An iconic flick from the 20th Century vaults, Mrs. Doubtfire arrived on Disney Plus in the United States on Friday. High time to explore some of the stories from the set you might not know about.
Where did the story come from? What was it like on set? How much would a used rose cardigan sell for? What real-life kids TV show helped inspire the career turn for Robin Williams’ Daniel? And what’s next for Mrs. Doubtfire?
1. The director’s mother visited the set. Sort of.
Early in rehearsals, director Chris Columbus introduced his kids to his mother. Jakub recalls that “she had stopped by to visit the set, and she joined Matt, Mara, and me for lunch. She was a sweet older woman, a bit eccentric, but nice all the same. The three of us felt like we had to impress the mother of our new boss and made as much small talk as we could manage at fourteen, thirteen, and five years old.”
They went back to the on-set school, before resuming the rehearsals. It was at that point that they found out that they hadn’t been eating with the director’s mom, but Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire.
It’s one thing that Robin Williams had gone to an adult bookstore in character, to see if anyone would recognize him. Who’d expect a headliner to be test-driving a new face. But that the kids on the set of a crossdressing comedy “had completely fallen for it — hook, like, and latex bosoms” seals the deal. As Jakub recalls, the stunt comforted them that the ridiculous premise was viable, that it wasn’t “a bad Tootsie rip-off.”
2. Alias Madame Doubtfire, the acclaimed book it’s based on, is a disturbingly dark drama.
Director Chris Columbus has shared that there are more adult edits of the film, featuring Robin Williams’ edgier improvisation. But at least those takes were likely gleefully raunch.
But the British book it was based on, Alias Madame Doubtfire, includes extensive references to martial brawls.
Book reviews note that Daniel daydreams of ways to kill his wife, Miranda. On learning that he’d lose his weekends with the kids, he bursts in front of the kids. “I could murder her. Truly I could! Sometimes I think I could cheerfully slit her throat!” Daniel’s “endless outbursts.”
First, there were all those truly terrifying fights in the kitchen at the other house, when plates, and even food, went flying. Christopher, cowering with Lydia elsewhere in the house — often under Natalie’s bed, where for some reason they felt safest — would hear the thuds and bangs and hysterically raised voices, and wonder if Hetty [their pet quail] were safe behind her cage bars… At calmer moments, Christopher begged to be allowed to move her cage up to his bedroom; but since he couldn’t bring himself to explain why, for fear of setting one or another of his parents off again, his pleas were ignored.
When interviewing Mrs. Doubtfire, Miranda contests that there was domestic violence. “Nothing like that. He’s not a violent man, far from it.”
The author of the book, Anne Fine, is a well-regarded children’s and adult author in the UK. She’s rather dismissive of the films based on her work. On her website, she shares:
I feel quite detached from them, as if they have little to do with me. What interests me is why people act the way they do: what’s deep inside them, pushing them. Film can’t show that. It can show brilliantly what happens. But only the book can explain the complex emotions and (sometimes self-deceiving) thought processes behind those actions. So, though I’ve quite enjoyed watching most of them, the films people make of my books are, for me, a bit like the fancy icing shell without the cake inside.
3. Two very acclaimed composers created the music in the film.
Mrs. Doubtfire starts with Robin Williams’ Daniel Hillard being sacked from a voice acting role, after objecting to a bird enjoying the cigarette pushed in its mouth. Robin sings a lively mock opera, set to music composed by Fred Steiner.
Fred was a mainstay in the television world, composing as far back as 1949. His credits include iconic series like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Gunsmoke, and 20th Century Fox’s Daniel Boone. His work as an orchestrator for The Color Purple earned him an Academy Award nomination. (His dad was also a composer, working for Disney rival Fleischer Studios and for The Bullwinkle Show.)
The rest of the film was composed by Howard Shore, who won three Oscars for his music in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
4. Robin and Sally (and Pierce) were genuinely great with the kids.
Robin Williams and Sally Field were two of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time. “But what are they really like?”, you might wonder. Turns out, reassuringly swell.
In her memoirs, former child actor Lisa Jakub says that “Robin and Sally proved what I was starting to believe about real movie stars: they are lovely. Legitimate stars have no need to pull rank and shoot others down. They are sensitive and collaborative artists who mean business.”
