Before Keanu Reeves became synonymous with Neo from the Matrix, he was the doofus in 1989’s comedy sci-fi movie, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Reeves was only 22 when he was cast as Ted in the time-travelling, phone booth odyssey, which wasn’t meant to be a critically acclaimed film or win any Oscars.
But the movie became a cult classic. Reeves and Alex Winter (aka Bill) became a beloved duo known for their kindness and decency, in an era when phone booths and words like “bummer” were still being used. Let’s go back through time into the world of Bill and Ted and see what really went down during and after the movie.
Lots of Darkness and Pain
The scenes at the beginning of the movie, when Ted’s father (the angry police captain) berates his son, were quite intense−something that we, as kids, didn’t really pay attention to when watching it back in 1989 or the early ‘90s.
“Considering what a light movie it is, and how light it felt to us to create it, there’s actually a lot of darkness and pain in it,” co-screenwriter Chris Matheson said in an interview with his writing partner, Ed Solomon. These days, oppressive police captains and lewd professors don’t play so well on screen since we’ve grown wiser.
Ted Was Scared of His Dad
But back in the ’80s, Bill’s and Ted’s dads were your run of the mill crappy dads. Matheson and Solomon weren’t trying to make a commentary on society. Broken families were simply common and not so much acknowledged.
Seeing those father-son scenes now, though, it’s hard not to pay attention to the toxicity. Reeves’ Ted didn’t roll his eyes or fight his dad back. He flinched instead. He was scared of his father. “When I first played the role,” Reeves said during a 30th anniversary interview of the movie, “I was thinking about this kind of character and personality… that’s born out of pain.”
Bill’s Dad Was a Creep
As for Bill’s dad, he was a creep. The professor who left his wife for one of his students – a former high-school classmate of Bill’s. As the dad gropes the blonde teen in front of his son, Winter’s Bill looks like he wants to gag. “Your mom’s super hot, dude,” Ted teases. “Shut up, Ted,” Bill replies.
The truth is, after the sequel, we were done with the duo. Bill and Ted are now dads, and time has changed them. Winter has a dad bod while Reeves, as we’ve seen him a lot recently, is less surprising in his appearance. But if you look closely, you’ll see his hairline has receded a bit.
The Era of Excellent Adventure
It was a different era. Now, after a sequel (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), a cartoon series (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures), and a brand of cereal (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal), our favorite Bill and Ted came back in 2020 for Bill & Ted Face the Music.
Looking back, we can make sense of Excellent Adventure and how it came out at a moment when America needed a nice dose of decency and kindness. Voters chose George Bush after eight years of Ronald Reagan, Wall Street came out in 1987, and by 1989, when we were first introduced to Bill and Ted, greed was the zeitgeist.
Forever Thought of as an Airhead
The first Bill & Ted movie made Reeves a star. Thanks to his natural talent of playing the character, he made many people – to this day – think of him as an airhead. But to most people’s surprise, the on-screen doofus is something of a philosopher king off-screen.
1989 was also the year Reeves played alongside John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, but it was hard to see past Ted. Reeves happened to connect with Ted on a basic level. He saw the character as a sad kid whose insistence on being kind was his personal act of rebellion against his bully of a father.
Bankruptcy, Casting Problems, and a Horrible Ending
Making Excellent Adventure was an adventure of its own. The movie survived the bankruptcy of its original production company (DEG), a major role being uncast until last minute, and an ending that was so bad it had to be completely redone.
The movie that cost $10 million to make ended up earning $40 million at the box office. “We went through a very tumultuous time, actually, even getting it on the screen,” director Stephen Herek recalled. “There was a period of time where it wasn’t even going to be released.”
It Started as a College Screenplay
While in college and doing stand-up, Matheson and Solomon wrote a comedy screenplay about two upbeat yet dumb characters on a time-traveling adventure. The two characters, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan, were on a mission to ace their history report.
