Follow These 30 Surprising Secrets About Sister Act Wherever They May Go

"Nuns" gambling, casting clashes, a pen name and two big brass balls: The making of the 1992 comedy classic Sister Act was a pretty wild ride.

By Natalie Finn May 29, 2022 12:00 PMTags
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Thirty years ago, the heavens opened up and rained $231.6 million on Sister Act.

Made for only a reported $31 million, the comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg as a Reno lounge singer who hides out in a convent after witnessing her mob boss boyfriend commit murder was the sleeper hit of the summer in 1992. It ended up the sixth-biggest movie of the year worldwide and No. 3 domestically, behind only Batman Returns and Lethal Weapon 3.

And sure, the combination of Goldberg's comedic timing, the cheery nun squad, infectious music and fish-out-of-water premise seems like a slam-dunk now.

Yet back in the day, Hollywood wasn't exactly in the, er, habit of filling the multiplex with majority-female ensembles. (The next-highest grosser for the year worldwide was literally A Few Good Men—though A League of Their Own did round out the top 10. Good for you, 1992!).

Goldberg, however, fresh off her Oscar win for Ghost, had serious clout and she was instrumental in both charting Sister Act's course and keeping it afloat along with director Emile Ardolino.

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"It's fun and it feels good," Goldberg described the film in 2020, reflecting on the experience on The Late Late Show With James Corden. "And you know, nobody's mad. It's just, listen—bad singing, great singing, OK singing and then nuns. What's better than that?"

But though the finished product was a crowd-pleaser, a fair amount of drama went into the making of the Golden Globe-nominated comedy.

Read on for the secrets of how Sister Act came together after almost falling apart:

1. The lead role of the singer who poses as a nun to hide from the mob was originally written for Bette Midler. "But I said, 'My fans don't want to see me in a wimple,'" the star of stage and screen told Metro in 2010.

Let it be known she was talking about the times she may have chosen poorly. "I also didn't do Misery and Kathy Bates won an Oscar for it," Midler added. She didn't immediately turn Sister Act down, but ultimately talked herself out of it, as remembered by screenwriter Paul Rudnick.

2. Rudnick first got the idea for the movie in the late 1980s as a vehicle for Midler, he recalled in a 2009 New Yorker essay. His original intent was to satirize and subvert the "prissy uplift" of the likes of The Sound of Music and The Flying Nun. "It was kind of show biz versus the church," he told Entertainment Weekly in 1992, "and showbiz would definitely win."

He was also inspired by Some Like It Hot, so "I was feeling around for a similar situation involving disguises or something, and the notion of nuns and showgirls popped into my brain."

3. As development got underway, the writer spent a couple days at the Abbey of Regina Laudis—home of famed Hollywood actress-turned-nun Dolores Hart—in rural Bethlehem, Conn., where the sisters ran a farm, dairy and pottery studio to support themselves (perhaps a bit of inspo for Sister Mary Lazarus' beloved convent in the woods).

4. According to Entertainment Weekly, Midler wanted Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, known best at the time for 1988's Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, to direct. It's unclear if he ever knew that, but the studio already wanted Dirty Dancing director and Oscar winner (for the 1983 documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'Emile Ardolino to helm Sister Act.

Ardolino actually went on to direct Midler in a TV movie of Gypsy, which was nominated for 12 Emmys (including for his directing) and won one for music direction. Sadly, the accolades came posthumously, as Ardolino died of complications from AIDS in November 1993, just weeks before the movie premiered. He was only 50. 

5. During the time between Midler going and Whoopi Goldberg arriving, Disney also considered Tracey Ullman, Madonna and Cher, among others, for the lead. "It was [Bette's] movie and she couldn't do it, she turned it down," Goldberg shared on The View in 2017. So, she quipped, "They went through 100 million people and got to me."

6. Rudnick was hesitant about staying on the project once Midler left, but he tried. "The Disney notes were always phrased in the most positive, gee-wouldn't-it-be-great-if tone, and that was the problem," he wrote. "It was like being trampled to death by cheerleaders."

