If you were a fan of the 1992 fish-out-of-water comedy My Cousin Vinny, then you’ve landed in the right place. The movie has somehow stood the test of time. A small-time lawyer and his fiancée – the most New York couple imaginable – have to head to the Deep South after Vinny’s cousin is falsely accused of murder, creating a timeless and hilarious scenario that was pulled off perfectly in this ’90s film.
Becoming a cult classic wasn’t easy. My Cousin Vinny went from concept to classic by making a whole lot of important decisions, taking unexpected inspiration, and handling one legendary Oscar upset. Come with us behind the scenes…
The Film Was Inspired by a Chance Encounter
My Cousin Vinny was the brainchild of screenwriter Dale Launer. Launer told ABA Journal in 2012 that back in the early ’70s, he met a guy who was waiting for his bar exam results. Launer asked the guy what would happen if he didn’t pass, to which the guy said he could just take it again. And if he failed again? Well, he would just try again… and again and again.
That’s when Launer asked him, “What’s the most times somebody has taken and failed and finally passed?” The answer was 13 times. So, Launer thought to himself that there’s this guy/girl out there, somewhere, practicing law in some capacity. Which begs the question: How would you feel if you learned that it was your lawyer?
The Last Guy You Want as Your Lawyer
Launer was asking the rhetorical question, “What if you have been accused of a crime and clearly you have what appears to be the worst lawyer in the country?” And with that came the idea for My Cousin Vinny. Once he had the idea in his head, he set his sights on writing it.
Launer set off on a road trip across the America’s South for research. He started in New Orleans, rented a car, and drove through Mississippi and Alabama and down the Gulf Coast. The road trip ended up providing Launer with plenty of inspiration for his new script. Things that happened to him on that trip were worked into the script.
Mud, Grits, and Friendly Southerners
Launer’s car got stuck in the mud, he noticed that every single restaurant had grits on the menu, and he had to hear the unearthly call of an owl. He also stopped to talk to the district attorney in Butler – a man who reminded Launer of Lane Smith, the actor who was eventually cast in the role of Vinny’s district attorney.
Another big inspiration was the attitude of the people he met along the way. Launer noted just how “friendly and helpful” everyone was. But when he told people that he was making a movie that took place in the south, they would get very concerned. Apparently, it was because they were wary of how Hollywood movies always make them look like “bumpkins.”
De Niro Was the Writer’s First Choice for Vinny
Once the script was written, casting was next on the list of things to do. Launer met with Fox’s president, vice president, and CEO. At the meeting, Launer suggested Robert De Niro for the part of the very Italian-New Yorker character Vincent LaGuardia Gambini. Later, Launer recalled how the “prez looked uncomfortable, embarrassed” that he would even suggest such an actor.
He was told: “De Niro, uh… well… he’s not funny. And… his movies don’t make money.” Ironically, these days, the movies De Niro acts in that make money are comedies, which makes Launer feel “vindicated.” He said, “I wish I could’ve been given a big fat check when I ended up being proved right.”
The Director Never Saw The Karate Kid Before Casting Ralph Macchio
Director Jonathan Lynn had never seen the 1984 classic The Karate Kid when he cast Ralph Macchio in the role of Bill Gambini. “I was very eager to have Ralph Macchio in the movie,” Lynn stated in the movie’s DVD commentary. He also said that he “must confess” to never actually seeing The Karate Kid.
He did, however, watch Macchio in a couple of videos that his agent sent him and thought he was “just perfect for the part.” Macchio was happy to be part of the film, saying it was “one of the best comedy scripts I ever read. It still is.”
Joe Pesci Based His Character on the Guys in His Neighborhood
Joe Pesci, who grew up in New Jersey, told The Movie Show in 1992 that, “There’s a lot of people around like that in smaller neighborhoods, so I put a few of them together and came up with Vinny.” It just goes to show that there was no one better for the part of Vinny than Pesci.
He crafted Vinny perfectly to be over-the-top yet relatable. Something that would have made him relatable was the fact that Vinny was supposed to be dyslexic (which explains why he needed to take the bar exam six times).
Pesci Didn’t Know How to Portray Vinny’s Dyslexia
When Vinny gets asked why it took him six times, he was supposed to say, “I am a little dyslexic.” But Launer decided to drop the line from the final script since Pesci didn’t know how to portray dyslexia. Pesci wasn’t happy about that character feature because it made Vinny seem “not so bright.”
