As one of the first movies to feature a talking robot as its main character, Short Circuit looked positively futuristic when it premiered in theaters on May 9, 1986. And 35 years later, Johnny 5 still feels like a next-gen movie star, brought to life via an inventive combination of then-cutting-edge special-effects technology, as well as old-fashioned puppeteering and great voice acting by Tim Blaney. But there's at least one element of the hit sci-fi comedy that keeps it firmly stuck in the past: Fisher Stevens's performance as Indian engineer Ben Jabituya — a heavily stereotyped role he later reprised in the less-successful 1988 sequel.
"It definitely haunts me," the Chicago-born actor and filmmaker confessed to Yahoo Entertainment when we spoke with him earlier this year about his recent Justin Timberlake drama, Palmer, which is currently streaming on Apple TV+. "I still think it's a really good movie, but I would never do that part again. The world was a different place in 1986, obviously."
According to Stevens, Ben wasn't an Indian character when he first auditioned for the John Badham-directed film, which also starred Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg fresh of the success of The Breakfast Club and the Police Academy series respectively. "I was originally cast as a white dude," he recalls of how his character initially appeared in S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock's script.
But after winning the role, the movie's creative team made the choice to change Ben's ethnicity without changing the identity of the performer playing him. As a young actor eager for that elusive breakout role, Stevens didn't want to walk away. "They rewrote it, and were like, 'Can you play it?' I said, 'Yeah, I can do it. Let me learn.' It's a weird thing when you're 21 and you're trying to get a job."
Stevens did commit himself to learning about India, a place he had never visited prior to shooting Short Circuit. As he told Indian-American comedian and actor, Aziz Ansari, in a 2015 New York Times interview, Stevens worked with a dialect coach and read multiple books about the country's history and culture. Later on, he moved to India for a month before traveling to the Toronto set of Short Circuit 2.
All that preparation apparently came across in the performance: in his New York Times article, Ansari remembers thinking that Ben was played by an Indian actor when he saw the film as a child. "I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or convenience store worker," Ansari writes. "This made Short Circuit 2 special."
It was only later on in college that the Master of None creator learned that the character was actually played by Stevens in "brownface," and experienced a profound sense of disillusionment. "As a child, I thought the villain of the film was Oscar Baldwin. ... As an adult, I thought the bad guy was actually Mr. Stevens, who mocked my ethnicity."
Ansari and Stevens eventually arrived at a mutual understanding when they spoke for the New York Times. But the actor knows it's a performance he'll have to keep answering for. "I have friends who are Indian, and they're still mad at me. They're like, 'What were you thinking?' My wife [Alexis Bloom] isn't happy about it either. She keeps telling me, 'Look what you did!'"
Stevens wasn't the only young white performer who made the questionable choice to darken their skin for a role in a hit 1986 film. Jenette Goldstein wore brownface to play Hispanic Xenomorph hunter Jenette Vasquez, in James Cameron's sci-fi classic Aliens, which arrived in theaters two months after Short Circuit's release. And later that fall, C. Thomas Howell performed extensively in blackface in the controversial collegiate comedy Soul Man, which grossed nearly $30 million at the box office. "That was a terrible thing," Stevens says of his role in that unfortunate trend. "Now I look back and go, 'Oh, Jesus Christ.'"
Stevens's regrets are shared by Hank Azaria, who recently apologized for voicing Indian convenience store owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, on The Simpsons for nearly three decades before officially retiring the role last year. "I really didn't know any better," the actor remarked during an appearance on the Armchair Expert podcast. "There were very good intentions on all of our part [with Apu]. We tried to do a funny, thoughtful character. Just because there were good intentions doesn't mean there weren't real negative consequences that I am accountable for." (The Simpsons producers have already announced that white actors will no longer voice characters of color on the show.)
Of course, since the real star of Short Circuit is Johnny 5, Stevens says there'd be an easy way to revive the long-dormant series: "I think it would be a great movie to reboot, and just not cast me," he says, laughing. His other stipulation is that Johnny should remain a physical 'bot, not a CGI creation. "It wasn't easy because it was an early robot," he says of the challenges of acting opposite his mechanical co-star 35 years ago. "I would imagine it's similar to a green screen now, only talking to something that was plastic. But that robot is fantastic, and I think they should reboot it. Just not with me in it!"
Short Circuit is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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