In 1984 the film Ghostbusters, starring Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis, was not just a box-office hit but a massive sensation. Ghostbusters launched a franchise that included toys, video games, a successful movie sequel and an animated TV spinoff that was beloved in its own right. The Real Ghostbusters lasted for 140 episodes over seven years from 1986 to 1991, appearing both on network television and in syndication. The Real Ghostbusters spawned two sequels: Slimer!, which focused on the solo adventures of the team’s mascot and resident ghost, and Extreme Ghostbusters, which had one of the original team serve as mentor to a group of college students to carry on the work of capturing errant apparitions.
But getting The Real Ghostbusters on the air didn’t happen without some difficulty, thanks to a forgotten — and, frankly, forgettable — show with a similar name. It took some behind-the-scenes wrangling to make the name available, and it didn’t happen without a little bad blood. Also, keeping it on the air came with some bits of controversy on the other side of the TV screen. This included clueless casting directors, actor changes, network demands to dumb it down to appeal more to children and sell even greater varieties of merchandise, and more. Here are 15 behind-the-scenes secrets about The Real Ghostbusters.
15. THE GHOST BUSTERS
Before Ghostbusters the movie and The Real Ghostbusters the animated series was The Ghost Busters, a live-action comedy that ran on Saturday mornings on CBS in 1975. It was produced by Filmation, the animation studio that rivaled Hanna-Barbera for dominance in the kid-vid sphere. Ghost Busters reunited F Troop stars Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch as Kong and Spenser, accompanied by Tracy, their gorilla, man Friday and driver. Tracy was played by Bob Burns.
There were 15 episodes in The Ghost Busters’ one season, filmed over a nine-week span. Each episode spoofed Mission: Impossible, with the trio getting instructions from the mysterious “Zero” hidden in some innocuous object that would blow up when the message was done. They then would go encounter the ghost at an eerie castle — the only one in town — have a zany chase and use a “Ghost De-Materializer” to save the day.
14. WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
Nine years after that first Ghost Busters show, Ghostbusters the movie came along. The concept of paranormal investigators was conceived and written by Dan Aykroyd, who wanted it to be a buddy comedy with his Saturday Night Live pal John Belushi. Director Ivan Reitman liked the original story but thought it impractical to film, as it called for the Ghostbusters to travel through time and space fighting giant ghosts. Also, Belushi died in 1982. So Aykroyd and co-writer Harold Ramis overhauled the script.
The new version of the story featured a quartet of ghostbusters scooting from one crisis to another in New York, ultimately stopping the demon Zuul from taking over the city. The film was one of the biggest hits of 1984, garnering mostly positive reviews and grossing more than $295 million globally.
13. SAME, BUT DIFFERENT?
In producing the Ghostbusters movie, Columbia Pictures Television overlooked the existence of the forgotten TV comedy The Ghost Busters. Filmation co-founder Lou Scheimer, in an interview with The Trades magazine, said he learned about the movie through the trade press. His reaction? “Well, I think they ripped us off. Fact is, when I first heard of it — I read it in the trades, I can’t remember which trade is was — I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. That’s our show. That’s our premise, that’s our concept.'”
Scheimer continued, “We got in touch with Columbia, and I had our attorneys call them. We met with them, and they said, ‘Well, this was an animated show on Saturday morning,’ and I said, ‘Huh-uh.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, ‘huh-uh’?’ And I said, ‘Live!’ And he said, ‘Uh-oh. We’ve got a problem.'”
12. HOLLYWOOD MATH
The lawsuit was resolved amicably, at least at first. The settlement required Columbia to license the name “Ghostbusters” from Filmation. Scheimer said, “What happened was, we made a deal with Columbia to give them the rights to do the picture, and we got $500,000 for the use, and I made a dumb move. Oh, and we got 1% of the profit from the pictures.”
Somehow, though, the payments beyond the $500,000 licensing fee never materialized, because, on paper, Ghostbusters never turned a profit. Scheimer said, “It was amazing. I think they spent something like $65 million, and they grossed something like $150 million, and they never had any profits. That’s when I was exposed to the Hollywood accounting practices.” He added, “They weren’t ‘practices’; they were very well practiced.”
With the film Ghostbusters a hit, and the cornerstone of a franchise, Columbia sought to create an animated spinoff. The “dumb move” Scheimer made was not getting Filmation animation rights to that spinoff in the settlement. Still, the two companies did work on a sequel series, with Filmation developing some early designs.
