Chevy Chase is wiggling his hips and furrowing his brow. Steve Martin is crossing his arms uncertainly. Martin Short is thrusting his pelvis forward, laughing. No, this isn't a calisthenics class for comedy legends. We're in a West Hollywood studio, where Empire has assembled the three stars of ¡Three Amigos!, plus director John Landis. It's the first time all four have been in the same room for many years, and spirits are high. There's only one problem: no-one can remember how to do that damn salute. As they continue to argue over the routine, Landis yells out, "No, guys, that's the Macarena!"
The scene is gloriously absurd, but from this quartet you'd expect nothing less. Set in 1916, ¡Three Amigos! is the tale of three excellently named silent-movie stars - Lucky Day (Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chase) and Ned 'Little Neddy' Nederlander (Short) - who have their contract terminated and head to Mexico to put on a show for a village. Problem is, the confused caballeros have actually been hired to rid said village of a deadly bandit named El Guapo (Alfonso Arau). Uniting three Saturday Night Live veterans (Chase and Short did one memorable season each, while Martin is a perennial host) and with Landis (the man behind The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon's Animal House) at the helm, the movie was expected to be a huge hit. Instead, it made less money than Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Or Police Academy 3: Back In Training.
Yet ¡Amigos! didn't let box-office failure become its own personal El Guapo. Over the years, the film has gained a sizeable cult following and even spawned professional impersonators (one such group, of which Short's cousin is a member, loans Empire its hand-crafted sombreros for our photoshoot). Why the longevity? Well, the movie's whip-smart, containing some of the most inspired slapstick and wordplay of the '80s. It's also spectacularly silly, taking in such surreal delights as a singing bush, a talking turtle, a plethora of piñatas and a villain whose henchmen gift him a woolly jumper.
When I first read Amigos, I went 'Yes please!' Partly because I'd get to ride horses.
But most of all, ¡Three Amigos! has a warmth that's nothing to do with the blazing desert sun. Even the bad guys are lovable, while the lead trio have the kind of easy chemistry which can't be faked. In a 1993 Playboy interview, Martin was asked to name his best friends, and put Chase and Short at the top of the list. That affection is still there. When Short pulls up in his car, he's talking to the already-arrived Martin via Bluetooth, pretending he's at a completely different location.
Martin is delighted by the fake out. Later, the pair launch into a shoe-shuffling rendition of My Little Buttercup, the camp number they perform in a Peckinpah-esque saloon in the film. Chase, who's off getting changed, wanders in briefly in his boxers to see what all the noise is about. We don't notice whether his bottom is actually dusty.
Finally, salute perfected and shoot complete, the Amigos head over to a table to share their memories. Well, two of them - Chase is mysteriously absent at first...
What do you think of when you think of this movie?
STEVE MARTIN: I remember what a tremendous amount of fun it was to make. We were in the Tuscon and the Mojave desert, on location, having the time of our lives.
MARTIN SHORT: I was the chief Amigo. The Carrot Top Amigo. It was my very first film and it couldn't have been a more luxurious way to start.
MARTIN: Seriously, it was your first film?
MARTIN: Can I say that it shows?
SHORT: (Laughing) Thank you so much! No, it was fun. It was totally fun.
MARTIN: We made lifelong friends.
SHORT: We did. (Chevy Chase appears, his shirt hanging open)
** CHEVY CHASE**: You started already? I thought we were supposed to be getting changed?
JOHN LANDIS: It doesn't matter. Come on, sit down.
CHASE: With my shirt open?
LANDIS: Any way you like. Come on.
SHORT: Everybody's gotta eat later, so button the shirt.
CHASE: Okay, okay! (He sits)
SHORT: You know what my main memory of the shoot is? Scrabble.
MARTIN: We were big, big, big Scrabble players.
LANDIS: Those of us who weren't working were!
MARTIN: But we had to put a limit up. A three-letter limit for Marty's sake.
SHORT: When we'd get into words like ‘boat', I'd be thinking, "Okay, he's just showing off now…"
LANDIS: What was fun – for me, anyway – was watching the three of them constantly one-upping each other. They'd sit there making cruel and cutting remarks that were truly funny.