Contrast that with earlier sets Jakub had been on, where there was “weird, internal competition for screen time and the attention of the director. Older actresses who were losing the battle with time struggled with their age and took it out on me.” That, and both male co-stars and producers making her “the object of inappropriate affections.”
Pierce seems to get high marks, too, as they invited him out for lunch a few years ago, to celebrate the film’s anniversary.
Speaking of the kids, Lisa Jakub was paired with Matt Lawrence and Mara Wilson early in auditions, in what she called a “pre-pubescent amalgamation.” They “instantly connected. We adored each other, and I jumped at the chance to have siblings, if only for an afternoon.”
5. Robin helped guide Lisa Jakub with her mental health.
Robin Williams wanted Lisa Jakub to avoid what she aptly describes as the “well-worn path for a lot of kid actors”: substance abuse. She recently told Yahoo! Entertainment that “That that was a route that he had gone down with addiction and that it just made everything worse. And I think, as a 14-year-old kid actor, it’s a really good story to get.”
They also had honest discussions about his anxiety, a mental health concern they shared. “He would talk to me about mental health issues in a way that 14-year-olds aren’t usually used to adults being really open about those sorts of personal experiences with them.”
6. The crew of the film aren’t suitable candidates for the job of nanny.
Late in the movie, after Mrs. Doubtfire’s fired, Sally Field’s Miranda interviews on more candidate for the nanny. According to daughter Lydia’s list, her name is Paula DuPré.
DuPré was the associate producer, whose career often saw her working with director Chris Columbus. Initially an assistant on Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, she would work with him as an associate producer on Bicentennial Man, and the first three Harry Potter films.
The other dumped chumps? Jacqueline Shea, the production coordinator, art department coordinator Kristen Ross, and office production assistant Erik Ross. (The list also mentions a “Laura Morris”, who wasn’t credited as part of the crew.)
7. San Francisco didn’t play it cool while the movie filmed.
Lisa Jakub was assigned a “massive and kind-hearted man” named Fuzzy, a member of the Hells Angels. In her memoir, she recalls there being “mobs of people behind police barricades; some brought coolers, prepared to spend hours, if not days, desperately trying to get a look at anyone who was working that day… I felt like a gazelle in front of a pride of lions who had brought their own video cameras and lawn chairs.”
While she was safe throughout filming, she imagined what would happen in a breach. Picking her up, “he would run me off into the sunset, far from the maniacal movie fans, our long ponytails flapping simultaneously in the wind.”
9. Euphegenia’s House bears a striking resemblance to a San Francisco kids TV show, Buster and Me.
Disillusioned by his time in Hollywood, actor and comedian Chris Pray returned to his hometown of San Francisco. Hired by the Children’s Programming Department at KRON-TV, Pray and Robin Goodrow would co-create a series called Buster and Me (1979 to 1987).
A sitcom for preschoolers, the series featured two chimps and an orangutan, with a human as their mother figure. The series tackled all sorts of serious issues, including divorce. In at least one episode, Pray appeared in drag, as a female character.
Indeed, Buster is a dead-ringer for Kovacs.
Robin knew Chris from the improv comedy scene, and invited him to the film.
(Kovacs is likely a reference to Ernie Kovacs, one of television’s earliest comedians, known for his experimentation and spontaneity.)
10. Mrs. Doubtfire is coming to Broadway
On October 21, Mrs. Doubtfire will hit the stage in New York City, with opening night planned for December 5. Originally opened for previews back on March 9, 2020, it had to turn off its marquee on March 12, for the COVID-19 pandemic.
It wasn’t the first crack at a stage version. Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid), David Zippel (the upcoming West End production of Disney’s Cinderella), and the movie’s own Harvey Fierstein.
There have been other adaptations. In 2003, Alias Madam Doubtfire became Madame Doubtfire, a French TV movie. (It’s found its way onto YouTube.) In 2013, the show was adapted for Greek television as a three-hour special. The premise was also used for three unofficial adaptations, in Tamil, Hindi, and Sinhala.
Will you re-watch Mrs. Doubtfire? What’s your favorite part? Or will this you or your kids’ first viewing? Let us know in the comments.
Nick Moreau writes about vintage Disney content, on WhatsOnDisneyPlus.com and DisKingdom. He works at an archives, delving into his community's past.