mature fare under its Touchstone Pictures banner, starting with Ron Howard’s Splash in 1984.
Initially positioned as an Irwin Allen-style disaster movie in space called Space Station One from writers Bob Barbash and Richard Landau, The Black Hole went through years of development with a variety of different creatives, dating back to February of 1974.
“They never could get a handle on it,” recalled Nelson. “It got kicked around, and they went through a series of writings and rewrites and they gave up on it. And then when there was such great interest in Star Wars, they brought it back out and looked at it.”
Nelson was a Disney director in good standing, having helmed Freaky Friday and The Boy Who Talked to Badgers atop a solid career in episodic series television. The journeyman director had worked on a miniseries, Westerns, cop shows and comedies, including Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart and F Troop. Miller approached the veteran director to take a crack at creating the studio’s first PG film, and Nelson immediately passed on it. “It’s not for me. I don’t like it. It’s not very good,” he said. But Miller was persistent.
“He said, ‘Would you like to meet with Peter Ellenshaw, our production designer and head of the matte department? He’s done some renderings of some of the spaceships and things like that,’” said Nelson. “I met with Peter, and he took me up to his office and showed me these incredible paintings that he had done for the movie, and I fell in love with them. And I said, ‘Well shit, if this is what it’s going to be like, count me in.’”
First thing first, Nelson took a hatchet to the script, which had been re-titled Space Probe One. “It was a similar kind of a thing about a spacecraft that had been captured out in space and was hanging around a black hole, but on board were all the typical Disney characters, the families — it was like a city up there, and they were all in danger of being destroyed by the black hole and they had to be rescued. And I thought, ‘What is all this bullshit?’ So we threw all that out.”
The final screenplay by Gerry Day and Jeb Rosebrook, re-titled The Black Hole, cut the excessive characters and zeroed in on the crew of the deep-space craft U.S.S. Palomino (casting Forster as Captain Holland; Joseph Bottoms as Lt. Charlie Pizer; Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae; Ernest Borgnine as journalist Harry Booth; Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant; and the voice of Roddy McDowall as the helpful robot V.I.N.CENT). The craft stumbles upon a huge ghost ship balancing precariously on the rim of a massive, swirling black hole: The Cygnus, believed to be lost in space. Occupied by drone workers and a robot sentry army, including the menacing, red guard robot Maximilian, the Cygnus is captained by the mysterious and unpredictable Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), who intends to fly his ship directly into the mouth of the maelstrom.
“The only person that I could really feel would be right for the part of Reinhardt was Maximilian Schell, and Ron Miller agreed,” said Nelson. “He was so imposing. Good looking. Dark. Magnetic.”
“Maximilian Schell, man, that was a great casting decision,” said Bottoms. “I really connected with Schell. Looking at him, I thought to myself, ‘I look like him. He looks like me. There’s something about this guy.’”
Nelson’s pal Arthur Hiller warned him that Schell could be a “monster” on the set, but he was determined to land the tempestuous actor. Schell required him to trek out to Vienna, where he was directing Tales from the Vienna Woods, for a face-to-face meeting. Once Nelson arrived, Schell pulled a bait-and-switch and suggested that the production cast Jason Robards as Reinhardt instead.
“Stanley Kubrick had just told him of this miniseries he’d seen with Robards,” explained Nelson. “Schell said, ‘By the way, have you seen it? It’s called Washington: Behind Closed Doors.’ I thought he was jerking me off. I said, ‘Yes, I not only saw it, I directed it.’ And his face was the most honest shock I’ve seen on a person. You couldn’t direct him any better. And he grabbed me, threw his arms around me and gave me a great big fucking kiss on the mouth and said, ‘I will do your movie.’ And that was it.”
Nelson explained that Schell had a couple of caveats: “He wanted to bring his film with him that he just finished, and his editor, to California. And during his downtime he wanted to have use of a cutting room on the lot where he could continue to edit his movie. Which we agreed to, of course.”
Perhaps best known for his dramatic turn in Medium Cool ten years prior, Robert Forster had carved out a consistent career on both the big and small screen when his phone rang to be part of The Black Hole.
