10 Facts About Steven Spielberg’s Duel

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

A Steven Spielberg movie, made in the 1970s, about an unstoppable force and the regular American guy trying to stop it—no, we’re not talking about Jaws. In 1971, the legendary director was just a twenty-something directing TV shows and looking to break out with his first movie gig. He eventually found it in the TV movie Duel, about an anonymous truck driver stalking a hapless businessman driving around the lonely canyon roads of California.

Duel, which is filled with thrills and road rage, was the precursor to Jaws and effectively launched Spielberg’s career. Here are some things you might not know about the Golden Globe-nominated thriller.

1. THE MOVIE WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT.

Carey Loftin and Dennis Weaver in 'Duel' (1971)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson based his original novella, which first appeared in the April 1971 issue of Playboy, on an actual road rage incident. Matheson had played a round of golf on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On his car ride home, and in a daze after receiving the terrible news, he was ruthlessly tailgated by a truck driver.

Matheson initially pitched the idea to TV producers but, after it was rejected numerous times, he decided to put his real-life incident into prose form. In order to gather details of the open road, Matheson set out from his home in Ventura, California with a voice recorder in hand and simply described what he saw. Those descriptions of the desolate landscape ended up in the novella.

2. IT WAS STEVEN SPIELBERG’S SECRETARY WHO DISCOVERED RICHARD MATHESON'S STORY.

Spielberg got his start directing for TV at the age of 21, helming episodes of such shows as Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D. But the aspiring filmmaker was desperately searching for a property he could turn into a feature film. It was Spielberg's secretary, Nona Tyson, who found Matheson’s story in Playboy and first sent it to her boss to potentially adapt into a movie.

“I started laughing because she's giving me a Playboy to read, and she said, 'Don't look at the girls, read the short story. It is right up your alley,'” Spielberg said. “She had a real intuition about me, and not since my own mom had anybody really had my number. She really understood my tastes, and my ambition, and my fear, my anxiety about wanting to do everything by Thursday morning.”

Tyson helped track down whether the movie rights to Matheson’s story had been optioned, and eventually discovered that a teleplay was in development at ABC and Universal with producer George Eckstein. Spielberg took a meeting with Eckstein, and brought a rough cut of his legendary 73-minute series premiere episode of Columbo, “Murder by the Book.” Eckstein was impressed, and gave Spielberg the job to direct Duel after a follow-up meeting where the filmmaker laid out how he envisioned the film from Matheson’s screenplay in full.

3. DENNIS WEAVER’S WORK WITH ORSON WELLES GOT HIM THE LEAD IN DUEL.

For the lowly protagonist, David Mann, Spielberg hand-picked character actor Dennis Weaver because he loved his performance as the jittery and feeble hotel night manager in Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil.

Weaver drove more than 2000 miles while shooting his scenes, and did many of the stunts himself, including the dangerous phone booth scene at the "Snakerama" gas station in a single take.

Of working with the rookie director, the veteran Weaver later said, “I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I said, ‘There’s no reason for me to judge him because of his age. Let’s see what he does.’ And he did extremely well ... I really think it’s one of the most creative jobs he’s ever done.”

4. THERE WAS A CASTING CALL FOR THE TRUCK.

Matheson's script stated that the villainous, unnamed truck driver would never be seen besides the insert shots of his arms and boots. (Weirdly enough, Matheson’s novella actually names the driver: “Keller,” Matheson’s own spin on the word killer.)

Since the truck itself is the movie’s main antagonist, Spielberg chose to cast it like he would any other actor: an in-person audition. The filmmaker auditioned seven different styles of semi-trucks on the Universal backlot, finally settling on a 1955 Peterbilt 281 because he felt that the split windshield, rounded lights, and elongated hood represented the menacing features of the truck’s “face.”

For Mann’s car, Spielberg chose the relatively small red Plymouth Valiant to stand out in size and color from the enormous truck and the earth tones of the California landscape.

5. CAREFUL PLANNING AND LOW-BUDGET CAMERA TRICKERY HELPED CAPTURE THE HIGH-SPEED CHASES.

Spielberg was given just $400,000 and 10 days to shoot Duel, but the schedule ballooned into a full 13 days to shoot the entire movie after the rookie director fell behind. To save time in shooting the high-speed chases on location in California's Soledad Canyon, Spielberg strategically set up multiple cameras along a single stretch of road to capture the shots needed for multiple scenes in one take. He had the camera turned 180 degrees and the cars driven in the opposite direction to get multiple shots for additional scenes.

Instead of creating individual storyboards, Spielberg mapped out the entire path of Mann and the truck driver on a mural of drafting paper with notes about each plot point peppering the sheet.

6. A FEW VERY FAMOUS CAR MOVIES MADE DUEL POSSIBLE.

To capture the truck and the car at seemingly high speeds, Spielberg shot each at low angles. To create those harrowing shots, Spielberg borrowed the specially-made camera car from the 1968 Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt, which could lower the camera to only 6 inches off the ground.