Though he has the sole writing credit on the movie, he did ultimately cut ties with the project (or tried to), leaving it when his contract was up in February 1991 to be "rewritten by half of Southern California." When he read the final draft, he shared in his New Yorker piece, he asked to have his name removed, which is why the onscreen credit reads "Written by Joseph Howard"—a pseudonym Rudnick came up with. He had nothing at all to do with the sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, but its writing credits include "based on characters created by Joseph Howard."

7. As of 2009, at least, Rudnick said that he had never watched Sister Act.

8. Top Gun writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., tasked with changing the locations and adding more danger to Deloris' predicament, were the first of the writers brought in by Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures to take a stab at the story after Rudnick left, according to Entertainment Weekly. Then Rudnick was hired back, despite his reservations upon hearing—as he detailed in his 2009 New Yorker piece—that Goldberg wanted to change her character's name, originally Terri Van Cartier, to Deloris. Because, he recalled being told, she'd always wanted to play a character by that name.

Once they had a cast, Nancy Meyers, who at the time had yet to direct but had plenty of writing credits, including the 1986 Goldberg comedy Jumpin' Jack Flash, gave it a whirl. Then around September 1991, Goldberg requested her friend and noted script doctor Carrie Fisher be brought in to punch up her dialogue. Steel Magnolias scribe Robert Harling was in the mix as well.

9. Even with all those cooks in the kitchen, the film's cast and crew ended up reporting for work with an unfinished script. 

"It was very difficult," Ardolino admitted to the Chicago Tribune in June 1992, once the finished product was safely in theaters. "It was difficult because the script was originally written for Bette Midler, and when Whoopi came in, adjustments had to be made.''

He added, "'Everybody thought that the adjustment would only take a couple of weeks. But a couple of weeks wasn't enough time."

Divine intervention not imminent, they just started rolling with what they had. "It put Whoopi and me in a difficult position,'' Ardolino said. ''It's problematic to be shooting out of order and then suddenly you come to a scene that hasn't been written yet. What precedes it? What follows it?'"

But they obviously made it work, a credit to everyone involved.

"Whoopi had some problems with the studio at some point, but she and I, we had to actually do it, which meant that every day there had to be a scene that was shot," the director said. "We never had a blowup, nor did we have a situation where we didn't get something in the can every day. We both complained from time to time because it was difficult, but we got along just fine. There was a lot of stress, but I think that we did our best. Whoopi is very creative and we challenged each other."

10. In real life, maybe a murder witness can stay at a convent, but she can't dress up like a nun and try to blend in: Impersonating a member of the clergy is a felony.

11. She sounded like a natural at the time, but Goldberg had to learn to sing to play struggling Supremes-style girl group leader Deloris Van Cartier. "Asking me to sing," she told Entertainment Weekly in 1992, "is like asking me to be an Olympic swimmer."

Ultimately the film's music producer and orchestrator, Marc Shaiman, showed her how, Goldberg said in an appearance at the 2020 Vulture Festival. "He taught me what to do. And once we were able to establish that [Deloris] was a one-hit wonder and she had just gone this far, and then all this happens and she's working in the casinos, you know, it made it a lot easier to do. And then everyone was ok."

12. Marc Shaiman was also Kathy Najimy's hero of the hour.

"He's responsible for my whole career," she said during the cast's 25th reunion on The View of the music producer and vocal guru, whom she reunited with directly after Sister Act for Hocus Pocus (Bette Midler was never far from Sister Act in spirit, was she?) and then right after that for Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.

When she auditioned, he asked if she could sing something else, Najimy recalled, so she started to belt out an operatic tune. "He said, 'Do that! Don't do anything else!" she said with a laugh.

13. Meanwhile, EW also reported that Goldberg almost got fired from the whole thing in the summer of 1991 after missing her first three scheduled appointments with vocal consultant Seth Riggs. In response, Goldberg said those meetings were scheduled before she was under contract (hence no contractual obligation).

14. While the emergence of quiet Sister Mary Robert's powerful singing voice is a triumphant moment, in the performance scenes that's Andrea Robinson doing the vocals for actress Wendy Makenna.

