Woody Allen Turns 80: Fascinating Facts About the Iconic Filmmaker

Today is Woody Allen's 80th birthday. Here's a look at the life and career of the filmmaker who has been making one movie a year for the past five decades.
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Today is Woody Allen's 80th birthday. Here's a look at the life and career of the filmmaker who has been making one movie a year for the past five decades.
Woody Allen Photo

Woody Allen, pictured here on the set of his 2012 film "To Rome With Love," turns 80 today. (Photo: Lucky Team Studio/www.shutterstock.com)

"As I've said many, many times, rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I would rather live on in my apartment." – Woody Allen

Woody Allen is 80 now, and he will indeed live on in the hearts and minds of his fellow man. He’s been making one movie a year for the past five decades, and shows no signs of slowing down. He’s had just as many misses as hits, but it doesn’t matter; he’s an iconic figure in the filmmaking world.

He's also a polarizing one. While some think his movies are pinnacles of quality, demonstrating smart moviemaking at its finest; others say he's become irrelevant and out of touch. Many will never forgive him for the allegations regarding his daughter Dylan Farrow, and some can’t get past his relationship with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, 35 years his junior and the adopted daughter of his former partner, Mia Farrow. There are truths we don’t know, as outsiders, and to respect all parties involved, we won’t speculate. For the purposes of this article, we are looking at the life and career of Woody Allen, focusing on the parts of his life that are fully in the public eye.

Woody Allen Photo

Beyond filmmaking, Allen is also an accomplished jazz musician, seen here playing his clarinet at the Vienna Jazz Festival in 2003. (Photo: Jerry Zigmont (Photographer was Joseph Zigmont, the father of Jerry Zigmont.) (Woody Allen Band - Vienne, France) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

We know he's a jazz musician, with a steady gig at Café Carlyle in New York City. We know he's the ultimate Ingmar Bergman fan, that he's still friends with Diane Keaton, and that he loves to watch a good baseball or basketball game. But what’s less known is that he isn't just an observer of sports, but used to be a hell of a basketball player himself. He had strong arms, was agile, loved the game, and was always picked first at school for a team. He still starts each day on the treadmill.

Here are seven other fascinating facts about the prolific filmmaker.

HE NEVER GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE

“I found when I started dating girls, all I could talk about was batting averages and Superman. The women I started dating spoke about novels, philosophy, culture, music, theater. In order to keep up with them I started to educate myself—out of social survival.”

Don’t let the highbrow references in his movies fool you: Woody Allen was a terrible student. When he was a kid, Allen would get in trouble in school for making jokes in class, and putting sexual content into his writing compositions. Teachers back then were mean, reports his sister Letty Aronson, and many were anti-Semitic, so he had a terrible time in school. Once he hit college—NYU to be precise—things didn't improve much. When he failed his Motion Picture Production class (!) he dropped out. He tried City College of New York, then flunked out of that too.

HE GOT HIS START WRITING JOKES, AND WROTE UP TO 50 A DAY

“The two biggest myths about me are that I’m an intellectual, because I wear these glasses, and that I’m an artist because my films lose money. Those two myths have been prevalent for many years.”

While he was still in high school, he tried sending his jokes in to the newspaper, which promptly started printing them. A typical one went something like this: “A hypocrite is a guy who writes a book on atheism, and prays it sells.”

Woody Allen Photo

In his early career, Woody Allen was a prolific joke writer and spent his summers at a resort in the Poconos where he learned to write for a live audience. 

When Allen’s jokes started appearing in well-known columns, like Walter Winchell’s, he decided he didn’t want his classmates seeing his name there, so he changed it. Allen Stewart Konigsberg legally became Heywood Allen, and then Woody Allen, a name that seemed to lend itself to comedy writing. And he just kept writing jokes, and soon he was up to 50 a day. He hasn’t been out of work since. His jokes found their way into the mouths of celebrities doing interviews and spots on the radio, and into more columns, and in 1956, at age 21, he started spending his summers at a resort in the Poconos called Tamiment. That’s where he learned to write for a live audience, writing 5-8 minute sketches every day, boot camp at its finest. He started directing there his second summer.

HE USED TO BE A TV STAPLE

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

Woody Allen Johnny Carson Photo

Woody Allen and Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" in 1964.

After his success as a joke writer in radio and a sketch writer-director in the Poconos, he moved on to TV. His first job was a gem, writing for Sid Caesar alongside other comedy greats like Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. Eventually he started doing stand-up, and became popular—to his confusion and initial dismay—as a performer as well. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and Candid Camera, he boxed with a Kangaroo on Hippodrome, sang with a talking dog on I’ve Got A Secret, tried to baffle panelists on To Tell The Truth, and was a frequent guest of Dick Cavett. He also made regular appearances on The Tonight Show, and guest hosted it multiple times. He was even on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, leaping out in front of 15-foot tall letters that spelled out his name in lights. He was dressed in a top hat and tails, and sang a song. 

He doesn’t even watch TV these days, but he recently made a deal with Amazon to create a streaming TV show, even though he doesn’t really know what streaming TV is. To counter his reluctance, they kept offering him better and better deals, telling him he could shoot in black and white if he wanted, do comedy or tragedy, and set the story anywhere he liked. He says he’s worried that they’ll be “crushed with disappointment” by the results, but he signed the deal.