“My agent at the time called and said, ‘I’ve got a picture for you and it’s The Black Hole, and it was extraordinary — 20,000 Leagues out in space. Holy moly,” recalled Forster. “It’s some real big players in it — Ernest Borgnine was a big player, Maximilian Schell was big, Tony Perkins was big, and Yvette Mimieux was certainly very well known — and here I am. I was probably 11 or 12 when I read the Jules Verne story, and when I realized that I was going to do the space version of that, wow! You know, there are moments when you’re an actor and you get to play something extraordinary, and that was a big one.”
Bottoms, the middle child of the three Bottoms brothers (between Tim and Sam) who were making waves in the biz in the ‘70s, was in demand after appearing in the Holocaust miniseries and playing a circumnavigating sailor in The Dove, for which he earned a Golden Globe for new star of the year – actor.
“They had a list of people they were looking at, probably all the usual suspects that Disney had in their films over the years in my age group,” remembered Bottoms. “I do recall sitting with Gary and Ron at the Mouse Factory, at the executive offices upstairs, a happy, cheery place. And I thought, ‘I can do this. You guys have a commissary, right? How cool is that?’ Then I thought, ‘Oh, the fun of working on something I could share — should I ever have children, I would have made a Disney movie. And it’s science fiction. That’s awesome.’”
For the role of Kate McCrae, who shares a telepathic connection with the robot V.I.N.CENT, Nelson revealed that he initially thought of casting a pre-AlienSigourney Weaver, but said the head of the casting department countered, “Oh my god, with a name like Sigourney Weaver, we don’t want her.” So they turned to Summer of ’42 star Jennifer O’Neill. But her signature long, beautiful hair became a problem.
“We shot one day, I think it was a test or something, she was in zero gravity,” remembered Nelson. “She had this long hair down to the center of her back, she was always very proud of it — it actually made her career with hair products and everything — and I looked and I said, ‘This is not working. You have to cut your hair.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘You’re gonna have to because that’s what I want, and it’s right for the movie too.’ And so she finally agreed. And so she brought her personal hairstylist, Vidal Sassoon, to the studio.”
Nelson continued, “They went up to her dressing room and started cutting her hair one inch at the time, and having a glass of wine, then cutting another inch, and having another glass of wine. And by the time they were finished, it was pretty short and she was looped.”
“I was sitting there when it happened,” said Bottoms with a laugh. “When she agreed to get her hair cut, that’s when I remember the order went out, like, ‘Could somebody get me a glass of wine?’ They would cut more and more, and they kept bringing it up and up, and then they decided to put a little bit of color to lighten some streaks. And you can see Vidal and everyone was concerned.”
Nelson reported that after the disaster haircut session, “She got in her car to drive home, and she got into an accident on Sunset Boulevard and ended up in the hospital. So we had to recast, and we cast Yvette Mimieux the next day. So all that trauma and everything, getting her hair cut, was for naught. It was a kind of a shame.”
Bottoms speculated, “I always wondered with Jennifer, why they just didn’t say, ‘Are you opposed to a wig?’ Why did they ever put her through that?”
Of course, Mimieux, who had her own sci-fi street cred coming from George Pal’s The Time Machine two decades earlier, had to undergo the same treatment.
“Yvette Mimieux started out as a long-haired, beautiful blonde woman,” said Forster. “In space, her long hair would be flying all over the place and would not be appropriate, so she got a haircut and then she became a beautiful short-haired woman in outer space.”
Principal photography on The Black Hole started on Oct. 11, 1978 and ran until April 20 of the following year. As production got underway, there was certainly a lot of buzz around the film happening on the Disney lot in Burbank.
“It was my idea to put a DO NOT ENTER sign on the soundstage,” said Nelson. “Nobody was allowed without a pass. We had a guard there 24 hours a day. We didn’t want anybody to know what we were doing. Trying to keep it a mystery. And not leak out that maybe we didn’t really have a good movie, you know?”
“The entire show was pretty tight,” remembered Bottoms. “The AD’s had storyboard books that they’d refer to and go shot by shot. They had a plan. They needed to have that plan.”
