Video Rewind tells the BTS stories of VHS favorites, one rental at a time! Press play and adjust your tracking for “Toy Soldiers” (1991).
By 1990, The Goonies and Stand By Me were already staples of 1980s cinema, and well on their way to being regarded as the classics they would rightfully become. The characters and stories of both films would live on in the hearts of virtually every kid of the ’80s and ’90s as movies that accurately portrayed kids while also taking them seriously. But what would Sean Astin’s Mikey from The Goonies and Wil Wheaton’s Gordy from Stand By Me be like through their teen years?
It’s easy to imagine Mikey continuing to give in to his curious, adventurous side as he grows older, becoming more mischievous. It’s also easy to imagine the smart Gordy reluctantly going along with such mischief, even enjoying the act, despite not wanting to participate in the first place. With this in mind, it’s fun to watch 1991’s Toy Soldiers as the convergence of The Goonies and Stand By Me universes, with Astin and Wheaton extending the characters of Mikey and Gordy (only here as Billy and Joey) into the 1990s.
Toy Soldiers was based on a 1988 novel by William P. Kennedy, with Orion buying the film rights not long after its release. The script was being written by David Koepp for director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man). The script, like the book, took place in a European boarding school with a loner-type main character when the school gets taken over by Palestinian terrorists.
The film proved difficult to get made and was put in turnaround (Schlesinger went on to direct Pacific Heights with Michael Keaton instead). This is when TriStar Pictures stepped in to distribute theatrically and Toy Soldiers was back in pre-production.
The script was rewritten to take place in America, with the terrorists changing from Palestinian to Colombian.
The man behind the rewrite was Beverly Hills Cop writer Daniel Petrie, who at the time was working at Disney as a producer and writer.
“I wanted to direct. I was looking for an opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to go into the directing process prepared.”
Petrie, whose father, Daniel Petrie Sr., had almost 90 directing credits himself at the time, wanted to be prepared for his directing debut. He learned directing from being a writer and producer on such films as Shoot to Kill in 1988 and the 1989 Tom Hanks comedy Turner & Hooch, both for director Roger Spottiswoode. “That was my film school,” Petrie said. “I felt ready.”
Being a former boarding school kid himself, Petrie had a personal connection to the material. His school may not have been taken over by terrorists, but Petrie did relate to the boy characters and their up-to-no-good antics. What Petrie recalls as the most valuable lesson from his time at prep school as a young man was “trying to circumvent the rules without getting caught!”
With his experience of being a kid at an American boarding school and the knowledge of action films from Beverly Hills Cop and Shoot to Kill, Petrie jumped at the chance when the opportunity arose to direct Toy Soldiers.
The search for a star was on, and in 1990 there was one name at the top of every list in Hollywood: Tom Cruise. With a string of box office hits and a 1989 Academy Award nomination for Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise had become a megastar, and the studio wanted him for Toy Soldiers. But Cruise had tread familiar territory before in 1981’s Taps and was now starring alongside Hollywood legends like Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman. In short, he was too big for this kind of film at this point in his career and turned the picture down.
With Cruise out, an ensemble cast with some of the era’s most recognizable young actors was assembled: Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, Keith Coogan, T.E. Russell, and Shawn Phelan.
Toy Soldiers would be about a group of troublemaking boys at The Regis School, a Virginia-based boarding school that accepted students kicked out of other schools. Because of this, the students often refer to the school as “The Rejects School.”
When the school is seized by Colombian terrorists in an effort to get the United States to release the father of one of the terrorists, the boys must be smart and figure out a way to communicate with the military outside in order to help them form a strategic raid to take back the school and save the students.
Known on set as Dead Poets Society meets Die Hard, filming on Toy Soldiers began in September of 1990 at Miller School of Albemarle in Charlottesville, Virginia (the Damon Wayans comedy Major Payne would be filmed there 4 years later).
The young cast would spend a week rehearsing at the school prior to filming, familiarizing themselves with the life of students at a boarding school. The cast all knew each other from the audition circuit. They all auditioned for Stand By Me, The Goonies, Explorers, and countless other kid flicks of the 1980s. Because of this, most of the cast was already well acquainted with each other, with some having known each other for years.
