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When Mel Johnson Jr. first read Total Recall's description of Benny, he threw the script across the room
There's so many memorable, standout characters surrounding Quaid/Hauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, it'd be hard to put your mutant finger on a favorite. But one thing's for sure — if Quaid picks Benny's cabbie competition for that first fabled fare on Mars, the movie turns out way less entertaining.
For those of you who received brain implants in the past 30 years and don't recall, Mel Johnson Jr. played Benny, the cabbie with a smile and a varying number of children to feed, who welcomes Quaid to Mars and pretty much whisks him all over the Red Planet whilst providing our amnesiac hero with damn entertaining lay of the land.
However, as Quaid comes to realize just who he is, he also learns just who Benny is. Let's just say there's more than meets the hand.
In honor of Total Recall's 30th anniversary, SYFY WIRE spoke to Johnson at length about his "first huge film" playing the "zooming" mutant-in-surprise, why he literally tossed the script across the room upon first reading Benny's description, how he made up one of the film's most memorable lines, and more.
In SYFY WIRE's Total Recall oral history, we already heard about how Johnson landed the part when Verhoeven's teenage daughters picked Johnson's screentest out of a pile of would-be Bennys. But what about when he first read the script, before he even knew Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger were attached?
"When I first got the script, I had just auditioned like the day before for a horrible like Black exploitation film; it just flipped me out. And so I started reading Total Recall, got to my character Benny, and the character description said 'black jivester.' And I took the script, literally, and threw it across the room. I remember doing that and going, 'Oh my God,'" Johnson tells SYFY WIRE. "But then I picked it up and said, 'Well, I gotta audition.' And I read it, and I just went, 'Wow.'
"The story was great. Wow, a fully realized character that he was. Usually it's one or other, this buffoon or this flat-out villain. But that wasn't Benny," Johnson continues. "Of course, he ended up being sort of a bad guy. But it was just a character you didn't get to see that often, in a space movie that you never got a chance to see."
Ultimately, Mars and Earth aligned, and Johnson landed the part. Alas, schedules didn't exactly align, and he wound up down at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City a couple of weeks early. So while he waited around for his scenes, he decided to familiarize himself with his cab.
"So what I did, I learned how to drive that car, the cab that I drove around in, because it was a functional Volkswagen chassis, stick shift, with two steering wheels that I sat in between, both steering wheels worked, so it was really tricky to get it to turn properly," Johnson recalls.
They brought in stunt people, of course. It was supposed to be a professional driver behind the wheels on the day Benny was driving Quaid into Venusvillle — the scene where, as Johnson says, they "zoom right by one of those... what we called 'the moles,' the thing that ultimately kills me."
Production built three cars for Benny's cab, all equally tricky to drive, and the shot required a close zoom. The stunt drivers didn't have the wheel-time Johnson had amassed, and ended up wrecking two of the cars, leaving Verhoeven and company with just one to get the shot, "and if they crashed that, it would throw the schedule into chaos," he says.
"And I went, 'Excuse me, excuse me!' I know how to drive this car," Johnson says. "And they looked at each other... and they rolled the dice, and I got in the car. And when I got in the car, Arnold goes, 'Oh, if Mel is driving, I'm going to be in the car with him.' And everybody starts freaking out, and he starts getting in the car with me!"
They nailed it, of course, to the robust cheers of the assembled cast and crew. And then, at Verhoeven's request, they nailed it again.
Obviously, Johnson had already earned his director's trust at that point, but it took them at least one previous scene to see eye-to-blurry-eye.
"This film was shot in sequence, which is very rare, so the first three months was on Earth, and the second three months was on Mars," Johnson says. "So my first day is out there going, 'Hey man, you need a cab?'"
It was also on Johnson's first day of shooting that he learned a valuable lesson about filming with one of the biggest stars on Planet Hollywood. "I had just started needing reading glasses a little, so when I was close up to Arnold, he was a little fuzzy," Johnson, a veteran of the stage who was used to having a little more space between actors, explains.
But even though the camera required him to be close to Arnold for a two-shot, he kept pulling himself back, out of the frame, as he reacted to his co-star — to the point where Verhoeven would cut. "So we started again, and I moved a tiny bit back, and they went, 'Cut!' And Arnold goes, 'Mel, if you want to be in the movie, the camera's going to be on me, you've got to stay closer to me,'" he says. "And I said, 'Got it!' [Laughs.] And that set the tone. We had a wonderful time doing this film."
That's not to say it wasn't challenging, though. So to buoy the cast and crew, they threw a party.
"We had a 'We're almost halfway there' party," Johnson says. "You know, it was an intense film, with all the explosions, and literally no CGI, and all this stuff. So it was intense, long hours. So they decided, halfway through the film, which is when we were on Mars, to have a big sort of formal party in a restaurant.
"Everyone got all dressed up, the whole crew, and people were giving speeches, and everybody's in suits and ties, and the women were all dressed up," he recalls. "And I believe it was Ronny Cox who was delivering a wonderful speech in the front of the room, and all of a sudden, a Styrofoam ball went flying through the air and hit him... so everybody sort of ignored it at first. And then all of a sudden, another one came, and another. What Arnold had done, he had ordered tons of these Styrofoam snowballs, and we ended up having a huge Styrofoam snowball fight."
The crew foraged on to create a classic, which despite its memory-erasing themes, remains memorable for a number of reasons. And though it should be viewed in a different light these days, the scene with Mary (Lycia Naff), the three-breasted Martian prostitute, is certainly iconic.
"That was Paul at his best. We had these scripts, and there were rewrites constantly. And then sometimes he would let you just do what you wanted to do," Johnson says. "So that, 'Mmmm, mmm, mmm, you make me wish I had three hands.' That was just me! [Laughs.] I made that up right on the spot. And he goes, 'Yep, let's keep it.'"
Not surprisingly, that was one of the questions fans most frequently asked him about, though apparently it took them a while to get brave enough to ask it. "These teenage boys!" Johnson says. "That was the question you knew they wanted to ask from the beginning, it was hysterical."
Benny's dramatic demise — when Quaid drills him through the mole and says "Screw you" in one of Schwarzenegger's all-time best one-liners — was also somewhat improvised.
"We're ready to do that scene, and they made extra costumes, I had a body plate on, all squibbed up, everything," Johnson recalls. "And we get there, and the script's not there, the new rewrites. And I said, 'Paul, let's just go. I'll make this up as we do it.'"
So, they winged it. "And the blood, and the smoke. And take two was hours later because I had to get out of all of that, shower, get into a new costume, clean up the whole compartment, the whole thing," he says. "Because you know, Paul loves his blood."
And then they shot it twice more with all that blood, and all that cleanup. But then the producers thought they used "too much blood" (apparently they didn't have the same concerns about the rest of the movie) so they shot a take "without all the blood," where he "just screams and dies," Johnson says. "And of course, that's the take they used!"
Thirty years later, it appears they knew what they were doing, because Total Recall is now celebrated as a classic, and Johnson can still walk down the street and expect someone to recognize him as Benny, and perhaps ask about his five kids... or was it four?