“It was exactly 26 weeks, seven in the morning till seven at night, no variation,” said Forster. “Disney knows how to keep a schedule, and they made their picture and it came in on time. Sometimes it would only be two or three shots in a day, something big. When we were approaching the event horizon of the black hole and the ship was being torn apart, there were sometimes only one shot. We would prepare it in the morning, and then rehearse it, and then come back in the afternoon and shoot it, and maybe shoot it only two or three times. In general, we shot a small, finite number of shots in a day.”
“In many ways we were their toys, we were their props,” said Bottoms. “Know your words. Hit the mark and help out what you can. It’s a big top. It’s a three-ring circus. And it’s fun. I always enjoyed it for that.”
Forster said that the big-budget scope of the film didn’t faze him. Having held his own opposite Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and John Huston on his first picture, Reflections in a Golden Eye, it was all in a day’s work.
“You’ve got to satisfy everybody on that set,” he explained in workmanlike fashion. “Everybody is your boss. Everybody needs something from you. And when you get to hear, ‘Action!’ you get a chance to deliver your best effort at making that shot work. … Because you’re trying to build a rollercoaster track, something that will carry the audience down and up and around the curves. You owe something to everybody. And if at the end of that ride you aren’t believable, the audience won’t be with you at the end of the shot.”
“Robert was great,” added Bottoms. “We had a good camaraderie. We got along cool. I learned a lot from Robert about finessing, graciousness. He was always being a card about certain things, kind of a funny guy, a New York kind of guy. Just a joker.”
Bottoms said of working with Nelson, “As a director, I knew exactly what he was after. He was very easy-going. He was like the gunslinger that never pulled his gun. He never had to, he had people that could do it. He was great at delegating and deferring to what was going to be possible. If Gary said that’s what he’d like me to do, I was so prepared to do what he wanted done. I would just go for it.”
Of Bottoms, Nelson beamed, “He was the most fun to be around. He’s a little devil, you know? He just likes having a good time. He likes working and likes having fun. He was a bright spot every day. Just like a popcorn fart.” The director described Forster as a “consummate actor — he was quite serious about everything as I recall, but it’s good to be around.”
Forster remembered Borgnine to be “one of those really good guys,” saying, “If there was something to be done on the set, he was not the guy who would wait for somebody else do it. If there was something that needed doing he’d grab it and do it. He’d pick up a broom to push the refuse out of the way. He set an example for me.”
“Borgnine was everybody’s uncle or brother,” explained Bottoms. “He was just the most gregarious person, took great interest in everybody. He was a super social guy. He was like Hollywood royalty in a way, the longevity of career. He could be counted on.”
As for Anthony Perkins, the former Psycho star was also a bright spot among the principal cast. “I just think Tony Perkins is one of the most interesting character/leading-man type actors around,” said Nelson, who had worked with him as an assistant director on the Western The Lonely Man in the late ‘50s. “He was a delight to work with. We would have hours and hours of setups and everything and nothing to do but stand around and tell stories, and Tony had the most wonderful stories of working with Hitchcock. And he could imitate Hitchcock, his voice and his mannerisms, and he’d just have us in the aisles laughing.”
Off-camera laughs aside, the death of Perkins’ character Durant in The Black Hole is about as jarring and violent as a death could be for a Walt Disney film. On the bridge of the Cygnus, the malevolent robot Maximilian activates his blades and goes straight for the heart of Durant, who tries to block the attack with his notebook, but the blades saw right through. Shown just offscreen, the audience can only imagine the implied evisceration by Perkins’ pained facial reaction.
“It wasn’t like they had Tarantino blood splattering, flying out, organs or something,” recalled Bottoms. “But it was going to be, ‘Tony’s doing his thing,’ and I remember I wanted to watch the death scene. I could see what was going on, but they had all these flags on stands blocking so the crew couldn’t see what was happening. Nobody was allowed to see it.”
Of Durant using the book to instinctively protect himself, Nelson said, “That was an improvisational thing on the set. I loved it. I just had this visual of Tony holding this book with all the great knowledge that he needs in front of him to protect himself, and Maximilian just grinds him up.”
After the shocking moment in the film, Reinhardt goes up to McCrae and whispers, “Protect me from Maximilian.” At that point in the story, it’s not clear if he’s being truthful, bluffing, or simply insane. Nelson offered, “That was an improvisational line. I don’t think it was in the script. It’s just something that Max came up with on the spot.”
