Masters of the Universe Turns 30: Tales from the Set of the He-Man Movie
From Eternia to Earth, Masters of the Universe Turns 30
On Aug. 7, 1987, the live-action He-Man movie Masters of the Universe arrived in theaters, becoming one of the first toy-to-movie adaptations to hit the big screen. While there was already a popular animated series on TV, the film starring Dolph Lundgren as the powerful warrior was based primarily on the popular Mattel action figures. Along with Gwildor, Teela, and Duncan (a.k.a. Man-at-Arms), He-Man finds himself on Earth searching for a cosmic key, which ends up in the hands of two teens (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill). At the same time, he and his team battle the evil Skeletor (Frank Langella) for control of Castle Greyskull, which the villain has infiltrated.
As the movie turns 30 years old, director Gary Goddard transports EW back in time with his memories of the movie’s production and cast.
Gary Goddard lands his first movie
"I was brought on as director based on my strength of having written and directed and designed The Adventure of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular at Universal Studios," Gary Goddard tells EW of his feature film directorial debut. "[Producer] Ed Pressman had seen that and he already had a script for the He-Man film by Dave Odell, and he already had a star, Dolph Lundgren." So Goddard called up Pressman to make the case for taking the reins. "'You understand this material, you understand the genre, I think it's great, but I have one issue: Mattel has approval rights on both the star and the director,'" the producer told him. But it actually wasn't an issue; Goddard already had a working relationship with the toy company. "He called Mattel and he was totally shocked that there was that connection, and he said, 'You're right, they've approved you. You're the director. Let's go.'"
Frank Langella is the sinister Skeletor
“I had admired Frank Langella’s work not only in films, but I had seen him on Broadway in Amadeus. If you think about the character in Amadeus, of the antagonist, he’s got all the traits of Skeletor — he’s selfish, he’s greedy, but sees himself as having a noble purpose, and I wanted that in the movie,” Goddard explains. Confident that Langella’s talents and menacing performance would radiate from behind the extensive facial prosthetics and mask he would have to wear, Goddard promised the actor at their first meeting that Skeletor would have “more depth” than what was in the script and that he’d “be the spine of the film.” Langella, who was somewhat aware of the universe because of his young son’s own He-Man fandom, was in. “I think Frank’s performance as Skeletor is one of the all-time great cinematic villains, and he didn’t get credit for it before, but in the last five or six years online, he’s been getting a lot of credit for it. I think adults who were kids who saw that picture are now giving credibility to that performance," says Goddard
Goddard and Langella on set
“I attempted to dedicate this movie to [famed comic book artist and writer] Jack Kirby because I knew Jack Kirby when I was young and he moved to California to Newbury Park and he had given me a few lessons along the way about characters and stuff, and he said, ‘You have to make sure that your villain is always more powerful than the hero.’ Sounds like a simple thing [but] honestly, it’s not always that simple, if you watch a lot of movies,” Goddard says of his inspiration. “So I wanted to make sure Skeletor was the stronger power. Otherwise, what Jack said: if the villain’s not strong enough, the hero is not really a hero — the hero has to overcome overwhelming forces. So I wanted an actor who could really give that and also give him a little bit of a sense of nobility. My idea of the noble villain is basically Jack Kirby’s villains: Magneto, Doctor Doom, all these kind of classic guys.”
He-Man suits up
“The biggest issue was He-Man and his costume. [Mattel] wanted him to be just like the toy and I said, ‘If we make it just like the toy, it’s going to look like a grown, almost-naked guy running around,’” Goddard recalls, laughing. “So eventually we did a bunch of versions and [production designer Bill Stout] added the straps and then we added that big red cape, which I think helped a lot, and brought his boots up to knee-high. By the time we were done, it was pretty good, it was a costume. It still had the big chest and everything that Mattel wanted, but I think we must’ve done 15 or 20 different designs of He-Man before we got the approval.”
Goddard finds his Earth-dwelling cast in Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill
“We saw a lot of people. I was looking for fresh faces and somebody who you could believe and identify with, and also that they would be believable in this kind of crazy thing that happens to them,” Goddard says of his search for the right actors to play high school couple Julie and Kevin. Enter Courteney Cox, whom Masters casting director Victoria Thomas knew from the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”
While Goddard found Cox to be “very nice” at her audition, he was thrown by her appearance. “She decided, pretty typically, to have all the makeup on, she was dressed to the nines, and she looked very chic and pretty and older than her years, in a way. So we had a conversation, she left, and I said, ‘I don’t think so, Vickie,’” he recalls. Thomas wanted to give her one more shot, directing Cox to come back the next day wearing no makeup, a more casual wardrobe, and to “just be yourself.” It worked. “She came in the next day, like that, we talked for 20 or 30 minutes, we read again, and I said, ‘You’re right. She’s it.’”
