How Hollywood heartthrobs and Steven Spielberg helped make a drag queen cult classic

On the 25th anniversary of "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar," take a deep dive into the history of this fabulous fable.
Having grossed more than $47 million worldwide and snatched the No. 1 spot at the box office for its first two weeks in theaters, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” is revered by many as a drag queen cult classic.
Having grossed more than $47 million worldwide and snatched the No. 1 spot at the box office for its first two weeks in theaters, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” is revered by many as a drag queen cult classic.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY
By Alexander Kacala

In the opening scene of the 1995 film “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” a buff Patrick Swayze exits the shower, dripping wet. A bona fide Hollywood hunk, the actor had star turns in “Ghost” and “Point Break,” making the early '90s a successful period for the former dancer known for playing tough and romantic male leads.

But this was different. After a few seconds of seeing him male-bodied, the first line he utters is, “Ready or not, here comes mama,” more fitting for a prima donna than a Casanova. From there, Swayze transforms into the statuesque Vida Boheme, and the viewer is transported into a world of drag queens and make believe, where seemingly anything is possible with the bat of an eyelash or the click of a stiletto pump.

Having grossed more than $47 million worldwide and snatched the No. 1 spot at the box office for its first two weeks in theaters, the cult-classic is revered by many while criticized by some. So in honor of its 25th anniversary, we’re taking a deep dive into the history of this fabulous fable.

'THE GAY AGENDA'

"As a young, skinny gay boy, I would go to the bars in New York City like the Pyramid Club and love the drag shows,” screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane told TODAY.

But it wasn’t those shows that inspired “To Wong Foo,” nor was it the coincidentally similar film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” that came out one year prior. It was actually an anti-gay propaganda movie called “The Gay Agenda.”

"Do you want these drag queens in your town, America?"Universal

“It was a born-again Christian film, and they actually showed sections of it on television,” he explained. “There was a line in it where they had these drag queens at a pride parade, asking, ‘Do you want these drag queens in your town, America?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Yes! You need these queens. Someone needs to get in there and just shake you up, baby, and show you a little color, dance, life and a little love.”

So Beane started writing a play. Quickly, his road trip of three drag queens traveling across the country came to a screeching halt: How do you get a car onstage? Opting for a screenplay instead, his first ever, he wrote it in just a few weeks and the first studio to receive the script quickly responded, “Please never send us anything like this ever again.”

“It was really surprising who was willing to put on a dress."

Beane thought the only reason it would ever be looked at was because of the ridiculously long title, something he never expected to make to screen. It worked, and sooner than later there was a bidding war between Disney and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.

On the title, Beane said while dining at a restaurant called the China Bowl in midtown Manhattan, he saw an eight-by-ten glossy of Julie Newmar with the words of the infamous title scribbled on it. Rumor has it that Wong Foo, or "Fooey," was the head bartender there. But Beane had a more divine interpretation of who “Wong Foo” was.

“God! Because you have to thank God for everything,” he said. “You have to be grateful for life. You just have to stop where you are and say thank you for everything.” A deleted-scene explained this, when during the film’s finale, Vida says, “Cynics may say that Wong Foo is a Chinese cook or something, but I know better. I know Wong Foo to be God, however you perceive her to be and Julie Newmar knew this.”

“It was a powerful thing. I get lots of fan mail from LGBTQ teens telling me how my character helped them come out to their parents." — John LeguizamoMarlene Stewart

Lots of advertising companies tried to get Beane to change the title. From “Ladies' Night” to “She’s a Lady,” Beane explained once he sold it he was sure that the title was going to be cut, but that didn’t happen.

What was cut was a scene that involved a Happy Meal at McDonald's, because the fast food chain didn’t want to be seen as a hangout for drag queens. On the other hand, Coca-Cola wanted to be included, so Beane wrote one of the film’s most tender moments under a billboard for the soda brand.

Mitch Koin, an out executive at Amblin Entertainment at the time, helped get the script in front of Spielberg, along with Beane’s agent.

"So he sent it to his comedy meter: Robin Williams.”Barry King / Getty Images

“Steven read the script that night — what faith he had in me, in all of us there — and loved it," Koin wrote in 2015. “But he needed some confirmation. It wasn’t the gay stuff that worried him; he just wanted to be sure the script was as funny to other people as he found it. So he sent it to his comedy meter: Robin Williams.”

