Leonard Nimoy’s delightful comedy Three Men and a Baby was the most successful movie at the US box office in 1987 yet its stars all but disappeared from the movies after it. Daniel Stephens takes a look…
I’ve heard talk about a cursed set but I didn’t realise Three Men and a Baby cursed its leading stars. I’m sure you’ve heard about the urban legend that tells of a “ghost boy” who appears in the background during the scene when Ted Danson is trying to coax his mother into helping look after his infant daughter. But have you heard the one about Leonard Nimoy’s 1987 film laying a curse upon its leading men. Take Tom Selleck for example, famous for playing private investigator Thomas Magnum throughout the eighties, he saw his regular pay cheque come to a screaming halt when the show was cancelled a year after Three Men and a Baby’s release. Since then he’s been making bad TV movies that no one has seen alongside his bit-parts as Monica’s boyfriend in Friends.
Steve Guttenberg’s fall from grace has been even more acute. The lovable rogue (perfectly encapsulated by his character Mahoney in the Police Academy films) and go-to comedian of the 1980s (that is, when Bill Murray and Steve Martin weren’t available), fell off the proverbial cliff after the movie and never recovered. Yes, all those films you know him for – Cocoon, Police Academy 1, 2, 3 and 4, Diner and Short Circuit all arrived prior to Three Men. What has he done since, apart from this film’s enjoyable sequel? Admittedly, Ted Danson has fared better in the years since but even his CV lacks the sort of critical and commercial success Three Men and a Baby enjoyed. Television might have offered these actors an outlet for their talents since 1987 (and they all come back for the sequel possibly to the chagrin of Danson and Guttenberg who play second fiddle to Selleck) but the movies all but bid them farewell.
The “ghost boy” has been rightly debunked because it has no basis in truth (the shape you see is a cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson in-character – it appears later in the film in a less supernaturally ambiguous state) but the curse placed upon its leading stars cannot be brushed under the carpet. It wouldn’t matter if Three Men and a Baby wasn’t so enjoyable. It’s mixture of fish-out-of-water humour and drug smuggling thrills against the backdrop of middle class aspirational life in 1980s New York and a warmhearted nod to the relevancy of friendship, is undoubtedly endearing. It is made even more pertinent given the performances of its three stars, their instant chemistry and likable nature. They encompass winning individual character traits (Selleck’s refined good looks and pragmatism, Guttenberg’s creative flair, Danson’s larger-than-life histrionics) while collectively they’re charming and infinitely kind, each driven to success in life, working and playing “hard”; the “perfect” father in three component parts.
Given that audiences loved the film (it was the most commercially successful movie of 1987, and it’s noted as Walt Disney Studios’ first film to gross over $100 million domestically) as well as the critics who were particular enamoured by the performances, it is baffling to note that Selleck, Guttenberg and Danson would go into career coma afterwards. These likable stars had arguably delivered their best movie, certainly their most successful, but it did not lead to ongoing success. This is the biggest mystery to appear out of Three Men and a Baby, not the infamous “ghost boy”!
It’s a shame because I was particularly partial to a slice of Steve Guttenberg-fronted comedy during the 1980s but perhaps it was a product of its time. That’s where the joy came from. Now it is enshrined forever in the annals of cinema history as an example specifically of that decade. Similarly, Three Men and a Baby feels very much a product of the 1980s. It might deliver a more wholesome depiction of yuppie culture, a term coined in the early part of the decade, but it still has that sense of Reagan-era materialism about it that separates those in their penthouse suites (as seen here) from the aspiration-less failures living in comparable squalor. Oh, and Selleck’s decade-defining moustache!
Based on the French film Trois hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Cradle) which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1985, the 1987 Hollywood remake moves the action from Paris to New York. Here, three thirty-something bachelors Peter (Selleck), Michael (Guttenberg) and Jack (Danson), who are all relatively successful in their chosen careers, mix their work as an architect, cartoonist and actor respectively with parties, women and living life to the full. Yet, their lives are turned upside down with the arrival of Jack’s baby daughter. The mother, a woman he had a one-night stand with while working in England, leaves a note saying she is unable to care for the child. Suddenly these career-minded, self-motivated men have to adopt a paternal instinct, shirking a carefree attitude for one of responsibility.
The set-up is very simple but it makes for some excellent knockabout comedy. Of course, you know what to expect – dirty nappies, sleepless nights, and an end to the house parties – but it’s how these men react to their situation that is most fun. Little moments, for example, when Peter and Michael, out on a date with Jack alone with the baby for the first time, rush home thinking something is wrong after he fails to pick up the phone. But he was in the shower with his baby daughter so didn’t hear the phone ring. So Peter has a phone installed in the shower cubicle. Another scene sees Peter shopping for baby food only to find an entire aisle devoted to the stuff. The shopping clerk tries to help but only confuses matters by suggesting the best selling brand is only top of the sales chart because it’s the cheapest, while knowing whether the baby has any allergies and how old she is will determine what food to get. Flustered, Peter buys one of every kind on the shelf. He thanks the clerk but is shook to the core once again when he is told: “Don’t forget to sterilise the nipple!”
Jim Cruickshank and James Orr’s script, a highlight of the film’s success, is wry and nuanced, taking its opportunities to draw levity out of the situation while constantly drawing on the disconnect between the bachelors previous lifestyle and their new one. There’s the reminder of their financial success – “She did a doodle, your turn to change her,” says Michael at one point; Peter replies: “I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you’ll do it. There’s reference to their blossoming careers: “I’m an architect for Christ sake, I build 50 storey skyscrapers, I assemble cities of the future, I can certainly put together a goddamn diaper.” And there’s the playboy lifestyle: “Angelyne! Whew! You look different, what happened?”. “I’m dressed,” comes the reply.
With a pair of gangsters hovering in the background after Jack unwittingly gets involved in distributing heroin, the film even has time to throw in a tension-filled subplot as the two “honorary” fathers and one “biological” Dad work together to bring the crooks to justice. It works harmoniously with the film’s central story and adds a few dramatic thrills to supplement the changing of diapers and 6am feeds.
There’s no mystery behind Three Men and a Baby’s box office success – it’s funny, sweet-natured and optimistic, it features some wonderfully endearing performances from its three leads, and motors along to the happiest of happy endings with a warm heart and an enduring smile. The real enigma is how such an enjoyable film, one that topped the box office in 1987, beckoned the career cliff edge for its stars and ultimately ushered them off it. But, if nothing else, Selleck, Guttenberg and Danson can look back and rejoice at some of their finest work.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Leonard Nimoy
Written by: Jim Cruickshank, James Orr
Starring: Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson
Released: 1987 / Genre: Comedy / Country: USA / IMDB