Released in the summer of 1992, Sister Act starred actress-comedian Whoopi Goldberg as struggling nightclub performer Deloris Van Cartier, who is forced into hiding after witnessing her gangster boyfriend committing murder and poses as nun Sister Mary Clarence while staying at a San Francisco convent. Despite a rocky road to the screen, the film was an instant hit, as audiences warmed to Goldberg’s on-screen comradery with co-stars Kathy Najimy, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy and Wendy Makkena, powered by a soundtrack that spent more than a year on the Billboard charts. Following the success of the first movie, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, also starring Lauryn Hill, hit theaters in December 1993. Here are 10 facts you may not know about the musical-comedy film series:
The first film’s screenwriter was partially inspired by previous Hollywood films about nuns
Writer Paul Rudnick, who’d had modest success as a playwright and screenwriter, began working on the script in the late 1980s, intrigued by the idea of setting a comedy in the world of a religious order and satirizing popular Hollywood films like The Sound of Music, The Singing Nun and The Song of Bernadette. His film would turn those sweet-natured tropes on their head by featuring a struggling showgirl as its lead. As he would later write, “I wanted our heroine…to embody raunch, sex, and the unstoppable gospel of cheap showbiz. It would be pop versus Pope; and pop, in a barrage of sequins, wisecracks, and Marlboro Lights, would win.”
Bette Midler was originally set to star in ‘Sister Act’
Rudnick’s treatment soon found its way to the singer and actress, who’d had box-office success with films like Outrageous Fortune and Ruthless People. Bette Midler quickly signed on, and the film was set up at Disney, where she had her own production company. But the writing process dragged on for over a year, with Rudnick, Midler and Disney execs struggling to find a way to approach the material, and Midler increasingly uneasy about the project. Midler would eventually drop out, a decision she would come to regret, noting, “Sister Act…was written for me, but I said: ‘My fans don’t want to see me in a wimple.’ I don’t know where I got that from. Why would I say such a thing? So, Whoopi did it instead and, of course, she made a fortune.”
Rudnick visited a convent to do research — and almost met a Hollywood star-turned-nun
The largely Jewish creative team knew little of the inner workings of Catholicism or the Catholic church, so before Midler’s departure from the project, Rudnick decamped to a convent in rural Connecticut that was home to former actress Dolores Hart. Hart was once a rising Hollywood starlet, who’d co-starred in the ’50s classic Where the Boys Are and made two movies with Elvis Presley before leaving the entertainment world for a more religious life. Fascinated by Hart’s unlikely journey, Rudnick tried, but failed, to meet her during his stay, but did interview a number of other nuns to get a better sense of their lives.
Carrie Fisher was one of several writers who worked on the first film’s final drafts
With Goldberg now on board, the star and Disney execs pushed Rudnick for a number of changes to the script, as Rudnick’s brash, provocative concept was adapted to fit the studio’s more family-friendly approach. A frustrated Rudnick left the project before filming began, and the studio brought in several other writers to rework parts of the screenplay, including Steel Magnolias author Robert Harling, and Nancy Meyers, then the author and producer of hits like Private Benjamin and Baby Boom. Goldberg brought in his good friend Carrie Fisher, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand “script-doctors.
Because the original idea and script was Rudnick’s, he’d be the one receiving screen credit, but after reading a dramatically revised version of the script in 1991, he asked to have his name removed entirely, eventually settling with Disney for a pseudonym instead, “Joseph Howard.” Although Rudnick had nothing to do with the sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, the film’s credits note the film was “based on characters created by Joseph Howard.”
The actresses shocked onlookers with their behavior during filming
The cast spent several weeks in Nevada shooting the last part of the film, which sees the sisters of Saint Katherine’s rushing to Reno to protect her from henchmen hired by her former boyfriend. Najimy, Makkena and others would often stay in costume while they gambled at the blackjack table, drinking and smoking while casino guests gawked at the spectacle.
Najimy would later say that she’d based her performance as Sister Mary Patrick on perky TV personality Mary Hart, then the host of Entertainment Tonight, after watching a segment featuring Hart and actress Sally Field. Najimy said she later sent Hart flowers as a thank you — but didn’t say why.
The sequel briefly made Goldberg Hollywood’s highest-paid actress
Goldberg and director Emile Ardolino clashed with Disney execs during production, upset that they’d been rushed into filming with what they considered an unfinished script. Goldberg’s relationship with the studio was so tense that she refused to promote the film when it was released in 1992. Despite the tension, the film was a box office hit, bringing in $231 million worldwide against its $31 million budget. Disney moved quickly to secure the cast for a sequel, and offered Goldberg a reported $7-12 million dollar salary, making her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood at the time.
‘Sister Act 2’ was a critical and box office failure
The second film sees Goldberg return to her former San Francisco Catholic high school (now run by the sisters from Saint Katherine’s convent), running the school’s choir in an effort to raise the school’s reputation to stave off closing. It marked the film debut of a young Hill, who would launch a successful music career shortly after making the film.
But critics slammed the film for being formulaic and focusing too much on Goldberg’s relationship with the students at the expense of her relationship with the nuns and mother superior. The film underperformed expectations at the box office, making $57 million in the US. Despite this, the sequel gained a following on home video and cable in the years following its release.
The producers were sued for plagiarism — twice
In 1993, Midler, Goldberg, Walt Disney Pictures and others were sued by actress Donna Douglas for $200 million. Douglas, the former co-star of The Beverly Hillbillies alleged that she had developed a treatment for a similar story (based on a book called A Nun in the Closet), which had been submitted to Disney and Midler and Goldberg’s production companies in the late 1980s, and that the producers had used the story as the basis for the film. After refusing Disney’s offer of $1 million to settle, Douglas and her producing partner lost the case when a jury found in the defense’s favor.
In 2011, Disney and Sony Pictures were hit with another lawsuit, this one filed by Delois Blakely, a Harlem-based nun whose 1987 autobiography detailed her work using songs as a form of outreach to disadvantaged youth. In a subsequent filing, Blakely asked for $1 billion in damages, alleging that producers had used her life story as the basis for the film. Her lawsuit was dismissed by the NY State Supreme Court in 2013.
The films spawned a successful stage adaptation
The show, which featured new original songs rather than classic hits, opened in Pasadena, California in 2006, later moving to Atlanta, London’s West End (where Goldberg briefly played the role of Mother Superior) and then Broadway in 2011, where it received a number of Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Plans for a 2020 London revival starring Goldberg and Absolutely Fabulous creator and star Jennifer Saunders as the Mother Superior were scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the show later announced plans to move forward in 2022, but without Goldberg.
A third film is in the works
During an appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden in October 2020, Goldberg teased the possibility of a new film, and that December, Disney confirmed that Sister Act 3 was in development, with a release date to be determined. Coming on board as one of the film’s producers is filmmaker Tyler Perry. In an April 2021 profile in Variety, Goldberg revealed some additional details, saying, “The nuns are all waiting. Maybe there’s gonna be some of the kids [from Sister Act 2]. Who can say?”