“You don’t know why it took him so long to get through the bar. And then suddenly, he starts acting smart. What you have to do is make assumptions that he is actually a smart guy, and the law is just complicated and boring,” Pesci explained.
The Studio Wanted to Take the Girlfriend Role Out
In 2007, Launer told Writer Unboxed that the studio had wanted to get rid of Vinny’s girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito, the Chinese-food-loving, unemployed hairdresser and car expert. The screenwriter, however, very much wanted her in the film. So, to keep the character, Launer (reluctantly) added a scene that was requested by the studio president to his second draft.
The studio wanted Vinny’s girlfriend to complain that he’s not giving her enough attention. Launer explained, “You often see movies where some guy is hell-bent on accomplishing something, and you’re on the ride with him, and his wife/girlfriend/mother is feeling neglected. And she complains […] And I HATE this!”
The Writer Found a Way to Keep Her in the Script
Launer hated the clichés. Eventually, he figured out a way where they would HAVE to keep the girlfriend in the plotline. He embellished her character. Yes, she complains, “but at least apologizes for bringing it up, and you don’t hate her for bringing it up largely because it’s funny,” he explained.
At the end of the day, Launer purposely avoided making Vinny’s fiancée just a mere romantic interest who doesn’t contribute to the court case. By the way, Mona Lisa’s “biological clock” rant became one of Launer’s favorite scenes in the script.
They Took a Chance on Marisa Tomei
Not only was her character Mona Lisa Vito almost cut, but the studio also took a chance on Marisa Tomei. Before she landed the part in My Cousin Vinny, Tomei didn’t have much film experience. Director Lynn said that he saw Tomei on the set of Oscar (directed by John Landis and starring Sylvester Stallone, Peter Riegert and more).
Even though she was playing a 1920s blonde flapper, Lynn could see how funny and talented she was. She came in for the read, and they loved her, but they had to convince the studio to go “with this unknown actress” in the role. “It was the best decision I ever made,” Lynn asserted.
Will Smith Was Up for the Role of Stan Rothenstein
That’s right, the lawyer with a last name like that was almost given to Will Smith. The actor who ended up getting the part, Mitchell Whitfield, had just moved to L.A. from New York when he heard about the auditions for My Cousin Vinny, which were taking place back in New York.
So, he flew right back home to do the screen test. “Believe it or not, Will Smith was also up for the role,” he revealed to Abnormal Use. He added that “Clearly, they didn’t know exactly which way they were going to go with the part. I think it could have been funny either way.” In the end, Whitfield got the part and had to lose 25 pounds to play Stan.
She Doesn’t Actually Sound Like That
Marisa Tomei grew up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section, so she “really knew the neighborhood,” as she told The New York Times in 1992. But she doesn’t sound like her character Mona Lisa. In fact, she was taught NOT to talk like that.
“My mom was an English teacher, and she was on my butt about that kind of thing and correcting my speech from a young age,” Tomei explained. Taking on the character proved the right move for her considering it earned her an Oscar nomination, which was something she learned about unexpectedly.
The Moment Marisa Tomei Learned of Her Oscar Nomination
It’s a good thing they took a chance on Marisa Tomei because the actress earned an Oscar for the role they thought shouldn’t have even been in the movie! When Tomei found out that she was being nominated for the Academy Award, she was sleeping on her friend’s couch.
That friend just so happened to be very pregnant and due at any moment. Her friend was in the living room, watching TV, and started shouting. Naturally, Tomei thought her friend’s water just broke. “There were shouts from the other room, and they awoke me,” she told David Letterman in 1993. “I didn’t know if she was going into labor or what.”
The Legal System Is Portrayed Correctly
Hollywood doesn’t always portray things accurately, but in the case of My Cousin Vinny, the director had a law degree (from Cambridge University) and thus knew his stuff. In the DVD commentary, he said, “I get terribly irritated when I see films in which the legal procedure is obviously wrong.”
Lynn made adjustments to make sure the legal proceedings in the movie were correct. “Everything you see legally in this film could happen and is approximately correct,” he vouched. “Which, by the way, makes it the more frightening.” In fact, Lynn sat in on a murder trial in a Monticello, Georgia courtroom which served as the inspiration for the Vinny courtroom set.