Spielberg also enlisted 50-year stunt veteran Carey Loftin as his stunt coordinator. Loftin, who played the driver, also designed the legendary car chase sequences in Vanishing Point, Bullitt, and The French Connection.

7. SPIELBERG ONLY HAD ONE SHOT AT THE CLIFF CRASH.

Carey Loftin and Dennis Weaver in 'Duel' (1971)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Spielberg only had one take to pull off the climactic cliff crash because the initial shoot only had a single truck at their disposal. (A backup truck was built during reshoots in case the engine of the main truck stopped working. The backup truck is now owned by classic car restorer Brad Wike, who is based in North Carolina.)

Loftin rigged the truck with a dead clutch so the 18-wheeler could drive without anyone behind the wheel. Spielberg filmed the crash with seven cameras from multiple angles to be able to use some editing tricks to stretch out the scene.

As the truck rams the car over the cliff and falls off in the final film, there is a low roar sound effect that the filmmaker included to emphasize the death of the truck. Spielberg, who wanted the truck to seem Godzilla-like, took the effect from the creature’s roar from the 1954 Universal monster movie Creature From The Black Lagoon, and would go on to reuse the effect for the death of the great white shark in Jaws.

8. SPIELBERG HAD TO FIGHT TO NOT BLOW UP THE TRUCK.

Eagle-eyed viewers will catch the word “flammable” scrawled across the back of the truck, yet when it careens off the cliff at the end of the movie it doesn’t go boom. The studio wanted a big explosion, but the director wanted a slower demise for his film’s villain.

In an interview with filmmaker Edgar Wright, Spielberg explained, “[Producer] George Eckstein told me after the network saw it, ‘Well, we’re going back to the desert, they want to push the truck off the cliff again and blow it up again.' I told George why that was such a terrible idea. I’d worked so hard to give the truck a long and painful death and I thought that’s what the audience wanted out of the resolution. I said, ‘If the network does force you to blow the truck up again, you get another director to do it because I’m not going to do it.' George fought for me, and for himself because he agreed with me.”

9. SPIELBERG ADDED SCENES TO GET TO THE BIG SCREEN.

The movie debuted on November 13, 1971 as ABC’s Movie of the Week, and proved to be so successful that Spielberg was given the opportunity to shoot additional footage (the school bus scene and the railroad crossing scene) to be able to release it in theaters at feature length.

10. SPIELBERG HAS REVISITED DUEL MORE THAN ONCE—AND PEOPLE HAVE STOLEN FROM HIM, TOO.

Duel was something of lucky charm once Spielberg’s career began to take off, and he’d continually reference parts of the movie in subsequent films.

The Snakerama gas station seen in the film also appears in Spielberg's 1979 World War II comedy, 1941, with actress Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor. The two elderly people Weaver tries to flag down in a car also appear as helpless motorists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But it wasn’t all good luck. Spielberg was not happy when stock footage of both vehicles was later used in an episode of the television series The Incredible Hulk, titled "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break." The recycled footage was completely legal since the show was also produced by Universal.

Additional Sources:
Duel Blu-ray Special Features

Jim Henson's Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas Is Returning to Theaters

The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events
The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events

For anyone who grew up with HBO in the 1980s, the holiday season meant two things: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and The Bells of Fraggle Rock. Though the beloved Jim Henson classics have been largely confined to home video-only screenings over the years, they’re making their way back to the big screen for the first time via Fathom Events when the Jim Henson Holiday Special arrives in theaters nationwide for a limited, two-day engagement.

More than 600 theaters across the country will host screenings of the Jim Henson Holiday Special on Monday, December 10 (4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and Sunday, December 16 (1 p.m. and 4 p.m.), which will pair the two specials—both of which have recently been remastered—alongside an all-new featurette, Memories of the Jug-Band.

"Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas was a favorite project for my dad since it included such sweet characters, Paul Williams’s delightful music, and a timeless holiday message,” Cheryl Henson—Jim Henson’s daughter and president of the Jim Henson Foundation—said in a statement about the special, which is a music-filled twist on The Gift of the Magi.

“Also, the special was a great opportunity for him to experiment with puppetry techniques and effects that would be seen in his later works," Henson continued. "[It] is exciting for families to share this holiday classic along with the special episode The Bells of Fraggle Rock, a rare opportunity to see the Fraggles on the big screen, and to introduce these beloved characters to a whole new audience."

On December 18, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas on Blu-ray for the first time ever so that you can make the special a permanent part of your regular holiday movie marathon. This news comes on the heels of Emmet Otter's first-ever official soundtrack release, more than 40 years after its original premiere.

Click here to find out the Jim Henson Holiday Special is playing near you, and to pre-order your tickets today.

10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for 45 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guaraldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s quasi-nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother Linus, however, is a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGGH.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of the holiday. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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