30 Timeless Secrets About Ghost That Will Lift Your Spirits

In 1990, a genre-defying romance starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg took this world (and maybe the next one, too) by storm

By Natalie Finn Jul 14, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Watch: "Ghost" Turns 30: E! News Rewind

It's easy to forget just how big of a deal Ghost was in 1990.

The genre-defying film—romance? drama? comedy? supernatural thriller? erotic pottery lesson?—floated into theaters 30 years ago, a modestly budgeted summer movie starring almost none of the actors the filmmakers originally envisioned.

And it was a raging success, one that made an Oscar winner out of Whoopi Goldberg, a huge star out of Demi Moore and a legend out of Patrick Swayze.

Not that Swayze wasn't a legend already due to several other perfectly cast roles, but it kept his streak alive.

Patrick Swayze Movie Secrets

We could go on, and probably star laughing and crying simultaneously while we're at it, but just as Ghost gets to the heart of the matter early on in its eventful two hours and seven minutes, we're going to jump right into connecting you with the beyond:

1. Ghost marked Jerry Zucker's first time directing a movie by himself instead of as a member of the ZAZ trio, comprising himself, brother David Zucker and Jim Abrahams. The three are the comedic masterminds behind spoofs like Airplane!Top Secret! and The Naked Gun, so not only was this Jerry's first solo foray behind the camera, it was a major tonal departure. Though to what, exactly, was unclear.

"It is impossible to categorize the movie [Ghost]," Zucker told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "It doesn't fit into any specific, familiar genre. I think of it as a romance and a drama with comedy and suspense. At its heart, though, the movie is not a comedy."

And he didn't mean to change course from comedy to drama, he said. Rather, "I was just looking for a good film to direct."

2. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin was appalled at the idea of the director of Airplane! turning the tender story he had drafted into Ghost!

Rubin, whose other films include Jacob's Ladder and My Life (both of which also deal in the supernatural or the possibility of it), envisioned a heavy like Stanley Kubrick or Milos Forman directing his "baby," he admitted to the LA Times. But one he met Zucker, "I fell in love with the guy. He's warm, funny and deeply philosophical. You would never expect that, from his comedies."

3. Rubin's original script was much darker, so humor was added over the course of the 19 drafts that he and Zucker went through—and they obviously settled on the right version. On Oscar night in 1991, Rubin won for Best Original Screenplay, one of Ghost's two wins out of five nominations, including Best Picture. In actuality it lost the ultimate prize to Dances With Wolves—and to Goodfellas in spirit.

4. Not being easy to pin down, genre-wise, didn't hurt Ghost in the slightest with audiences. It was made for a reported $22 million and took in almost $506 million worldwide to make it the No. 1 movie of 1990—ahead of Home AlonePretty WomanDances With Wolves and Total Recall.

5. The biggest stars in Hollywood were considered for the role of Sam Wheat, a banker who's murdered after he uncovers a money-laundering plot, just when life couldn't seem sweeter. Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Harrison FordBruce Willis, Michael J. Fox and Crocodile Dundee's Paul Hogan all passed—but that's OK, because Zucker had decided that Kevin Kline, who had just won an Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda, was the guy. They were about to get on a call with Kline, but there was just one more audition to check out...

6. Zucker didn't think Patrick Swayze could handle the role—and going to the theater to watch the Dirty Dancing star in Road House (legendary as that movie may be) only further convinced him that he was right. But when Swayze, who really wanted the part because he felt he was at risk of getting pigeonholed as an action star, read Sam's departing words to Molly during his audition, Zucker realized he had been wrong. (It was casting director Janet Hirshenson who had convinced Zucker to let the actor audition.)

"I needed to do Ghost for my soul," Swayze later said. 

7. Oprah Winfrey and Tina Turner were among the stars in the conversation to play Oda Mae Brown, the con artist who is as shocked as anybody to find out she really can communicate with the hereafter. 

8. Swayze was the one who asked if Whoopi Goldberg was in the running to play Oda Mae. As Goldberg recalled on ITV's Loose Women in 2017, the answer was no, no one had called. "And he said, 'no, no, I'm not committing to this until I talk to her and see if she wants to do this movie.'"

She continued, smiling, "A friend of mine had gone to the audition and this is what she said: 'Girl, every Black woman in the world, Black women got outta the grave to come audition for this!'"

