‘I’ll Be Watching You’: 23 Trivia Tidbits About ‘Meet the Parents’ on Its 23rd Anniversary
Back in 2000, folks were equally shocked and intrigued at the idea of Raging Bull actor Robert De Niro starring in a comedy with the guy from There’s Something About Mary and Wes Anderson’s other favorite actor, Owen Wilson. Meet the Parents was hardly a genre-breaking comedy, but its cast’s undeniable chemistry and comedic chops charmed audiences, spawning an unlikely franchise. Based on the 1992 movie with the same name (but no character named “Gaylord Focker”), here are 23 tidbits about the film on its 23rd anniversary...
Developed by Ace Ventura
After acquiring the rights to 1992’s original Meet the Parents, Universal Pictures began working with Steven Spielberg to get the remake going, while Jim Carrey wanted to star. However, both had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts. “I actually created the Fockers in a creative meeting,” Carrey revealed on Larry King Live. “But, it was perfect that Ben Stiller did it. When I saw it, I went: ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to be done.’”
The Real Reason Spielberg Didn’t Direct the Movie
Spielberg’s wife told him he wasn’t funny enough for the film. “I was preparing to direct Meet the Parents when she read the script,” the filmmaker shared with Total Film. “She said, ‘You’re not directing this movie — give it to a director who does comedy well.’” She had a fair point.
From the Director of ‘Austin Powers’
Jay Roach helmed the Austin Powers series and, following Meet the Parents and its sequel, the disastrous Dinner for Schmucks. He’d then find dramatic success directing the Oscar-nominated films Trumbo and Bombshell.
Roach Wanted to Do a Character-Driven Comedy
“I grew up on Monty Python and Peter Sellers, but I also grew up on Mike Nichols, and Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch,” Roach once explained. “A whole wide interesting array of influences. Sometimes, I would like the opportunity to do character-driven comedy, and that’s really what I was trying to do in Meet the Parents. I think in a way this is a more old-fashioned type of comedy.”
He further elaborated, “I was trying to have, in a kind of ‘40s-farce way, the opportunity to create realistic characters but heighten the comedic situations and predicaments a bit so that they’re still very funny and there is still some very broad humor, but you would connect to the characters and completely identify with Ben Stiller’s anxiety about not only meeting Robert De Niro’s character and all, but the kind of characters from his past that come with him. You see Ben pre-visualize disaster and, by avoiding it, sort of perpetuate it. For me, it became completely psychologically driven. That, I hope, is a kind of nice mixture of the old-fashioned approach and the newer approach.”
Stiller Wasn’t Sure He Wanted to Do the Movie
“The first draft I read must have been from when they were thinking Jim, because it was much more physically oriented,” Stiller told Entertainment Weekly. “Like, the toilet’s overflowing, and my character sits on it to stop it. He uses himself as a human, uh, y’know, plug. I read that and said, ‘No way I’m gonna be funny doing that.’” However, after De Niro signed on, the comedian felt he had “no choice” but to take the role.
The Sewage Scene Almost Didn’t Make the Cut
Roach said that he was initially “a little afraid” of De Niro and had second thoughts about splattering the icon with raw sewage. “I almost cut that septic-tank scene out of the film,” the director has explained. “As we were editing the film, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe we’ve gone too far here.’ But test audiences loved the scene, so we kept it in.”
A Long First Cut
In the same interview, Roach said the first cut came in at two hours and 50 minutes. The abandoned sequences include Stiller’s Greg crawling underneath the house and hearing the Byrnes family members’ opinions about him and another “in which Bob (De Niro) is organizing, military-style, a procession to the tuxedo shop.” The scenes were included on the movie’s DVD.
The Ending Was Heavily Improvised
Roach and John Hamburg, one of the screenwriters, struggled to resolve the dad/boyfriend crisis and land the ending. Even with rewrites during production, they relied on improvisation, with Greg’s airplane outburst being a prime example. “I was adamant that Greg have more backbone,” Stiller told EW. “Jay had to mediate and say, ‘This is the way I want to shoot it. Trust it.’”
A Frequent Stiller Collaborator
The Film Was Fashion Forward
In 2021, GQ published “The Unbeatable Fall Style of Meet the Parents,” which hails Greg Focker as a style icon, stating, “Today, the movie stands as a timeless snapshot of autumnal men’s fashion — a bizarrely prescient reflection of modern-day menswear.”
