30 Trivia Tidbits About ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ for Its 30th Anniversary

30 Trivia Tidbits About ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ for Its 30th Anniversary

Thought of by many as one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, Sleepless in Seattle has the sort of premise that, today, would probably get a person roasted on Twitter. The story sees a young boy named Jonah, who had recently lost his mom, call up a radio station to talk about his grieving dad and essentially cause thousands of singletons to shower the man’s mailbox with desperate love letters. Heartwarming, harassing 20th-century comedy at its best. The movie has everything: Terrible suitors, lovable best friends, sardonic humor and even that classic 1990s plot that sees a boy ending up in New York City all alone

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It’s the 1993 rom-com that is undoubtedly one of the genre’s best and gave us another Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan team-up. To celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary, let’s plunge into some trivia about Sleepless in Seattle... 

It Was the First On-screen Mention of the ‘Soup Nazi’

Two years before Seinfeld would make Ali “Al” Yeganeh, aka the “Soup Nazi,” famous (outside of New York), Sleepless in Seattle mentioned him. During the pitch meeting at Annie’s work, one of the writers mentions him, saying, “This man sells the greatest soup you have ever eaten, and he is the meanest man in America. I feel strongly about this, Becky; it’s not just about the soup.” It was a joke that, back then, only New Yorkers would’ve appreciated. 

Leona Helmsley Gave Her Blessing to Shoot at the Empire State Building

At first, the filmmakers were denied permission to shoot the iconic sequence at the Empire State Building. Co-writer and director Nora Ephron, however, knew the publicist who represented Leona Helmsley, the widow of Harry Helmsley, who at that point owned the building and was serving time in prison for tax evasion and mail fraud. Ephron asked the publicist to put in a request at their behest, and Helmsley gave them six hours to complete the shoot. They got the helicopter shot and the lobby scene on film but ended up shooting the scene where Annie and Sam finally meet back in Seattle, where the crew turned an old Navy base into a sound stage, as there were none in the city at the time.

Alternative Casting

As most castings go, a couple of alternatives were thrown around before the filmmakers settled on Hanks and Ryan. Julia Roberts was approached to play Annie but turned it down to do Pretty Woman instead. Producer Gary Foster thought it might be a good idea to cast Ryan alongside her then-husband, Dennis Quaid, but production took a while to kick off, and Ryan initially decided to move on. Foster then considered Kim Basinger, but by the time Ephron came on board to rewrite the script and also direct, she insisted that they cast Ryan and Hanks as the leads after seeing their chemistry in Joe Versus the Volcano.

The Deleted Scene Featuring Parker Posey

Yeah, we know, how dare they? In this delightful deleted scene that sees Hanks sing a rendition of “Twelve Days of Christmas” laced with veiled threats of destroying every radio in the house, Posey pops up as a “concerned neighbor” checking in on the Baldwins. It was Posey’s first Hollywood job, and the actress said that Ephron wrote her a letter to apologize for giving her scene the chop. The director would later cast Posey in her dark Christmas comedy, Mixed Nuts, and opposite Hanks in You’ve Got Mail.

They Transported a Door Between Seattle and Baltimore

In the movie, there’s a scene where Annie goes through a door in Baltimore, and Sam comes out, but in Seattle. “We used the same door,” Ephron told Rolling Stone. “We really went for that one. We actually shipped that door from one city to the other.

The Director Is the Queen of Rom-Coms

Ephron is responsible for either writing and/or directing classic romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — all three of them starring Ryan.

Ephron and Rob Reiner’s Collaborations

Reiner stars in the movie as Jay, Sam’s best friend, but it’s not the first time the actor and director worked with Ephron. Reiner directed When Harry Met Sally…, which Ephron wrote. Reiner would also feature in Mixed Nuts.

The Script Came from the Mind of a Taekwondo Teacher

Jeff Archer was an English teacher and owned a Taekwondo school in Virginia when he decided to shoot his shot and write three screenplays in one year. Sleepless in Seattle was his second script, and although it wasn’t well-written, Foster read it after Archer’s agent sent it his way, and the producer couldn’t stop thinking about its potential. David S. Ward was hired to do some rewrites, with Ephron later finishing the script.

The One Scene Ephron Allowed Them to Improvise

Rita Wilson (who played Sam’s sister Suzy) told Variety that while Ephron wanted the cast to stick to the script because it was written so tight, the director did allow Hanks and Victor Garber (Suzy’s husband, Greg) to improvise the scene that pits women against men in the conversation comparing An Affair to Remember with The Dirty Dozen.

