After initial box-office returns were surprisingly low, a newspaper poll was taken in the summer of 1980 to figure out why teenagers were not flocking to see the film. One of the main complaints from kids was that they did not know what the word Urban meant.
In the early scenes of the movie, John Travolta as Bud sports a beard. According to director James Bridges, Travolta wanted to keep the beard throughout the film but, after a lunch-date with the actor in a very popular restaurant failed to attract even one autograph-seeker, Travolta was convinced to shave it off.
At the time the film was shot, Gilley's, used as the film's main nightclub location was the largest nightclub in the world in terms of available space for the patrons, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
John Travolta said of this movie in the film's publicity: "Today, half the country would like to be a cowboy, while the other half would like to look like one". Of the movie, Travolta added that it was (to date at the time) " . . . my most physical movie. That thing was brutal and hard on the body. I was trained by super stuntman Chris Howell and he taught me how to hang on and hang in there. To master it, finally, was a great feeling".
During the production shoot of this movie, disco outfit The Bee Gees, who had provided much of the soundtrack for John Travolta's earlier hit disco movie Saturday Night Fever (1977), played in Houston, Texas, whereupon Travolta accompanied them on stage.
According to the TCMDb, "In the last two weeks, the shoot moved to Los Angeles where an East L.A. trailer park subbed for Bud's Houston digs. One day, gunfire suddenly peppered the set. According to a security guard, six men with sawed-off rifles came over an embankment on the set's perimeter, firing away. It was believed, though never proved, that the assailants were members of a local street gang. No one was injured, but Travolta was badly shaken, and the remainder of filming was done on a soundstage".
Gilley's was located at 4500 Spencer Highway, Pasadena, TX. Originally known as Shelly's, it was renamed for country singer Mickey Gilley when he became part-owner with founder Sherwood Cryer. Gilley's closed in 1989 and burned down a year later.
In order to place cameras in key positions under the mechanical bull to capture certain angles of the rodeo riding, the landing fall mattresses were removed, thereby reducing the safety protection of the rider.
The story of Bud and Sissy was loosely based on the real-life marriage of Donald "Dew" Westbrook and Betty Jo Helmer, who met at Gilley's when they were both eighteen. They married within a few months and held their wedding reception at Gilley's. They were already separated by the time the movie was being filmed and later divorced. Dew Westbook was not thrilled by the idea of being played by John Travolta, saying that he thought Travolta was "too disco".
The film's "Urban Cowboy" title is a real-life expression used in popular speech. The Allwords Dictionary define the term as a "person living in the city that dresses in Western-style clothes". They state that the phrase's etymology has it derived from its use in this movie.
The picture was adapted into a Broadway stage production of the same name in 2003 where it played for sixty performances at the Broadhurst Theatre opening on the 28th of February and closing on the 18th of May.
The production shoot of this picture featured a closed set with many security precautions implemented to protect star John Travolta from the media. Travolta had mandated no publicity during filming and was at the time known to have become reclusive. The picture though garnered much negative publicity during principal photography anyway with producer Robert Evans once exclaiming "the press relations on this film stink and there's nothing I can do about it".
The film's director James Bridges said of this movie for the picture's publicity: "The film is a real look at the lifestyle of a mechanized West and the need for fantasy by those in contemporary society who work daily in dangerous jobs. In the saloon they go to at night after work these men create another reality for themselves, almost a small town where they live the cowboy myth".
The interior of the "Gilley's Club" country-and-western venue was ravaged by fire around 1989/1990 with the bar closing down after a dispute between its owners. In 2006, the exterior shell of the facility was demolished by its owners the Pasadena Independent School District. Reportedly, only the old sound-recording studio remains which is located on the Spencer Highway. A new "Gilley's Club" opened in Dallas, Texas in 2003 and is now known as "Gilley's Dallas".
The world premiere of the film was held at the Gaylynn Cinema located in the Sharpstown Center complex in July 1980. As of 2015, the Gaylynn Cinema complex is now the Paparrucho's Indoor Soccer Arena (the office building next to the movie theater once housed the headquarters for KREH 900AM known to Houstonians as Radio Saigon Houston) and Sharpstown Center was renamed PlazAmericas since 2009.
The type of dancing featuring in the movie in the dance contest is known as "Kicker Dancing" in Texas where the film is set and was shot. Outside of this American state it is also known as "Country Dancing", "Country/Western Dancing" and "Country and Western Dancing".
Immediately upon completing the editing of The China Syndrome (1979), writer-director James Bridges began writing "The Urban Cowboy", whose final title would be Urban Cowboy (1980), which Bridges directed on location in Houston, Texas.
Sissy Spacek and Michelle Pfeiffer were amongst the main actresses considered for the lead female role of "Sissy" (and having the same first name as Spacek), with the part in the end being cast with Debra Winger.
In an interview with Scott Glenn (Wes Hightower), he stated that he had a bit of an attitude problem back then and would refuse to audition for roles. The producers wanted him to audition and Scott would have none of it; It's unknown how Scott orchestrated this exactly, but he arranged to be at Gilley's when the Producer's were there; and in character and in costume, and in front of the producers, he approached the biggest, roughest looking guy at the bar and told him, "you're sitting in my seat and you need to leave immediately" (loose paraphrase); luckily, according to Scott, the guy got up and left the bar stool; thus Scott was hired on the spot as Wes Hightower.