Movies Set in Florida: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Cocoon’

Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Wilford Brimley
Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Wilford Brimley find renewed vigor in a swimming pool in “Cocoon.” Publicity photo

Living in Florida means we’re subjected to a never-ending barrage of jokes about our state, including the tasteless (and factually incorrect) punchline of residing in “God’s waiting room.” Only one movie could take that insult and turn it into a heartwarming sci-fi tale: 1985’s “Cocoon.”

The Ron Howard-directed film was set and shot in St. Petersburg, a city on the Gulf Coast of Florida that today is better known for its vibrant downtown breweries and arts scene. The movie follows a group of senior citizens who stumble upon a pool containing alien cocoons and find that swimming in the water gives them back their youthful energy. A group of the seniors later are invited to leave with the aliens – leaving their loved ones behind for the opportunity to live forever.

The movie would go on to win two Academy Awards, including a best supporting actor Oscar for Don Ameche. The cast was rounded out by Steve Guttenberg (then at the top of his game after “Short Circuit” and “Three Men and a Baby”) along with Hume Cronyn, Brian Dennehy, Jack Gilford, Maureen Stapleton and Jessica Tandy. Wilford Brimley, only 49 years old when he was cast as one of the trespassing seniors, had his hair dyed gray and walked with a slowing gait to fit in. (Howard’s wife Cheryl, brother Clint, mother Jean, and father Rance all have small roles in the film too.)

The city of St. Petersburg, which was the intended destination the original story called for, offered up its landmark destinations – the Dali Museum, Sunken Gardens, Don CeSar hotel – for the cast to visit on days off. Additional locations – the Coliseum ballroom and the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club – were locations for pivotal scenes during the filming.

“Locations can be another character in a movie, and St. Petersburg was a character in ours,” producer Lili Fini Zanuck told the St. Petersburg Times on the movie’s 25th anniversary back in 2010.

If you’re a huge fan of “Cocoon” – or need to revisit the material – here are five things you probably didn’t know about the movie.

  1. The fancy waterfront house that had the cocoon pool was a private residence. Producers renovated the property and built a temporary structure over the outdoor pool. After the movie wrapped, the homeowners built a permanent pool based on the film’s exact design and continued to live there for decades to come.
  2. Ron Howard wasn’t the first pick to direct “Cocoon.” The job was intended for Robert Zemeckis, but he was replaced following a disappointing test screening of “Romancing the Stone.” Don’t feel too bad for Robert – he produced “Back to the Future” instead.
  3. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy play a married couple in the movie. They were also married in real life.
  4. Speaking of Cronyn, the actor was a Golden Glove boxer and lost sight in one eye because of his hobby. In the scene where he hits a nursing home orderly, his lack of depth perception caused him to actually hit the young man and knock him out.
  5. Speaking of boxing gloves, one star got the kid-glove treatment by local law offers. Brian Dennehy was arrested for DUI after a night on the town with Guttenberg. After sleeping it off at the police station, he posed for photos with officers, was released and eventually charged with a misdemeanor.

“The cop was very nice,” Dennehy later told the Tampa Bay Times. “Poor Guttenberg was frantic about the whole thing. It went out to the (national) press and (reporters) expected me to come up with all kinds of stuff about how I was screwed over by the St. Petersburg police. I told them: Look, the (officer) did me a favor . . . I should’ve let Steve drive and I didn’t because I’m dumb, Irish and willful.”

“Cocoon” would get its world premiere also set in St. Petersburg on June 20, 1985. Though invited, none of the big stars or its director or producer attended. In 1988, a sequel – “Cocoon: The Return” was produced with Miami replacing St. Petersburg as the locale. Critics and fans were unimpressed. It turns out that – at least for St. Petersburg – you can only say goodbye once.

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