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Adam Sandler, Cole/Dylan Sprouse’s Movie Hit Big

Twenty-five years ago, Adam Sandler‘s Big Daddy made a sizable impression.

Sony released the comedy feature from director Dennis Dugan (Happy Gilmore) on June 25, 1999. The film opened to $41 million domestically en route to collecting $234 million globally ($442 million today) and holding the title as Sandler’s highest-grossing title domestically until Hotel Transylvania 2 in 2015.

Big Daddy centers on Sonny Koufax (Sandler), an unmotivated law school graduate who attempts to prove himself by adopting 5-year-old Julian (Cole and Dylan Sprouse) when the boy shows up at his doorstep. The cast includes Jon Stewart, Joey Lauren Adams, Rob Schneider and Leslie Mann.

During separate conversations with The Hollywood Reporter, producer Sid Ganis and writer Steve Franks (credited for the screenplay alongside Sandler and Tim Herlihy) discuss how Disneyland helped inspire the project and recall Chris Farley lobbying for the lead role. They also talk the Sprouse twins connecting off-camera with Sandler on their first feature film and why not everyone at the studio was immediately convinced of Sandler’s star power.

Rob Schneider, Cole/Dylan Sprouse and Adam Sandler in Big Daddy.

Courtesy of Everett

Steve, I believe you were working at Disneyland when you wrote the script?

Steve Franks: I wrote this as a spec while I was doing two jobs, but Disneyland was one of them. I was still a grad student in film at Loyola, and I ended up writing it while I was working in the Tiki Room, which is the perfect place to write a script if you’re on the Disney clock. I had been working there about eight years, from undergrad right into grad school.

A genesis of the idea was that most of the people I was hired with were off going to real jobs, and I had dreams of making it in entertainment, but there was a solid chance that I could be a guy who’s 30 years old and at Disneyland. That’s what got me thinking about, “What if kids showed up, and the guy who was on the track of not doing much with his life is the one who steps up?” My draft was actually set in a theme park.

Sid Ganis: The title of the script was Guy Gets Kid. I read it, and Alex Siskin, who worked for me, read it, and we thought, “This is good.” We knew that there was this guy named Sandler around. We didn’t know much about him, but both of us had an eye on him. It was our job to bring the studio into some awareness of him. The good news, of course, was that The Wedding Singer was about to open soon.

Franks: I thought Guy Gets Kid was the perfect title because it tells you everything you need to know about the movie in three words. But I guess you could also interpret it as kidnapping.

Were other names mentioned for the lead?

Franks: After I did my first rewrite, I must have done something really right because all of a sudden, they were talking about, “They actually might make this thing.” They started floating around a crazy list of names. John Travolta was one. I’m like, “That’s a different way to go.” I love John Travolta, but I never imagined that. [Also] John Cusack, and I know that Chris Farley really wanted to do it.

Ganis: Chris Farley was definitely, definitely, definitely a name. And that’s where Sandler comes in. Adam is the most loyal, wonderful friend one could have, and Chris Farley was his friend, and he said to us, “Thank you. Let Chris do it.” We met with Chris, and I don’t remember exactly what happened there, but Adam said, “OK, no. I’ll do it.” Cusack did come up — and Travolta, who is wonderful.

Franks: Wedding Singer came out after the script had sold because at that point, nobody knew that Sandler could pull off the romantic foil. Then it’s like, “Oh, this is Wedding Singer Sandler, not Happy Gilmore Sandler.” The possibilities when you add Adam Sandler to the mix just get exponentially bigger.

Leslie Mann and Jon Stewart in Big Daddy.

Courtesy of Everett

How did everyone get on the same page to go with Sandler?

Ganis: Adam’s manager invited us to a test screening of Wedding Singer, and it knocked us out. We talked to the studio, and they did say, “Are you sure? Shouldn’t we have a big movie star here?” We said, “He is a big movie star, only you don’t quite know it yet.” Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and Wedding Singer were independent-type movies. So there was [a film exhibition] convention in Las Vegas, and Amy Pascal, who was the head of Columbia, agreed to go to Vegas, where she saw Wedding Singer and met Sandler. He is a fine, fine, fine man, and Amy saw that immediately.

