How we made Bugsy Malone

Scott Baio: ‘I kissed Jodie Foster at the Holiday Inn in Slough’

Alan Parker, director

I had four young children and we used to go to a cottage in Derbyshire at weekends. On the long, boring car journey up there, I started telling them the story of a gangster called Bugsy Malone. They’d ask me questions and I’d make up answers, based on my memories of watching old movie reruns as a kid.

I’d won a Bafta for a Play for Today, The Evacuees, for the BBC in 1975. Now I was trying to get into movies. The British film industry was flat: nobody would finance my scripts because they were too “parochial”. So I wrote an American film, choosing to fuse two classic Hollywood genres: the musical and the mob.

It was my son Alex who said: “Can the heroes be kids?” I’d done plenty of adverts with children, but a feature film is a logistical nightmare: the legal constrictions, schooling, minimal hours allowed “under the lights”. But I was just starting out. I was fearless and a bit naive.

For casting, I lugged a video camera all over America, and even went to US airforce bases in the UK. We recorded almost 100 school Christmas shows and saw almost 10,000 kids. In a Catholic school in Brooklyn, I asked: “Who’s the most badly behaved kid in the class?” Thirty kids pointed to one chubby little boy at the back. “Cassisi!” they screamed. John Cassisi put his hands up and smiled. Although he had never acted before, he yelled out lines from script with gusto. I knew right away we had our Fat Sam.

Jodie Foster, who played his moll Tallulah, had made more films than I had, so probably knew more about film-making. She was 13 but had been acting since she was three, and had just filmed Taxi Driver. She got on well with the cast, and certainly wasn’t aloof, which she had every right to be. I suspect she relished being surrounded by kids for once, as she had spent her professional life surrounded by adults.

‘My name is Tallulah’ … Jodie Foster as the nightclub singer

Although Scott Baio, our Bugsy, was perfectly behaved on set, he was probably a handful for the chaperones. Each morning, he’d regale us with the antics from the night before. A starchy version of Cinderella was shooting at Pinewood at the same time we were there. Its makers constantly complained that our mini-gangsters were running up and down the corridors, terrorising the Cinderella cast in their crinolines and powdered wigs.

The film was quite successful in the UK, but not in the US. Over the years, when I’ve done retrospectives, I’ve never included it, as I didn’t think it fitted with the rest of my work. But curiously, as I get older, I realise it still looks modern. It hasn’t dated. I’m rather proud of it.

Scott Baio, actor

I was 13 and sick of showbusiness, sick of all these auditions. So when I went and auditioned for Alan, I threw the script at him and walked out. They’d already cast Bugsy, they said, but they liked my attitude.

My father was dead against it, but my mother talked him into it. I’d never even been out of New York and now I was in England. I’m not sure I totally understood what it meant to play the lead: all I knew was that I had a lot of lines. I was worried I’d have to sing, but then they used adult voices for those bits.

The set was incredible – this whole street, full of stores. For the first few days it was like being at Disneyland. All we did was fool around, getting into all these nooks and crannies, looking for stuff to break or steal. I remember the cars: they were actually bikes, with car frames wrapped around them. If we saw any sitting about the set, we’d just jump in them and pedal about wildly. In all, there were 200 kids: I’m surprised Alan didn’t go crazy.

‘They were loud and pretty dangerous’ … the splurge guns.
‘They were loud and pretty dangerous’ … the splurge guns. Photograph: Allstar/Tristar

At first, the splurge guns fired these big wax pellets. They were hooked up to air jets and had a quite a kick. They were loud and pretty dangerous, so it was decided they should shoot ping-pong balls instead. For the splurge impact, they’d cut to another shot made by someone throwing artificial cream.

I remember Jodie walking in for her first day. She was a little shy. It’s hard to come into a situation where people are already friends – and everyone thought John and I were these tough, scary New York kids. But we stayed in the same hotel and our families hit it off. We’d be driven around and go for dinner. She liked doing goofy things. I think we ended up kissing. We made out at the Holiday Inn in Slough.

• This article was amended on 14 October 2015. An earlier version incorrectly quoted Alan Parker as saying that The Evacuees was “a play I’d written”. He did not say that. In fact the play was written by Jack Rosenthal. The error was introduced at the editing stage.


Interviews by Andrew Dickson

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