“Keith Coogan and I grew up together,” said Astin, referring to Coogan’s grandfather (Jackie Coogan) working with his father (John Astin) on the 1960’s TV series The Addams Family. “So, we’ve always known each other.”
Coogan added, “we’ve been friends for years. He’s like a brother.”
In addition to sharing this familial and acting connection, Toy Soldiers gave Astin and Coogan their own chance to share the big screen, something they would pretend to do as kids as they filmed home movies together.
With a dozen guest spots on popular TV shows like Mork & Mindy, Growing Pains, and Silver Spoons, Keith Coogan was a rising child star in the 1980s.
He had a big hit in 1987 with Adventures in Babysitting and was invited to appear in a musical number to showcase rising young stars at the 1988 Academy Awards. Coogan appeared onstage alongside Corey Feldman, Patrick Dempsey, Christian Slater, and others. This would be followed up in 1989 with a role in the high-profile Ted Danson comedy Cousins.
When Toy Soldiers was casting around this same time, Coogan was the first to be cast as Snuffy Bradberry, one of the troublemaking boys. His casting would be followed by Louis Gossett Jr. as the dean of the school.
“It was a big project at the time because everyone wanted to be on it,” said Coogan. “I just wanted every other actor my age to be really jealous that I got the part in a kick-ass action film.”
Sean Astin agreed, saying “he had to be in it.”
Astin got his start in the 1981 made-for-TV movie called Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. The film starred his Oscar-winning mother Patty Duke (1962’s The Miracle Worker), who said she’d take the role but Sean had to be in it. From there, Astin would achieve fame in 1985 as Mikey in The Goonies and appeared in such hits as Like Father, Like Son (1987) with Dudley Moore and Danny DeVito’s The War of the Roses (1989).
While not the first choice for Billy Tepper, the always mischievous leader of the group in Toy Soldiers, a lot of phone calls from Hollywood power players were made to lobby for Astin.
When your dad has over 100 credits on his resume and your mom is an Oscar winner, you have some connections. But then he nailed the audition. Because he was already cast, Coogan sat opposite Astin for his audition. “Sean brought it…he was on fire,” Coogan recalled of the audition.
To offset his boyish looks, Astin possesses a wonderful sense of mature curiosity, both qualities that help the audience side with Billy Tepper, which is vital to both the character and the film. Although still part of an ensemble cast, for the first time in his career Astin approached the role of Billy Tepper as if it were the lead (three years later he’d successfully carry a film by himself in Rudy).
Astin was also looking forward to working with Wil Wheaton. “I really wanted to do STAND BY ME,” said Astin, who auditioned for the role of Chris Chambers in that film, a role that eventually went to River Phoenix. “I really loved that movie.”
Astin admired Wheaton’s work on Stand By Me and was happy to be able to meet him at the premiere of Astin’s film Like Father, Like Son. At the same time as Astin’s film premiere, Wheaton was gearing up to play kid genius Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation (a role that Keith Coogan auditioned for). Wheaton would spend 4 years on the show until walking away before filming for season 5 took place.
At the time, Wheaton said, “I did four [seasons] and am on hiatus now to advance my film career.” This was a diplomatic statement from the young actor, who would later explain the real reason for leaving Star Trek.
At the time, Wheaton was told he couldn’t star in a Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) film because the series would have to write around his absence (the film was 1989’s Valmont and the role went to Henry Thomas). But when the time came to film the episode that would have conflicted with the film, the producers wrote Wheaton’s character out of the story a mere week before filming began. It was a move solely to let Wheaton know who was in charge. But instead of playing the game, the dismayed Wheaton quit.
Wheaton’s love for the craft of acting would be briefly reinvigorated on the set of Toy Soldiers, a positive experience with people his own age.
Wheaton and Keith Coogan knew each other, with Coogan having attended Wheaton’s 16th birthday party (and both auditioned to play Ralphie in A Christmas Story). The two young actors would watch setups during the filming of Toy Soldiers and talk about what each piece of equipment was for, wondering how they would do it if they were the ones in charge.
