It seems I’ve managed to track the Dread Pirate Roberts to his secret lair.
The actor Cary Elwes, who famously portrayed the farmboy Westley in the movie The Princess Bride, not to mention critical roles in blockbusters like Days of Thunder, Twister, and Saw, is in Denver to promote his first memoir, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, co-written with Joe Layden. The 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner has long since become a quote-along cult classic, prompting fans to pepper actors with lines like “Inconceivable!” and “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” and of course, Westley’s everlasting proclamation of love for Princess Buttercup: “As you wish.”
Elwes is just getting his second wind as we meet at a dapper downtown hotel. He’s dressed in red sneakers, his ever-present leather jacket and a t-shirt from Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where his appearance the night before drew over 2,000 fans to hear him speak about his most famous role. The film only garnered a single chapter in novelist and screenwriter William Goldman’s memoir Which Lie Did I Tell (2000, etc.), so I’m curious why Elwes has devoted his first book to a single performance.
“It’s the film that defined my career,” Elwes replies. “The fan base is legion, as exemplified last night in Portland. At the 25th anniversary screening at Lincoln Center in 2012, we were all asked on stage what our favorite moment was from the movie, and I realized that the whole journey for me was so joyful. I can barely remember a day without laughter, and I thought, ‘I’ll bet the fans would like to hear about it.’ ”
Remembering everything that happened on a set 27 years ago would be a daunting task for any writer, let alone an actor with more than 60 films and dozens of television performances to his credit. Luckily, Elwes had lots of help. Rob Reiner delivered a glowing foreword, and the authors solicited contributions from the film’s storied cast, including Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Billy Crystal, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Chris Sarandon, Carol Kane and Fred Savage, among many others. But it was the man who contributed the epilogue to As You Wish who proved most ingenious: producer Norman Lear (Even This I Get To Experience, 2014).
“I panicked a little after I made the deal for the book,” Elwes admits. “I haven’t told that many of these stories before—Andre the Giant’s fart, because that’s monumental, and my breaking my toe before the big swordfight, and having to leave the set during Billy Crystal’s performance because I couldn’t keep it together, but that’s about it. So I shared my dilemma with Norman Lear. He said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m sending someone down to the archives and we’re sending you copies of all the call sheets, and here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to open them and you’re going to remember exactly where you were and what you were doing on any given day.’ A week later, this beautiful bound set of call sheets arrived, and I opened it and 27 years melted away.”
The Princess Bride is infamous because it’s one of the funniest movies of the past 50 years, and it accomplishes that feat without any of the actors mugging for the camera or heightening their performances into Monty Python–esque territory. Elwes recalls director Rob Reiner’s first advice to him was to “play it straight.”
“It was Rob’s first direction to me, because it’s what I called him the first night on set,” he remembers. “Clearly, Rob was the right man for the job. He completely understood the tone of the film. You’re absolutely right that we could have all hammed it up and it would have been a different movie altogether. That’s the film where you can see Rob, who is a fan of all these genres, poking fun at them in a tongue-in-cheek way, but also with a kind of reverence for them.”
Elwes also remembers the weight of being the swashbuckling Dread Pirate Roberts opposite actress Robin Wright as Princess Buttercup, “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.”
“It made me incredibly confident, just being hired,” he says. “You’ll never know what it means to an actor just to be hired on a project you want to be on. The confidence boost it gives you is just enormous. Still, we were sort of carrying the film. You’re right that it’s an ensemble piece, but everything in the film happens to Buttercup. Mind you, she fits the bill, even to this day. But Robin had more at stake than I did. If the audience didn’t care for us or buy the chemistry, we were in trouble. To their credit, and with my eternal gratitude, Rob and Norman were steadfast in their decision to hire me and Robin.”
Despite the crushing attention that an appearance by Elwes can generate, the actor remains steadfastly committed to his fans.
“I think we’re all bonded through the experience of The Princess Bride,” he says. “I think we all realize we’re part of a film that turned out to be much bigger than ourselves. It’s the fans that keep me working. Without them, I don’t have a career. I know some people in our business forget that fact sometimes, but I never do. As I say in the book, The Princess Bride doesn’t belong to us anymore. It truly belongs to the fans.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.