‘Urban Cowboy’: 10 Things You Might Not Know About the Movie
On June 6, 1980, Urban Cowboy hit theaters. The film, which stars John Travolta and Debra Winger, follows the trials and tribulations of Bud and Sissy, two regulars at the Texas honky-tonk Gilley's, who fall in love and get married, but weather plenty of rough-and-tumble turbulence along the way to a happy ending.
The pop culture impact of Urban Cowboy was immense: Not only did Western wear become a fashion fad, but musically, the soundtrack spawned three country No. 1 hits and six Top 40 singles.
As Urban Cowboy celebrates its 42nd anniversary, here are 10 things you might not know about the film:
Urban Cowboy's impact on culture was immense; however, the movie's box office take was modest: The film grossed $46.9 million worldwide, placing it 13th on the year-end list for 1980. Films that generated more revenue globally include The Empire Strikes Back ($400 million), the Dolly Parton-starring 9 to 5 ($103.3 million) and Coal Miner's Daughter ($67.2 million), about the life of Loretta Lynn.
Urban Cowboy's dance scenes are legendary, in no small part due to their choreography. The woman responsible for those moves was Patsy Swayze -- aka, the mom of actor Patrick Swayze. In fact, Urban Cowboy was the first film that Patsy -- who also founded and led the Houston Jazz Ballet Company, and was a dance teacher at the University of Houston, according to her 2013 obituary -- ever choreographed. Later, she was a choreographer on Big Top Pee-Wee and Hope Floats.
In 1978, Esquire published The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit, which featured the Pasadena, Texas, honky-tonk Gilley's and a man named Dew Westbrook, "the beer joint bull rider" who is "as uncertain about where his life is going as America is confused about where it wants to go."
Gilley had a string of No. 1 hits in the 1970s, but also branched out into nightlife investing to boost his career. Urban Cowboy came along at just the right time.
“It launched me into the stratosphere,” Gilley told Rolling Stone Country in 2015. After all, he had nine No. 1 hits in the early '80s alone, including a cover of "Stand By Me" on the movie soundtrack.
Gilley, who died on May 7, 2022 at the age of 86, had nothing but gratitude for the boost, either: “I was in an elevator in Nashville one day back in the '80s,” he recalls. “There was a guy on there who said, ‘I want to thank you for all you did for Western wear.’ And I said, ‘You need to thank John Travolta. He’s the one who brought it front and center.’
"Every night when I go to bed, I thank John Travolta for keeping my career alive," Gilley added.
Travolta took his Urban Cowboy role very, very seriously, he told Texas Monthly in 2015. "Right away, I went to Texas to rub elbows with cowboys, real and urban, and it was a revelation. I was used to New York and LA, where people looked over each other’s shoulders at parties for someone more interesting to talk to," he recalled. "These Texans just wanted to have a beer, a whiskey, and a fantastic time."
After spending a month there, Travolta returned to his California ranch, where he practiced at home on his own personal mechanical bull and dance floor. He also drove around listening to a tape of the script said in a Texas accent, so he could get the nuances down pat.
Travolta was originally contracted to star in American Gigolo, but had reservations because the script was "too reminiscent" of a movie he had just done, Moment By Moment, that flopped, he told Texas Monthly. "So I asked to get out, and Paramount said I’d have to do two movies to replace it. That’s when Urban Cowboy came up."
Urban Cowboy could've turned out very differently. For starters, director Jim Bridges initially thought Dennis Quaid was better for Travolta's starring role.
The female lead was even more up in the air: Sissy Spacek was the top contender, but she and Travolta didn't quite have the right chemistry. Michelle Pfeiffer was also a finalist for the role that Debra Winger eventually got.
Although Winger was the perfect Sissy, she had to have others go to bat for her to get the role. Jack Larson, the movie's co-producer, recalled to Texas Monthly that director Bridges "went to meet Debra at the plane in Texas" for an in-person audition on the mechanical bull, "and there was no Debra on it." Paramount production head Don Simpson said co-producer Robert Evans didn't want to cast her, so he canceled the trip.
"Jim said, 'You get her on the next plane to Texas or you don’t have a director,'" Larson recalled. "Then Travolta took the phone from Jim and added, 'And you don’t have a star.'"
Thirty-five years later, Travolta's opinion hadn't changed: "We were dead set on Debra," he said.
Not only was the Urban Cowboy soundtrack a hit, but the idea of an "urban cowboy" permeated mainstream pop culture. "Six months after it came out, I’m in Chicago working on another film, and everybody had on cowboy shirts and boots," music coordinator Becky Mancuso-Winding told Texas Monthly. "A hotel I stayed in in Atlanta had a Western-themed restaurant with an Urban Cowboy night and two-step lessons. Country bars opened in Vegas, everywhere. I didn’t feel authorship of that, but it made me smile. We’d had an impact."