After Durant is killed and McCrae is saved from being lobotomized into a worker drone (who all turn out to be the original Cygnus crew), our heroes head back to The Palomino to make their escape. A sudden storm of orange meteors envelops the Cygnus, setting the stage for the film’s bravura special effects moment: a massive ball of fire crashing through a main corridor of the ship, barreling towards our heroes.
“All hell is breaking loose, and this meteor comes crashing through and rolls down toward the camera as they run across the suspension bridge from one side of the ship to the other,” described Nelson. “A, it was my idea, and B, it came off really well. A lot of that we shot live and a lot of was of course put in later by magic, but the shot was exactly the way I had talked about it and the way Peter and the special effects people put it all together, I was proud of that.”
The Black Hole featured more than 150 different matte paintings, an unprecedented amount for any Disney film. The department was managed by Peter Ellenshaw’s son Harrison, and the pieces were used for everything from set extensions to standing in for the sets themselves, such as the wild, celestial-body bridge of the Cygnus when it’s first revealed.
Nelson happily lauds Peter Ellenshaw for the look of the whole picture: “He’s a genius. And if I don’t give him credit, he’ll take credit himself. And it’s well deserved. All the model work, the visual effects, the design of the camera, this was all done in-house. We didn’t have anybody from the outside come in, like ILM or any of these people, and help. It was all Disney people, and they were magnificent.”
“It was the best the Magic Kingdom had to offer, and Gary had those people available to him in every regard,” said Bottoms. “Ron Miller made that promise to him, I think: ‘This is a big deal for us. You’ve got it, Gary. We want you to do this. And we want you to tell the story.’”
To develop the look of the film’s signature robot characters, Ellenshaw enlisted celebrated 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Motion Picture conceptual artist Robert McCall. But Nelson revealed, “We threw all that out. Didn’t like it at all. The design and everything just was kind of freewheeling; we had so many concepts of what they should be and what they should look like, but I was pretty much in charge of all that, so if you didn’t like it I’ll take the blame.”
Depending on who you talk to, the robots and their personalities in The Black Holeare either a uniquely memorable highlight of the film, or a cringeworthy liability — especially the floating, tub-like designs of V.I.N.CENT, with his C-3PO-like voice (McDowall) emanating from a squat R2-D2-like body, and Old B.O.B., a crushed-can version of the same robot, voiced by Slim Pickens (both in post-production; they were never working on set). Either way, one can’t argue that the robots weren’t incredibly kid-friendly.
“They decided on these fun, almost comic-book characters that had eyeballs like Mickey Mouse,” joked Bottoms. “These big, expressive eyes. But it didn’t have that charm of C-3PO.”
Getting the floating robots to defy gravity was also a creative challenge, one that the Disney crew easily tackled.
“There were so many little techniques for making it look like the little robots were weightless,” remembered Forster. “V.I.N.CENT was sometimes on a little rolling teeter totter that somebody off-camera was tipping up and down so that it looked like he was floating.”
He added of the extended downtime required to perfect these moments, “There’s always got to be patience, doesn’t matter what you’re doing, whether you’re doing a technically difficult movie or something much simpler. There’s always patience involved. And if you don’t have patience, you’d be frustrated all day long.”
A lot of wirework to sell the idea of weightlessness in space was also implemented, but the practical requirements of suspending actors came with their own sets of complications.
“When we had wires they were hard to disguise,” explained Nelson. “We would film the actors upside down so that the wires would go down to the floor rather than up to the ceiling, and that way you could disguise them a little better.”
“Getting the wires to be invisible was a technical problem, and the wires were very often painted the color of the background in order to make them seem invisible,” added Forster. “Nowadays, of course, you can just go in there and digitally erase the line. But in those days, they were on the negative. All I can remember about those harnesses were that they were uncomfortable. You feel like you’re floating, and they tell you how to steady yourself, like people who sky dive. Move your arms in a certain way, and the body in a certain way.”
Forster, Bottoms and Mimieux attended what amounted to “circus camp” for about two weeks, and Bottoms recalled training alongside his co-stars to practice their balance acumen on trapezes.