15. Entertainment Weekly reported in 1992 that growing discord between Goldberg and then-Touchstone Pictures chief Jeffrey Katzenberg seemed to peak when they argued over the casting of Deloris' love interest in the film. According to EW, Katzenberg wanted a Black actor and Goldberg insisted they consider white ones too. "How long have you been in this business?" she reportedly fired back during one argument. Fisher, a friend of both, advised Goldberg to send Katzenberg a hatchet and say, "'Please bury this on both our behalfs.'"

So, Goldberg sent Katzenberg a hatchet and he sent her two enormous brass balls as an acknowledgment of her resolve, according to the report.

16. "I just wanted them to cast somebody great, you know?" Goldberg explained to EW at the time. "[But] it just became, ‘We gotta find somebody Black.'" Harvey Keitel was already set to play Vince, Deloris' married, murderous boyfriend who she's on the run from, so this was for the role that was ultimately shaped into cop Eddie Souther, Deloris' protector—who, while they didn't have a romance in the finished version, is obviously charmed by her. Goldberg said she had suggested Dennis Farina, as well as Charles S. Dutton and Gregory HinesDo the Right Thing Star Bill Nunn was ultimately cast.

"The studio was very sensitive to the notion that this was a major Black female star," director Emile Ardolino told EW, "and that there was a role here that could be played by a Black man."

17. On location in San Francisco they used the exterior of St. Paul's Catholic Church in Noe Valley for St. Katherine's, Deloris' place of refuge. The production designers redressed the surrounding storefronts to make the neighborhood look more rundown.

18. Najimy, who played the relentlessly upbeat, booming-voiced Sister Mary Patrick, put her foot down at a scene in which her character was protesting in front of a neighborhood adult bookstore because she felt it was a little judgy for her big-hearted character. Instead, a would-be customer is deterred when he sees the nuns in front of the store selling raffle tickets and it proves just too difficult to get past Mary Patrick's big smile.

19. Najimy's take on Mary Patrick was inspired by Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart.

She was watching TV one night and Hart gushed, "'Sally gotta love her,'" Najimy told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "And there it was. That was my character. That bubbly, always-smiling girl...without legs."

The actress sent Hart roses, but didn't explain the real reason why.

20. When Goldberg got a cold early on in filming, she took the opportunity to take "a day or two" off to make sure the production sorted out the amenities being offered to her fellow actresses, she told Vulture. "The ladies hadn't gotten everything I thought they should have gotten," she explained. "They were older women. They were women who I felt… should be able to go and have dinner and not be worried about paying hotels or whatever it was."

"I would never go on strike," Goldberg added. "But if my coughing and sneezing coincided with our brief problem... they fixed it and it was great."

Back in 1992, when reports had already swirled about the alleged behind-the-scenes turmoil afflicting the production, Najimy told the LA Times, "I had a great time with Whoopi—she was the perfect example of generosity and talent. I never had a better time making a movie."

21. Harvey Keitel had a great time on set as well, because he totally would have been down for an encore performance as mobster Vince LaRocca.

"The one sequel I wanted to do, I thought I was going to do, I was waiting for that call, was Sister Act," the prolific Oscar-nominated actor told Insider in 2021. "I never got that call and I said, 'What!?' It was so perfect. The guy's in prison. He gets out of prison and he chases her down. My agent said, 'Harvey, you're not in the movie.' I said, 'No!'"

It's not as if he was replaced or anything: Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit takes place in a high school and Deloris is just posing as a nun so she can...teach Catholic school. (There are some holes, but it's joyful, joyful fun all the same.)

But since Sister Act 3 was said to finally be in the works for Disney+, Keitel suggested, "Let's give them that plot. Finally, her ex-boyfriend gets out of jail and chases her down."

22. He was invited to the 2017 reunion, though, where he gifted Goldberg a coat that had "Whoopi, Love Harvey" embroidered inside—to make up for Vince trying to give Deloris his wife's "purple mink" coat (her initials were sewn right there) to distract her from his noncommittal ways. 

23. These nuns were a bunch of pranksters!

"When she heard 'Action!' Whoopi pulled her hands out from under her tabard, and out came those big white Mickey Mouse hands with the stuffed four-finger gloves," Najimy recalled to the LA Times in 1992. "One minute we were playing off-color charades and manic games with lewd lyrics and the next we snapped right back into hymn singing." 

