A: (Long laugh) There must have been 40 drafts of the screenplay before we went into production. It was originally with Universal. They put it in turnaround because I wasn't making the character likable enough. And then Disney picked it up, and I went through the same process with them. I would fight them at every turn, and there was a huge battle over making the lead younger, which I eventually did.
I realized — and I think I knew all along — that the people who wanted me to make the changes were correct. They wanted movie characters. Characters who were upbeat and who were going to have a happy ending and a possible future in their lives. That's what you want for a big commercial Hollywood movie. So I tried to walk that thin line between giving them what they wanted and not completely betraying the whole arena of saloons in general.
I went to a meeting once, I guess I can tell this story, with Michael Eisner, who ran the studio, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the boss, the production head. Someone mentioned that this might be a good vehicle for Tom Cruise. Eisner says, "He'll never do this, don't waste your time, he can't play this part." And then Katzenberg says, "Well, he's really interested in doing it," and without skipping a beat Eisner says, "He's perfect for it, a perfect fit!" That's the movie business: I hate him, I love him; I love him, I hate him! Guess I just buried myself with Eisner now.
Q: I have to ask about all the trick bartending stuff.
A: That's actually not in the book. It was something that we did just to amuse ourselves. At this one bar, Spring Street Bar in SoHo, this guy I worked with, we used to juggle the cans and throw stuff to each other. We'd do it, and people would laugh, and we'd show off, because you are on stage; when you're behind the bar, people are looking at you. And after a while you start to play to that — you can't help it. Or I couldn't help it, anyway.
In the book, I just describe it as people being very adept: very quick with your hands, you can make a lot of drinks at once, hold a lot of glasses. When we were making the movie, I took Tom and (co-star) Bryan Brown to my friend's bar and started showing them what we used to do, and they picked up on it and invented their own moves. They took it a lot further than we ever did, by the way. We didn't throw bottles to the extent that they did. And now you have these competitions for bartenders every year at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas where they come and do these tricks.
Q: This is all inspired by the movie, right? You basically pushed this trend into the world.
A: I think so. When the movie came out, I went downtown and these friends of mine would say, "Thanks a lot, now I've got people coming in and telling me to throw bottles up in here because of this movie! Who needs you?" These drunken bartender friends of mine were not happy: "On top of making the drink, now I gotta juggle these f--- bottles and put on a show for them?"
Q: What did you think of the movie when it came out?
A: I was not happy with the final product. It got so savaged by the critics — and I mean, it got creamed — that I can't think of a good review. All the major people whacked it — and whacked me too, personally. I was accused of betraying my own work, which is stupid. So I was pretty devastated. I literally couldn't get out of bed for a day. The good thing about that experience is that it toughened me up. It was like basic training. This movie got killed, and then after that I was OK with getting killed — I got killed a few more times since then, but it hasn't bothered me.
I remember it was late one night in Vermont this was a couple years after the movie came out, and I was driving and there was a call-in show on the radio and some guy called in who was a bartender who said, "I loved that book — this guy's a sell-out, he's a creep, he destroyed his own book!" And I'm driving, listening to this and it was just bizarre! But then a few days after that, it was hunting season, I got up early to get some milk and I went to this grocery store that was a combination grocery store-video store, and these hunters were standing around in their camouflage gear and rifles, watching "Cocktail" with the woman who worked there, who then gave me a dirty look because she had to put the movie on pause to help me, this schmuck, buy his milk and maple syrup.
Q: Now that we're a few decades removed, do you think some of the movie's enduring appeal is really about nostalgia for all those cheesy elements that people might have initially resisted in 1988?
A: Yeah, the parts of the movie I found cheesy I find endearing now. I was at a screening and somebody got up, like a really huffy-tweedy kind of guy, and he said, "Well, it has a certain Reagan-era charm to it." Whatever that means. So people are a little more forgiving toward it. I guess the passage of time kind of mellows it and puts it in its proper context. It's probably the same reason we like those old Cagney movies from the '30s; because if you go back and read the reviews of those classics we love? They got creamed too.
Q: Are you OK with the fact that people make jokes about the movie?
A: Totally. I don't know why this is, but I stopped taking myself that seriously. I never took myself as seriously as other people do and now even less. I'm doing the best that I can and working as hard as I can just like everybody else. But if people want to goof on the movie, that's great.
Q: Did you make up Coughlin's Laws, or did you know someone who had a running joke in that vein?
A: Yeah, that was me. That was me! It wasn't Gould's Law, though. We called it the Penal Code. And if you did something wrong, you got a penalty. There was a lot of late-night bloviating about stuff, that's where this is coming from. It got too long and complicated to put in the book, even.
Q: Any credence to the rumors that there's a Broadway musical version of "Cocktail" in the works?
A: That's ongoing and it's been an interesting process. I find myself defending the movie as it is against attempts to do silly things to it. People always want to get their hands on something and change it. But I own it, so if you want to do it, you have to come through this bulky, pain-in-the-ass guy. Here's what I think: If you have something that's so popular, it's crazy to make the show completely different. You cannot frustrate expectations. That soundtrack went quadruple platinum. So fine, write more songs, but you have to include the emblematic songs like "Kokomo" and "Hippy Hippy Shake."
I have never said this about anything, but because of the history of this movie and even the book, this would be a hit. Everybody I speak to says, "Yeah, I'd go see that." So what I'm trying to do now is keep it pure. I mean, keep the impure movie pure, if that makes any sense.