“Fry Them”: Lines Were Taken Directly From a Book
There was a scene in the movie that was actually lifted from a book about comedy and the law. The book features actual moments from real courtrooms. Launer chose the memorable “voir dire” scene of a potential juror for Vinny.
In the scene, the lawyers ask them their opinion on capital punishment, and they say something along the lines of, “I think it should be left up to the victims’ families,” Launer told Abnormal Use. “Then they described exactly what the murderer did, and the juror actually said, ‘Fry them.’ So, I put that right in the movie.”
Scenes Were Shot in a Real Prison
There were several days where the cast and crew shot scenes in a state prison in Gainesville, Georgia, specifically in the wing where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. “Right beside the wing where we were shooting… I looked all around death row,” Lynn said in the DVD commentary.
“It was a very frightening building,” he added, saying that they “were all pretty scared” when filming there. And that’s despite the fact that they had guards with them at all times. The security was heavy, too, taking them up to 40 minutes to get from the outside to where they were shooting on the inside.
Whitfield and Macchio Were Petrified
Mitchell Whitfield recalled the moment when he and Ralph Macchio were walking through the prison the first time, holding their blankets and walking to their cell, “and you hear the prisoners screaming at us.” Those were real prisoners, and they really were yelling at them.
According to Whitfield, they had to tone it down with what they ended up putting in the movie because the things the prisoners were saying were “some horrible stuff.” He also said that he and Macchio “were petrified.” It worked in the end since the scenes really came off as authentic.
The Prison Guards Weren’t Actors
Not only were the prisoners the real deal, so were the prison guards. The production also used real prisoners as extras in two scenes. The first time was in the background when Stan and Bill were being brought into the prison.
The second time was during a short scene where the two guys play basketball at exercise time. “The prisoners were all extremely cooperative and did exactly what we asked,” Lynn recalled in his commentary. “I don’t know what incentives or threats were made in order to achieve that.”
Mona Lisa Was Based on a Group of Jersey Girls
People from all over the world have an idea about what a “Jersey Girl” sounds like, thanks to reality TV. Screenwriter Launer, who was born in Cleveland but raised in L.A., had never come in contact with women from the Garden State until he traveled abroad to France.
He was on a backpacking trip when he met a group of women from New Jersey. He was amused to see that even though they were swimming, they still wore their jewelry and makeup, and their hair was all done up. Then, there was their particular way of speaking. Their image and style stuck with him and eventually stood as the inspiration for Tomei’s character.
The “Two Yutes” Scene Was Real
Vinny: “It is possible that the two yutes…”
Judge: …” Ah, the two what? Uh… uh, what was that word?”
Vinny: “Uh… what word?”
Judge: “Two what?”
Judge: “Uh… did you say ‘yutes’?”
Vinny: “Yeah, two yutes.”
Judge: “What is a yute?”
Vinny: “Oh, excuse me, your honor… Two YOUTHS.”
Whereas Joe Pesci was born and raised in New Jersey, director Jonathan Lynn was born in England. Sure, they speak the same language, but there were more than just a few differences between the two, particularly in their jargon. The most quoted line from My Cousin Vinny is “two yutes,” which was inspired by a real conversation…
“What’s a Yute?”
Remember the early courtroom scene where the Southern judge (played by Fred Gwynne) has a problem understanding the New York lawyer’s accent? As it turns out, this hilarious culture clash was real. Lynn revealed that he spoke with Pesci during the pre-production phase of the movie.
According to Lynn, this is how the conversation went down: “He said something about ‘these two yutes’ who were on trial. Lynn said, “What?” to which Pesci said, “What?” Lynn then asked him, “What’s a yute?” The director knew right away that their “yutes” conversation just had to make it into the script as an exchange between Vinny and the judge.
Pesci Learned the Art of Card Trickery
In the scene where Vinny convinces Bill to let him represent him, Vinny does this swift card trick. It was important to Lynn that the trick wasn’t faked. Of course, in the world of movies, you can fake anything with editing, but he made up his mind that the card trick was going to be the real deal.
He spoke with Pesci before they started shooting, and he learned how to do this specific trick. If you watch the scene again, you’ll see that there aren’t any cuts in it. Pesci actually fools the audience before their eyes. “He did it beautifully,” Lynn stated, adding that he thought Vinny’s argument would be “much less powerful if the audience could say, oh well, that was just faked by the way the scene was cut.”