Robert Duncan McNeill (Kevin) and Courteney Cox (Julie) find an object from another universe
“I cast against [Courteney] for [Kevin]. I didn’t want a wise-cracking, smart ass guy. I wanted someone who was a good romantic lead and who had a vulnerability about him," Goddard explains. "Robert Duncan McNeill, I think, brought that to it. He came in, and I had one other actor, but we went with him because when you paired him with Courteney — the other one was also dark-haired and he brought different parts to it — ultimately they made a better couple.”
Big hero...small budget
Masters was one of the first big toy-to-movie adaptations — “There were a few others out but they were very tongue-in-cheek and they didn’t really make it, and I didn’t want to make that kind of movie,” Goddard says — but the director still didn’t have the money to spend like some other movies set in a galaxy far, far away. Working with a budget that was less than half of the reported $32-42 million budget for 1983's Return of the Jedi, Goddard had just $17 million. One idea for stretching his resources meant setting a third of the movie in Castle Greyskull’s throne room.
“We opened the doors between two sound stages and built that set through both. One day, [Breakfast at Tiffany's and Pink Panther franchise director] Blake Edwards was walking by — we were on the Culver City lot and his offices were there — and the doors were open on the stages to let the paint dry, and he walks by, he looks in and kind of lifts up these dark sunglasses and he says, ‘I haven’t seen a set like this since 1940.’ [Laughs] I took that as a compliment,” Goddard recalls.
A throne room fit for a king...of pop
Blake wasn’t He-Man’s only famous visitor. “Michael Jackson was shooting ‘Smooth Criminal’ on the Culver City lot on the stage next door…I’m there on set with the DP talking about what we’re going to be doing on Monday and I see this guy with a thing around his face like a mask, and he’s peeking in,” Goddard shares. Inviting him to check out the set, Jackson, who was worried about imposing, “thought it was amazing” and returned the favor, inviting Goddard to check out the filming of his music video. “I watched about an hour’s worth of shooting on that, which was very cool.”
The key to unlocking the movie
Skeletor infiltrated Castle Greyskull thanks to a key made by locksmith and inventor Gwildor. But this spinning, musical device wasn’t your typical prop. “I had a very clear vision of what I wanted,” Goddard says. “I described it to the effects guys: a cylinder with keys, and I want this thing to kind of open up like a lotus blossom, and these other things go out and they should be spinning…in the center, these tall pitchforks should be going the other way. The mechanical engineer was like, ‘You want these to go this way, this to go that way, this turns that, and these have to turn that’ — and I said yeah — ‘Well, that’s going to be challenging.’ But he did it! It’s really amazing. If you really analyze how many things are moving on that, it’s pretty amazing.”
Less is more
“Originally Mattel wanted to have 26 of the characters [from the toy line]. I basically [said to them], ‘Look, guys, look at Wizard of Oz, look at Star Wars — we can only afford to follow about seven people and my model for this movie is the Yellow Brick Road. He-Man lands, he finds these teenagers, they have to find [the cosmic key] and they go on this journey. We can handle He-Man, Man-at-Arms, Teela, Gwildor, and our teenagers. And that’s about it,” Goddard explains. “On the other side we have Skeletor, his No. 1 henchwoman Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster), and then she’s got her mercenaries, and that’s about all we can do. We’re not on Eternia, so we can’t have all these characters coming in and out. And if we try to do that, we’re going to fail, we don’t have the budget…and it’s going to look like a toy commercial. I don’t think it’s going to go down well with the audience.’ They got it. They understood.”
One of the movie’s most repeated lines wasn’t even in the script. When He-Man & co. arrive on Earth from Eternia and are about to split up to find the cosmic key, they needed their own version of “goodbye,” as Goddard thought that sounded like they “were all Americans.” But he found exactly what he was looking for thanks to an inspirational quote. “I have always liked the phrase ‘Life’s a journey, not a destination’ — ever since the time I was in high school, I’ve always kept that phrase — so I said, 'Try "Good journey."' They said it and it worked.”
If "goodbye" wasn’t right, neither was a simple wave of the hand or other sendoff expression. “When we were on the set a few weeks later for that scene in costume, I said we needed something like a handshake. So I tried that fingers-to-lips-to-heart; Chelsea [Fields] did it really well.…So that whole gesture and ‘good journey’ came from trying to find something that was what they would say when they were parting, and it came from ‘Life’s a journey, not a destination.’”