‘White Men Can't Jump’ Turns 25: Woody Harrelson on the Movie That ‘Changed My Life’

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump. (Photo: Everett)

Twenty-five years ago, Woody Harrelson learned the hard way that white men really can’t jump …unless they stretch a little first. When Yahoo Movies chatted with the Oscar-nominated actor recently for his new movie, Wilson, he revealed that he had a side bet going with Wesley Snipes while they were shooting Ron Shelton’s 1992 basketball comedy classic, White Men Can’t Jump, which celebrates its silver anniversary on March 27. In the film, the duo play street ball hustlers who form an unlikely alliance to make some big-league cash. As a former college hoops star, wide-eyed Billy (Harrelson), is an all-around better player than the self-taught Sidney (Snipes). Still, there is one move his partner is all too happy to remind him he can’t pull off: dunking.

According to Harrelson, that limitation was true off-camera as well. “I couldn’t dunk,” he says, laughing. It’s not as if Shelton didn’t try to make it easier for him, even lowering the height of the rims from the standard 10 feet to nine-and-a-half feet in one of the movie’s best-remembered scenes, where Billy bets Sidney his share of a $5,000 tournament check that he can slam-dunk like a pro. “Even on a nine-and-a-half foot rim, I couldn’t stuff it in,” Harrelson recalls. “I could get really close, but I couldn’t do it.”

Harrelson, Snipes, and Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump. (Photo: Everett)

Of course, Shelton’s script dictated that Billy would lose that bet. Off camera, though, Harrelson and Snipes initiated their own wager about whether he’d be able to successfully stuff the ball through the hoop. “That [bet] was messing me up,” he admits now. After several failed attempts, Snipes went off to his trailer, and Harrelson kept practicing his dunk. At that point, a member of the sound department came over and offered some advice. “She said, ‘You really should stretch. I’ve never seen you stretch.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I never have stretched.’ So she told me, ‘Well, just stretch for a bit — it will help you.'” Sure enough, after stretching his muscles out, Harrelson finally achieved lift-off. “I tried again, and I actually slammed it! The stretching helped me that much.”

With his newfound confidence — and bounce — Harrelson invited Snipes back to the basketball court for a second run at winning their bet. At first, though, it looked like he’d still be the one forking over the cash. “Of course, I couldn’t do it [again],” he says. “Then I raised the bet to a big number, and I dunked it! Wesley was shocked, absolutely shocked. The look on his face will stay with me forever.”

Watch a scene from ‘White Men Can’t Jump’:

Beyond the satisfaction of successfully dunking on Snipes, Harrelson credits those warm-up stretches he learned on the White Men Can’t Jump set with introducing him to a now favorite pastime. “It was really my first yoga,” he says. These days, he’s known as one of Hollywood’s most dedicated yoga practitioners, whether he’s leading stretching sessions in Australia or instructing prison inmates in the art of the “downward-facing dog” and “lord of the dance” poses. “Yoga and meditation. I am trying to make sure I do that every day,” Harrelson told GQ in 2012.

It’s only too appropriate that Wilson, an offbeat star vehicle for Harrelson, opened in theaters almost 25 years to the day after White Men Can’t Jump premiered. After all, the success of Shelton’s film — it topped the box office charts in its opening weekend and grossed $76 million by the end of its run — kick-started the then-31-year-old actor’s feature film career. Primarily known at the time for his Emmy-nominated role as Woody Boyd, the well-meaning, if dim-witted, bartender on the NBC sitcom Cheers, White Men Can’t Jump sent Harrelson down a path that’s since allowed him to cultivate one of the most eclectic and acclaimed filmographies of any actor working today. Besides Wilson, he’s got four additional movies scheduled for 2017, including giant franchise movies like War for the Planet of the Apes and buzzy small-scale dramas such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Next year, he’ll join the Star Wars universe with the untitled Han Solo prequel, in which he plays the mentor to everyone’s favorite rogue smuggler from that galaxy far, far away.

Woody Harrelson in Wilson. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Reflecting on the 25th anniversary of White Men Can’t Jump, Harrelson says the movie “changed my whole life. It just put me on the map in terms of doing movies. And I think it stands as a really good movie.” As with all really good, really successful movies, there’s talk of remaking it. Kenya Barris, creator of the hit ABC comedy, Black-ish, is reportedly in the process of writing a contemporary version of the film. (White Men Can’t Jump was also referenced in a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, when Andrew Rannells’s character, Elijah, auditions for a Broadway musical based on the movie.) Don’t expect Harrelson to lace up his sneakers or do any stretching for the remake, though. “I don’t think I need to cameo in that,” he says. “But I hope it’s great. I wish them well.”


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