If everyone could create a pop culture icon, everyone would. There's no set formula for coming up with something that really takes off with the audience, otherwise our series Zombie Housewives Ad Agency Glee Club: SVU (starring Zooey Deschanel) would've never been cancelled. However, it turns out that some movies and shows that did become enduring classics were dangerously close to being terrible, and we probably wouldn't be talking about them today if they hadn't switched gears on the fly.
One of the most lasting things to come out of Star Trek is Spock's Vulcan salute -- you know, the one where you raise your palm and separate your fingers like someone's trying to tear your hand down the middle. Half a century after the world first saw Spock do that gesture on TV, it has gone from a greeting used by the members of the Vulcan race in the show to something that nerds in general (not just Star Trek fans) can use to spot each other in the real world.
If Obama loses the next election, know that it's because he didn't put his thumb out to the side.
The salute first appeared in the 1967 episode "Amok Time," in which Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must return to his home planet to get laid or die trying. From there, the greeting just took off, presumably because the hippies mistook it for some sort of uber-peace sign.
But It Was Almost ...
A shoulder rub, basically. The script for "Amok Time" actually called for Spock to kneel in front of another Vulcan, who would then grab his shoulders. That was the "Vulcan salute." Basically, Vulcans were supposed to be an entire race of Buster Bluths from Arrested Development, constantly saying hi to their brethren through awkward surprise massages.
It's hard to imagine this version becoming so widespread and iconic, especially considering that sci-fi fans in general are about as comfortable with human contact as Vulcans themselves.
Nimoy, however, was aware of this: He pointed out on the set that a previous episode had established that Vulcans would think of this as an invasion of privacy, so he suggested replacing the shoulder rub with something else.
"You think someone's gonna remember what we said in another episode? Come on."
And as it turns out, the gesture has nothing to do with trying to appeal to the hippies and everything to do with Nimoy being Jewish. Nimoy remembered an event in his childhood when he was in a synagogue and saw Jewish priests blessing the audience by doing a gesture with both hands to represent the Hebrew letter "shin," which means "lord" or "eternal spirit":
Both of which are Leonard Nimoy's nicknames.
After demonstrating the gesture to the director, he agreed that it was better, but added the slight alteration of using only one hand. If it wasn't for Nimoy's quick thinking, comics conventions today would be even more uncomfortable than they already are.
Turning a filthy rodent into the most beloved cartoon character in the world is no small feat, and yet that's exactly what Walt Disney managed to pull off with Mickey Mouse. Everything from the character's high-pitched voice to his comical appearance has been carefully calculated to make him look as friendly and marketable as possible, thus convincing kids everywhere that mice spread fun instead of disease.
Why do you think they make him wear those gloves?
But It Was Almost ...
All of that would have probably been irrelevant if they'd kept Walt Disney's original name for the little guy: "Mortimer Mouse." "Mortimer" isn't a name for a children's cartoon, it's a name for an old British guy or his pet tortoise. Calling him "Mortimer" would be one of the few ways to ensure that "Mouse" isn't the most repulsive part of the name.
Would you let a Mortimer near your children? Dressed only in a robe?
When Disney and his overlooked sidekick Ub Iwerks set out to create a new character to replace their Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, they based it on a pet mouse that Walt had while growing up, whose name was Mortimer (we're guessing that Walt didn't otherwise have a lot of friends). Presumably Iwerks was too shy to tell Disney that the name sucked, because they were actually planning to go ahead with that atrocity. This means that the character's debut was pretty close to being called "Steamboat Mortimer," which sounds more like a Confederate prison steamer than a fun cartoon.
There's no way this could end with anything but "Mortimer" committing suicide.
Fortunately, Disney's wife pointed out what everyone else was afraid to say: No matter how large you make his pupils or how many oversized buttons you put on his pants, no kid will watch a cartoon starring a character named Mortimer. Disney asked if she could think of something better, and his wife replied, "How about Mickey?" (when in fact she could have just said "How about literally anything else?"). Two theme parks and several major motion pictures later, Disney was probably forced to admit that she might have been on to something there.
Look at this picture of the Disneys and tell us that woman isn't balls-out terrified of that doll.
There is, however, a little-known Disney character named Mortimer Mouse who is sometimes Minnie's uncle and sometimes Minnie's suitor -- exactly the kind of nastiness we'd expect from a Mortimer.
It's impossible to think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's most famous and mind-blowingest work, without instantly hearing the distinctive soundtrack in your head. This movie is the only reason we associate ape men with Also Sprach Zarathustra or spaceships with waltzing.
Or even something as basic as computers with murder.
It's not just that the music fits great with the movie; it's that every image seems perfectly synchronized to that music. The audience's familiarity with those classical pieces also makes the two-and-a-half hours of cosmic insanity infinitely more watchable. Knowing how insanely detail-oriented Kubrick was, he probably had all that stuff completely figured out before shooting one second of footage, right?
"... and this whole scene will be framed by The Ride of the Valkyries, done entirely in farts."
But It Was Almost ...
Actually, the entire classical soundtrack was more or less something Kubrick included at the last minute ... throwing away a finished modern score composed and recorded specifically for this movie. The opening sequence almost sounded like this:
That original score was created by veteran composer Alex North, who had previously worked with Kubrick on his earlier film Spartacus. North's score was epic and bombastic, and would have given the movie a completely different feeling -- the audience would keep wondering when the gladiators were gonna show up and tear down that monolith. 2001 without classical music would be like Pulp Fiction without '70s songs, and with a touching John Williams theme instead.
Still, North worked so hard on the score that Kubrick personally commissioned from him that he actually came down with muscle spasms from the stress and had to be driven to the recording in an ambulance. Kubrick wasn't impressed.
"The last time I slept was Thursday. I don't remember which year."
At some point during the film's long production, MGM started worrying about the state of the movie, and Kubrick created a work reel set to classical music, just to show them how it was coming along.
Kubrick liked how it sounded and continued using the classical music as a temporary soundtrack while editing the movie himself (apparently he did everything but act in it). Meanwhile, he told North his score was fine, but that he didn't need more of it because the rest of the movie would be just breathing noises. It's unclear exactly at what point he decided to completely ditch North's soundtrack and use his own -- North himself only found out about it when he attended the film's screening (and probably looked like a huge jerk in front of his date).