“I was up for it,” remembered Bottoms, enthusiastically. “I was very trustworthy over a concrete floor, 20 feet off the ground and higher if needed. I’d be just tumbling around between takes, ‘Whooo!’ I’m very trusting with these things.”
Bottoms also appreciated the confluence of his wire work with the production’s incredible matte designs: “I can say I’ve worked in an Ellenshaw painting. That was the greatest. I recognized the brilliance of the work of these animators and these conceptual artists, and the magic of it — brilliance that was appreciated by the likes of NASA to help us conceptualize how things will be in space, the advancement of everything that we know.”
Of the precise choreography necessary to film through the mattes, he described, “I have this memory of being up on some scaffolding on wheels so they can move it this way and that. And then what felt like 100 yards away, you see a stage light and all these men and women gathered around looking at this board that held up a sheet of glass. Gorgeous. You stood on the other side and went, ‘Wow.’ You’re looking at the inside of the ship, or a long hall, or whatever it was you wanted to create. Then, ‘Okay, Joseph, do the tumbling thing. Okay, now bring it forward. Yeah, yeah, that’s it. Careful, don’t reach out to the side, your hands disappear.”
During the film’s climax, as the Cygnus is pelted left and right by meteors, one smashes the ceiling of the agricultural section of the ship. Forster, Mimieux, Bottoms and their robot companions begin to get sucked out into space along with their sentry pursuers, a sequence that amounted to two full weeks of wind-machine madness.
“Once the glass broke and then we’re flying up into space, there was a lot of debris flying around,” recalled Bottoms. “We were lucky that nobody got hurt. A lot of people were wearing goggles except us. I remember a couple times going to the makeup department to get my eyes washed out.” He added with a laugh, “They flocked us like Christmas trees. They sprayed us to get all this white stuff on us so it looked like frost. Yeah, that was pretty trying to get that off.”
“I managed not to duck and I got whacked in the face with a piece of swinging debris,” revealed Forster of a separate scene during the film’s escape finale. “It wasn’t much of a cut, but it cut me somewhere in my eyebrow and they immediately rushed me to a doctor who sewed it up. The next thing I know I’m back on the set. It was bingo-bango, not worth much time.”
As the production moved towards its final weeks of principal photography, Nelson was also struggling with Ellenshaw and his team to figure out just how the film would end. Because when the shooting script was delivered, there was no real ending. Anyone who read the last page saw, in essence, “They go through the black hole…”
‘“That was it. They enter the black hole, end of movie,” admitted Nelson. “We never had an ending for it. I didn’t like the ending. Nobody liked the ending. We just kept shooting hoping that I would come up with an ending, or that Peter Ellenshaw would come up with an ending, or Harrison, his son. We had 125 or 130 days of shooting to think about it, so it wasn’t like we had to come up with an idea tomorrow. We filmed for quite a long time before we actually did come up with it.”
“We were all anxious to know what the ending would be,” said Forster, who didn’t even know what would happen until he sat down to watch the final cut. “The ending, of course, was contrived, or created, in post production. We filmed one more day involving a very complex shot in which the camera spun; we were in a contraption that allowed the camera to rotate. It was certainly meant to affect the black hole experience.”
What the audience ultimately experiences when they go through the black hole is a literal trip through heaven and hell: Reinhardt is sucked into space but manages to somehow climb into the shell of Maximilian, ending up on a rock formation atop cavernous depths, aflame with legions of hooded, lost-soul, skeleton-like figures; the Palomino crew spins out of control and emerges through a divine, glass tunnel punctuated by a graceful, floating angel. Yep.
“The ending turned into something like out of Fantasia,” said Bottoms. “Yeah, they went trippy.”
“Those are things that we all heard about, even as children — heaven, hell, and so forth,” posited Forster. “So it’s not Bambi. I would not be able to unfold their thinking on the subject.”
As religious and fire-and-brimstone as the original ending proved to be, another conceptually metaphysical ending was actually filmed first, but never saw the light of day.
“I pitched ideas to Peter and he would draw out visuals of what it might be like [to go through the black hole],” said Nelson, “and I had thought about one of the shots or sequences of passing through the painting on the Sistine Chapel of God reaching out to Adam, you know, with the fingers almost touching, the Michelangelo rendering.”