Wheaton, who plays Joey Trotta, the son of a mobster in the film, threw himself into the role. He prepared by creating an autobiography for his character and “also rented all the Godfather movies.” He also attempted to give Joey a New York accent, a request from director Daniel Petrie.
“I was only 18 and didn’t think to actually study up on a specific one, so I just did what sounded right in my head,” Wheaton said.
He would request that Petrie make sure he “never sounded like Corey Feldman in LOST BOYS.” Petrie told Wheaton he sounded fine, “but I’m not so sure,” said Wheaton.
Wheaton enjoyed acting again, even attending school to study the craft. However, a couple of years later, he would once again walk away from the business.
In addition to Astin and Coogan, working with Shawn Phelan was also a great experience for Wheaton. Phelan and Wheaton also knew each other prior to filming, having played board games at the same game shop in Burbank. Before Toy Soldiers, Phelan appeared on hit TV shows like Family Matters and The Wonder Years. The youngest of the cast, Phelan was only 15 at the time of filming and was the only cast member that was required to have a parent or guardian on the set (his mother made the trip with him to Charlottesville).
In a smaller, but vital, role, Phelan was cast to portray Yogurt (a role Corey Feldman auditioned for), a name that was not in the original script.
The daily 40-minute ride to the set from the Days Inn in Charlottesville provided ample time for the young actors to bond. One such moment found its way into the film. While on the way to set one day early on in filming, Phelan was struggling to peel the lid back on a cup of yogurt. When he finally tugged it back the cup jerked back with the lid, causing the yogurt to blow up all over Phelan.
“Dude, your name’s Yogurt now,” Coogan recalls saying as the boys all laughed. “And they changed the script, he was Yogurt.”
Starring as Ricky was George Perez, a relative newcomer who discovered his passion for performing at a young age when he used to imitate his older siblings. Growing up in a South Central Los Angeles, one-bedroom apartment with 9 brothers and sisters, Perez focused on performing and attended the High School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. He had his acting debut in 1988 appearing in an episode of the critically acclaimed ABC drama China Beach, then the James Earl Jones drama Gabriel’s Fire in 1990.
Wil Wheaton said Perez brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy during the filming of Toy Soldiers, the result of his excitement over his first film role.
Rounding out the cast was T.E. Russell as Hank Giles. Russell also appeared on a couple of episodes of China Beach, as well as the Richard Geico, 21 Jumpstreet spin-off Booker in 1989. In the Toy Soldiers novel, the character of Hank Giles is white and the son of a rich Texas oilman. But Russell gave a great audition. “They asked me to stick around and we ended up taping for three hours,” said Russell. “Then they said, ‘why not make this guy black?’”
For the film, the character of Hank Giles was turned into the son of the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Having attended a private school during his high school years in Chicago, Russell had no problem portraying prep school student Hank Giles.
The cast of Toy Soldiers is very important to focus on because they are what makes the film work as well as it does.
The chemistry between them and the free reign given by director Daniel Petrie for them to explore and create their characters needs to be understood in order to grasp what it is that makes Toy Soldiers feel like a better movie than perhaps it actually is.The scenario and situations within the film are more than reminiscent of previous, better action movies. But the realism of the friendships between the cast, the “rejects,” is what raises TOY SOLDIERS above generic action fare. Click To Tweet
One example of this connection between the cast is the phone sex hot-line scene. The scene shows the boys sneak into the basement of the school to drink and tap into the phone line to call a 976-like hot-line to listen to a woman pleasuring herself (this is pre-internet, folks). Giving the young cast the ultimate respect by trusting their creative abilities, Petrie allowed the boys to improvise the conversation and comments that take place during the scene. The result is the first of many moments that feel like real teenagers just hanging out and talking and causing mischief.
Petrie took the young actors seriously, treating them like adults, and the stellar results prove his first-time director instincts correct. As for the woman’s voice on the other end of the sex hot-line phone call? It was provided by Tracy Brooks Swope, the wife of The Karate Kid and Rocky director John G. Avildsen.