She and Makenna would keep their habits on for nights out while shooting in Reno. "That was great, because I love gambling," Najimy reportedly said. "Wendy smokes, and we'd sit at the 21 table in our nun outfits with drinks in front of us. That was hilarious."

And better yet, those cheeky actresses also once answered the door for room service with the whole outfit on and—to really shock the waiter—porn playing on the TV.

"He came and I said to him, 'No come in a little further. Roll it in,'" Najimy shared during the 2017 cast reunion. "[Wendy] said she'd pay me a hundred dollars if I didn't laugh and I failed."

24. Maggie Smith's role as the unamused, stodgy Reverend Mother—who needs almost the whole movie to appreciate the spirit Deloris has brought to St. Katherine's—has long since been surpassed in the canon by her delicious turn as Violet Grantham, the Dowager Countess, in Downton Abbey.

But the British Oscar winner still remembers her turn in the habit fondly.

"I can't believe this is happening and it was 25 years ago," she said via video message during the 2017 cast reunion on The View." I would like to say hello to all of the nuns. I feel I must be the oldest nun left. Every single nun was wonderful. I have such fond memories of when we did those crazy, crazy films. And we laughed and laughed. I can't believe it's been 25 years. I send you lots of love and I wish I were with you."

25. The Sister Act soundtrack, featuring all of the film's original pop-meets-prayer music, spent 54 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart, climbing as high as No. 40.

26. Actress Donna Douglas, best known for playing Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, and her business partner Curtis Wilson sued Goldberg, Midler, their production companies, talent agency CAA and Disney for $200 million, alleging they'd pilfered the story for Sister Act from a script they'd already sent to Disney in the 1980s based on the book A Nun in the Closet. The plaintiffs reportedly turned down an offer of a $1 million settlement, hoping to win a bigger judgment in court, but the judge ruled for the defendants.

27. Disney and Sony Pictures were also sued in 2011 by a nun, Delois Blakely, who alleged that her 1987 memoir The Harlem Street Nun was the real inspiration for Sister Act. She dropped her complaint voluntarily, but refiled the next year, asking for $1 billion in damages. The New York Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, with prejudice, in 2013.

28. Past legal hiccups didn't deter the development of the years-in-the-making Broadway musical adaptation of Sister Act, which finally premiered in April 2011. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Original Score for Alan Menken, but only ran until August 2012.

Goldberg joined the West End production for a brief run, slipping on Smith's habit as the Reverend Mother.

29. That big 2017 reunion was actually the cast's first in 25 years.

30. Goldberg's daughter prefers Sister Act 2, starring her mom and a young Lauryn Hill as a teen with a chip on her shoulder and a voice that's ready for prime-time (and the all-state choir competition).

"I think it's a generational thing," Goldberg told in 2020.

While Sister Act 3 has been perennially talked about as a possibility, in 2020 it became more than just a gleam in fans' eyes.

"We are trying to get all of the pieces put together. The business crap," Goldberg told that December. "You know how it is. So let us get that together and then after that, we're writing a script. I'm trying to let everybody do what they're supposed to do. Because otherwise, it's all the actors just coming to me saying, 'Can we do it now? Can we improvise it without a script?'

"And I'm like, just let us get the business pieces together! So it's happening. It's going to happen. Stay excited."

Paula Lobo/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Later that month, Disney+ announced the movie was a go, with Tyler Perry as a producer, Tim Federle directing and Madhuri Shekar writing the script. And so far...

"Whoopi's really excited, Perry told The Hollywood Reporter in October. "I think that this is just what the country needs. We need that feel-good moment in the movies where you go, 'Oh, my God, I left there singing.' That's my hope."

And now perhaps all those prayers have been answered.

In April, per DisneyPlusInformer, Federle said while out doing press for Disney+'s Better Nate Than Ever, "I hope we are starting this year. I think the Sister Act franchise is a big priority to the studio, script's coming along and I think Whoopi is really excited."

Yes, you may get an amen.

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