Casting The Lead Roles In Gremlins Was An Easy Choice For Steven Spielberg

Riding the crest of the 1980s horror-comedy movie wave, Joe Dante's "Gremlins" signaled, along with contemporary films like "An American Werewolf in London" and Larry Cohen's "Full Moon High," a growing comfort with the absurdities of the genre. It would further mark an industry shift, with its violence pushing the boundaries of family-friendly cinema and necessitating the emergence of the MPAA's PG-13 label. "Home Alone" director Chris Columbus would pen the story of a fictional American town overrun by furry non-alien creatures, a sort of "Trouble with Tribbles" storyline that filmmaker and "Gremlins" executive producer Steven Spielberg would purchase and bring to Warner Bros.

In his exec producer capabilities, Spielberg held sway over the casting process, leading to the hiring of then-unknown Zach Galligan and the very-known Phoebe Cates in the respective roles of teenagers Billy Peltzer and Kate Beringer, the former of whom befriends the one good gremlin in the movie. Galligan had few credits to his name, but the lack of prior work wasn't a problem once he got in a room with Cates; their chemistry together was enough to ensure a callback.

Looking back on the movie and its legacy, The Guardian chronicles the cast's memories of their involvement with the project. Galligan recalls:

"I'd already auditioned for parts with Phoebe Cates before and felt very comfortable with her. When it came to the session for Gremlins, I rested my head on her shoulder and gazed at the camera. I'm told Steven Spielberg said: 'Oh my God, look at that! He's in love with her already. I don't need to see anything else.'"

I thought it had singed my eyebrows.

Considering Phoebe Cates' previous known work as the bikini-clad friend and fantasy in Amy Heckerling's coming-of-age dramedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," anyone sharing screen space with the doe-eyed starlet might be intimidated; her beauty has inspired music, after all. But for Galligan, who had to flirt with and eventually plant a smooch on Cates' Kate, his focus was entirely on keeping his job. "I was just a deeply terrified, inexperienced young actor doing my best not to get sacked," he tells the Guardian.

It's probably for the best since poor Billy had murderous gremlins and an unhinged Karen to contend with over 106 minutes of holiday fun. Acting opposite Chris Walas-designed animatronic puppets and marionettes wasn't difficult, as the star observed that "pretending a lifelike puppet is a live animal is no harder than pretending a woman you've just met has been your wife for 15 years." Galligan recalled to the Guardian that his most alarming scene to film was an explosive one:

"Probably the most nerve-racking scene to shoot was when the cinema where the Gremlins have been watching 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' blows up. Safety regulations were more lax on Hollywood sets back then. When we asked the explosives guy how big the explosion would be, he said: 'Well, we've packed it pretty good.' I thought: 'What the hell does that mean?' In the event, it was deafening. And the heat was so intense, I thought it had singed my eyebrows. It blew the doors off the theatre, as you can see in the film, and it shattered windows on a building at Universal a mile away."

See more tiny arsonist monsters in the upcoming prequel series "Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai," scheduled to arrive in 2023.