Sean Astin took it upon himself to improvise a moment that is one of the finest in the film. Before filming a scene that saw the boys being disciplined by the dean for an elaborate prank, Astin asked the crew if anyone had a banana. When filming began, and after Gossett Jr. called the boys out for the prank, Astin as Billy Tepper tossed a banana peel into the dean’s wastebasket beside his desk. This move by Astin accomplished two valuable goals: it solidified Tepper’s fuck-you attitude towards authority and elicited genuine reactions of surprised laughter from his co-stars.
This little decision had big implications for Astin’s character by showing him as the leader Billy Tepper needed to be seen as. The Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr., (1982’s An Officer and a Gentlemen), according to T.E. Russell, “was not about to be upstaged.” “Pick. Up. That. Banana,” he growled back to Astin without missing a beat.
T.E. Russell praised Petrie’s allowance for his young cast to have creative input, saying Petrie “listened to his actors.”
But Petrie wasn’t the only adult on the set who treated the boys as adults. Keith Coogan recalls Louis Gossett Jr. being the leader on set, acknowledging that his strong work ethic raised the bar every day. Gossett Jr. also allowed Astin to take the lead in front of the cast and crew. “Lou was always very, very generous,” said Petrie. “I would say something to him, and he would generously say things like ‘that sounds good to me, what does your star think?’ referring to Astin.”
In addition to showing the boys getting into Bart Simpson-like trouble, Petrie chooses to not hold back when the film gets violent.
A woman is shown laying on the stone steps of a courthouse, her body bent and broken from a two-story fall, blood gushed from her skull. When one of the boys at the school gets shot by one of the terrorists, you see and hear the bullets rip into his chest. If the situation presented in Toy Soldiers is to be taken seriously then the violence needs to be presented seriously as well.
With the violence and language pushing the film to an R rating, a large chunk of the targeted audience of teenage boys was kept out of theaters screening Toy Soldiers, hurting its financial prospects at the box office.
Wheaton minimizes the complaints at the time that the film was too violent. “You should have seen how much there was in the original script. They actually toned it down.”
While TriStar would release the film, it was financed independently by Island World and not beholden to a major studio.
Even so, the head of TriStar at the time was Mike Medavoy, someone who Petrie says “is famous for supporting filmmakers. He had a more hands-off approach.”
Petrie, who got permission from the U.S. Military to use real troops in the film and secured the use of a Black Hawk helicopter, acknowledges that the rating ultimately hurt Toy Soldiers at the box office. But he also defends his choices saying “I knew how boys of that age talked. They swear. And I also wanted the violence to be real. Not fake cartoony violence.”
Petrie went on to emphasize the importance of the realistic violence in the picture adding, “if there are no real stakes, that the kids are really running risks, then a lot of the enjoyment goes out of the film.”
Actor Andrew Divoff, who played Luis Cali, the lead terrorist seeking the release of his terrorist father, was given the freedom to go all-out evil and had fun doing so. He would go on to say it was his favorite role he ever played and “it was the first role where I got some attention,” (director Robert Kurtzman, a fan of Toy Soldiers, would cast Divoff in the lead role of his 1997 horror film Wishmaster based on his performance as Luis Cali).
Whether it be devising a plan to communicate with the outside world about the terrorists and where they are stationed in the building, or mourning the death of a fellow student, Toy Soldiers has a number of scenes showing the boys sitting around shirtless or in their underwear, sometimes both. These numerous scenes are often brought up during discussions of the film, but Keith Coogan offers a reason behind the scantily clad boys hanging out in their rooms. “It was hot. It’s Virginia. So we’re like, ‘all right, everyone’s going to be in like wife beaters and your boxers, your underwear, whatever’.”
Coogan adds that each actor had input into how their character would dress. “I made a character choice that Snuffy Bradberry wore corduroys, deck shoes, and tighty whities.”