CHASE: Nothing really cruel.
MARTIN: No, no.
CHASE: Except, of course, when it involved Marty.
Steve, you came up with the story. Are you fascinated by the Wild West?
MARTIN: I guess so. It just seemed like a fertile setting, It was the late '70s when I came up with the idea of the three actors going to perform a show and it becoming real. But I hired two writers to turn it into a screenplay and that didn't work out.
We learn nothing in the movie. That's what I really like – we're so clueless.
CHASE: What was wrong with it?
MARTIN: It was just very different. Very based on puns. I was in St. Barts visiting Lorne Michaels and he said, "I think we should throw this away and write a new one together." And I said, "Okay."
LANDIS: It's a strange script, but a very smart one. Like Animal House – the movies are so silly and outrageous, I don't know if people are aware of how sophisticated they are. When I first read Amigos, I went, "Yes, please!" Partly because I'd get to ride horses, but also because I knew it would be really funny.
MARTIN: Lorne and I had a blast writing it. He would come into town, stay at a Beverly Hills hotel and walk over to my house. Every day at two, as I recall. And Randy, of course.
LANDIS: All the songs are Randy Newman songs. He's a genius.
SHORT: The music is so fun.
LANDIS: But I also love Elmer Bernstein's score; it's my favourite of all the movies I've done. It's not only a gigantic score – 112 pieces – but it's Elmer making fun of himself. He's doing a parody of his own music for The Magnificent Seven!
This is the only Western any of you have made…
CHASE: Actually, I was in the new True Grit, but they cut it.
MARTIN: It's the best, making a Western...
LANDIS: Walter Hill said it right when he said, "If they knew how much fun it was to make a Western, they wouldn't let us." Because I've worked on a lot of them, but this is the only one I directed. And we had a ball riffing on all the conventions. Like in the saloon scene, when Chevy's offered tequila and he says, "Well, is it fattening?"
CHASE: "Do you have anything besides Mexican food?" That was a good line.
MARTIN: One of my favourites in the saloon is where I go, "Excuse me. We're not Mexicans, We're from out of town…”
CHASE: John, you filled the place with all those really rough-looking guys.
MARTIN: What was the name of the fellow behind the bar? He had a funny name.
LANDIS: Fred Asparagus!
SHORT: He looked exactly like Sergeant Garcia from the old Zorro.
LANDIS: It was also great getting to homage vintage Westerns. We shot the silent-movie sequence on the oldest exterior set at Universal Studios, built for a Tom Mix film. The tourist trams go through it every ten minutes and the boys would shoot their six-guns and dance for them.
CHASE: Another great one was the campfire sequence.
SHORT: When the horses start singing! I remember walking onto that soundstage and seeing the magnificent painted backdrop. It went on forever.
MARTIN: It was lit beautifully and there were live animals all over the set.
CHASE: It looked real.
LANDIS: (Laughing) What do you mean it looked real? If you were Roy Rogers it looked real!
How about the horse-riding?
LANDIS: Put it this way, when they figured out the salute, I was just glad it was something they could do. Because they couldn't ride horses!
CHASE: No, we could ride. Except for him. (Points at Martin)
MARTIN: (Laughs) I was on that horse for literally one second before they said, "Cut!" and somebody else took over. But it really looks like we're on those horses.
LANDIS: That was my biggest accomplishment. Before the shoot, all three of them went to take riding lessons, just like good actors, The end of the first day, they're like, "We're sore… This hurts…” And they never went again!
SHORT: Steve had an especially brilliant double. A rodeo cowboy who looked exactly like him.
CHASE: That was a great double. I'm not sure what her name was.
LANDIS: Chevy actually did my favourite physical gag in the movie. The big crane shot where the three of them ride up and dismount. He throws his leg over one horse and ends up sitting backwards on another. You did that in the first take. And the look on your face just before we cut is fantastic.
