Stand by Me: Look back at the classic movie from 1986

Stand By Me - Movie poster

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‘Stand By Me’ realistic, evocative

By Bob Ross – Tampa Tribune (Florida) August 22, 1986

Our childhood memories do odd things as we age. Some events are intensified or glamorized. Others grow misty through the years, their rough edges softened by years of selective recall.

Either way, we dig out the old mental flashbacks from time to time, usually to persuade ourselves that life was somehow simpler, purer, in those half-forgotten days.

“Stand By Me” evokes such memories, condensing them into a remarkably realistic weekend excursion by four easy-to-like boys on the verge of entering seventh grade.

Stand By Me - Classic movie from 1986
Setting out to find body of a missing youth in “Stand by Me” are, from left: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell and Corey Feldman.

The film is refreshingly difficult to pigeonhole. Honest contradictions and built-in surprises give this quirky tale strong appeal to filmgoers who are tired of big-budget nonsense and adolescent junk.

It has a cast of youngsters, but it’s geared for grown-ups. It has a serious story, but it sneaks lots of laughs into unlikely places.

Even the movie’s sources are offbeat. “Stand By Me” is a non-horror story based on a novella (”The Body“) by fright-master Stephen King. And director Rob Reiner — whose first two films (”Spinal Tap,” ‘The Sure Thing”) are straight-out comedies — lovingly crafted the screenplay (by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) into an evocative tale about coming of age in late ’50s America.

“Stand By Me” takes its title from Ben E. King’s haunting pop tune — one of many songs that help establish the story’s 1959 Oregon setting.

If you notice that the title song actually came out in the early ’60s, don’t be upset. Like a memory from one’s youth, this film is pleasantly selective about details. Its bullies are meaner, its grown-ups more distant, its slang earthier, its dangers more perilous than in real life.

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The exaggerations are legitimate: They resemble our own imperfect memories of what happened when we were 11 or 12. The soundtrack might not be chronologically perfect, but it’s close enough for old rock ‘n’ rollers.

Another strange touch: The movie’s only “name” stars have cameo roles. Richard Dreyfuss plays The Writer, who appears in the film’s opening and closing sequences. The rest of the time, Dreyfuss’ voice-over narration gives droll commentary on the story, seen through the eyes of Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton).

Gordie is a fictional model of The Writer in 1959, during the summer between elementary and junior high schools. Earlier that year, Gordie’s older brother Denny was killed in a Jeep wreck.

When Gordie remembers his beloved brother, we see Denny as portrayed by John Cusack — the only other “name” in “Stand By Me.”

The rest of the cast form a talented ensemble of newcomers. Wheaton is accurately shy and withdrawn as the would-be writer who thinks his parents would have preferred that he die instead of his elder, athletic, sibling.

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River Phoenix plays Gordie’s pal Chris Chambers — the tallest, most mature member of the adventure-bound quartet.

Chris is the natural leader, but he comes from an unhappy background. Phoenix covers a wide emotional range as he portrays the crew-cut blond boy who feels that he must hide his intelligence and sensitivity.

The other two youngsters play lesser roles with equal accuracy. Corey Feldman portrays Teddy Duchamp, the self-hating son of a mental case, and Jerry O’Connell plays Vern Tessio, the roly-poly butt of endless practical jokes.

The story itself is simple. The four pals, like everyone else in the tiny town of Castle Rock, Oregon, have been wondering about the fate of a local boy who has been missing for days.

They overhear the town’s delinquents discussing their discovery of the boy’s body — a discovery the hoodlums cannot reveal because they were in a stolen car at the time.

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So Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern set out on a 30-mile overnight hike, seeking to win credit for finding the victim’s corpse.

At the heart of “Stand By Me” are the true-to-memory conversations and interactions among these four boys on the verge of young manhood.

Any male who was near 11 or 12 at the end of the ’50s will feel pangs of recognition for a time when sex was not the major topic of conversation.

For example, the boys sing heartily on their march. The song: ”Paladin,” the TV theme from “Have Gun, Will Travel.” They discuss important issues of the day, such as why the people on “Wagon Train” never seemed to get to their destinations.

And they wonder about cartoon characters. “What is Goofy?” one of them muses. “Mickey’s a mouse, Pluto’s a dog, Donald’s a duck — so what is Goofy?”

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The film’s most delightful interlude takes place around a campfire, when Gordie regales his buddies with a humorous story of his own invention. Although mildly disgusting, it’s a satirical tale worthy of a preteen Mark Twain.

Kiefer Sutherland — look-alike son of Donald — gives a memorable, brief performance as the town’s leading young criminal. Otherwise, “Stand By Me” belongs to its impressive 12-year-old actors.

Don’t be put off by their ages. These young performers are playing to adult sensibilities. Even so, younger viewers should be able to enjoy the movie as much as their parents.

The R rating comes because of a forbidden four-letter word that is said 11 times. Most of today’s youngsters hear the word that many times each day. At least this time it’s part of a fine piece of storytelling.

Stand By Me movie trailer

YouTube video

Critic’s rating: 3/4 stars
Movie board rating: R (profanity)
Stars: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Rob Reiner
Plot summary: Four Oregon preteens set out on a 30-mile adventure and learn a bit about themselves along the way.
Running time: 89 minutes

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Wil Wheaton interview from 1986: Making ‘Stand by Me’ scary, yet rewarding

By Ed Blank  – Pittsburgh Press (Pennsylvania) August 27, 1986

Being a child actor isn’t a crime, although watching many of them constitutes punishment. As soon as most of them learn they’re cute, they’re deadly. Spare us this day our daily dread of Drew Barrymore and other precious commodities.

