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When Tucson once thrived as a top moviemaking location for Hollywood

Revenge of the Nerds was filmed on the UArizona campus
Posted at 7:10 AM, May 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-11 10:10:29-04

TUCSON, AZ (KGUN) — There was a time when the city of Tucson was the backdrop for a number of major motion pictures.

From Revenge of the Nerds to Major League, Tucson played a prominent role in the movies of the 1980s.

But it was a famous line in the 1974 movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore that introduced moviegoers to Tucson.

"Weird, very weird," said a young Jodie Foster, who played Audrey. "It's even weird for Tucson, and Tucson is the weird capital of the world."

Jodie Foster in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was shot throughout the Old Pueblo, and helped Hollywood see that Tucson was more than just a location for westerns.

In the 70s, the Tucson Film Commission played a big part in selling Tucson to filmmakers.

"We went to Hollywood and we pitched it," said local filmmaker Mark Headley. "We hit it real hard. It really took off in the 70s and 80s."

Headley and the late Bob Shelton, who founded Old Tucson, formed the Tucson Film Commission. They went to work attracting big films to the area.

By the 1980s, Tucson was bustling with movie productions.

"You felt like you were a part of Hollywood," said Phil Villarreal, KGUN 9 film critic and Tucson area native. "You could kind of grow up and hoped that you might be an extra in a movie at some point. Or at least see some of Tucson on the screen."

Hi Corbett Field is one of those familiar places featured prominently in the movie Major League.

Major League movie poster

Thousands of Tucsonans were extras in the stands for some of the spring training scenes.

"People were paid a hot dog and a Coke to sit in the stands if they waited hours," Villarreal said. "It's almost impossible to meet someone who doesn't know someone that was an extra in the stands at the beginning of the movie when they're in spring training."

Many of the opposing players in those Hi Corbett scenes were actually University of Arizona baseball players.

One of the biggest movies of the 1980s filmed in Tucson almost wasn't.

Revenge of the Nerds was turned down by the University of Arizona because it was thought to be too raunchy.

Revenge of the Nerds movie poster

"The film commission, Bob and I and a few others, really went to bat for the film crew," Headley recalled. "We went over the script, a hilarious script. They were turned down by a lot of universities that were nervous, but we convinced the University of Arizona this was number one a fun film to do, and number two economic impact on Tucson."

University officials gave the go-ahead and an estimated $4 million was pumped into the Tucson economy.

While the campus is easily recognizable to Tucsonans, moviegoers across the country had no idea Adams College was actually the University of Arizona.

The 1986 film Three Amigos! had the most star power.

Three Amigos! movie poster

"That was probably the biggest movie from the 80s filmed at Old Tucson, with major stars in there like Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase," said Villarreal. "Iconic comedy-western and that's all Tucson."

While the majority of Three Amigos! was filmed around Old Tucson, they did use Sabino Canyon as a backdrop.

But the movie that best showcased Tucson was the 1987 film Can't Buy Me Love.

Can't Buy Me Love movie poster

"They just wanted the uniqueness of southern Arizona," said Headley. "They certainly found it."

That uniqueness included a trip to the Boneyard and scenes filmed inside a brand new Tucson Mall. The major backdrop was Tucson High School.

"Watching Can't buy Me Love really is a time machine to go back to Tucson in the 1980s," said Villarreal. "You could just see the way things looked back then. A lot of things are the same, still as they were in that movie. It treats Tucson with respect, with dignity and you get to see the sites. Basically, it's a movie about growing up in Tucson in the 80s."

A little secret about Cindy Mancini's house, where Ronald Miller -- played by Patrick Dempsey -- cut her grass. It's not even a home.

It is actually the Hill Farm community clubhouse.

You can see for yourself. It is just off Fort Lowell near Craycroft.

Here is an interactive map showing several of the filming locations in Tucson:

Unfortunately, the movie industry now bypasses Tucson for the tax credits of filming in New Mexico.

But Headley is still hopeful Hollywood will return to Tucson to film someday like they did in the 80s.

"Somebody needs to knock on some doors in Hollywood and say we're open for business."