Blythe Danner Showed Stiller How to Milk a Cat
Danner, who played the Byrnes matriarch, Dina, remembered explaining to Stiller how one would actually milk an animal — in this case, the family cat, Jinx. “I remember because my grandfather had a milk business,” Danner revealed. “And I said, ‘Oh Ben, the only thing I’m going to speak up about. I said, you really have to milk it like that.’”
Even More Writers Who Were Involved
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor both contributed and specifically helped write the script’s third act, while it was Jerry Stahl’s idea to make Greg Focker a male nurse. “I was in a great place in that all the writers who were involved remained involved,” Roach told EW. “They were all reading each other’s pages, all calling in with ideas. But John (Hamburg) was the guy who was kind of on payroll through the shoot.”
A Lot of Corpsing Happened During Filming
“I wanted them to be nervous around each other,” Roach said in the same interview. “But they were busting each other up all the time. That kitchen scene with Owen (Wilson), I could barely shoot. They were incapable of doing that scene all the way through.”
When asked if he takes a break when the actors start laughing during filming, the director revealed he does the exact opposite. “I always let giggle fits go on without saying ‘cut,’” said Roach before turning to Stiller. “Because, Ben, when you’re just about to break up, your face goes into this thing, this ambiguous, hilarious expression. It’s a secret movie director’s trick: Let them crack each other up. There are takes in the film where if we held the shot just one frame longer, you would see them break up.”
A Box Office Success
De Niro Pitched the Polygraph Scene
Jim Herzfeld, who wrote the first working draft of the script, told Screenwriters Utopia that De Niro pitched him the famed polygraph scene.
Almost Starred Naomi Watts
Watts did many auditions to play Pamela Byrnes, Greg’s girlfriend, but according to the actor, lost out to Teri Polo because “they (the studio) told me they didn’t think I was sexy enough.” She would then get her big break in David Lynch’s sexed-up mystery Mulholland Drive.
Hertzfeld said that he looked to movies featuring “misunderstood guys,” like The Graduate, for inspiration. He also said that while There’s Something About Mary wasn’t released when he wrote Meet the Parents, he could see MTP feeling like a sequel to Stiller’s other comedy.
A Pageant Queen’s Debut
Phyllis George, a former Miss Texas and Miss America pageant winner, made her movie debut in Meet the Parents, playing Linda Banks, Bob’s mother.
Stiller Helped Develop the Car Chase Scene
“I was lucky that Ben and Bob not only are good actors and good improv guys, but they think like directors,” Roach told EW. “So they know, ‘Okay, I can throw this idea at you, and we might be able to deal with it.’ But they also are aware of where the practical limits are. One of the great scenes that Ben helped with was the car chase. We couldn’t afford a prolonged, full-on chase, so Ben had the idea of doing a suburban chase, where you weren’t allowed to go very fast or very far between stoplights.”
Jack’s Glasses Was De Niro’s Idea
“I liked the meticulousness of little glasses that would unfold, of how he’d put those on,” De Niro told EW. “It seemed right.”
Roach Really Related to Greg Focker
“I realized how personal the movie had been,” Roach has said. “I’m by nature an anxious person; I’m constantly visualizing disasters that could occur in life. But I didn’t fully understand how much of myself I had projected onto Ben until I started talking about the film for the commentary. You see, I behaved pretty much like Ben’s character when I first met my father-in-law. I brought the wrong wine, told stupid jokes, pretended to know things about which I hadn’t a clue — just to impress the guy. I had this in mind when we were working on the script and shooting the picture, but I guess I never realized how much of myself ended up on screen in Ben’s character.”
No Cats Were Harmed During the Making of the Movie
The Byrnes’ family pet, Jinx, was played by two Himalayan cats, Bailey and Misha. The cats spent time on set before filming so they could get used to the actors and surroundings, and a veterinarian and two trainers were on set every day to ensure everything was above board.
The Real-Life Hassle of the Name ‘Focker’
Jim Carrey came up with the surname, while the MPAA threatened to give the film an R-rating because of its expletive-sounding nature. This led to the filmmakers having to prove that it is an actual surname by sending the ratings board a list of real Fockers.