Steve Guttenberg Didn't Have To Get Far In Short Circuit's Script To Know It Would Be A Hit

John Badham's 1986 comedy "Short Circuit" was a masterwork on cinematic animatronics. The film's main character was a robot, called only Number Five (voiced by Tim Blaney), who was struck by lightning and lost its memory, but somehow gained sentience. Number Five, originally built to be a laser-wielding soldier, idly rolled out of the robotics lab where it was built and into the home of the put-upon suburbanite Stephanie (Ally Sheedy). Stephanie spends the bulk of the film trying to teach Number Five about the fineries of human interaction while providing it with all the raw data she can provide; Number Five can read books in a matter of seconds. 

Searching for Number Five is a military jarhead named Capt. Skroeder (G.W. Bailey), and a pair of funny robotics geniuses named Newton and Ben (Steve Guttenberg and Fisher Stevens). Antics ensue on all sides while Number Five itself slowly comes to have genuine emotions and a sense of self-awareness.

Number Five was achieved through extensive practical robot effects, designed by Syd Mead, the designer behind films like "Blade Runner," "Aliens," and "Tron." The robot was fully animated and had to "act" opposite its human counterparts. Number Five's realism and childlike antics dazzled audiences in 1986, and "Short Circuit" became a notable hit, grossing $40 million on a $15 million budget. Although "Short Circuit" eventually warranted a sequel in 1988, it never caught on in the popular consciousness far beyond the decade of its release. It has, as of 2023, remained mercifully un-milked by the widespread nostalgia industry. For example, there is, to date, no Funko Pop figurine of Number Five.

The Guttenberg

In 1986, Steve Guttenberg was a hot commodity. In addition to "Short Circuit," he had success with the first two "Police Academy" movies, which were successful enough to boggle the imagination. The first "Police Academy" was made for $4.5 million and earned over $80 million. The following year, he would appear in "Three Men and a Baby," one of the highest-grossing films of the year. 

In a 2021 interview with the Guardian, Guttenberg looked back over the success of a high-concept sci-fi comedy like "Short Circuit," and revealed that he had few doubts about the way this particular film would play out. The actor immediately saw a warm, loving, seemingly Spielbergian appeal to this kooky robot film, and didn't have to get very far into reading its script to know for sure. In his words: 

"The second I read the script, about a robot becoming self-aware after being struck by lightning, I put it down and said: 'This is a hit.' It was a timeless story about an underdog, a friendship, and being an outsider. It also had John Badham as director who had done 'Saturday Night Fever' and 'War Games.' He knew how to make a movie like this work. It felt like a piece that was going to be around a long time and I grabbed it with both hands."

Guttenberg was wise to do so, and his natural hangdog style of charm was a perfect balance to the technological imagery in "Short Circuit." Guttenberg wasn't a comedic character, but his winking demeanor added a great deal of necessary comic power. 

20th century Pinocchio

Steve Guttenberg also noted that his character was, in fact, intriguing on a script level. He hadn't played a character that intelligent before, and tapped into an "irascible wunderkind" vibe previously perfected by Val Kilmer in the comedy film "Real Genius." The actor also openly acknowledged that his role in "Short Circuit" was most assuredly a supporting role and that the emotional core of the movie belonged to the relationship between Number Five and Stephanie. In his words

"My character Newton Crosby, the scientist who designed Number Five, was written very well. All the moments were there: all I had to do was step in and decorate the house. John was quite immersed in artificial intelligence, even then. We talked about what it is to be alive and the connection with having a soul. Walking the tightrope between humor and heart was something we were very careful of. We didn't want to fall into sentimentality."

John Badham is when compared to a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg, far more technical and cerebral. "Short Circuit" undercuts a lot of its sentimentality with light themes of mortality and a few slapstick gags; the scene of Number Five attempting to prepare breakfast is still pretty funny. Guttenberg felt that Badham struck the balance well, saying:

"You wanted to strike a chord in the audience where they're getting what they paid to see, which was the wonder of an inanimate object coming to life. For me, 'Short Circuit' was 'Pinocchio.'"

Indeed, in "Short Circuit 2," as Number Five continues to grow and mature and become more sharply aware of its own individuality, he takes vital solace in reading Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio." Guttenberg, it seems, knew the score.