Before Dustin Hoffman auditioned for this film, he knew that his all-American image could easily cost him the job. To prove he could do it, he asked the auditioning film executive to meet him on a street corner in Manhattan, and in the meantime, dressed himself in filthy rags. The executive arrived at the appointed corner and waited, barely noticing the "beggar" less than ten feet away who was accosting people for spare change. At last, the beggar walked up to him and revealed his true identity.
In one particular scene, Ratso and Joe get into an argument over cowboys. Ratso states that "Cowboys are fags!" Joe's response is "John Wayne is a cowboy! Are you calling John Wayne a fag?" Coincidentally, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for their roles as Ratso and Joe, respectively. They lost out - to John Wayne for his role in True Grit (1969).
Contrasting Opinions #2: According to Dustin Hoffman himself, the taxi incident *wasn't* scripted. During an L.A. Times interview in Jan. 2009, he said that the movie didn't have a permit to close down the NYC street for filming, so they had to set-up the scene with a hidden camera in a van driving down the street, and remote microphones for the actors. After 15 takes, it was finally going well, but this time, as they crossed the street, a taxi ran a red light. Hoffman wanted to say "Hey, we're SHOOTING here!", not only from fear of his life, but also from anger that the taxi driver might have ruined the take. Instead, being the professional that he is, he stayed in character and shouted "Hey, we're WALKING here!" and made movie history. Jon Voight also backs up this version of the incident, saying that seeing how well Hoffman was handling the situation, he likewise stayed in character.
The film was rated "X" (no one under 17 admitted) upon its original release in 1969, but the unrestricted use of that rating by pornographic filmmakers caused the rating to quickly become associated with hardcore sex films. Because of the stigma that developed around the "X" rating in the ratings system's early years, many theaters refused to run "X" films and many newspapers would not run ads for them. The film was given a new "R" (children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian) rating in 1971, without having anything changed or removed. It remains the only X-Rated film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, be shown on network TV (although the R reclassification had taken place by then), or be screened by a sitting U.S. President, Richard Nixon.
Contrasting Opinions #1: Ratso Rizzo's famous line, "I'm walkin' here!", *was* scripted. The location was at 58th Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. The scene called for the taxicab (driven by a stunt driver) to turn east onto 58th Street from 6th Avenue as Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, walking north on 6th Avenue, crossed 58th Street. Dustin then was to yell at the cab as it almost ran into him. The scene was rehearsed, and then with camera and sound rolling, the shot was filmed. There was a pause, the cab reversed direction, backed up onto 6th, stopped, then proceeded to turn again onto 58th as Dustin and Jon once more crossed the street. This happened several times, each time attracting a larger and larger crowd of curious onlookers. The camera setup was just to the north, and the crew seemed to be greatly amused as the filming disrupted morning rush hour.
On the occasion of the film's 25th anniversary in 1994, Dustin Hoffman revealed on Larry King Live (1985) that, when the movie was first previewed, the audience started to leave in droves during the movie theater gay encounter scene between Jon Voight and Bob Balaban.
One studio executive sent director John Schlesinger a memo stating, "If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley." Presley wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and was interested in the role of Joe Buck. Presley went on instead to do Change of Habit (1969) with Mary Tyler Moore, which bombed, and became his last theatrical movie.
Harry Nilsson wrote the song "I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City" specifically for this film, but John Schlesinger preferred a Fred Neil song, "Everybody's Talkin'", which Nilsson had previously recorded. Other songs considered for the movie were Randy Newman's "Cowboy", and Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay".
During the filming of the snowstorm sequence in which Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo walk down Mercer Street and arrive at the Warhol party, the snow machines made so much noise (filming was in July) that sound recording was impossible. After filming was finished for the scene, "looping" was necessary. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight recorded their dialog and then with a hundred or so cast and crew standing silent in 10 inches of Styrofoam snow, Bernice, the Saint Bernard tied to the railing in front of the loft building where the party was being held looped her "dialog": barking furiously at Dustin Hoffman's menacing Ratso.
Waldo Salt is credited as the screenwriter for the film. Apparently a happy coincidence, 1975 saw the release of The Great Waldo Pepper (1975). Hollywood's history now claims a Waldo Salt and Pepper set.
Dustin Hoffman stated during a 1994 interview with Larry King that Jon Voight (being from Yonkers, New York) originally did not get the part of Joe Buck because he was having trouble mastering the character's Midland, Texas accent.