'Alien' at 40: Tom Skerritt separates fact from fiction about its mythological shoot

Ben Falk
Tom Skerritt pictured in 2016 (r) and in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Alien, which returns to U.K. cinemas on 1 March (Getty/20th Century Fox/Park Circus)

It’s been 40 years since Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm,  Harry Dean Stanton at al first set sail in the Nostromo in Alien.

Ever since Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi was released, it’s been dissected by fans around the world, and the story of its production has become legendary in its own right. 

To celebrate the anniversary – and the film’s cinema re-release on 1 March – we caught up with actor Tom Skerritt, aka the ill-fated Captain Dallas, to ask whether he could clarify or puncture a few of the celebrated stories surrounding mythological making of the iconic movie.

Myth: All the actors were surprised by the amount of gore during the chestburster scene

The chest-burst scene is an iconic moment of cinema (20th Century Fox/Park Circus)

False: Veronica Cartwright’s famously shocked expression led to the myth that none of the cast members knew what was going to happen to Hurt in the film’s most celebrated scene. That’s not exactly true – they’d read the script after all – but Skerritt admits he actually knew more than most.

“I was taking advantage of being with this great artist, following [Ridley] around to see the subtleties of his work,” he says. “So when they came to the chestburst scene, I’d watched them go through the whole process of ‘how are we going to do this?’ and ‘how is it going to burst out?’… so I was very aware of how it was going to be handled. I didn’t share that with anybody else because we all wanted to have a shocked look on their face.”

Myth: There were going to be love scenes between Ripley and Dallas

Name a more iconic foursome… we’ll wait (20th Century Fox/Park Circus)

True: “When I first read that script, I thought it was an interesting, solid science fiction thing,” remembers Skerritt. “Once [the alien arrives], what’s the point of having any suggested romance going on the side? It didn’t make sense to me when I read it.”

He quickly got a sense that Scott wasn’t interested in the sex either.

“[The romance] just doesn’t work. Any more than the thing towards the end when she’s trying to get off the spacecraft and she finds the lair of the beastie and sees me attached to a wall like a postage stamp (a scene in which Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley finds Dallas alive but incubating and egg  and kills him at his urging was initially left out but shows up on the Director’s Cut). All those things felt bumpy.

“You’re going down a smooth road of terror and suddenly these other things show up and slow everything down. That’s how I felt about the material and that’s basically how [Ridley Scott] felt about it too. We shot [the nest scene], we didn’t get around to doing the romance as he got rid of that early on.”

Myth: There’s lost footage of Jon Finch playing Kane before John Hurt

John Hurt as Kane (20th Century Fox/Park Circus)

Unresolved: Hurt was Ridley Scott’s first choice to play the doomed Kane, but was booked to make another movie, so the director hired another Brit called Jon Finch instead. The story goes that the diabetic Finch became ill on the first day of shooting and was let go from the production because he needed at least two weeks’ recuperation, by which point Hurt had become available again.

One photo of Finch’s brief appearance has surfaced, but fans have always wondered how much footage he shot. Skerritt’s answer – who is Jon Finch? “I knew nothing about that,” says the actor, surprised to even hear another actor had been hired at one point.

Myth: Skerritt was so savvy that before the shoot he asked to swap his salary for a percentage of the movie’s profits

The xenomorph makes his comeback in Alien (20th Century Fox/Park Circus)

False: The star initially turned down the film because there was no director attached and he felt the budget was too small. A little while later they came back to him saying Ridley Scott was going to direct and the budget had been quadrupled. The story goes that the actor read the new script and was so sure of its success that he asked to trade his salary for points in the movie.

“Ha ha ha ha! They just paid me and they went away!” laughs Skerritt, before revealing another cunning case of Hollywood accounting. “I remember bumping into Ridley a few years after that and he had points in the movie,” he recalls.

“Here’s this film that he knows is enormously successful financially, but they showed him documents that showed him the money was put over here and put over there and we’re still not profitable (laughs).”

Myth: The spacesuits worn by Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright and John Hurt were a nightmare to wear

The Nostromo crew scale the space jockey (20th Century Fox/Park Circus)

True: Apparently, it was only after Scott’s children briefly put on the nylon-lined suits to play the grown-ups in a long shot and passed out from the heat that it was agreed something needed to be done about them. Until then, thanks to the lights and their lack of breathability, a nurse had been standing by to give the performers oxygen.

“I suppose it’s true,” says Skerritt about their lack of comfort, before admitting it wasn’t as bad as everyone says.

“When you’re working with someone of that calibre, you don’t complain,” he adds. “You bought that ticket to get on the train of being an actor, so shut up and hit the lines. What’s the point of complaining about any of that?” 

Alien returns to cinemas on 1 March.

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