So Goldberg called her agent and was politely told she wasn't wanted for the role. But a few weeks later, her agent informed her that "they had hired a guy" who wanted to see if she would do the movie. She didn't find out it was Patrick Swayze until she got there!

And once she told him that of course she wanted to do the movie, Swayze told the filmmakers he wouldn't do it unless Goldberg was in it, too. 

9. Demi Moore, however, was everyone's first choice to play Molly, the love of Sam's life whose guard is understandably up when a psychic calls and claims she has an urgent message from her dead boyfriend. 

She wasn't quite as sure. Just as actors like Toms Cruise and Hanks didn't necessarily want to play a dead guy, Moore didn't necessarily want to play a person who was sad for almost an entire movie. Ultimately, though, she saw Molly for the strong survivor that she was. "And I thought, 'Wow, this is really a recipe for disaster,'" she recalled at an AFI screening of Ghost in 2013. "It's either going to be something really special, really amazing, or really an absolute bust."

Moore chose wisely. She was paid a reported $350,000 for Ghost, then went on to star in A Few Good MenIndecent ProposalDisclosureThe Scarlet LetterNow and Then and more, all leading up to her record-setting $12.5 million payday for Striptease in 1996.

10. Moore's hair was long when she was cast, so it was a surprise when she showed up with her now-iconic boy cut, courtesy of hairstylist John Sahag. But could you imagine Molly with long hair? 

It was "kind of an in-your-face choice," Rubin told Vanity Fair in 2015. "It announced to us that she had her own ideas about who her character was."

11. Ghost started shooting in Manhattan on July 24, 1989. On June 13, 1989, Swayze had trashed his hotel room in London following the premiere of the James Bond movie License to Kill—which he wasn't in, he was just there. In a 1992 interview, the actor would open up about his struggles with drinking and cocaine abuse, and he credited being excited to go work on Ghost as a project that was key to keeping him in line.

"I really think it was a blessing for me that the movie came into my life," he later said, per Wendy Leigh's Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance.

And despite some wild behavior in his private life, people remembered him as a delight on set, with production assistant Winston Quitasol telling Leigh, "He was larger than life, but he was also down-to-earth, friendly, and kind." Charles Bukey, the movie's first company grip, told Leigh, "HE was very prepared, always ready to do his job, and always expected the same of everybody else."

12. Bruce Joel Rubin said that the seed of the idea for Ghost was planted when he was watching a production of Hamlet, and he was inspired by the part where the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father appears and entreats his son to avenge his death.

"That's when I got the idea of making the story about a ghost trying to solve his own murder," Rubin recalls on his website. "I wrote a treatment and showed it to my wife, Blanche. Up to that point, all of my treatments were like outlines for novels. This one was very sparse, very simple. Blanche looked at it and said, 'This is a movie.' That's when I understood how simple movies really are."

And he believes in ghosts. 

"I've never seen them. I don't particularly want to. But I believe in that state of being," Rubin told the Washington Post in 1990, after the release of Jacob's Ladder, the second supernatural drama of his to come out that year, about a former soldier played by Tim Robbins who's haunted by visions upon his return from Vietnam.

"To me, a movie that touches those subjects is a movie that touches you," Rubin said. "And I want to make films about that. I want to make films that make you look at life through looking at death. Because then I think you can form a philosophy of life...To me, Jacob is the deeper version of Ghost. It mines the same territory, but it just goes for the jugular."

13. Not discounting his debut acting role as Darren in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason LivesGhost marked Tony Goldwyn's big break on the big screen. And he may have been Hollywood royalty, the grandson of studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn (as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and son of prolific producer Sam Goldwyn Jr., it was Tony's wife, Jane Musk, who encouraged her husband to audition for the role of the villainous Carl Bruner. 

"She was the production designer on the movie and she was pushing me to get an audition for it, which was extremely difficult," Goldwyn recalled to Yahoo! Entertainment in 2020. "Somehow I managed to push myself inside the door."

14. Zucker told the LA Times that he didn't believe in ghosts, per se, but "I have no idea what's possible in that realm. But if you are asking if I believe all of us have souls that exist with the physical self, the answer is yes. And I believe the soul does continue on after the body dies."

"I believe that when people die, the spirit flies from them and fragments," Goldberg said in a 1994 interview. "It goes into people who are just coming into being. I believe I got hit with a lot of fragments." Asked if she thought that helped her in Ghost, she replied, "Probably, because it's my belief. I think probably that did help me a lot in Ghost."