“The story was incredibly laugh-out-loud,” said Herek. “They wrote such lovable characters, and their jokes are always a little off-center. I remember a couple times just belly laughs, although after reading the script I’m going, ‘Wow, this is either going to be a huge hit or a huge flop.’”
Keanu Reeves Was Perfect as Ted
Riding on the success of the low-budget comedy Critters, Herek auditioned between 200 to 300 actors for the roles of Bill and Ted. Reeves was one of the first to try out for the role, and for Herek, it was like “Wow, he’s Ted,” and they loved the “lovable goofiness to him.”
All they needed next was to find the perfect partner. So, they called back 24 hopefuls (everyone auditioned for both roles) and at the end of the day, it was Reeves and Winter who mixed the best together.
Reeves and Alex Winter Hit It Off Immediately
Reeves recalled arriving at the location for the rehearsal, where he met Winter. “We had some stuff in common — we both played bass — and just started to talk. We hit it off. We have kind of similar humor and interests, and then when we were working together there was something else there that was cool.”
The duo developed a bond immediately. “We realized we saw the characters the same way, and we could kind of riff as a symbiotic unit,” Winter said. He described how they both agreed to play the characters as “human beings” rather than just caricatures.
Creating Hyper-Real Characters
Winter added, “The way that Keanu and I played the characters was sort of a mix of hyper-real and totally sincere.” Reeves referred to it as “being kind of commedia dell’arte” where they were playing “clowns, fools, but in an epic sense that they’re confronting tragedy with ebullience.”
Herek would shoot a scene a couple times to get the choreography and the delivery right, and, in order to keep the tone for Bill and Ted, it was all about what he called “the puppy factor.”
The Puppy Factor
The director explained how he ended up using the phrase – the puppy factor – to tell Winter and Reeves: “I need more Labrador retriever.” Herek said he felt that the guys were like lovable Labradors. “And weirdly enough, they understood what I was talking about.”
Remember the Star Wars lightsaber fight between Bill and Ted? Winter recalled how that happened spontaneously because they were in “these extremely heavy, real, not-prop suits of armor that were incredibly painful and hot and heavy, and so we just started riffing.”
From Arizona to Italy
Whenever something happened that spontaneously that was improvised – and the crew laughed – Herek chose to keep it in the film. And it happened quite often, despite the hurried schedule and all the location changes.
The production was moved from Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, to places in Italy. Then, there was the whole dilemma of casting the role of Rufus, the guys’ time traveler and mentor friend: you know, the role that was eventually played by the late, great George Carlin.
They Tried Getting Edie Van Halen
Rufus’s role remained unfilled up until the last minute, despite the producers’ best efforts. Harek recalled having reached out to “all sorts of people” for the role, even Eddie Van Halen. The problem was they were making a movie that wasn’t “on anybody’s radar.”
They wanted Van Halen involved in some way as they were constantly talking about the band in the movie. So, they figured, “Well, why not Rufus?” Because of the whole rock theme, they wanted someone with at least some acting experience or with a known presence. They also considered Ringo Starr and Roger Daltrey.
The Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin as Joan of Arc
Solomon knew Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as well as the Tubes’ Fee Waybill. The screenwriter recruited them alongside the Motels’ Martha Davis for the roles. Maintaining the rocker vibe, Herek also cast Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go’s) as Joan of Arc.
“Based on a lot of paintings, she actually looked a lot like some of the renditions of her,” Herek said. “And just having this pixie kind of girl in chain mail I thought was kind of sexy.” Her band was very popular at the time and “She was a lot of fun to work with.”
Getting George Carlin on Board
Yet they still couldn’t find the right Rufus. They kept searching, looking at Charlie Sheen and Sean Connery as possible actors. And none of them are comedians, as Winter pointed out. To him, it only made sense to get a comedian for the role, and, luckily, they did.
Eventually, the idea of George Carlin came up. Producers Scott Kroopf and Bob Cort had worked with the comic in Outrageous Fortune, so they pitched the idea to Herek. Aside from the fact that they were desperate for someone, Carlin was already a legend, so they said “Well, shit yeah.”