Schemer recalled negotiating with Herman Rush, president of Columbia Pictures Television: “I called Herman and suggested to him, ‘Why not do something together? We’ve got rights, you’ve got rights.’ And our parent company then, Westinghouse, said, ‘Oh, we don’t need them.’ And I said, ‘Bad idea. I think we need them. Because they’ll have one, we’ll have one, and nobody will know what’s going on.’ And as it turned out, that’s essentially what happened.”
10. FILMATION’S GHOSTBUSTERS
The animated Ghostbusters was produced by DIC Entertainment. Burned twice, Filmation put an animated spinoff of The Ghost Busters into production. (In video releases, the show was called Filmation’s Ghostbusters.) Ghostbusters from Filmation hit the air on NBC on Sept. 8, 1986 — a mere five days before The Real Ghostbusters debuted Sept. 13, 1986 on ABC.
Ghostbusters featured the sons of Kong and Spencer, who took over the ghost-hunting business from their now-retired fathers. They still had Tracy the gorilla as a companion, and a new jalopy, Ghost Buggy Jr., that could talk and shift into other forms, and fly. Unlike the live-action show, which were mostly single-episode stories with the guys against one-shot villains, the animated Ghostbusters had a recurring threat: the wizard Prime Evil. The first five episodes make a story that was meant to be re-edited into a short film.
9. A TITLE CHANGE
Columbia certainly wanted to distinguish its property from Filmation’s revival. But the settlement between Columbia and Filmation forbade Columbia from creating an animated series with the title Ghostbusters. Well, where there’s a will, there’s a loophole. Columbia got around the ban with a simple addition to the title: “The Real Ghostbusters.”
To drive home the point, the show made occasional jabs at Filmation’s property. The first episode from the first season, “Ghosts ‘R’ Us,” had the group fending off a rival service. Secretary Janine Melnitz answers the phone with “No, ma’am. This is the REAL Ghostbusters! Not Ghosts ‘R’ Us!” Another episode, “The Spirit of Aunt Lois,” had the team deal with ghosts in Ray Stantz’s aunt’s home — and one looked like Kong from the Filmation The Ghost Busters series.
8. ARSENIO HALL FOR ERNIE HUDSON
Stars from the film Ghostbusters had little to do with The Real Ghostbusters, save one: longtime character actor Ernie Hudson, who was Winston Zeddemore. Hudson auditioned to reprise the character for the cartoon show, but told A.V. Club that it was a strange experience:
“[I]t was funny, ’cause they said, ‘You don’t have to audition for the part, but the director wants to hear you read the material.’ So I went in to read the material, and the guy said, ‘No, no, no, that’s all wrong! When Ernie Hudson did it in the movie …’ And I’m like, ‘Well, wait a minute: I am Ernie Hudson!’ He learned later that they tapped comic Arsenio Hall for the role. “I dunno, I guess I was just there to have the director get on my nerves,” Hudson said. Hudson and Hall are friends, and he bears him no ill will.
7. SOUNDS LIKE SOMEONE ELSE
Rounding out the cast, Frank Welker did double duty as Ray Stantz and as Slimer. Laura Summer was Janine Melnitz for the first two seasons. Maurice LeMarche was cast as Egon Spengler, ignoring instructions at the audition to avoid doing a Harold Ramis impression. Lorenzo Music, from Garfield and Friends, was Peter Venkman.
In an interview with A Site Called Fred, LeMarche said, “After 65 episodes, apparently, legend has it Bill Murray finally came forward and said, ‘How come Harold’s guy sounds just like him and my guy sounds like Garfield?’ … Now, Bill’s not asking him to be fired or anything. But this one comment from Bill Murray, and with them having Ghostbusters II in the works, somebody in the machine said, ‘You know what? Bill’s unhappy. We got to get a guy who sounds like him.'” Dave Coulier replaced Music.
The one character who has appeared in all three Ghostbusters movies, as well as The Real Ghostbusters and its sequels and the video games is Slimer, the slobbering green ghost who serves as companion and mascot to the team. In the original film in 1984, Slimer is the first spook busted by the Ghostbusters, after some difficulty, from its usual haunt at the Sedgewick Hotel.