Swayze also expressed belief in a beyond: "I am convinced that people can come back and visit loved ones. Death is a beginning, not an ending," he said, according to Wendy Leigh's Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance.

15. Rubin originally had Oda Mae being a real psychic, but others thought it would be better if she were a fake, so it would have more impact (and be funnier) when her powers turned out to be real.

16. Swayze chewed on ice to make sure his breath never was so warm as to be visible in the air.

17. Demi Moore took some pottery lessons so that Molly's artistry would look authentic—and the piece that she's working on when a shirtless Sam sits down behind her and she gives him an impromptu lesson wasn't supposed to collapse. But it did, so Moore and Swayze improvised—"I hope it wasn't a masterpiece"—and it worked.


18. Swayze rehearsed with his wife, Lisa Niemi, before tackling what turned out to be one of the most iconic clay-spattered love scenes of all time, because he had major jitters. Moore recalled that her leading man's face would turn red every time they even talked about the upcoming scene. It "felt like we were in high school on a first date," she later dished to People. "And here we had to act like we had known each other and were comfortable with each other. We were all arms. His face was so beet red! I would say, 'Please don't let my breast be exposed.' And he would say, 'Okay.' If he noticed my shirt coming up over my rear, he would pull it down.

"We finally just said, 'I'm really nervous and I hate this.' Then it was okay."

But they weren't so awkward as to let body doubles stand in for them, as Zucker originally planned. There was also going to be an actual sex scene, but the pottery-induced dance and makeout session turned out so steamy on its own, the director decided nothing else was needed. Sam and Molly's chemistry wasn't in question.

19. Being as unmistakable as it was, that sexy pottery scene was rife for spoofing—and Jerry Zucker's brother, David Zucker, was all over it when he directed The Naked Gun 2 1/2, which came out in 1991.

20. The Righteous BrothersBill Medley and Bobby Hatfield—first recorded "Unchained Melody" in 1965, and while that's the version (featuring only Hatfield singing) that plays when Molly and Sam have their intimate moment at the potter's wheel, Medley and Hatfield re-recorded it together in 1990 for the Ghost soundtrack and were nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals. Maurice Jarre's Oscar-nominated score for Ghost also utilizes the melody.

The song itself was written by Alex North and Hy Zaret for the 1955 prison movie Unchained and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

A few years before Ghost came out, Top Gun breathed new life into the Righteous Brothers' 1964 hit You've Lost That Loving Feeling, forever associating it with Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and guys being adorably cocky in a bar. And, coincidentally, Bill Medley played an instrumental (so to speak) role in another legendary Swayze moment—he and Diane Warnes sang the Dirty Dancing theme "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," and they won the Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals.

21. The subway-haunting ghost who helps Sam harness his emotions so that he can make his presence known was played by Vincent Schiavelli, a veteran character actor (and food writer, who authored a couple of books on Sicilian cooking) who died in 2005.

Ryan Seacrest, however, thought Sam's mentor was Jeffrey Tambor.

"We talked about the things you have done and are doing, but to me, you're the scary guy on the subway in Ghost," Seacrest told the Arrested Development star on Live With Kelly and Ryan in 2017.

"Look, spitting image, right?" Tambor joked as a picture of Schiavelli in Ghost flashed onscreen. "What is wrong with you? I came here to sell a book, not to be insulted."

22. Rick Aviles was a stand-up comedian and actor who, in addition to playing Willie Lopez—the killer Carl hires to actually pull the trigger—was also in Cannonball RunGreencardCarlito's Way and Waterworld, which came out after his death in March 1995 at the age of 41 of AIDS-related complications.

In 1990, however, Aviles became one of only a few actors in history to appear in two Best Picture nominees from the same year—Ghost and The Godfather Part III—until eight actors achieved the feat in 2018 (including Michael Stuhlbarg, who was in three: Call Me By Your NameThe Post and Best Picture winner The Shape of Water).

23. He had some notable roles—in The Last Samurai, as the voice of Disney's Tarzan—but it was hard for Goldwyn to truly shake his "that's the villain from Ghost" persona until he played the morally compromised but still enjoyable president of the United States in Scandal.

"I was shocked and stunned by how much people hated my character," Goldwyn told Yahoo! Entertainment. "I was doing a play in New York when the movie first came out and was a giant hit. I went into a restaurant, but the waitress refused to seat me. I was eventually given a seat, and she took my order in a very rude way.