MARTIN: My favourite bit of yours, Chevy, is when we're thirsty in the desert. My canteen is empty. Marty's is full of dust. And you've got the last lot of water and you're spilling it and spitting it all over the place. Then you turn nonchalantly and say, "Lip balm?"
CHASE: I should have given some to my horse.
One of the most celebrated scenes sees you encounter a singing bush. Is it a Biblical reference?
LANDIS: Sure, it's right there in the Old Testament – the Singing Bush!
MARTIN: No, it's not Biblical. I just thought it was a funny idea. And it was in the script right from day one. Lorne, Randy and I liked the idea of shrubbery that won't shut up.
CHASE: It was the funniest damn thing. Because you assumed we were going to get to the bush and it would stop singing, so we could ask it questions. But it just kept going. (Singing) ”La-la-lee-la-doo-da-day!"
LANDIS: And then one of you has the great punchline: "My guess is, this is the Singing Bush."
Then you summon the Invisible Swordsman...
MARTIN: That part of the movie is pretty out there. We each recite a chant to summon the Swordsman, and I remember that mine was my dog's name: "Farley-farley-farley-farley-FARLEY!"
CHASE: Mine was something like this… (Makes strange clicking noises)
LANDIS: As I recall, you guys made those up on the day.
SHORT: May I just ask, what the hell was that scene all about?
MARTIN: Well, we accidentally kill the Swordsman. He was supposed to reveal something to us.
CHASE: We learn nothing! That's what I really like about the movie, We're so clueless.
Were any scenes deleted from the film?
LANDIS: A lot, actually. This movie was an interesting experience for me, because during post-production I was on trial (over an on-set accident on The Twilight Zone) and could only work at night. When I turned the movie over to the studio, Orion, they took over and removed a lot of stuff that I actually thought was great. Like the whole opening in Old Hollywood.
MARTIN: I thought you took that out.
CHASE: Remind me what we're talking about.
SHORT: Don't you remember? We were in a mansion…
LANDIS: …And you sing that great song about the morning. You don't remember that at all?
CHASE: I don't remember anything. I don't remember you!
LANDIS: You were all wearing beautiful robes, getting ready. And we did a very elaborate tracking shot following the Amigos as they walked to the studio head's office. Past open-air stages where things were being filmed: a jungle epic, a pie-fight, a contemporary melodrama, then finally The Duelling Cavalier, with Fran Drescher in a Marie Antoinette costume swooning over her lover. It was part of the Amigos' rivalry with Fran's character, who was based on Lina Lamont from Singin’ In The Rain. But all the stuff with Fran was cut.
SHORT: That's right! We came back to the mansion - and she'd moved in. And she went (in spot-on Drescher whine): "Whaddya waaant?"
LANDIS: All that's left of that storyline is the poster outside the studio walls that Steve does his birdcalls in front of.
CHASE: I don't remember any of that.
Anything else that didn't make it?
SHORT: Yeah. All the funny stuff.
LANDIS: (Subversive stand-up comic) Sam Kinison did a cameo as a savage Mountain Man, wearing chicken bones, with a bloody axe in each hand. Steve and Marty were caught in his trap and kept shouting at Chevy to shoot him. Finally, Chevy covers his eyes and does. There followed a long scene where the dying cannibal shows snapshots of his children to the guilt-ridden Chevy. It was very funny and insane and I don't remember why it was cut.
We were big, big, big Scrabble players. We had a three-letter limit for Marty's sake.
MARTIN: There was also a scene in the script that we couldn't shoot, because it was too expensive. We get buried up to our necks by some weird tribe of Incan Indians. I clear my throat and announce, "If you don't set us free, I'm going to make the sun go dark." All the Indians look scared. Lo and behold, the sun goes dark. And the head Indian looks at me and goes (nonchalantly), "Eclipse."
LANDIS: Which is why it's not in the film.
CHASE: It's just such a long joke. Think how long that would take to go through...
MARTIN: Well, I couldn't figure out any other way to get us out of that dirt.
Chevy and Steve, is it true that you tricked Martin into going to the premiere in his Amigos outfit, claiming you would do the same?