Beane explained that Williams and Spielberg — who became friends when making “Hook” — were traveling together on a flight when Williams read the script out loud to Spielberg. His cold-reading, first-class performance was so hilarious, it “mesmerized” Spielberg.

Williams, who had just played Mrs. Doubtfire, said he couldn’t play the lead because he “wasn’t pretty enough” and he “was too hairy.” But he would love to do a small part. Casting director Kerry Barden confirmed this to TODAY, adding Williams went uncredited for his cameo because he didn’t want to draw too much attention from the actual leading ladies.

Matt Dillon was almost cast in the lead role.Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection via Getty

John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes were quickly cast in their roles. The part of Chi-Chi Rodriguez was written for the former, and filming was pushed back for the latter. But the part that went uncast was the grand dame, Vida Boheme, and every actor in Hollywood wanted her.

“I saw a lot of white boys in dresses,” Beane said.

The part of Chi-Chi Rodriguez was written for John Leguizamo.Marlene Stewart

Barden lists some of the famous names that auditioned for the leading role: Robert Sean Leonard, Kyle MacLachlan, John Turturro, James Spader, Viggo Mortensen, John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Alexis Arquette, Rob Lowe and Willem Dafoe. (Arquette taught Dafoe how to tuck during auditions.)

“Everyone came in full hair, makeup and wardrobe,” Barden explained. “Everybody showed up in their idea of who this woman would be. It was really surprising how many people came in for this role and what they did. Viggo brought Chanel No. 5. John (Cusack) looked very much like his sister. Some came with press-on nails. It was just fascinating.”

“Steven read the script that night — what faith he had in me, in all of us there — and loved it."Archive Photos / Getty Images

“It was really surprising who was willing to put on a dress. I don’t think I have ever had that much fun at a casting, other than maybe ‘Pitch Perfect.’”

On why so many actors wanted it, he explained: “They all felt like this character had a voice that empowered women, and they talked about their sisters or their mothers. They had a connection to the women in their own lives, and they wanted to dig deep and honor that.”

"Even as sexy as he was, (Patrick) didn't bring that sexuality to this and what he was doing with it."DMI / The LIFE Picture Collection via

But it ended up being down to Lowe, Dillon and Swayze.

“Rob and Matt were full on sexy, but there was a certain vulnerability that Patrick brought to the character," Barden said. "Even as sexy as he was, he didn't bring that sexuality to this and what he was doing with it. The director wanted Vida to be the matriarch of the trio, and Patrick brought this voice of reason to the role.”

VIDA BOHEME

“I just took Patrick Swayze’s life growing up in redneck Texas, having a mother as a choreographer, and trying to find out who I was,” Swayze explained in a cover story for The Advocate. “I just took that life and changed it to a boy who has had feminine tendencies all his life and discovered that is who he is. I found Vida very easy to identify with.”

While Swayze’s mom was part of the inspiration that caused him to secure the part, she did not approve. “My mother was horrified when I told her about it. There was a silence on the other end of the phone,” he said, according to the 2009 biography “One Last Dance.”

Swayze modeled the character after his mom, as well as his former “Ghost” co-star Demi Moore, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffanys.”Universal

Regardless, Swayze modeled the character after his mom, as well as his former “Ghost” co-star Demi Moore, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffanys.”

Before shooting began, the trio and director Beeban Kidron did a bar crawl of New York’s most esteemed drag clubs like Escuelita, Boy Bar, the Tunnel and Sally's Hideaway. “We made a lot of nice drag-queen friends that night,” Swayze said, adding that when he asked the queens if doing drag masked some sort of hidden trauma, he was warned that he misstepped. “They were like, ‘Whoa. We don’t go there.’ At first I thought it was denial. Then I realized these guys who dress up like women have made a specific choice to do what makes them happy. They aren’t sad creatures.”

A sketch of Vida Boheme by costume designer Marlene Stewart.Marlene Stewart

“Spending time with these men was incredibly eye-opening,” Swayze wrote in his posthumously published memoir “Time of My Life.” “Not only did they have an amazing sense of humor, they also had amazing courage. It takes cojones to be exactly who you are, especially when it’s so different from what society has dictated for you.”

“Ms. Vida in many ways propels the emotional through-line, and she had to be filled with love and compassion and a nurturing spirit."Marlene Stewart

During his appearance on TODAY in 1995, Swayze revealed that when he tried to play Boheme like a caricature, he blew it.