What Kind of Mother Doesn’t Show Up to Her Son’s Trial?
Before shooting, someone at the studio pointed something they thought was a big problem, and that’s “What kind of mother doesn’t come down to support her son when he’s on trial?” Lynn agreed that it was, in fact, a problem.
The reason the mother wasn’t involved, according to Lynn, was because “she would just have been a damn nuisance. The script was already long enough […] and we didn’t want to introduce another character who had no other plot function.” So, in order to compromise, the filmmakers added a few scenes where Bill’s mother has a heart attack.
The Owl Screech
One of the movie’s running gags is the fact that Vinny always gets woken up by something — whether it’s a steam whistle, pigs, or the call of an owl. Lynn and his team actually used a real owl for the scene, which Lynn admitted was “ridiculous.”
The director recalled how people thought it was a puppet because its behavior was so perfect. “It screeched, looked back at Vinny, and then it looked back at the camera and screeched again. We got amazingly lucky with that screech owl.” To get the bird to open its mouth at the right time, they fed it some beef just before the camera started rolling.
The Director Had to Hide Behind the Camera in One Scene
Lynn chose to cast his friend, Austin Pendleton, for the role of John Gibbons, the tongue-tied public defender. Pendelton actually had a stutter in real life. “I knew he would be really funny in that part,” Lynn stated. He didn’t know just how funny it would end up being.
Lynn admitted to having had to hide behind the camera because he was laughing so hard. “I had to somehow stop myself from making a sound, and I couldn’t let Austin be put off by seeing me.” Lynn said it was the funniest moment he’s had on any film he’s ever made.
Pesci’s Oscar and Its Near-Cameo
The night before the crew shot the scene in which Vinny sleeps like a baby during a prison riot (after he was held in contempt of court), Pesci won the Oscar for his role in Goodfellas. He flew in from Los Angeles, and during the first shot, they panned to him, and he was clutching the Oscar in his arms.
Lynn said, laughing, that they sent that clip “to the studio as the dailies.” Speaking of Oscars, have you heard the conspiracy theory about Marisa Tomei and her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny?
The Marisa Tomei Oscar Conspiracy
At the 1993 Oscars, presenter Jack Palance was unable to read the card for the Best Supporting Actress winner. He announced the last nominee on the card, which was Marisa Tomei. That, at least, is the rumor, which isn’t all that far-fetched.
Tomei was only in her 20s at the time and didn’t have much acting experience. Also, My Cousin Vinny was a comedy, which wasn’t a regular genre at the Academy Awards. Finally, Tomei wasn’t considered a contender for the prize; it was supposed to be a battle between Vanessa Redgrave (Howard’s End) and Joan Plowright (Enchanted April).
The Hollywood Reporter Started the Rumor
“Some people found it hard to believe that a comedy could win an Oscar,” Launer said. He explained how, typically, actors have to get angry, have a physical affliction, or cry to get nominated. Tomei did none of that.
The rumor began in 1994 in an article by The Hollywood Reporter. They stated that Tomei won her Oscar by mistake and that the truth would eventually come out. Film critic Rex Reed agreed with the claim and helped spread the tall tale. He added his own twist, making the rumor a full-on scandal, claiming that Palance was actually intoxicated during the ceremony.
“That Was Really Hurtful at First”
Furthermore, Reed said that the Academy went to great lengths to cover up his mistake. The Academy addressed the rumor repeatedly, assuring everyone that Tomei did, in fact, win (and deserve) the award. Can you imagine how Tomei must have felt? Well, she commented on it…
“That was really hurtful at first,” she confessed. “I was young, and I really didn’t know the ways of the world on any level. But now I know the ways of the world, so I’m just, like, OK. I mean, it’s so in the past.”
Pesci Made an Album as Vinny LaGuardia Gambini
Most people don’t know that before he became an actor, Joe Pesci was a lounge singer. In fact, he still makes music to this day. Six years after My Cousin Vinny was released in theaters, Pesci released an album called Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You.
This very legit album features the songs Wise Guy, Take Your Love and Shove It, Yo Cousin Vinny, and I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, which is actually a duet with Tomei as Mona Lisa. The album debuted at No. 36 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart.