Franks: Sandler was just a quiet, sweet guy. It was such a smooth, easy process.

Steve, once Sandler was attached, were you still part of that writing process?

Franks: At that point, Sandler had his team around [including writing partner Herlihy]. I suddenly realized I was getting invited to a lot less meetings, and then I’m like, “Oh, so this is how it is.” (Laughs.) I ended up getting to visit the set, but I was a guest, and it was no longer my project. I was immediately shuffled to the side, but as a guy who’s working at the Enchanted Tiki Room, I was not having a problem with this.

How did the finished film evolve from your version of the script?

Franks: They ended up changing the ending. For the most part, the story went the same way. There’s some stuff I really missed from my draft, but I completely understood what they were doing, and they were Sandler-izing the tone. I ended up going to television [as the creator of Psych] so I could be the one who was completely in charge of the words. But I loved my experience in the movies, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Director Dennis Dugan (seated), producer Sid Ganis and Adam Sandler on the Big Daddy set.

Courtesy of Everett

I know that Sandler and Dugan already had a bit of history together at this point. What made Dugan the right choice to direct?

Ganis: Raja Gosnell (Never Been Kissed, Big Momma’s House) was considered to direct. We were working with Raja on some other projects, and he was in the loop for a while. Dennis and Adam had worked together. I really didn’t know Dennis, but then I met him, and that’s another one of those good, nice people.

What were the main challenges of making the film?

Ganis: Working with two kids. The biggest challenge was casting Julian. The very first kids to audition were the Sprouse twins. It was in my office at Sony, and they were amazing. I called Amy and said, “We found them.” She said, “Sid, keep looking.” She was right. I shouldn’t have been that excited. So we did keep looking, and we eventually came back to them.

Adam has such great chemistry with the Sprouses. What were they like on set together?

Ganis: Sandler is the father of all times. He is a family man. When it came to the twins, he was loaded with love. All they wanted to do was crawl all over him.

The cast has plenty of gems, including Jon Stewart as Julian’s biological father.

Ganis: It turned out to be great casting for two reasons. One is, Jon was terrific in that role. And then, goodness knows, he became Jon Stewart. I remember standing with Jon in Central Park on a break, and he said, “In [January 1999], I’m going to start this show called The Daily Show.” When I was lucky enough to become president of the Academy, I called my wife and said, “I’m the president of the Academy.” She said, “Great, get Jon Stewart [to host the Oscars].” We got him two times.

What do you remember about the opening weekend?

Franks: Me and all my friends who worked at Disneyland, we all went to see it on opening night. There were 43 of us who bought tickets to this theater near Disneyland. That’s the greatest: “Hey, you want to go see this movie I wrote?” And it opens to $41 million. It was so far beyond my expectations.

Historically, Sandler’s comedies have not tended to be critical favorites. Do you remember feeling frustrated by Big Daddy’s reviews?

Ganis: No. Sandler said to me at the very beginning, “Do not pay attention to them. Don’t worry about it.” What I personally love is that the serious work that he does from time to time, the critics just think he is the finest because he is.

Pete Davidson has said that he auditioned for Big Daddy. Do you remember anything about that?

Ganis: Gosh, I don’t remember now.

Franks: I have never heard that before. You’ve just added a bit of lore to the whole story of it.

Sandler hadn’t tended to do sequels in that era. Was there a possibility of a sequel back then, and has there been any talk more recently of a streaming reboot?

Ganis: There are always rumblings about a sequel when a movie is a smash hit. But thank goodness, we knew better. It’s better that Big Daddy is what it is.

Franks: It’s something that I would certainly be interested in revisiting again because it’s such a fun field to play in, and there are a lot of great opportunities. If they ever wanted to make a series or a sequel, I would be absolutely the first one to line up.

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