The Three Talked Politics
Reeves shared how he was a true fan of Carlin’s. He would go to the library as a kid to listen to his comedy albums and watch his comedy on TV. He was a fan of his since his teens, “so to meet him was extraordinary,” said Reeves.
“Carlin was like a cool glass of water,” Winter added. “He was shy, he was reserved, just a very gentle guy, very respectful, not the public persona at all.” Considering how both he and Reeves were politically engaged people, as was Carlin, the three of them spent a lot of time talking politics.
Carlin Wasn’t Into Improvising
Everyone figured Carlin would naturally riff through every scene of his, but the comedic actor proved to be a very calm and controlled. He took it very seriously when he came onto the set and was totally prepared. He didn’t even like to improvise, which Herek thought was interesting.
“I thought he would be a little more off-the-cuff, but he actually stayed pretty tight on the script.” If he had any witty idea, he wouldn’t do it unless he had permission from the director.
The Original, Really Bad Ending
The original ending for Excellent Adventure was “completely different and really bad” as Winter put it. What did the script call for? Well, it was Bill and Ted sitting on Bernie Casey’s desk, presenting a boring history lesson to a “small, ugly suburban classroom.”
Winter explained that it involved an ugly setting with no scale at all. Then, they were going to the prom with their princesses. There are apparently shots on the internet of them from that scene, which was filmed, where they’re wearing tuxedos with shorts.
The Iconic Phone Booth
Reeves appreciated that they got another swing at the ending. The final product had Bill and Ted in a concert-like stage setting with an epic light show, which was much more fitting to the pair’s rock ’n’ roll dreams.
Aside from the issues surrounding the ending, the reality of filming in the now-iconic phone booth – the one that goes through space and time – was a huge issue. As Reeves remembers it, what helped was how cooperative everyone was. Everyone was thinking, “How can we literally fit together, and where’s the humor?”
The Phone Booth Dilemma
But the fun of figuring out how to stuff ten characters into the booth dissipated as the days ran longer and the shots required lots of trial and error. “We’re all in a regular phone booth with our boiling-hot costumes and varying degrees of body odors intermingling, you know?” Winter laughed.
Nothing about the phone booth went as planned, which for Winter was basically a “rickety piece of crap.” With close to ten people inside the thing, which was duct-taped to a hydraulic unit in front of a green screen in their Tempe, Arizona studio, it was “like a death ride canoe from the worst carny ride you’ve ever been on.”
On the Cutting Room Floor
The initial cut of Excellent Adventure was “a lumbering two hours and 25 minutes” before they got to cutting scenes out. One of the scenes that made it to the cutting room floor was an opening dance number that Winter remembers vividly.
Reeves, however, has no memory of it. As for Herek, he doesn’t really like to discuss it. The scene saw the guys break into this air-guitar dance number while waiting for the bus, but it all “went the way of the dodo,” Winter said.
Rehearsing in Stevie Nicks’ Dance Studio
Winter recalled Stevie Nicks’ dance studio in her home in Phoenix, which is where he and Reeves rehearsed that scene for weeks. But that was just one scene; the truth is the entire movie almost never made it to the public.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure almost never saw the light of day, and that’s because of the production company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG). The company had filed for bankruptcy protection and the movie got shelved. Winter, for one, didn’t think the movie would ever make it out. “I completely wrote it off and just went back to work on my film stuff.”
Production Went Bankrupt
A few executives from DEG moved over to Nelson Entertainment, thankfully, and the movie was back on track. Nelson got the rights to it for basically nothing, enabling the project to keep moving, and then it eventually landed at Orion for release.
The movie was shown at a test screening in the San Fernando Valley, where Winter said, “It went over like gangbusters.” He then got into his own filmmaking, but suddenly saw an ad in the trades with a photo of him and Reeves – a double-fold in the center, with them sitting on piles of cash.
