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‘Big Daddy’ Marked the Moment Adam Sandler Started to Grow Up

Steve Franks, the screenwriter behind the hit 1999 film, explains how the script he wrote while working with animatronic birds at Disneyland ended up becoming a pivotal moment in Sandler’s literal on-screen maturation

Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.

From “Scuba Steve, damn you!” to “Will somebody get this kid a Happy Meal!?” Big Daddy was one of the most quotable movies of 1999 — and as the seventh highest grossing film of the year, it was a big box office hit, too. But Big Daddy wasn’t just another funny Adam Sandler movie, it represented something far more important to his on-screen evolution.

After the silliness of Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, many were baffled that Sandler chose to make Big Daddy, a much more sentimental movie where he cares for the child of his roommate — played by Jon Stewart — after the kid is dropped on his doorstep. (Ultimately, it ended up striking a nice balance between heartwarming and Sandler’s Happy Madison brand of humor.) It was impossible back then to foresee movies like Punch Drunk Love and Uncut Gems in Sandler’s future, but Big Daddy offered a tiny glimpse at such against-type cinematic turns.

All the while, Big Daddy also kicked off the career of screenwriter Steve Franks, who would go onto a successful TV career as the creator, writer and executive producer of Psych as well as the executive producer of the Rush Hour TV series. Big Daddy still holds a special place in his heart though, especially since, before it came out, he was working a none-too-glamorous job of supervising animatronic birds in Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room.

I recently caught up with Franks to talk about what inspired the idea for the script, how it almost starred John Cusack and why he couldn’t help but cry when he finally saw it up on the big screen.

How did you come to write Big Daddy?

In 1997, I’d been at Disneyland for longer than is good for a burgeoning career. When you’re working there, you end up talking to a lot of kids. I wasn’t thinking about having kids, but when I was talking to them, I thought that I was fun and that I was entertaining to them. So I started to think about what it would be like if I had a kid, and while it probably would be a lot of responsibility, I thought that I could be fun for a little while. An idea dawned on me, and instead of doing my job — which was basically making sure the animatronic birds didn’t explode — I started writing. 

Over the course of a summer, I wrote a script. It was set in a theme park, and it was about this Sandler-esque guy who was approaching 30 and who was doing just the bare minimum to get by. He had a roommate, and one day, this kid is dropped off at his door. His roommate isn’t stepping up, so the guy who works at the amusement park starts taking care of him.

I didn’t have an agent at that time, but I had a friend who was working as an assistant in L.A. and I told him, “I have a script that I think might get me an agent,” and that was it. It got sold to Columbia for almost nothing. It was a low, low priority for them, but after my first rewrite, they really loved what I did. So much so that they hired a director and began scouting locations and casting the roles.

Was it always meant for Adam Sandler?

No. Chris Farley was a guy who really wanted to do it, and they had a meeting with him. That would have been a great movie, too, but it would have been very different. Another name being thrown out was John Travolta. I’m a huge John Travolta fan, but I didn’t quite see that. John Cusack was another guy, and for a while, it was looking like it was going to be him or Sandler. But they went with Sander because he was becoming this big star at the time.

When did you meet Sandler?

I met him a little bit early on, and I spoke with him a handful of times. I was struck by what a quiet, reserved, soft-spoken, gentle soul he was. At the time, he was doing these funny movies with these characters that had these rage explosions, so I was shocked by how sweet he was. You didn’t see that sweetness on Saturday Night Live or the first batch of his movies, but as soon as you met him, you knew it was there. It was brave of him to show that on screen because it’s a risk — you don’t want to alienate your audience. You want to take them along for the ride, which he ended up doing perfectly.

This movie was something of a career turn for him, did you have any inkling as to why he wanted to do it?

At the time, Adam Sandler was, in a small way, doing the Tom Hanks trajectory. Tom Hanks started with silly comedies like Bachelor Party, then he did stuff that was a little more grounded with bigger emotional stakes, but still with gags and jokes. That’s sort of a thing I do — I’ve done it on Psych; it’s not like doing a drama, but it’s a nice three-quarter step into that area, but where you can still do your character. 

Adam Sandler is a good actor, but it’s not like Big Daddy was a movie where he suddenly thought he was some big, dramatic actor. It was a safe jump, but also very smart. He’s a guy who knows who he is and makes really smart decisions. Had he continued to do just movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, I think his career would have stalled at some point.

How did the project change when Sandler was cast?

Well, when they hired Sandler, my participation went way down because he had his own guys. Suddenly, the guy didn’t work in a California theme park, he was in New York and he worked in a toll booth. All the character names were changed too, which I never really understood. My version didn’t have any peeing on walls or tripping rollerbladers with sticks. All that stuff was added to Sandler-ize the script, and it all made sense. 

But the basic premise of a kid getting dropped off at the door and the ex-girlfriend and the roommate not stepping up was pretty much the same. And the spirit of my script was very much there, too.

How did it feel when the movie became such a big hit?

I couldn’t believe it. It was supposed to be this little $20 million movie that did okay, then made some money on VHS and cable. Nobody expected it to make $40 million on its opening weekend and then $160 million overall. For a week or two, I think it was the biggest comedy opening of all time. I mean, comedies just didn’t do that. It was amazing. 

Did I wish they used a little bit more of my script? Sure. But for a guy who just a few months earlier was punching buttons on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, this was all just fine.

Plus, it’s still going! Not that long ago, a friend of mine called me and told me Big Daddy was the sixth biggest movie on Netflix. I said, “How!? I thought everyone had seen it?” I just love it, and I love that it’s lasted like it has.

Did Sandler’s performance impress you in the final cut?

Look, I’m not a guy who cries in movies, but I actually teared up at one point. It was where he said goodbye to the kid. There I was, sitting in the theater with my parents, and I just lost myself in it — I was emotionally touched by it. No one expected that from Sandler at that point in his career, and he did it so well. It’d be a long time until he’d do Punch Drunk Love and really step out in a performance, but he was capable of it all along.