“Beetlejuice,” a spooky comedy directed by Tim Burton in 1988, is one of those movies that seems to have slipped between the cracks of the Hollywood system. Because it isn’t quite the typical elevator pitch, “a charming New England couple suffer an accidental death, an annoying family comes into their old house, and the pair hires a demon-cum-con artist to try and drive the family away.” As it turned out, co-writer Larry Wilson struggled to sell the script and even received a lecture from a Universal executive for trying to create “this piece of craziness.” Nevertheless, Burton was drawn to the screenplay’s innovative comedy, and his success with 1985’s equally adventurous feature “Pee-Big wee’s Adventure” and the success of films like “Ghostbusters” from 1984 helped persuade The Geffen Company and Warner Bros. to fund the project.
Even so, Burton had to control the tone of the film, which was challenging considering all the absurd aspects and characters it features. While most of the actors in the movie were allowed to act outrageously, particularly Michael Keaton as the titular “bio-exorcist,” there needed to be a straight man (and woman) for such hilarious escapades to work. It was a fact that first escaped the attention of the film’s lead, Alec Baldwin, who had alternative plans for his performance before Burton intervened, preventing “Beetlejuice” from degenerating into a free-for-all of camp.
Baldwin tries to turn on the juice, see what shakes loose
It’s understandable why the performers might have been wary of the “Beetlejuice” storyline, even though Burton ultimately turned it into a flawless classic.
According to Baldwin, “I had no idea what the plot of “Beetlejuice” was when we performed it. With the premiere of this movie, I worried that perhaps all of our careers might come to an end.” Baldwin, who was cast in the character of Adam Maitland, said he felt lost since “everyone else [in the cast] has got a thing they’re doing” and that he was “cast as the pleasant, normal married pair whose journey into the afterlife the film chronicles.” The actor knew that Burton intended “the ghosts to be the most commonplace,” so he wasn’t completely in the dark about the director’s strategy, but he thought there was still potential for him to expand his role.
A movie that doesn’t read like stereo instructions
As a result, Baldwin suggested that Adam be portrayed “like Robert Cummings,” a famous actor who gained notoriety in the 1940s and 1950s and was characterised as “a really aristocratic, kind of eloquently spoken man.” The actor had a clipped, dramatic vocal characteristic that Baldwin could easily amplify, increasing the campiness of his persona and performance, as shown in this clip from 1957’s “The Bob Cummings Show.” Baldwin was eager to perform “This whole campy thing,” Burton said, but he kept it short. Avoid doing that.” The statement was “the only direction Tim gave me the entire movie,” Baldwin reflects.
Baldwin didn’t need to be concerned about appearing “banal” in the movie, either, as “Beetlejuice” had enough craziness to go around for each role. According to rumours, Catherine O’Hara, who plays Delia Deetz in the movie, thought calypso music would work best for the movie’s infamous dinner table musical number, which forced the filmmakers to find a reason why Harry Belafonte’s music was in the movie and settle on Adam’s admiration for the calypso singer.