Winter said that was “when it first hit me that the movie was doing something.” And just like that, their lives both changed. They were now a part of pop culture history. “It was just really nice to get positive feedback,” recalled Reeves.
“You know, to be on the street and people saying, ‘Excellent!’ — all of that was fun.” From there came the two-season cartoon which Reeves and Winter voiced in 1990 and 1991, 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey sequel, and the 1992 TV series.
The “Tragic” Bill & Ted Cereal
Then, of course, was all the merch: video games, playing cards, books, action figures, and cereal. For Winter, the cereal was “particularly tragic, I must say,” although he said it with a smile. “It was made by Purina, which makes dog food. Not a good start.”
It was weird, he remembers, walking into a supermarket and there you are on a cereal box. He was just a “regular shmo” living in Venice Beach in a sh*tty apartment, he said. “You disassociate, like, ‘There’s that weird rendition of me on there.’”
From Goofing Around to a Trilogy
30 years later, people who watched the Bill & Ted movies still approach the actors on a daily basis, mostly sharing their love for the characters. Fans were happy to hear about the 2020 sequel. The idea was basically the brainchild of Reeves, Winter, and writers Matheson and Solomon.
“We were goofing off one night and hit on something that we thought had legitimate potential,” said Winter. “And we then set about the very long road to try to get a sequel made to a major movie that was made a quarter of a century ago, which is not common.”
Time to Face the Music
The idea for Face the Music came over a decade ago, “But nobody really seemed interested until just a few years ago,” Solomon said. “Maybe we were lucky that the movie took this long… because it does feel like, if there’s any time for a couple of guys who sincerely believe in the need to be excellent to each other, now is definitely that time.”
This time, Bill’s and Ted’s boomer dads are the punch line. But the creators had to address the absent mothers in the Bill & Ted series, which was never explained. Actually, the first two movies featured no notable female characters at all.
Meet Billie and Theodora
But as Solomon put it, “Bill and Ted were adolescent boys and written by adolescent boys,” Solomon said, “because Chris and I were essentially adolescent boys.” And the boys needed to grow up. Face the Music sees middle aged Bill and Ted in Trump’s America: as just another pair of mediocre men who want to save the world.
Face the Music also sees baby Bill and Ted (from the end of Bogus Journey) morph into Billie and Theodora, the duo’s now adult daughters. Bill and Ted’s wives are even in this last installment, and the two couples even go to therapy.
Winter Is Reeves’ Favorite Co-Star
While preparing for the release of DC League of Super-Pets (as the voice of Bruce Wayne), Reeves spoke with Entertainment Tonight about working with other actors. When asked if there was any co-star that he’d want to team up with over and over again, Reeves answered, “Alex Winter. Let’s make some more Bill & Ted!”
After Face the Music came out, Winter told MovieWeb about potential upcoming collaborations with Reeves. It was suggested that Winter and Reeves could make new unrelated movies (like a new Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder), and Winter was excited about the possibility.
Could There Be a Bill & Ted 4?
Winter has been open to the possible return to the Bill & Ted series. He even spoke about the potential 4th film and said he’d only agreed to do Face the Music because of Matheson and Solomon’s influence. While there are still no plans for Bill & Ted, he’d be open to coming back and working with Reeves.
“We like working together. We don’t need to do another one,” Winter shared. “We don’t particularly feel there needs to be another one, but we would enjoy making another one. That’s really the honest answer.”
Winter’s Dark Past Comes to Light
With the release of the third movie and Winter coming back into the limelight after many years, new information started to be revealed about what the actor has been doing over the past decades. As it turns out, he hasn’t had such an easy go… and that’s putting it lightly.
Winter, now 57, recently made a documentary about child actors. In it, he discusses the abuse he experienced as a young actor, his friendship with Reeves, and why he decided to quit acting.
Intense and Prolonged Abuse
By the age of 12, Winter understood that being a child actor meant experiencing both extreme highs and horrible lows. Three years into his career, he was already on the Broadway stage with Yul Brenner in The King and I.