"Then she was staring at me and, after a few minutes came over to me and said, ‘Are you an actor?' And I said yes, and she said, ‘You're in that movie, aren't you? I knew I hated you, but I couldn't figure out why!'"

24. Zucker and Rubin first wanted a big star to play Carl—and then, after seeing and liking Goldwyn's audition tape, they worried that Goldwyn was just too nice of a guy to pull off Carl, Sam's so-called best friend who has him killed after Sam figures out that someone—he doesn't know who yet—is laundering money at their bank.

The part where Carl hits on a grieving Molly helped turn the audience off. "I guess seducing someone's girl, even when they're dead, is worse than killing them in the first place."

25. The groaning devil shadows that drag Willie and Carl to hell are both scary and kinda hilarious—and they're guys on skates!

"We had dancers in black tights on roller skates choreographing the scene where they drag me back," Goldwn told Yahoo! Entertainment. "When they actually filmed it there was a cable pulling me while I looked like I was wrestling with the dancers. But there was nobody there, so I just did this spasmodic dance. It was effective, but in a rudimentary way if you think about special effects nowadays."

The shadowy figures were made by rotoscoping, in which animators trace over live movement.

"The Rotoscope shadows," mused Chernobyl writer-producer Craig Mazin on a 2014 episode of the podcast Scriptnotes, in which he and co-host John August tackled Ghost. "And I have to say as cheese-ball as the Rotoscope shadows are, it made me kind of yearn for those days because the more realistic you make those things oddly the less threatening they seem to be. I just find that like perfectly rendered CGI shadow demons are just not as scary somehow. I don't—isn't that odd?"

26. Rubin recalled that, after all the writing and rewriting, he and Zucker remained stuck when it came to the film's ending and what hopefully poignant thing Sam should say. 

"We were talking about Molly and Sam's loss at the end of the movie—the loss of their relationship—and I said, 'You can't take it with you.' Then right away, I said, 'Wait a minute. You can take it with you. The love inside—you take it with you.' Jerry yelled out, 'That's it! That's it! That's the line!' If I leave any kind of legacy when I die, it might be that line. 'The love inside—you take it with you.'"

27. The quotable "ditto" that Sam—and, in that epic final scene, Molly—substitutes for "I love you" was reportedly something Rubin used to say to a girlfriend in high school.

At the end especially, Moore's tears glisten memorably. Talking to Vanity Fair in 2015, Rubin tipped his hat to Moore's "depth of emotionality. She can literally produce tears from one eye or the other."

28. To further illustrate how impossible it is to understand what, exactly, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association finds funny, Ghost was nominated for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, meaning Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze were both nominated for best actor and actress in the musical/comedy categories.

Not that there aren't laughs in Ghost, but the intentional ones are mainly due to Goldberg—who did win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, though ironically the supporting categories are for both drama and comedy—and here's what Ghost was up against for Best Picture: the romantic comedy Greencard (which won), Pretty Woman (which lost!), Home Alone and Dick Tracy.

Too bad that ceremony was ahead of Ricky Gervais' time.

29. Goldberg became the first Black woman to win an Oscar since Gone With the Wind star Hattie McDaniel in 1940, at the 12th Academy Awards. They both won Best Supporting Actress.

Halle Berry would become the first Black woman to win Best Actress in 2002, at the 74th Academy Awards, for Monster's Ball.

30. Goldberg and Swayze remained friends for the rest of his life. Six months before he died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 14, 2009, Goldberg said on The View that she was amazed by Swayze's strength, and that stopping was not an option for him.

He managed to tough out a full 12-episode season of his A&E FBI drama The Beast, only missing a day and a half of filming over five months

"He's sick, there's no getting around it, but like all of us, we all know at some point we're gonna die, we don't know when," Goldberg said bluntly. "We're not absolutely sure… But as it turns out, there's no expiration date on his ass. He doesn't know when he's going so he's just going forward. He's gone back into training for The Beast 'cause you know, this show he's running and jumping and rolling and doing all kinds of… it's crazy."

"Ghost was about living your life for the moment, because that's all you've got," Swayze later reflected, per Wendy Leigh's One Last Dance. "If you don't communicate with the people you love, you set yourself up for the incredible pain if you lose them. The reason I did Ghost was that it gave me a chance to believe that maybe I will get to tell my daddy I love him again."

No one on this earthly plane for sure can say whether that happened or not, but the legacy of Ghost is the lasting lesson that love—for a person, a place, a movie—sticks with us as long as we're around. Wherever we are.