Wil Wheaton also addressed and defended the underwear wardrobe choices. “People have really picked up on that,” he said, “but the dress was appropriate. To be fully clothed at that time of the year is unrealistic. Each actor decided how he wanted to dress.”
Throughout filming, the boys grew closer on the set of Toy Soldiers, and the strong bond they all experienced is evident both on-screen and off.
The boys would travel on off days, sightseeing in places like Washington D.C. and the Civil War battlefields of Charleston. Keith Coogan acknowledges the impact the production had on his life, saying “I especially hold dear the friendships I found on that movie.” Wheaton agrees. “I talk to Sean [Astin] all the time…[and]…I’m still in touch with Keith Coogan. I am lucky to have had these different relationships.”
Coogan also adds a story of off-screen teenage mischief.
“For some bizarre reason, Wil and I totally trashed the hotel we were staying at on Halloween. No permanent damage, just roll-away beds placed into elevators, and pool furniture tossed into the deep end. So, no real damage done. To the staff of the Days Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia, I apologize.”
When principal photography wrapped in November, the young cast celebrated by tearing down the fake brick wall surrounding the quad of The Regis “Rejects” School.
Released on April 26, 1991, Toy Soldiers opened to mixed reviews. But across the board, the cast received stellar notices with the chemistry between them being praised. The film debuted at #3 at the box office with just over $4 million (Stallone’s mobster comedy Oscar was number one and the Matt Dillon-Sean Young crime-drama A Kiss Before Dying was number two).
Toy Soldiers went on to gross $15 million, enough and then some to cover its $10 million budget. It was not a success at the box office, but not a complete flop either. It did solid business on home video, released just in time for Christmas. The film peaked at #13 while spending 12 weeks in the top 40 of the Billboard Video Rental charts. But it was on cable, primarily HBO, where Toy Soldiers really found an audience.
The film came the closest to presenting Hollywood with a new Brat Pack of sorts, a group of the hottest young actors at the time, all on their way to dominating Hollywood for years to come.
That potential never came to pass.
With the exception of Astin, who would find success with Rudy and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and would become a fan favorite on Stranger Things, the rest of the cast would see their careers peak the year Toy Soldiers was released.
Wheaton chose to virtually walk away from the business, while still appearing in numerous projects over the years. Coogan would find success later that summer in 1991 with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, but a dispute over billing in that film and the firing of his agent would plague Coogan for the rest of his career. He would never recapture the level of success he had in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
George Perez would appear in ’90s films Tin Cup and Selena, while T.E. Russell appeared in Trespass, Gladiator (1992), and both seasons of the CBS hospital drama City of Angels. Tragically, Shawn Phelan would suffer brain damage from a car accident in 1994. He would slip into a coma for the next 4 years until he died in 1998 at just 23 years old.
Roger Ebert completely trashed Toy Soldiers, essentially questioning why it exists (and insulting the people who would like it in the process). Gene Siskel wholeheartedly agreed.
But if you were a kid in the 1990s, you know why the film was made.
This is the type of film you played out with your friends in the basement or the backyard (or the whole house if parents weren’t home). It’s these kids of the time, the audience that found the film on HBO that really gave TOY SOLDIERS its lasting legacy, keeping the film alive over the years.
Perhaps this has been recognized as Jason Blum of Blumhouse is set to produce a new version of the film, with negotiations underway with Queen Latifah to both star in (presumably as the dean) and produce the remake. Will the new Toy Soldiers take place in an all-female school? Time will tell.
Full of familiar faces of the time, Toy Soldiers holds a special place inside the hearts of kids from the 1990s.
The Rejects use their cunning, trouble-making ways to save the day. They are not superheroes, they don’t suddenly become Rambo. Their skills and know-how are utilized to work with the authority they despise. Toy Soldiers gave the “rejects” of America some heroes to root for.
Not unlike the Losers Club in Stephen King’s IT, it showed everyone working together, giving a unique purpose to each individual character. The military, the police, the dean of the prep school, and the student body, in particular, the “Rejects,” all effectively work together as one.
It’s a message that demonstrates that it’s our differences that make us whole. If that’s not a good reason for a film to exist, then what is?