It is not referred to by name, but was then known by the cast and crew as “the Onionhead Ghost.” Dan Aykroyd called it the ghost of John Belushi. The Onionhead Ghost gained the name “Slimer” in The Real Ghostbusters episode “Citizen Ghost.” Ray Stantz gave it the name, just to annoy Peter Venkman, who got slimed by the ghost on their first meeting.
5. TOP WRITING TALENT
On the creative side, The Real Ghostbusters boasted a stable of science-fiction and animation titans. The show was green-lit for 13 episodes on ABC and an additional 65 episodes for syndication. Producers Len Janson and Chuck Menville found that prospect overwhelming, and opted to focus only on their own scripts. So DIC Entertainment founder Jean Chalopin elevated J. Michael Straczynski to story editor. Other writers included famed Star Trek script wrier David Gerrold, as well as Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, who later created the Disney Channel’s Kim Possible.
Straczynski ultimately created nearly 54 hours worth of material for The Real Ghostbusters. He would go on to create Babylon 5, as well as write Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and Thor for Marvel Comics and the Superman: Earth One graphic novels for DC, among other credits.
4. IF LOOKS COULD KILL
Early character designs and promotional art for The Real Ghostbusters gave the Peter Venkman character a stronger resemblance to actor Bill Murray than he had in the ongoing series, although he did appear younger. However, the look of the Egon Spengler character was markedly different than Harold Ramis, becoming tall and gangly, and getting blond hair with a pompadour. The other two guys, Winston Zeddemore and Ray Stantz, weren’t drawn to look much like Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd. Ultimately, the resemblances to the actors were toned down.
In the movie, all four of the Ghostbusters wore khaki-colored jumpsuits, but in the animated series, each Ghostbuster wore a distinct color, the better to tell them — and the merchandised products based on them — apart. Zeddemore wore gray, Stantz wore khaki, Venkman wore brown and Spengler wore blue.
3. ART IMITATES LIFE IMITATES ART
As a direct sequel to the first movie, The Real Ghostbusters gives an in-story explanation for why the guys change to the different-colored outfits, in the episode “Citizen Ghost.” After they defeated the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, their jumpsuits were contaminated with spectral energy, and had to be destroyed. That episode also establishes why Slimer is the group’s mascot and isn’t kept in the containment unit with the other ghosts they capture.
The episode “Take Two” involves the Ghostbusters traveling to Hollywood to consult on a movie based on their adventures. Shown the cast list, Winston Zeddemore says, “Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis? What’s that, a law firm?” At the end of the episode, they’re back in New York at the movie premiere. Actual clips from Ghostbusters the movie are shown. Venkman complains that the actor playing him doesn’t look like him.
2. IF IT AIN’T BROKE, BREAK IT
ABC brought in consulting firm Q5 to make its lineup more kid friendly and merchandisable. For The Real Ghostbusters, this meant dropping “scary” elements and any emphasis on the occult. Teen sidekicks Catherine, Jason and Donald were added as “the Junior Ghostbusters.” Q5 also called for Ray Stantz to be “selected out” of the show: “He does not appear to serve to benefit the program.” The writers held firm, and Stantz stayed.
Q5 also wanted each character to have a specific personality role, with Peter Venkman as “the Mouth,” Stantz as “the Hands” and Egon Spengler as “the Brain.” Winston Zeddemore was reduced to “the Driver.” The writers objected. J. Michael Straczynski told the Los Angeles Times, “A lot of their research and theories are strictly from voodoo. I think they reinforce stereotypes — sexist and racist. I think they are not helping television, they are diminishing it.”
1. JANINE, YOU’VE CHANGED
Q5 and ABC also had Janine Melnitz ovehauled into a “mommy figure.” Actress Laura Summer was replaced by Kath Soucie, and Melnitz lost her New Jersey accent and jewelry. Her eyeglasses were changed from triangular frames to round because “Children are afraid of sharp objects.” Her hairstyle was changed, and she stopped wearing miniskirts. J. Michael Straczynski said, “They wanted us to knock off all the corners. Janine was a strong, vibrant character. They wanted her to be more feminine, more maternal, more nurturing, like every other female on television.”
Displeased, Straczynski quit the series. He was invited back as story editor, but because of other commitments was only free to write a few episodes … which he did with the stipulation that he would ignore the changes. Straczynski mocks the differences in the episode “Janine, You’ve Changed,” as Melnitz is possessed by the “Makeoverus Lotsabucks” demon.
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