“Ms. Vida in many ways propels the emotional through-line, and she had to be filled with love and compassion and a nurturing spirit,” he told Bryant Gumbel. “And I found in rehearsal, every time I started playing her like Miss Thing, you know, and going out there and being outrageous, like I naively thought I was going to get to do, I realized that I'll blow this character. She had to be real.”

And while his mom didn’t approve, the other most important woman in his life did: His wife, Lisa Niemi. So much so she was on location for shooting, and helped him with his walk and stature. He told her when he got the part, “Just think of it this way darling, you’re not losing a husband — you’re gaining a girlfriend.”

(Patrick) told her when he got the part, “Just think of it this way darling, you’re not losing a husband — you’re gaining a girlfriend."Getty Images

But the leading men had drag mentors as well, or as Leguizamo said on TODAY, “Guardian angels, except they were more like dominatrixes.” For Swayze, it was Candis Cayne, who was tapped to help him get up in the gig. She also assisted choreographer Kenny Ortega throughout filming.

Candis Cayne on set of "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar."Marlene Stewart

“Patrick was a stud,” Cayne told TODAY. “He was an action-guy, strong and masculine with big arms and shoulders. He did have a dancer background, but I was asked to help him move, get comfortable in heels."

On the film’s legacy, she remembers, “It was really the first time that queendom had been profiled by mainstream Hollywood, and as a queen trying to make it big in New York City, I was thrilled when I was asked to audition.”

That opportunity got Cayne her SAG-AFTRA card, paving the way to the groundbreaking role in “Dirty Sexy Money,” making her the first transgender actress to play a recurring transgender character in primetime television.

Cayne remembers Swayze as “a dream to work with,” so much so he gifted her an engraved mirror from Tiffany’s at the end of filming as a token of his appreciation. Cayne recalled, “He really wanted to get it right, and that sincerity really showed.”

Candis Cayne at a premiere event for "Dirty Sexy Money" in September 2007.Patrick McMullan / Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

“I loved Vida,” Swayze, who died of pancreatic cancer in September 2009, wrote in “Time of My Life.”

“And even missed her a little bit when she was gone.”

NOXEEMA JACKSON

“I grew up in the '70s and even within the street culture, there was a lot of flamboyancy,” Snipes told TODAY of his perception of drag before filming. “Pimps wore the same furs as the prostitutes wore.”

“Some of the great musicians of the world, like Parliament-Funkadelic, were very androgynous. So it wasn't really new for me to see men dressed as women or men dressed as drag queens.”

Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, stars of the movie "Demolition Man," pose for a portrait in 1993.Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images

Snipes attended the famed LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and then State University of New York at Purchase. He wasn’t a dance major, but most of his friends were. “That exposed me to the world of glam, vogue, drag, transgender and gay people, LGBTQ... but it wasn't in fashion those days. But it existed and I was around it.”

Not only did “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” pave the way for “To Wong Foo,” so did films like the 1968 documentary “The Queen” and “Paris Is Burning,” the 1990 doc that chronicled ball culture of New York and the various Black and queer communities involved in it.

Snipes said on TODAY his grandmother, Bette Midler, Maya Angelou and Roscoe Browne inspired the role of Noxeema.Universal

“These were people that we knew in the clubs,” Snipes said. “So I would go to house music clubs, where vogue and street dancers would be, and that was a mix of both gay and straight communities. They be in there sweating with backpacks and towels. Me too.”

Even though he was known for his action roles, Snipes' portrayal of Noxeema wasn’t the first time he played a drag queen. In 1986, he made his Broadway debut in the play “Execution of Justice,” playing Sister Boom Boom, a real-life AIDS activist and drag nun who acted as the show’s voice of conscience

A sketch of Noxeema Jackson by costume designer Marlene Stewart.

Snipes pointed out, “Sister Boom Boom did not have Noxeema’s makeup kit.”

Snipes pointed out, “Sister Boom Boom did not have Noxeema’s makeup kit.”

On whether he got any pushback for stepping into Noxeema's pumps, he said, “Not so much professionally but the streets weren’t feeling it, and there were certain community circles. The martial arts community... they were not feeling it at all.”

“In fact, when the movie came out and they would come down the street, I would see them in Brooklyn sometimes, they started listing all my movies. I noticed they would always skip that one. I would correct them, ‘Now you don’t got the full count!’”

Today, Snipes says the only thing he regrets is not having even better makeup.