The Original Screenwriter Originally Thought That Kevin Costner Should Be the Lead

Archer thought Costner would be the perfect Sam when he first set out to write his screenplay. However, he envisioned Ryan as the lead from the very start. “She had just done When Harry Met Sally…; she was the perfect person,” Archer told PennLive. “I remember waking up my wife and saying, ‘Sleepless in Seattle. You’re going to see Meg Ryan on the cover of Premiere Magazine about this.’ She rolled over and went back to sleep. Three years later, we saw Meg Ryan on the cover of Premiere Magazine.”

Ephron Was Married to One of the Watergate Journalists

Ephron was a journalist herself and knew who Deep Throat was long before the public learned his identity. She wrote about harboring Mark Felt’s secret identity in a piece for HuffPost, saying that she figured out her former husband Carl Bernstein’s codes for Deep Throat and deduced that it was Felt. “For many years, I have lived with the secret of Deep Throat’s identity,” Ephron wrote. “It has been hell, and I have dealt with the situation by telling pretty much anyone who asked me, including total strangers, who Deep Throat was. Not for nothing, indiscretion is my middle name.”

Lighting Up the Empire State Building

On the movie’s 25th anniversary in 2018, the Empire State Building was lit up with Valentine’s Day colors to celebrate the film. Archer was ecstatic about the occasion, saying, “In the movie, they had to do that digitally. Twenty-five years later, they did it for real. I got it in my head in 1978 that they could change the lights on the building. In 1990, I said, ‘I’m going to make them do that.’ That’s such a great power!”

The Film Was Adapted into a Musical

Written by Archer, Sleepless in Seattle — The Musical debuted at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2013 and has been staged a few times since. Another adaptation, Sleepless, a Musical Romance, debuted in 2020, with no connection to Archer’s stage script.

It Was Always Seattle, But Not Always Baltimore

Archer’s original script had the Baldwins reside in Seattle, but Annie originally lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “I couldn’t write a movie set in a city without a major-league team,” Ephron emphatically told The Baltimore Sun. It also didn’t have Jonah call the radio station, but rather Sam himself. Foster said that Ward was the one who suggested the change: “He (Ward) sat down and said, ‘Gary, you have a major problem with the script. No man of strength that I know would pick up the phone on New Year’s Eve — or at any other time — and call into a radio show to start sharing his emotional problems on the air.’ He pitched the idea that Sam’s young son, concerned about his dad’s emotional state, calls the show and is coerced by the radio host to put his dad on the phone. It’s a high jack. After meeting with 10 or so other top writers, David’s notes made the most sense, so we hired him.”

Hanks and Ephron Did Not Get Along at First

Not knowing each other at all and meeting for the first time to discuss the movie, Ephron and Hanks had trouble clicking at first. “Nora reported back to me that while she thought it was a good meeting (Tom was reciting lines and play-acting with her), she wasn’t sure they connected,” Foster wrote in a piece for Deadline. “He was holding something back, but she didn’t know what. When I spoke with Richard, he said we were close, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Tom had concerns about connecting with Nora. He wondered if she was too aloof and arrogant. Nora was not the exuberant cheerleader like Penny Marshall (Big and A League of Their Own) that Tom had worked with. She wasn’t aloof but wry, she wasn’t arrogant, but she was confident, layered, a little protective of herself. I told Richard (Tom’s agent) she knew her stuff, and if Tom gave her a chance, he’d see that she was in total command, and the protective façade would come down. Her humor would show through. I really believed that once they got to know each other, they’d become fast friends. I was right about that!”

Rosie O'Donnell Liked to Improvise Rap Songs on Set

As Ephron told it, “Every time we would shoot, she is so shockingly brilliant, she would say — you would say your name, and she would sing a song about you, rhyming everything, using your name, using whatever she knew about you. She was a rapper in some way that was so brilliant. I couldn’t believe it. She’s great at everything she does. It was an amazing experience.”

About Annie’s Ridiculous Nightgown

Annie sleeps in one bizarre-looking nightgown whenever we see her with Walter (Bill Pullman). Ephron said that she wanted Ryan’s character to have a sort of 1950s innocence to her. “I wanted to keep her a virgin, you know, without being silly about it,” she explained. “I gave Meg a nightgown that came up to here (touches her neck), and Meg said, ‘She would wear that to bed?’ and I said, ‘Do you know who you are? You’re the Breck girl.’”

