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'Princess Bride' at 30: Cary Elwes on the scene he dreamed up, his battle scar, and those extreme fans

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies

Every celebrity has the occasional odd encounter with an enthusiastic fan. For The Princess Bride star Cary Elwes, it’s a way of life. The actor who played swashbuckling hero Westley in Rob Reiner’s comedic fantasy (returning to theaters this month in celebration of its 30th anniversary) got his first inkling of the film’s popularity when waitresses began responding to his food orders with the Westley line “As you wish.” That was not long after the 1987 film, which underwhelmed in theaters, became a home-video sensation. In the decades since, Elwes has become accustomed to all kinds of interactions with strangers of all ages and backgrounds, with one thing in common: their love for The Princess Bride.

“I meet folks all the time who have dialogue tattooed on their bodies,” Elwes tells Yahoo Movies. “I met two folks the other day, one had myself and Robin [Wright, who played the title character] on the back of his calf, and the other guy had just me on his leg. These people put up with a ton of pain, and it’s wonderful, but quite surprising also! And I meet folks who’ve been married with the Princess Bride wedding scene. I mean, I can’t tell you how many invites I get.”

Elwes has never attended one of those theme weddings, but he does occasionally get marriage proposals from fans with longtime crushes (“I think they’re in love with an image of me,” he says modestly). On the other end of the age spectrum, he was once accosted in a toy store by children with swords — a “very cute” attack, he recalls. The intense fan interest in Princess Bride inspired Elwes to write a comprehensive first-person account of the making of the film, the 2014 New York Times bestseller As You Wish. And while that book contains every anecdote he could think of or coax from his co-stars, Elwes still hasn’t tired of talking about the film that made him famous at age 23.

Part of the reason for Elwes’s continued enthusiasm is that he put so much of himself into the role of Westley, the farm boy turned pirate who risks everything for true love. Director Rob Reiner, he says, “was enormously collaborative and open to trying stuff. He didn’t always go for it, but he was open to trying it.” It was Elwes’s idea to give Westley “a little mustache” that evoked his predecessors in sword-fighting adventure films, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.

The actor also takes credit for one of the film’s funniest gags. When Westley is recovering from being “mostly dead,” he’s too weak to hold up his own head, which is manipulated instead by his co-star Andre the Giant. “It wasn’t written with any real physical comedy to it,” Elwes says of the scene. “I just said to Rob, ‘Look, I think we’ve got an opportunity here to have some comedy … I said, ‘It would be great to put Andre’s hand on my head, so you can get a sense of the size of it, you know?’ And everybody was game.”

Another reason that Elwes doesn’t mind revisiting The Princess Bride is that the film, by all accounts, was as much of a joy to make as it is to watch. That experience was exemplified by the literally larger-than-life character Andre the Giant, who was loved by Elwes and the rest of the cast. (Known mainly as a WWE wrestler before The Princess Bride, Andre died in 1993 of congenital heart failure.) The film’s best special effect, the real-life giant was 7-foot-4 and weighed well over 500 pounds — and yet, the first word Elwes uses to describe him to Yahoo is “delicate.” “He was literally a gentle giant,” says the actor. “I think he felt he had to be, because he had enormous strength, so he’d learned how to manage that around people. And he was extraordinarily delicate. Which was another wonderful, charming aspect of his character.” Even now, says Elwes, the first thing that young Princess Bride fans ask him about is “the giant.”

After Princess Bride premiered, Elwes was offered a number of “medieval-type films,” all of which he rejected except for the part of Robin Hood in Mel Brooks’s Men in Tights (“Because it’s Mel Brooks,” Elwes explains, reasonably). The films he has appeared in since — including Glory, Twister, Liar Liar and Saw  span nearly every genre. He’s currently beginning production on Ghost Light, a comedy about a theater troupe struck by the Macbeth curse, which will reunite him with Princess Bride co-star Carol Kane.

Whatever roles he takes on, Elwes holds his experience on The Princess Bride close to his heart, just like the fans. And while he doesn’t have a Westley tattoo of his own, he does bear one memento of the film on his body: a scar on his head from when Christopher Guest, who played the six-fingered Count Rugen, accidentally knocked Elwes unconscious with the handle of his sword. (The injurious take made the final cut.) “It’s under my hairline. I can feel a little bump there,” says Elwes. “But not too large.”

The Princess Bride returns to theaters on Oct. 15 and 18. Visit Fathom Events to find a screening.

Watch: Here’s what the stars of The Princess Bride are up to 30 years later:

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