On the morning of the Academy Award nominations in 1981, when the movie got nods for actor and supporting actor, author Pat Conroy received a phone call from him father who told him "You and me got nominated for Academy Awards, your mother didn't get squat".
According to author Pat Conroy, Lt. Col. Bull Meecham is based entirely on his own father, Donald Conroy, a Marine fighter pilot who referred to himself in the third person as "The Great Santini." Donald Conroy took the nickname from a magician he'd seen as a child. Pat and Donald Conroy were on the set on the day that Robert Duvall and Michael O'Keefe filmed the scene where Bull Meecham bullies and taunts Ben after losing to him in a basketball game. A woman on the set asked Donald Conroy if he and Pat had really played games like that. Donald Conroy replied, "Every day, madam. Every single day." However, the book and movie gave Donald Conroy an opportunity to mend fences with his children, especially Pat. After the novel was published, Donald Conroy would often accompany his son to book signings, and would sign his son's novels with the signature, "Donald Conroy - The Great Santini."
The movie was originally released directly to cable and airlines, under the title "The Ace". When the NY Times reviewed it very favorably, it was pulled from cable, and released to theaters under the title "The Great Santini".
In 2013, Pat Conroy added a sequel to the family story he told in the "Santini" book and movie with his new memoir "The Death of Santini:The Story of a Father and His Son". In it he describes ho his mother Peg, dying of leukemia, asked to be portrayed by Meryl Streep in any future movie.
During the basketball game, Pat Conroy's mother Peg, the woman with the short blonde hair, is seated directly behind Blythe Danner. Pat's brother, Tom, who tragically committed suicide at the age of 33, is #32 on the team, the player wearing glasses.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The cemetery where Bull Meecham is buried at the end of the film is Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. When Donald Conroy, the inspiration for Bull Meecham, died in 1998, he was also laid to rest in Beaufort National Cemetery. (His tombstone reads, "Donald Conroy - The Great Santini") A few months before his death, Donald Conroy visited the cemetery with his son, Pat, to check the burial plot he had purchased for himself. He told the cemetery officials, "This is the second time I'll be buried here."