“I’m jealous of all these housewives of Atlanta and housewives of Jersey and housewives of California,” Snipes laughed. “I am looking at all of these beat faces thinking we did not have none of that makeup available when we were doing ‘To Wong Foo.’ I would have had a much different and much better look.”

While Snipes and Swayze were known as Hollywood hunks more likely to wield a machete than an eyelash curler, producers made sure to also cast queens famous for their drag, including Cayne, RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Sweetie, Lady Catiria, Coco Peru, Hedda Lettuce and Joey Arias.

Lady Bunny, Quentin Crisp, José Sarria and Flotilla Debarge as the pageant judges in the film's first scene.Universal

Lady Bunny, who appeared in the movie’s first scene filmed at Webster Hall, said that Swayze and Snipes were both extremely gracious and would take photos with anyone.

“And this is even before people had cellphones!” she told TODAY. “It was July and boiling hot. We couldn't be more impressed by how nice and charming they were because we ran around in wigs and dresses all the time but they were putting up with it all much better than us!"

Costume designer Marlene Stewart's favorite costumes are the ones featured in the film's lavish final scene.Marlene Stewart

“It was crazy and chaotic,” Peru remembered of rehearsals for that scene. “We were in that studio for weeks choreographing and I had come up with this whole idea that Patrick kept cutting me off every time I went to the runway. And so by the third time I pull a gun out of my little purse and follow him with a gun pointed to the back of his head. I guess they didn't think that was 'family friendly,' so they cut it.”

CHI-CHI RODRIGUEZ

Lesser-known than his co-stars at the time, Lequizamo didn’t really anticipate becoming a transgender icon, but he did know that they were working on something special when they started filming.

Lesser-known than his co-stars at the time, Lequizamo didn’t really anticipate becoming a transgender icon.Time Life Pictures / The LIFE Picture Collection via

“Drag didn't really exist in movies,” Lequizamo, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal, told TODAY. “There were straight men pretending to be women to get out of trouble or into trouble but this was not that. I was trying to make Chi-Chi a real life trans character and Patty and Wesley were trying to be real drag queens.”

"We had to shave and they plucked us and they introduced us to the gender bender and GAFF tape," he said, naming Puerto Rican queen Laritza Dumont as his drag mentor. "We learned how to tuck. Oh God. I mean, ripping the GAFF tape at the end of a 14-hour day was brutal. It's like your manhood is squashed.”

Of Leguizamo backstage, Lady Bunny remembered, “He was really the bomb, honey. He took to that drag and strutted around cussing at us, cutting his eyes at us, like totally at home.”

John Leguizamo during fittings for "To Wong Foo..."Marlene Stewart / Marlene Stewart

Never fully articulated in the film, Chi-Chi has always been perceived as transgender, something that ending up making an indelible mark on LGBTQ people in the late '90s as trans representation in media was limited.

“Chi-Chi was a trans icon, but she also showed us that gay men and trans women can both perform and work in drag side by side, and that those relationships are symbiotic,” Cayne explained.

"I was trying to make Chi-Chi a real life trans character and Patty and Wesley were trying to be real drag queens.”Universal

“It was a powerful thing. I get lots of fan mail from LGBTQ teens telling me how my character helped them come out to their parents,” Leguizamo said. “They didn't feel like they were seen, so that was a beautiful gift from the movie.”

Today, Leguizamo says he understands the importance of his role as an ally, so much so he is writing a musical about transgender immigrants at the border in ICE detention camps.

“I realized with my voice and number of followers I can give voice to the vulnerable,” he said. “I enjoy using my voice to make the world a better place for everybody cause we're not equal until we're all equal.”

A sketch of Chi-Chi Rodriguez by Marlene Stewart in the final scene from "To Wong Foo."Marlene Stewart

Lequizamo also articulates that if “To Wong Foo” were cast today, a trans actor should be cast in his role. (And that just may happen, since Beane is developing a musical for Broadway.)

“Anybody can play anything, but the playing field is not fair that way,” he said. “Not everybody is allowed to play everything. So until we get to that place, it is important for trans actors to get a chance to act which they don’t. In the project I'm doing, I'm making sure that the person playing trans is a trans person so we can make it legit, make it real. That just needs to be done right now.”

LOTS OF DRAMA?

On location in Lincoln, Nebraska, rumors were pervasive of a toxic set, that included fighting not only among the three stars, but also the film’s director.