Few pictures have as much to do with likable and lifelike adolescents as Rob Reiner’s film “Stand by Me.” And seldom has a director gotten four such unaffected, starring performances as those by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell.

In “Stand by Me,” 39-year-old Gordie, played briefly by Richard Dreyfuss, learns of a friend’s death, and recalls a special summer when they, and two other buddies, were 12.

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In the picture-long flashback, we observe the boys back in ’59 when they humorously and movingly lick their family wounds and set out to find the corpse of someone they know.

Wil Wheaton plays the Dreyfuss character, Gordie, who was to grow up and become a writer — in effect, Stephen King, who wrote the atypical novella upon which co-writers and co-producers Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans based their script.

“I know Ray and Bruce were trying to put (the financing for the movie) together for a long time,” Wheaton said.

Happily, their effort for such a sensitive film is paying off. It’s a hit, and in this case, a genuine sleeper.

Wheaton says he “first read for it four months before shooting began. That was in January 1985, and we started filming in June. I know I was the first to read for the part of Gordie. I wanted that or Chris (played by River Phoenix).”

At his first interview Wheaton saw Rob Reiner, “but not just him. There were a lot of people there…

“He’s wonderful. He’s like a kid — a big kid. We joked about him being the fifth kid — the five kids. He’s very understanding and very, very, very patient. You wanted to please him, to do good for him. It was neat when he was happy. He was never negative.”

Stand By Me - Movie lobby card 1986

But you could tell if he wasn’t satisfied?

“Yeah, he’d say, ‘OK, that’s good. Now let’s try it this way. He was always positive.

“We spent two weeks rehearsing on site in Eugene (Oregon) — theater exercises where you improvise within character. You do things like: If Chris were to do this, what would Gordie do?”

Most difficult?

“The body scene — when we get to the body — because it’s so emotional… And the (railroad) trestle scene,” in which the boys race to cross a narrow bridge before a train catches them.

“That was probably the hardest ’cause we were walking the tracks in about 600 degrees heat, and it was a real trestle. It was 100 feet up, and the train really weighed six tons or whatever trains weigh. We used stunt doubles for some of that, but it was still very scary. The danger was real. It was right there.”

YouTube video

Anyone Dreyfuss’s age will recognize the 16 late ’50s pop songs used to accent the 1959 setting — songs such as “Rockin’ Robin,” “Whispering Bells” and “Come Go with Me.” But for the real boys acting characters in an era that pre-dates them, the music would be meaningless.

“I am an oldies fan,” Wheaton says. “Any song from before 1970 I like. I knew all the songs they used in the movie. River knew them, too. They gave (the four boys) a demo tape, though, to familiarize everyone with ‘Lollipop,’ ‘Sorry (‘I Ran All the Way Home)’ and ‘Paladin (Have Gun, Will Travel)’ because those are the ones we sing (a few bars of).”

The music, of course, was interspersed during final editing — not played while the scenes were being shot. Indeed, Wheaton saw a rough cut in which songs were used that later were substituted.

“I’ve seen it four times so far. (The actors) got very lucky. There’s hardly anything missing that we did. We had wonderful editors.”

Though he has been a Los Angeles resident most of his 14 years, Wheaton was born in Pasadena, the oldest of three children.

“I have a sister Amy, 8, and a brother Jeremy, 10. My father is a cardiopulmonary perfusionist. Don’t ask me to spell that. He runs a heart-lung machine during surgery. My mom’s a real estate agent.”

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Wil Wheaton has been acting professionally half his life. He started on a Pudding Pops commercial with Bill Cosby, appeared in the TV movie “A Long Way Home” with Timothy Hutton, and was in an episode of “Highway to Heaven” and the TV remake of “The Defiant Ones.” He’ll turn up shortly in a TV pilot based on “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

His other movies are “Hambone and Millie” — which never quite got released — “The Last Starfighter” and “The Buddy System.”

In playing Susan Sarandon’s son in “The Buddy System,” he co-starred with Richard Dreyfuss. But whereas he and Dreyfuss shared scenes in that, they never even saw each other while shooting “Stand by Me.”

“I’m still hoping to see him at a screening,” says Wheaton. “I’m an avid moviegoer. I didn’t like ‘Howard the Duck’ because they changed the plot, but I liked ‘Maximum Overdrive.’

“I’d go to see any Stephen King movie. I minded that he said it was a moron movie because a lot of people took that the wrong way. All he meant was that you’d have to be a moron to believe the plot. I don’t go for the plot anyway, I just go to be entertained. I like horror movies.”

Ambitions? “I want to be a cinematographer or a director.” Of, we might hope, better movies than “Howard the Duck” or “Maximum Overdrive.” Movies of the caliber of “Stand by Me.”

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Where are they now?

Wil Wheaton went on to a regular role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and has since enjoyed a career as an actor, an insightful and popular writer/blogger, and audiobook narrator among other pursuits.

Jerry O’Connell has continued to work as an actor, and starred in the sci-fi series Sliders. He is married to actress Rebecca Romijn.

Corey Feldman went on to fame as one of “The Two Coreys” — together with Corey Haim — and starred in several other movies, including The Lost Boys.

Sadly, River Phoenix died from a drug overdose just seven years after this film’s release. However, his younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix (then using the first name Leaf) has gone on to great success.

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