(This interview was originally published December 4, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Jackie Burch. You might not recognize the name because Casting Directors do not often get a lot of notoriety. This Casting Director deserves our attention and accolades because she was responsible for casting many of my favorite films of the '80s. Burch has been Casting Director for at least 65 films over the last 30 years and here are some that are especially notable: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Mask, Weird Science, Commando, Three Amigos, Predator, The Running Man, Coming to America, Die Hard, Road House, Another 48 Hrs, Dick Tracy and Die Hard 2 among many more. That is an impressive list especially for an '80s fan! Find out a little more about her and her experiences casting a few of those classics as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jackie Burch…
Q: When and how did you decide to pursue a career in Casting? Please tell us what you feel the role of a really good Casting Director is.
Jackie: I used to be a teacher for the deaf and after a while I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So, I began working for someone at Universal, subbing for his assistant and that’s when I realized I wanted to work in the film industry. The role of a Casting Director is someone who can come up with actors who are unique, and not necessarily always what is written in the script, but someone who can get a sense of really who the character is by reading the script. And also someone who has a keen eye for talent.
Q: How did you end up meeting John Hughes and how did you end up becoming his Casting Director for Sixteen Candles?
Jackie: I was working for another Casting Director for a movie called 'National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex' . I met John through that and we became good friends. When he came to Universal to do 'Sixteen Candles' he told them he wanted me to be the one to cast it.
Jackie Burch was Casting Director first for D.C. Cab and Psycho II in 1983. Then she went on to be Casting Director for three films written and directed by the late, great John Hughes; Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science. Her work on that trifecta alone is quite remarkable, in my opinion.
Q: Like so many, I just adore most of the films that Hughes made in the '80s. What can you tell us about John Hughes and your experiences working with him?
Jackie: He was so open and listened to my ideas and was so wonderful to work with. He was such an open-minded director and he, like me, was just focused on casting great actors – not necessarily the biggest names in the industry at the time.
Jackie: The script was written for Molly so I didn’t have much to do with that casting. Gedde Watanabe [“Long Duk Dong”] came in without speaking any English and he fooled me, so I made him do it for the producers and he got the part. Michael Schoeffling [“Jake Ryan”] was a model and brand new, but he had a lot more depth and sweetness than most pretty boys have. The producers said he was too low key at first, but I told them he had dental work and that’s why he was low key – they ended up trusting me and he got the part. Haviland Morris [“Caroline Mulford”] I met in New York and really liked her quality. John Kapelos [“Rudy Ryszczyk”] I met when I went to Chicago to do local casting because I always did my own local casting and I loved him. We saw everybody in the world for the grandparents. Carole Cook [“Grandma Helen”] came in and knew Lucille Ball so it was great hearing those stories. Again, we didn’t have to go for big names we just went with the best actors.
Sixteen Candles was released in theaters in May of 1984 and marked the directorial debut for John Hughes who also was the film’s writer and a relative unknown at the time even though he had written several previous films. The film starred Molly Ringwald as “Samantha Baker”. Ringwald had been his muse while writing it and the role effectively made her into a teen idol. In my ongoing fascination with this great film, I have already interviewed John Kapelos, Haviland Morris and Debbie Pollack already and I recommend you checking those out if you haven’t already. Here is the trailer for Sixteen Candles…
The film revolves around Ringwald’s character and that her family forgets her sweet sixteen birthday while planning her sister’s wedding. I read that this actually happened to a friend of Hughes and that inspired the story. I also read that Burch fought for Anthony Michael Hall (who was in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation coincidentally written by Hughes) to get the part of “The Geek/Farmer Ted” over Eric Gurry (from 1982’s Author! Author!) because she saw something special in him. I am so glad that Burch and Hughes picked Hall because he was great in Sixteen Candles as well as the following two more Hughes films he would go on to star in.Q: What were your feelings about Sixteen Candles after it was released back in 1984? How do you feel about it now over 25 years later?
Jackie: I think it still holds up and is still as charming as ever, still very proud of that movie.
Burch continued to work with Hughes as Casting Director on his next film, The Breakfast Club. The film ended up starring Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson as “a princess, a brain, an athlete, a basket case and a criminal” respectively. It also featured adult roles by Paul Gleason and John Kapelos. Again, as I mentioned above, you can find out some interesting details about this film in my interview with John Kapelos.Q: What can you share with us about some of the casting decisions made for The Breakfast Club?
Jackie: It wasn’t until after we saw Sixteen Candles that we knew we wanted to go with Michael Hall for The Breakfast Club as well. Molly was kind of a given again. Ally was in talks for Sixteen Candles so once this project came up we went with her. For Emilio it was written for a football player but I said it should be a wrestler and John was very agreeable and I thought he would work very well. Judd was the hardest role, I fought the hardest for him. We searched all over and at one point they wanted to go with a bigger name but I knew Judd was the right person for the movie.
It has been reported that both John Cusack and Nicolas Cage were considered for the role of “John Bender”, but again I am so happy that Jackie Burch convinced Hughes that Judd Nelson was perfect because I don’t think anybody could’ve done a better job. I also read that at one point Ringwald had wanted to play Ally Sheedy’s part and that Burch helped convince Hughes that it was a bad idea. The film was perfectly cast and we have Jackie Burch to thank for that.The Breakfast Club was released in theaters on February 15, 1985. Roger Ebert commented in his review that the film makes “an honest attempt to create teenagers who might seem plausible to other teenagers” and I think that is at the heart of the film’s endearing quality. Ebert went on to say, “The performances are wonderful, but then this is an all-star cast, as younger actors go. Judd Nelson is not yet as well known, but his character creates the strong center of the film; his aggression is what breaks the silence and knocks over the walls.” It is certainly one of my very favorite films from any decade. Here’s the trailer for The Breakfast Club…
Q: What were your feelings about The Breakfast Club after it was released back in 1985? How do you feel about it now over 25 years later?
