‘Working Girl’ Turns 30: On-Set Romances and Secrets of the Staten Island Ferry Revealed in Juicy Oral History

Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver and more insiders tell the never-told tales behind an era-defining hit: who was almost cast, a creepy Kevin Spacey cameo and the talent of the “world-class therapist” Mike Nichols.
Before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements — before Third Wave feminism in the 1990s and Girl Power in the 2000s — there was Tess McGill, a big-haired, hoops-wearing secretary from Staten Island who masqueraded as her unscrupulous boss Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) in order to reclaim a stolen idea and package an innovative acquisition, all with the help of dashing executive Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford).

McGill vacuumed topless and had “a bod for sin,” and the character, played by Melanie Griffith in Mike Nichols’ 1988 romantic comedy Working Girl, was also a breakthrough in how women were portrayed on film, particularly in the workplace.

To celebrate this classic’s 30th anniversary, THR talked to Griffith about how she fought for the part (“The studio didn’t want me”) as well as to co-stars Ford and Weaver, writer Kevin Wade, producer Doug Wick and a slew of others who helped bring Tess to the big screen for an oral history that reveals all — from the lasting legacy of its late director (Nichols passed away in 2014 at age 83) to the on-set romances that never were (Griffith admits she failed in her attempts to lure Baldwin into bed).

KEVIN WADE, screenwriter I had been working as a bartender in New York City — places like The Other End, The Bitter End, Spring Street Bar and eventually Spring Street Natural Restaurant — and then I had some success as a playwright with my first play, Key Exchange, which debuted in New York in 1981 with [actress] Brooke Adams. It ran off-Broadway for a couple of years, then in Los Angeles for a year and a half. They made a movie about it in 1985, so I was no longer bartending and could actually afford a subway token.

DOUG WICK, producer I worked for producer Alan Pakula for four years. Off that, I got a producing deal at United Artists. I had seen Key Exchange and thought Kevin was incredibly talented. I was living in Manhattan at the time, and so Kevin and I started working together on a project, a thriller.

WADE It never got made.

WICK Then, one day in 1985 or early ’86, while walking in lower Manhattan, I saw a woman who from the ankles up was very chic, but she was wearing tennis shoes. In those days, that wasn’t fashionable. I talked to Kevin about doing a story about those girls — the outsider with a face pressed against the glass longing for all of those shiny things inside the jewel of Manhattan.

WADE Back then, I spent a lot of time on a bicycle riding around New York. There was an abandoned roadway I would get on in the Village and take down to Battery Park. I would see the Staten Island Ferry coming over and those women in sneakers getting off and then stopping to change into [dress] shoes. That’s how I discovered this story — a modern-day immigrant story of a person who comes here not really speaking the language, not with the right clothes, not knowing the customs, but with smarts. It’s the Horatio Alger story. I knew right away it was about a young woman.

WICK Kevin and I worked out a story. I pitched it to several places, and they all passed. A lot of directors said it was a TV movie.

WADE I had an agent who I am not going to name. I showed him the first draft and he was extremely critical. He said, “You know, this is fantasyland. This is never going to get made.” I parted ways with this agent shortly thereafter.

WICK But I went to Los Angeles and pitched it to Marcia Nasatir and Carol Baum at Fox, which bought it. So then Kevin and I went to work on it. In the early days, we were concerned about Tess’ likability. So in an early draft, she used to have a dying mother. I sent it to director Jim Bridges (The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy), and he signed on. Jim knew a lot about craft, so he was helpful with development and eventually we got Demi Moore. She had done some good work, Jim liked her and we liked her. In the first draft, the Katharine Parker character was a man. I got a call from Kevin, and he said, “I’ve got a great idea.” He says, “[Tess] should be working for a woman.”

WADE I remember very distinctly writing [Tess] exactly as I would write a guy. I didn’t change a thing. I thought to myself, “Maybe the secret to this is don’t make her a woman. Just make her a character.”

Full interview: hollywoodreporter.com