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Ragtime (1981) Poster

(1981)

Trivia

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Because of the presence of the ailing James Cagney, in what became his final big screen appearance, the movie was officially exempted from the long-running actors' strike of the early 1980s. It was the only production to receive that honor.
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James Cagney had been advised by his doctors and caregivers that making a film at this point in his life was very important for his health. The actor never flew, so he and his wife took an ocean liner to London, where his scenes were filmed. Despite his numerous infirmities, he stayed on-set during his fellow actors' close-ups to give them line readings.
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James Cagney objected to saying "nigger" in reference to Walker, so "buck" was substituted.
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Jack Nicholson had to drop out of the film less than a month before filming began, leaving the producers without a name star. Director Milos Forman recruited James Cagney, who he had met the year before at a private dinner in Connecticut. He offered Cagney any part he wanted, including (facetiously) Evelyn Nesbitt.
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James Cagney was 81 when he filmed this movie. Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo was 32 at the time in which the movie was set.
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This film reunited James Cagney, coming out of a 20-year retirement, with Pat O'Brien, his frequent co-star from the 1930s and 1940s. It was the last theatrical film for both of them.
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James Cagney used a wheelchair at the time of shooting. Most scenes show him sitting. A stand-in was used for scenes showing him on his feet, shot from the back to obscure the stand-in's face.
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Milos Forman hired Donald O'Connor at the request of James Cagney. O'Connor had been having personal and professional problems, and Cagney wanted to help him.
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James Cagney's memory was failing him, and cue cards had to be used.
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A ten-minute sequence on the Lower East Side featuring real-life social activist Emma Goldman was cut from the final print. In the sequence, Goldman takes Evelyn Nesbitt back to her apartment, explains her misgivings about women wearing restrictive undergarments, removes them from Nesbitt and tries to recruit her for the Socialist cause. During the scene, a voyeuristic younger brother followed them into the building and secretly watches Nesbitt undress.
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According to Director Milos Forman, James Cagney initially agreed to play New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo on two conditions: he would not sign a contract of any kind, and he reserved the right to change his mind and quit the film until three days before shooting began on his scenes.
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Mary Steenburgen was pregnant during filming. Her turn-of-the-century clothes concealed it.
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Nastassja Kinski wanted to play the role of Evelyn Nesbit, but she couldn't get Nesbit's accent.
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Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz facilitated the filmmakers' use of the Mount Kisco (New York) Mutual Fire Company's station in the filming of the fire house sequences. Mankiewicz was a local resident.
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Jeffrey DeMunn performed his own stunts, including a scene in which he tries to get out of a straight jacket hung upside down from a height.
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O.J. Simpson lobbied hard for the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. As presented in the documentary O.J.: Made in America (2016), Simpson saw himself in that role, but Director Milos Forman decided to go with Howard E. Rollins, Jr., a former teacher who got his first break in films with this role.
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Howard E. Rollins Jr. was a schoolteacher before he took the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.. He lost out on the Golden Globe Award for Best Newcomer that year to Pia Zadora.
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The silhouettist and his wife are listed in the credits as "Tateh" and "Mameh", the Yiddish words for "father" and "mother".
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Robert Altman was replaced by Milos Forman as director.
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Mandy Patinkin's daughter is played by Jenny Nichols, while Mary Steenburgen's son is played by Max Nichols. Both are the real-life children of Mike Nichols.
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The cast includes three Oscar winners: James Cagney, Mary Steenburgen, and Jack Nicholson (who has an uncredited cameo), and four Oscar nominees: Elizabeth McGovern, Howard E. Rollins Jr., Brad Dourif, and Samuel L. Jackson.
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Elizabeth McGovern was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role that year for playing Nesbit, but lost to Maureen Stapleton, who won for playing Emma Goldman in Reds (1981).
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Of the movie's two-hour thirty-five-minute running time, 49 minutes feature music. The soundtrack album includes 13 minutes of music unheard in the movie. That implies that Randy Newman wrote over an hour's worth of music for the movie, only to have it cut down. One song, "Change Your Way", was supposed to be sung by Scatman Crothers for the opening credits, but the scene was never shot. The song can be heard on the soundtrack album, sung by Newman. The "Denouement" cue clocks on the soundtrack at five minutes and 43 seconds. Only one minute and 43 seconds ended up in the final cut.
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Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and his mistreatment by the fire chief, is a remake the 19th-century German novella "Michael Kohlhaus" by Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist. In the novel, Kohlhaas is a Brandenburg horse dealer who is made to pay a "toll" by a member of the nobility, who then destroys his horses. Kohlhaas ultimately takes justice into his own hands after his Model T is destroyed. Von Kleist's story was a remake of a 16th-century story. It was also made into the film Michael Kohlhaas - Der Rebell (1969).
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Milos Forman originally wanted E.L. Doctorow to collaborate on the screenplay, but the novelist thought that a feature film could not do justice to his epic novel, and believed that it should be done as a ten-part television miniseries. Doctorow did not participate in the development of the screenplay.
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Mariclare Costello spent three weeks filming as Emma Goldman in a sequence that was cut from the film. Milos Forman wanted to keep her part in the film, but Producer Dino De Laurentiis thought it slowed the movie down. E.L. Doctorow, the novel's author, was brought in to break the tie. Doctorow agreed with De Laurentiis, and the footage was cut. The sequence is included as an extra on the DVD release.
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The woman who plays Thaw's mother, and who is present during the questioning by Pat O'Brien, is O'Brien's real-life wife.
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Featured Howard E. Rollins Jr. and Elizabeth McGovern's only Oscar nominated performances.
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Harvey Keitel and John Belushi were both considered for the role of Harry Houdini that was played by Jeffrey DeMunn.
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Spoilers 

The trivia item below may give away important plot points.

Film debut of Jeff Daniels.
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See also

Goofs | Crazy Credits | Quotes | Alternate Versions | Connections | Soundtracks

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