Jackie: Because I had not seen any footage it was one of the most thrilling screenings I had ever been to. And I knew it was going to be a hit for many years to come.
Weird Science, which was released in August of 1985, was the third and final film which Burch worked with Hughes as Casting Director. It stars Anthony Michael Hall again, but also features some interesting casting decisions including the gorgeous Kelly LeBrock as “Lisa” as well as some of the other roles by Ilan Mitchell-Smith (a relative unknown), Bill Paxton and even Robert Downey, Jr. to name a few.
Q: What can you share with us about some of the casting decisions made for Weird Science?
Jackie: Robert [Downey, Jr.] replaced someone else and I had just met him and thought he was perfect so I rushed him over to John who agreed. Kelly [LeBrock] was actually the third pick because we lost Robin Wright but she ended up being really great. I just met Ilan Mitchell-Smith and thought he would be perfect as “Wyatt”.
Q: How come you did not continue to work with Hughes on Pretty in Pink or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or any other films after Weird Science? Did you keep in touch with him at all after that point?
Jackie: For 'Pretty in Pink' they brought in a different director and he wanted to use his Casting Director but John and I did keep in touch.
Q: You went on to cast four films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Was that a coincidence or did you have a connection with Arnold? Anything worth sharing about casting for Commando or Predator?
Jackie: I met Arnold for the first time when he did 'Commando.' He had never read for a movie before and we just really hit it off and established a great relationship. 'Predator' was an interesting film to work on because I decided to cast all Vietnam vets to really add to the authenticity of the film.
In addition to 1985’s Commando and 1987’s Predator, Burch was also Casting Director for The Running Man  and Red Heat  all of which starred Schwarzenegger, who was definitely one of the biggest action film stars of the decade. Speaking of action films, she then went on to become Casting Director on one of my all-time favorites, 1988’s Die Hard.
Q: Were you involved in casting Bruce Willis to play John McClane? What else can you share with us about casting decisions made for Die Hard?
Jackie: The studio didn’t want to pay for any of the other big names at the time to play the McClane part and Joel Silver [co-producer] happened to be on a plane with Bruce’s agent and that’s how that connection was made. Alan Rickman [“Hans Gruber”] was submitted to me on a project I was working on in Budapest but he wasn’t right for that movie. Though when I got Die Hard, I knew he had the heavy air about him that would really work for that movie. Reginald VelJohnson [“Sgt. Al Powell”] I thought would be perfect opposite Bruce because he had such a soulful feeling about him that would work really well.
Bruce Willis is perfect as “John McClane”, but can you imagine anybody else playing “Hans Gruber” better than Alan Rickman? I also love the casting of William Atherton (who plays a jerk better than anybody) as the reporter, Richard Thornburg. Paul Gleason, who played the principal in The Breakfast Club, also does a great job as the Deputy Chief of Police. Here is the trailer for Die Hard…
Q: Another film that I still love so much is Coming to America. What can you share with us about some of the casting decisions made for Coming to America? So many great choices even though Eddie & Arsenio play so many characters themselves. I enjoy some of the minor characters as well. How about Sam Jackson as the robber? You couldn’t get a better King than James Earl Jones.
Jackie: We went to New York, that’s where I found Sam Jackson, Shari Headley [“Lisa McDowell”] and Paul Bates [“Oha”]. The rest of the cast we found in L.A. I upgraded James Earl Jones in this movie so that he would finally get the salary that he deserved.
Coming to America was released on June 29, 1988. It stars Eddie Murphy, was directed by John Landis and is the story of an African prince who comes to the United States in search of a woman he can marry for love. It remains one of my favorite comedies to this day. Here is the trailer for Coming to America…
Q: Do you have a project from the '80s that you consider your favorite?
Jackie: 'The Breakfast Club.' Because that was really a time where you could cast, just for the talent and the right actor and not depend on names to sell to a foreign market.
Q: On most of your projects, is it most common that the big name star is already attached to the project before you begin casting the rest of the roles?
Jackie: The star isn’t always attached. For example 'Mask'  had no star attached, Cher even tested for that role. A lot of times a star is attached, but not always.
Q: With your tremendous reputation and accomplishments as a Casting Director, were you ever interested in pursuing other roles in movie production? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Jackie: No, I’ve always loved, loved, LOVED casting and never wanted to pursue anything else. Some of my proudest accomplishments include: 'The Breakfast Club', 'Sixteen Candles', 'Die Hard', 'Coming to America', and 'Out to Sea'  (it was an amazing experience working with Walter [Matthau] and Jack [Lemmon]).
Q: What else is Jackie Burch up to nowadays? Professionally and otherwise? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Jackie: I’ve moved to the southeast and am doing the location casting for movies here. ('Hunger Games', 'Iron Man 3'…) I restored a historic home because decorating is my second love. No regrets. Raised my kids, taught them good work ethics. Very happy, I went from teaching the deaf to casting.
I am so grateful that Jackie was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks to Tyler Jones and Samy Burch for helping to coordinate the opportunity. I want to take this occasion to again thank Jackie Burch for her contributions to '80s pop culture casting those classic films so impeccably and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.