The Rain Wasn’t Real

During the movie’s production, Seattle was experiencing a drought, resulting in water trucks being brought in to create the rain. “I wrote a scene about it raining — that was the hottest, driest summer Seattle had in years!” Archer also remembers. “Maybe it’s some kind of perverse... whatever, but I love that I got to make these people make rain!”

Annie’s Original Backstory

On the DVD commentary track, it’s revealed that, originally, Annie would be coming out of a bad relationship, which would’ve meant no Bill Pullman. Ephron decided one sad backstory was enough and stuck with Sam’s widower angle.

Delia Ephron Helped Punch Up Jessica’s Confrontation Scene

Also revealed on the commentary track was that Delia Ephron spruced up the scene where Jessica (played by Gaby Hoffmann) is confronted by her parents about Jonah going to New York. According to Nora, Delia came up with the NY/NW joke at the 0:53 mark below.

Ephron Initially Said Yes to Rewriting the Script Because She Needed the Money

“I had done my first movie, This is My Life, which I had done for scale, which is not very much money, and I was completely out of dough. And my agent said, ‘Oh gee, here’s a rewrite,’ and it’s supposed to happen. It had a director. It had casting attached to it,” Ephron recalls. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I can fix this. I can make this better.’ So I did a rewrite on it, and basically made it into a comedy, or made it into… not a comedy, but a movie that had laughs in it, which it didn’t at all. And suddenly, it was a ‘Go’ picture, and the director who had been attached to it — who had no interest in making a comedy, I guess — bowed out of it. He was gone, and the actors were gone because they weren’t really funny, and it was suddenly a script that a lot of people wanted to be in.”

Michael Myers Had a Hand in the Movie

Nick Castle, who famously played Myers in the original Halloween and then again in the recent reboot trilogy, gave Foster some notes on “how to improve the storytelling” because he had “a good grasp of the emotional heart of the story.” Castle, at that point, had directed The Boy Who Could FlyThe Last Starfighter and Tap, and when he lost out to Steven Spielberg to direct Hook, TriStar gave him Sleepless in Seattle. But as explained above, he did not agree with Ephron’s more acerbic humor, and the studio eventually removed him from the project.

The Color Red Doesn’t Feature Much Until Sam and Annie Cross Paths at the Airport

Ephron said in the director’s commentary that they made a deliberate design choice in the movie. “One of the ideas of our production designer, Jeffrey Townsend, was to very rarely use red in the movie until the two of them came together,” she revealed. “And that little group of soccer players is all in red on purpose. It’s just one of those little ideas that production designers sometimes get. But we used a very controlled palette in the movie. Partly because of me because I hate (royal) blue. So we don’t have any blue in the movie.”

The Babysitter Was a Waitress in Seattle

Foster said that Ephron was looking for “a Shelley Duvall” type to play Clarise, Jonah’s babysitter. They went to Gravity Bar one day, where they saw Amanda Maher, a waitress, and asked her to audition for the part. The producer said they cast her because she was “so natural, so real,” and quite obviously had the look.

Jason Schwartzman Auditioned for the Part of Jonah

While Schwartzman auditioned to play Hanks’ son, he wasn’t yet fully committed to acting. Instead, he spent most of his time in his band called Phantom Planet until Rushmore came along, earning him great reviews.

The Tiny Thing Hanks Added

“That little thing of letters that falls off the pile of Tom’s is something that the first time it happened I thought, ‘Oh, he dropped the letters,” the second and third time he did it, I realized that he did it on purpose,” Ephron said. “And one of the reasons he did it is Tom knew better than I did that the scene needed something to end it. Even if it was a little noise. And that little package of envelopes that drops gives the scene what you call a button and helps tremendously where the writing fails.”

The Director’s Cameo

While Annie is in the kitchen listening to the radio, there’s a caller referred to as “Disappointed in Denver.” That caller is the voice of Ephron.

More of the Ephron Sisters’ Act

When the producers offered Ephron the directing role, she said, “‘Well, I’ve got to bring Delia, my sister, in on it, because I need a lot of help if I’m going to direct it,. (They said), ‘Bring Delia in. That’s great!’ Delia brought a huge number of hilarious things to it, and suddenly — I have never had anything like it happen. It was instant. It was like, I think I gave them the script — the first pass in March — and we were scouting in Seattle in early June, and we were shooting in August. It was unbelievable.”

The Original Opening Scene

At first, Annie was also going to hail from Chicago like the Baldwins, and the filmmakers actually shot Sam and Annie both living in the city at the start. “That little idea of mine didn’t work,” Ephron admitted.


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