DESPITE WHAT YOU SEE IN MOVIES LIKE SLEEPER AND BANANAS, HE'S NEVER TAKEN ANY DRUGS

“I don't respond well to mellow, you know what I mean, I have a tendency to . . .if I get too mellow, I ripen and then rot.” (from Annie Hall)

Early Woody Allen films are pretty surprising to those who grew up in his post Annie Hall era. His movies had him slipping on a gigantic banana peel (Sleeper), getting shot out of a cannon (Love and Death), or running around in a sperm suit (Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask). He admits he’s been as influenced by the Marx Brothers as he was by Bergman.

Woody Allen Photo

Allen went for big laughs when he slipped on a giant banana peel in "Sleeper"(1973).

These wackier movies were all made in the 1970s, so one might conclude that he’d at least dabbled in some of the popular substances of the times. But he’s never tried any recreational drugs, and says he can’t fathom why anybody else would. He hasn’t taken Valium (another hugely popular drug of the 70s, although a legal one), or Prozac, or antidepressants. He’s never even taken a sleeping pill.

HIS CASTING PROCESS IS INSANELY SHORT

“That wasn’t horrible.” (to Larry David, after shooting the first scene for Whatever Works)

Actors in Woody Allen movies always seem perfectly cast; they inhabit their parts so well that viewers can’t imagine anyone else in those roles. While there were times when it was inspired by a particular muse, like Mia Farrow or Diane Keaton, generally the movie is written and then Allen and his longtime casting direction Juliet Taylor make decisions about who should play each part. And so begins the audition process, which happens so quickly you might miss it if you blink.

Often, actors are brought in just so Taylor and Allen can meet them. Allen has no interest in making small talk and figures (incorrectly, usually) that they would rather not waste too much on the process either. While many actors are hungry to get into a room with Woody Allen and would happily sit and chat for a half hour, he talks briefly, and sends them on their way with a thank you. Taylor says the shortest casting session has come in at ten seconds.

When he’s interested in an actor, he’ll send them a copy of the script, but it’s never via email, and it’s never through their agent. Scripts arrive, hand delivered directly to the actor, and are picked up again within a few hours. They are accompanied by a typed or handwritten note from Allen, sometimes reintroducing himself (“You may remember me from a film of mine you did called Melinda and Melinda”) and saying he hopes they like the script, and if they take the part, they should feel free to change any of the lines that don’t suit them. He says the biggest favor he can do for actors is to get out of their way and shut up.

He will, however, reshoot when he feels he’s cast the wrong person. The original Tom Baxter in Purple Rose of Cairo was Michael Keaton, but he seemed too contemporary to play an actor from the 1930s. He was replaced by Jeff Daniels, and scenes were reshot, with no judgment about Keaton, whom Allen still admires.

Jeff Daniels Photo

Jeff Daniels replaced Michael Keaton in the role of Tom Baxter in "Purple Rose of Cairo."

The movie September was shot twice. He replaced over half a dozen actors after filming was well under way, and had to start all over again. 

THAT SPLIT SCREEN SCENE IN ANNIE HALL WASN’T A SPLIT SCREEN

From Annie Hall:

Alvy Singer's Therapist: “How often do you sleep together?”

Annie Hall's Therapist: “Do you have sex often?”

Alvy Singer: [lamenting] “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.”

Annie Hall: [annoyed] “Constantly. I'd say three times a week.”

Annie Hall Photo

Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) speak to their therapists in a scene from Annie Hall. 

Hey Annie Hall buffs: remember the scene where Annie and Alvy are each talking to their therapists at the same time? The one that looked like a split screen? It wasn’t. The movie’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis, told Allen there was no reason to shoot the scenes separately, making the actors pause unnaturally, and then edit it all together; instead, they built the sets to have the rooms right next to each other, and LOOK like a split screen, so Keaton and Allen (and the actors playing their shrinks) could do the entire scene as one, just the way it was written.

Another Annie Hall tidbit: Grammy Hall was based on a real person. Diane Keaton was born Diane Hall, and her grandmother was indeed anti-Semitic and confused by her granddaughter’s relationship with the filmmaker. “He’s just like a Jew,” she’d say, as Keaton winced nearby.

HE DOESN’T OWN OR USE A COMPUTER

“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” (from Deconstructing Harry)

Woody Allen says he has never sent or received an email. He writes on the same typewriter he bought for $40 when he was a teenager. Now that he’s writing scripts instead of jokes, he has the challenge of needing to cut and paste, but he handles it old school-style: he cuts up the paper he’s typing on, and staples the pieces together in the order in which he needs them.

While he owns an iPhone, mostly for talking to his daughters or listening to jazz so he can practice the clarinet when he’s traveling, he doesn’t use it for recording his ideas. Instead, he scribbles down his ideas wherever he gets them: on matchbooks, slips of paper, notebooks, hotel stationery, anywhere. Then he saves them all in a drawer for future reference. When a movie is finished and he’s ready to start another one—which happens within 24 hours—he opens the drawer and pulls out the scraps to see which idea he’s interested in pursuing next.

“The same things come up time after time. They’re the things that are on my mind, and one is always feeling for new ways to express them. It’s hard to think of going out and saying, Gee, I have to find something new to express. What sort of things recur? For me, certainly the seductiveness of fantasy and the cruelty of reality.”

With that as a recurring theme, there are a lot more Woody Allen movies to come.