The production got permission from the Vatican to film at the iconic location, and Ellenshaw traveled to Rome to shoot the famed ceiling fresco and then incorporate it into the finale.
“One of the shots was on a track, and was very precise, and it goes in to Yvette’s eye,” explained Bottoms, “and they were going to start in the eye of Adam and pull back and there was going to be this shot of the Sistine Chapel and The Creation of Adam.”
But Disney ultimately got cold feet. Perhaps the hubris of the ending would turn out to be a little too much for their more righteous base.
“We were getting very close to the putting the picture to bed,” recalled Nelson. “Ron Miller and the heads of the studio didn’t want anything to be that religious, so that ended up on the cutting room floor.”
Disney’s The Black Hole arrived in theaters domestically on Dec. 21, 1979, just two weeks after the release of another major Sci-Fi epic, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That similar genre competition no doubt ate into the box-office opening of the Disney release (ironically, the Trek film was rated G), which went on to gross approximately $35 million worldwide.
“They did much better at the box office than we did, but our picture cost a little bit less than $20 million. Star Trek cost about $45 million,” observed Nelson. “So dollar for dollar we actually did better in terms of gross, because we made the picture for less money. … Expectations were so high, and yet expectations were slightly overblown. We all thought we were going to get the next Star Wars, which we didn’t. But it has done well over the years, so I can’t complain about that.”
“The Black Hole was the only job I ever say was my steady job in Hollywood,” recapped Forster. “This was the last old-school movie making of this sort. After this, it became a new age of moviemaking brought in by Star Wars.”
For all the hoopla surrounding the marketing and merchandising of The Black Hole, a sequel was never produced, and the film’s less-than-stellar performance at the box office was surely to blame. Nelson said a sequel was never once discussed during the production either.
“Several years later I would read in the trades about a Black Hole 2 or something, but it never came about,” Nelson said. “I think it was entertained, but when Disney became another entity with Michael Eisner, they went off in a different direction, and perhaps a better direction. Unless it was really an interesting concept for a second Black Hole, I don’t think anybody wanted to touch it.”
Earlier this decade, TRON Legacy director Joseph Kosinski was developing a Black Hole remake (eagle eyes will notice a Black Hole poster and V.I.N.CENT toy on a bedroom shelf in the beginning of the 2010 TRON sequel) with a darker-themed script by Jon Spaihts, but plans were scrapped once Disney purchased Lucasfilm and set their new Star Wars movies in motion.
“Technology’s come so far now that it makes us look like we were making pictures out of a candle and holding up a piece of film,” said Nelson. “We’ve advanced so far in filmmaking, in a way it’s beautiful and in a way it’s kind of tragic, because a lot of what you do is taken away from you strictly by mechanics. But I think The Black Hole holds up well. It just was a lot of work. A lot of time and a lot of effort to make a pretty good movie. Not a great movie. Not some outstanding movie. But a pretty good movie that will, no matter what, probably stick around for a long time.”
In the last week of August of 2019, I spoke with director Gary Nelson on the phone in Nevada, sat down with actor Joseph Bottoms in Glendale, and a few days later sat with actor Robert Forster at his regular table at Marco’s in West Hollywood. All three gentlemen were happy to send their regards to each other using me as a conduit, and I was happy to oblige (I hoped to speak with Yvette Mimieux too, but was unable to make contact). Like Bottoms and Nelson, Forster was incredibly charming and gracious with his time. After our interview, the veteran actor invited me to watch him perform a live reading of Airplane! for the TreePeople non-profit as his guest. I took him up on his offer and sat with his family for a night of laughter. After the performance, Forster gifted me with a silver letter opener as a token of his appreciation. “It’s just a little something I like to give to people I act with,” he told me. I was honored. After a little more chit chat, he closed with his usual salutation, “See you on the next bounce.” Five weeks later, he passed away. I had no idea he was sick with brain cancer. Few did, apparently. Practical, workmanlike, diplomatic, and happy to be present, there was a paternal feel I got from Forster. Looking back, I could sense that he was truly appreciative of what he had, what he had accomplished, and what he wanted to do with the time that he knew he had left. For the briefest of spells, Robert Forster made me feel special and welcomed into his world. And by all accounts, that was perhaps his greatest talent.