The 'Super Mario Bros.' movie turns 25: How the infamous dud was inspired by an Oscar-winning film

Jon San
Supervising Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie has the unfortunate distinction of being panned by both those involved in its creation and those who saw the final product. Bob Hoskins (Mario) called it “rubbish”; Dennis Hopper (King Koopa) admitted he did it for the paycheck; the directors, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, called its production humiliating; and audiences stayed away — it grossed only half of its reported $50 million budget. The few who saw the film disliked it.

But 25 years after its release, a surprising amount of ink has been spilled analyzing the film. One much-talked-about subject has been the script, which went through a dizzying number of rewrites — you can track them here.

The man behind the first draft was Barry Morrow, who won an Oscar for writing (with Ron Bass) the 1988 movie Rain Man. Morrow ultimately didn’t get a credit for his work on Super Mario Bros., as the project went in a radically different direction, but he told Yahoo Entertainment about his short-lived work on the movie, its connection to Rain Man, and the ending that never happened.

Dennis Hopper played Mario baddie King Koopa, a role he later publicly said he took for the paycheck. (Photo: Everett Collection).

“It was one of those little ghost projects that you have during a career,” said Morrow of his fleeting involvement. Morrow was hired by The Killing Fields director Roland Joffé, who produced the Mario Bros. film.

“[Joffé] loved Rain Man,” Morrow said of his movie about an autistic savant (played by Dustin Hoffman) and his selfish brother (played by Tom Cruise). So when Joffé nabbed the rights to the Mario and Luigi story, Morrow’s proven talent for writing brothers came to mind. The deal even came with a bonus.

“My son, who was very small at the time, was Mario-crazy,” Morrow said. “I said I would do it just to get Mario games for my son, probably.”

Morrow envisioned the movie to be an origin story — an unorthodox idea for the early ‘90s but commonplace in today’s superhero-soaked box office. “At the end of the movie, you will learn why the brothers Mario are super,” he said.

More than two decades later, the specifics of his script are hazy, Morrow said, but hinged on “a ring getting lost in a drain, and that’s what led [Mario and Luigi] into the plumbing world.”

Luigi (John Leguizamo) and Mario (Bob Hoskins) fight off tiny-headed Koopa Troopas in Super Mario Bros. (Photo: Everett Collection).

“It was gamelike in its silliness,” Morrow said. “But at the heart of it was a brother relationship, not necessarily a Rain Man relationship, but there was something there.”

Joffé was into that idea, Morrow recalled, but his producing partner wasn’t. Morrow’s idea was eventually scuttled.

“I didn’t even finish the script,” Morrow said. “I had the last scene I was working on when the courier arrived and said, ‘I’ve been told to take it, whether you’re finished or not.’”

“Off it went,” he added.

Morrow briefly worked with the directors, Morton and Jankel, on the film but, he said, “we weren’t even speaking the same language.”

Morrow’s version may be forever lost to the black hole of unfilmed screenplays, but there’s no doubt that in the next decade or so we’ll get some kind of Mario reboot or rebrand. Let’s just hope it learns from its past mistakes.

Watch the story behind the most-loved Oscar in the world:

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