By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com July 9, 2012 at 10:55AM
As has been discussed ad infinitum this year, on its 30th anniversary, the summer of 1982 holds a very special place in the hearts of geeks of a certain age; between May and August, a number of films now deemed genre classics hit theaters, proving to be a life-changing experience for many. "Conan The Barbarian," "E.T," "Blade Runner," "The Thing," "Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan" -- all have only grown in reputation over time. And one of the last of that wave, Disney's "Tron," perhaps inspired one of the most fervent cults of them all.
Only the most rose-tinted geek would put "Tron" among some of the films that hit around the same time in terms of pure quality; the script is very ropy and some of the performances are patchy. But the film was undeniably revolutionary in its use of visuals, as one of the first major releases to use computer-generated imagery, and holds up remarkably well as spectacle today, even when placed against its $200 million 2010 sequel "Tron: Legacy," a film that makes its predecessor look like "The Godfather" when it comes to script quality. The film hit theaters 30 years ago today, on July 9th, 1982, and to mark the occasion, we've assembled five facts you might not be aware of about the film and its production. Check them out below.
"Tron" director Steve Lisberger started off as a traditional animator. A graduate of the School of the Museum Of Fine Arts, he won a Student Academy Award nomination for his film "Cosmic Cartoon" in 1973, and worked in television for much of the '70s. In 1976, Lisberger saw pioneering video game "Pong" for the first time, and became fascinated with the medium, telling American Cinematographer magazine at the time that, "I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind." However, it took a little time to get going. Lisberger and producing partner Donald Kushner moved to California and set up Lisberger Studios out there, and the following year were comissioned by NBC to produce "Animalympics," two shows -- one 30 minutes, one an hour -- set to tie in with the 1980 Summer Olympics, featuring a series of skits involving animals taking part in sporting events. Featuring voices of comics like Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner and Harry Shearer, Lisberger was funding the development of "Tron" by borrowing against the expected profits of the film, but things were thrown off when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, causing Jimmy Carter to boycott the Moscow games, and NBC decided that they wouldn't air the hour-long special (the half-hour one, which centered around the Winter Olympics, had already aired). Fortunately, the film -- which was something of a training ground for future animators, as Brad Bird and "The Lion King" director Roger Allers both worked on it -- was recut and released successfully in theaters internationally. Warner Bros picked it up for home video and pay TV, and it became something of a staple throughout the 1980s, without really finding a U.S. audience until after "Tron" was released. Nevertheless, by the time the Olympics rolled around, Lisberger and Kushner, having been turned down by most studios around town, had set the "Tron" project up at Disney, a rare case of the studio hiring outside talent for a film, and one that didn't endear them to Disney animators, who mostly refused to work on the project, meaning that most of the animation was done in Korea.
Featuring a mix of relatively new talent (Bruce Boxleitner), bona-fide stars (Jeff Bridges) and veterans (David Warner), "Tron" had a pretty strong cast, given the effects-driven nature of the project. But it might have had another true screen legend at one point, as Peter O'Toole actively pursued the project, enthused by the script and the world. The "Lawrence Of Arabia" star had been approached to play the villainous role of Ed Dillinger/Sark/the Master Control Program, eventually taken by David Warner. But according to Lisberger, O'Toole wanted to play Alan Bradley/Tron instead, and during a meeting with the director, the then 49-year-old actor jumped between the two beds in the hotel room to convince him he could pull off the physical aspect of the role. Reportedly, however, the actor had misunderstood the nature of the production, arrived to discover that the computer world was being created through animation, and left the project, leaving Boxleitner (then best known for TV show "How The West Was Won") to step in. Meanwhile, for love interest Dr. Lora Baines/Yora, a number of actresses were tested, including Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, who was also up to play Pris in the same year's "Blade Runner." Designer Syd Mead, who was behind the film's vehicles (as he was on Ridley Scott's film), was around during the audition process, and apparently joked that they should pick the actress who could spell the word "chrysanthemum." It's unclear whether his suggestion was taken, but it was "Caddyshack" star Cindy Morgan who got the gig.