The Movie Is Praised by the Law Community
Lawyer Maxwell S. Kennerly wrote on his blog, Trial and Litigation, that My Cousin Vinny is “close to reality even in its details.” Kennerly also wrote that the reason the film has such staying power among his colleagues is that, unlike A Few Good Men (for example), everything that happens in the movie could happen (and often does) at trial.
Professor Alberto Bernabe, of The John Marshall Law School hands his students a list of law films organized by category and includes My Cousin Vinny under the “Education” category. The professor claims that the film “provides so much material you can use in the classroom,” including criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge, cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses and effective trial advocacy.
There Was Almost a Sequel
In 2004, Launer’s biography noted that there was a sequel to My Cousin Vinny in the works. Well, at least the idea of it. Apparently, Pesci was onboard, but Tomei wasn’t. Eventually, she changed her mind and wanted to do it.
The problem was that the studio wasn’t all that interested in the remake, sensing that too much time had passed (a whole decade) since the first film. Perhaps everyone who liked the movie had moved on or changed their minds. According to Whitfield, the sequel “might have” involved Vinny going to Europe.
There’s a Bollywood Version… Which Got Sued
“Banda yeh bindaas hai” (This Guy Is Fearless) was directed by Ravi Chopra, who reached out to Fox in 2007 for approval to produce the remake. Chopra was given permission to make the film if it was loosely based on the original idea.
Then, in 2009, Fox sued the Indian production company BR Films for $1.4 million, saying the remake was never approved. A script review showed it to be a “substantial reproduction” of the American film with an identical storyline. BR Films denied the claims, stating that their version featured different characters as well as settings. The company eventually settled with Fox in 2009, paying the studio $200,000.
The Tiny Plot Hole That Still Bothers the Writer
In the courtroom scene, it’s Mona Lisa who comes to the rescue, specifically her encyclopedic knowledge of cars. She proves that Bill and Stan are innocent and seals a not-guilty verdict. During her testimony, she tells the court that there were only two cars made in the ’60s with independent rear suspension.
Now, for anyone who actually fact-checked her monologue, they would have realized that she wasn’t quite accurate. Launer, who’s also a car expert, confessed the fact 25 years after the film’s release. The truth is there were actually three cars made in the ’60s that had independent rear suspension.
The One Guy Who Knew That
The third car is the Chevy Corvair, which could potentially make flat and even tire marks. “I thought,” Launer began, “Well, no one’s really going to know that.” He said, “I can think of one person I personally know who would know that.”
Funnily enough, the guy he was referring to was a guy he hadn’t seen since high school, and that guy showed up to the movie’s premiere. He came up to Launer and said, “You know, there were actually three cars with independent rear suspension.” So, there you have it, folks.
The Sac-O-Suds Is a Real Place
Bill and Stan drove to UCLA through Alabama at the beginning of the movie, and they stopped at the Sac-O-Suds convenience store and… accidentally stole a can of tuna. That store – Sac-O-Suds – is a real location in Monticello, Georgia.
It closed down after the film was released, but it reopened as a bait and tackle shop in 2014. The store carries all kinds of memorabilia from the movie, including a signed poster from the cast as well as the original screenplay. Oh, and you can also buy souvenir cans of tuna.
The Whole Movie Is an Argument Against Capital Punishment
Yes, it’s a comedy, but My Cousin Vinny has a deeper meaning. It points out a lot of issues with America’s legal system, including the reliability of eyewitness accounts and expert testimony. For director Lynn, the courtroom film was more than just laughs; it was also a case against the death penalty.
“For me personally,” the director noted, “what the film was about is how wrong capital punishment is and how people can so easily be executed when they’re not guilty if they’re not adequately represented or if there’s a lack of relevant evidence available.”
One of the Greatest Legal Movies
My Cousin Vinny earned itself a spot on the American Bar Association’s list of greatest legal movies, coming in at number three. The journal noted: “The movie packs in cinema’s briefest opening argument (“Everything that guy just said is bulls**t”), its best-ever introduction to the rules of criminal procedure, and a case that hinges on properly introduced expert testimony regarding tire marks left by a 1964 Skylark and the optimal boiling time of grits.”
For Launer, receiving such an honor was “like getting the Oscar… in some ways, better.” The character of Vinny came in at no. 12 on the association’s list of Greatest Fictional Lawyers.