At the time, he was “dealing with really intense and prolonged abuse.” The show involved performing in eight shows a week, and he was “genuinely happy in that role.” He described how he had a great relationship with his parents, his co-workers around him; he was doing interviews, signing autographs, yada yada…
A Nightmarish Existence
While he was, on the one hand, living an amazing life, he was also in “this nightmarish other existence.” Although he chose not to name his abuser, he did reveal that they are now deceased. “I had extreme PTSD for many, many years, and that will wreak havoc on you,” Winter revealed.
He explained how he became “very fractured” – that he began to “slowly compartmentalize” the world around him. “You keep this thing over here, you keep that thing over there, and you don’t have any natural equilibrium. That fracturing just gets worse and worse and worse.”
Quitting in His Mid-20s
By 1993, Winter felt that he needed a break from performing. He was in his mid-20s and felt as though he was holding these “different selves together with duct tape.” He realized that he needed to stop doing things where eyes were on him all the time, where he didn’t feel safe or comfortable.
“I just want to go ride the subway and help raise a family and do my writing and directing.” But he didn’t quit acting entirely, as we know now, since he joined the Bill & Ted train again for Face the Music.
Winter has been spending the past three decades more or less behind the camera. As a director, his documentaries have ranged in topics, from the Panama Papers to tax havens to Napster. He most recently made Showbiz Kids, an HBO documentary about the bittersweet life of child actors.
The actors interviewed for the doc include Evan Rachel Wood, who revealed that at the Golden Globes, she “watched a pedophile win” – a man who “molested boys in the industry and I watched him get up and accept an award and I walked out and just started sobbing.”
An Obsessed Child
63 minutes into the documentary child sex abuse is addressed, noting perpetrators like Kevin Spacey and director Bryan Singer. But unfortunately for Winter, child abuse was very much a part of his childhood.
His parents both worked in modern dance, and he started acting at age nine. “I wasn’t shoved into it by my parents. I was obsessed with film and theatre the way some kids are obsessed with baseball.” Being in The King and I was one of his happiest childhood memories.
He Opened Up in 2018
Winter only publicly revealed his history of abuse around 2018, after the #MeToo movement was already underway, which gave him the freedom to speak out. “For those of us who have experienced these issues, it is a watershed… It is a world that we never thought we would see.”
Winter said that if what happened to him then had happened to him now, he “would have walked right up to a stage manager or anybody and just said: ‘Hey, you know what? This is happening; what do I do?’” But that bravery didn’t come until he was in his 40s, he explained.
He Doesn’t Regret Quitting
When he was 13, Winter was cast as John Darling in Broadway’s Peter Pan. During his 20s, he was in the vampire film The Lost Boys. Then came the Bill & Ted phenomenon, which Winter looks back on fondly. He cherishes his friendship with Reeves.
But he doesn’t regret quitting acting. He says it’s “pretty common for child actors to need to stop. Having been on Broadway for his whole childhood, “It would not have been good for me mentally to keep going, so I’m very happy that I had the foresight to get out when I did.”
Nor Is He Jealous of Keanu Reeves
Winter also doesn’t envy Reeves and his major success in the industry. Besides, making films is what he loves to do, and it’s what he’s been doing for decades. “I was never looking to be a leading man,” he said. “I’m really proud of Reeves. We’ve been close our whole lives, but I never look at that career and ask: ‘What if that was me?’”
But Winter isn’t entirely absent in Hollywood. He is active on Twitter, where he doesn’t hide from making political statements. He picks and chooses, though, which causes to voice his opinion on.
A Life of Wildfires
Winter, who was born in the UK and has dual citizenship, lives in Pasadena, California with his film producer wife, Ramsey Ann Naito and their two children. Pasadena, for those who don’t know, has been majorly hit by some of the worst wildfires.
“I see them all night, every night right now,” Winter said during a 2020 Zoom interview. “I’m not near the fires, I’m not in danger, but it’s all day, every day. The sun is blocked by a cloud of smoke and has been for weeks.”