SHORT: No, but it almost happened. The plan was that we were going to show up in our costumes, then at four o'clock it was decided we weren't. And their joke was, "What if no-one tells Marty?"
MARTIN: We laughed so hard at the thought of us turning up in suits and him standing there with the big hat on. Then we tried to create a myth that it had happened.
LANDIS: But didn't you actually do that, on Saturday Night Live?
SHORT: We did turn it into a skit, when the three of us hosted.
CHASE: And they were also nice enough to do the pills joke that night. (Shortly after filming of Amigos wrapped, Chase entered the Betty Ford Center for treatment for painkiller addiction.) They just started throwing pills at me - "You want some pills, Chevy? Here!" - to make fun of the fact I had gone to Betty Ford for pills.
MARTIN: Betty Ford gave you pills?
CHASE: Very funny. This is way back. But the truth is, they used that, made fun of it.
SHORT: (With mock compassion) Well, that was wrong.
Was there ever talk of a sequel?
LANDIS: As soon as it didn't do well, no. (Laughs)
CHASE: What did it end up doing? $67 million or something?
LANDIS: I have no idea. It did better foreign. I made the first American film to do better foreign than domestic, which was The Blues Brothers. And this movie also did better. Now it's common, then it was odd. But I'm very proud of it.
I think it was a little ahead of its time. That kind of comedy is in vogue now.
CHASE: Maybe it should have been promoted more. I'm trying to figure out why it didn't do so well...
LANDIS: Everyone was saying at the time, "You shouldn't make a Western." Do you remember?
SHORT: When did Silverado come out? Was that before or after?
LANDIS: Before, I think.
SHORT: Well, I remember talking to Larry Kasdan, who directed that. He said that when he was trying to sell that film, someone told him, "You can't make a Western. Westerns are passé." And he went, "Oh, now you mention it!"
But 25 years later, Amigos is part of pop culture.
CHASE: That's true. There were three football players they called The Three Amigos, and they played the music when they came on. Three baseball players too.
MARTIN: I saw a New York Times cartoon with Rumsfeld, Cheney and George W as the Amigos.
LANDIS: And it's been in The Sopranos!
MARTIN: Really? The Sopranos? And yet we've never seen a residual...
LANDIS: Well, Orion went out of business and it got bought by Warner Home Video. So there's money there, but we won't get it.
CHASE: I don't know what the cheques I'm getting are for, then...
Finally, why do people still love the Amigos?
CHASE: (Poker-faced) Well, I just don't believe that.
LANDIS: It may be because the three of them are just so lovably dumb. I saw the movie yesterday and it really made me laugh. The silly stuff, like when one of them says, "We're going to have to use our brains," and the other two go, “Damn... "
MARTIN: It's a funny, silly comedy. It just works. And by the way, I have to give John a lot of credit. You recognised that these were sweet characters and directed in that direction. You allowed that to happen. That scene where we all sleep together in the same bed - it's so Laurel and Hardy.
SHORT: I actually think it was a little ahead of its time. That kind of comedy is in vogue now.
CHASE: It plays off the Western concept of us being heroes. But in fact we're just doofuses. We're just actors. It's a mistake that's made clear in the beginning but we're not in on it.
LANDIS: It's a great premise, one that's been copied so many times. Tropic Thunder, Galaxy Quest...
MARTIN: Galaxy Quest was the exact same premise.
LANDIS: It's been done three or four times. Only successfully!
And with that, the Three Amigos disband, head to their cars and ride off towards Sunset. The next day, an email pops into Empire's inbox. It's from Landis:
Yesterday, Steve's first words to me when he got there were, "You were right, John – time is the only true test of a movie." Which is a quote from Peter Bogdanovich that I had repeated to him years ago. I am very fond of ¡Three Amigos! and delighted to see it get some recognition. Many thanks for your help. Best always – John
Mr. Landis, we'd salute you – if only we could remember how.
This article first appeared in Empire Magazine issue #264 (June 2011). Photography by Austin Hargrave.