Kidron was pregnant when she was first hired by Spielberg for the project, who was a huge believer in her. Hiding her pregnancy for fear of being rejected, when she ultimately revealed her baby bump, she was deemed a major insurance risk. So Spielberg promised that if Kidron ever needed to step down to give birth, he would step in for her and direct.

Director Beeban Kidron in November 1992.Deborah Feingold / Getty Images

“And so my joke has always been, ‘Why didn’t someone from the production side come push me down the stairs so they could have had Steven Spielberg making that movie?‘” Kidron said in a 2015 interview. “In fact, the movie went a little bit over, and on the last day of principal photography, I was nine months, five days pregnant, and we had to charter a plane to get the crew and the cast back to New York. When I landed in New York, my waters broke at JFK.“

“But in general things that started out funny in Jersey were no longer funny in Nebraska.” — Wesley SnipesUniversal

Beane joked that he couldn’t believe her son, Noah, was straight with so many fabulous drag queens around him in utero. But on the rumors of fighting, Swayze said on TODAY in 1995, “It was a very intense set.”

“We were wild, we were merciless with each other. You can imagine (us three) put in drag and given license to be divas, so needless to say we were close to uncontrollable.”

“You had three alpha drag queens, so feathers and pillows flying everywhere,” Snipes said in 2020. “There were some things in the story that began to touch people. For Patrick, rest in peace, my beautiful brother... he started to get in touch with some things in terms of his relationship with his family and his history as a dancer that resonated very strongly with the script. So he started to take things way more seriously than I and Johnny Legs, you know? The frequency changed."

Behind-the-scenes snaps from fittings and the film's last scene.Marlene Stewart

One fist fight was specifically remembered by both Leguizamo and Swayze in their memoirs, but during the interviews for this article, almost everyone recollected drama but everyone had a different recollection of who the tension was between. Some said Snipes and Swayze, others said Swayze and Leguizamo. For Blythe Danner, she doesn’t remember any drama on set at all.

Blythe Danner with Melinda Dillon, Marceline Hugot, Beth Grant, Alice Drummond and Jennifer Milmore.Universal

“I must have been busy wandering the cornfields because I don’t remember any of that,” she told TODAY. “I just remember we had a really nice group of women, the actresses who played the locals from the the town. We all got along great and so I guess it may have been the men on that set who were the divas.”

THE FILM'S LEGACY

On Sept. 8, 1995 the film sashayed its way into the hearts of America but not so much the critics. Roger Ebert gave it two and a half stars, but noted, "The sneak preview audience seemed to enjoy the movie immensely."

Many critics of the film point out that no drag queen would ever be in drag so much outside of performing, but Beane says that he really wanted to create an illusion. That the film itself is its own drag show.

"What is amazing is how the movie manages to be funny and amusing while tippy-toeing around (a) sex, (b) controversy and (c) any originality in the plot. Credit for that belongs to Swayze, Snipes and Leguizamo, who are surprisingly good at playing drag queens." — Roger Ebert Getty Images

“One page one of the screenplay, it says ‘In honor of their efforts I'll only be using female pronouns,'" he explained. "It is about fantasy and the illusion. It's about the work that goes into the art form. It was never meant to be an absolutely truthful documentary look at drag.” (Cayne says that fantasy is partially the problem, as it perpetuates an idea that transgender identity is nothing but make-believe.)

On what it got right, "RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars" winner Alaska told TODAY, “The camaraderie between the girls... the way they look out for each other and protect one another.”

“The movie also illustrates the transformative power of drag. It helps people become empowered, no matter where they come from or what kind of life they lead.”

“It's about friendship, it's about tolerance, it's about trust, and it's about the appreciation of life."

In that final deleted scene when the topic of God was discussed, another poignant reminder is brought up by Chi-Chi, who questions: “What if God isn’t a woman? What if God is a drag queen?”

When asked to define the film’s legacy in 2020, Leguizamo simply said, “Love trumps hate and love is love.

"We get pre-occupied with all of the hustle and bustle, and chaos, that sometimes we forget how beautiful life really is.”

“America is better when we're all united. It's called the United States of America, right? You see that in this movie. You see that when we get along, we're stronger than when we're divided.”

Back in 1995, Snipes said of the film, “It's about friendship, it's about tolerance, it's about trust, and it's about the appreciation of life, you know? We get pre-occupied with all of the hustle and bustle and chaos, that sometimes we forget how beautiful life really is.”

A quarter-century later, some lessons just never go out of style.

"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" is available for streaming on Netflix.