'Outbreak' at 25: Screenwriters on origin of virus thriller, the A-listers who almost starred and the scene Maya Angelou contributed

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

A real-life Ebola outbreak hit Zaire shortly after the release of Outbreak, the 1990s thriller starring Dustin Hoffman as a virologist who tracks the Ebola-like Motaba virus from Zaire to a small California town that is soon quarantined. Twenty-five years after entering theaters on March 10, 1995, there's renewed interest in the film given the global COVID-19 crisis, with viewers on digital services like Amazon and Apple revisiting fictionalized Hollywood accounts of pandemics portrayed in films like Outbreak and Contagion (2011).

In a recent sit-down with Yahoo Entertainment, Outbreak screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool took us back to the origins of the project (watch above). It all began with a Warner Bros. executive enlisting the writers to adapt a 1992 New Yorker story by Richard Preston called "Crisis in the Hot Zone," which Preston later expanded into the best-selling book The Hot Zone.

"We came back and met with him and said, 'That article will not make a motion picture,'" said Pool. "The whole ending of the [article] was hundreds of monkeys dying ... having to be put to sleep, and the disease never affected human beings," added Dworet.

Instead, the pair played off the fears of Dworet, a former emergency-room doctor: "I said what really scares me is somebody's gonna come in with a particular disease, and I'm not gonna recognize it. And they're gonna spread it to me and all of the medical staff there. And we're gonna go home and spread it to our families. So that led to, 'Let's have a virus that spreads and is out of control.'"

"We told Warner Bros., 'It's got to be a much bigger movie. People have got to get sick and die, and there's gotta be a huge threat to the world. Otherwise it's not a major studio feature," Pool said.

"Who's going to care?," Dworet added. "Who's going to sit around watching monkeys getting euthanized?"

As is not uncommon on major studio films, Dworet and Pool scored some assists in the writing of the film — though in this case they came from some pretty high-profile names.

The pair confirmed internet lore that the late Maya Angelou contributed to the film. "We did a couple drafts, and then the movie was greenlit and was going forward," said Dworet. "During the process, they brought in a bunch of other writers. And then when they got to the ending, where Dustin Hoffman is confronting the plane that's gonna drop the bomb, that's when they weren't sure about what they were going to have for dialogue. So that's when, supposedly, and I didn't meet Maya Angelou, but we were told that Maya Angelou was writing all sorts of dialogue for that confrontational scene."

Dustin Hoffman in 'Outbreak' (Warner Bros.)

And then there was Hoffman, who had a habit of rewriting his own dialogue on days he was filming. "He would sit there and he would dictate to the script supervisor, who would write it on a [dry erase] board. And then she would hold up what he had written so he could see it, so he could remember what he wrote. And then he would read that in the take. And then as soon as the take was over, he'd say 'Oh no, no, no, no. … I'm so sorry.' And people would be like, 'What is going on with this guy?'"

Hoffman, the 82-year-old Oscar winner (Kramer v. Kramer, Rain Main), wasn't the studio's first choice to lead the film as Col. Sam Daniels, MD, though. According to Dworet and Pool, the studio originally wanted Harrison Ford or Michael Douglas instead.

"The scuttlebutt we heard was they had each made a movie with the Arnold Kopelson, the producer," Pool said, referencing 1993's The Fugitive starring Ford and Falling Down starring Douglas. "He and Michael Douglas had locked horns a little bit, which always happens in production. People get into creative disagreements and then they say, 'I don't want to work with him.'"

Said Dworet: "Hoffman was an interesting choice. It was an unusual choice because it was kind of an action movie, and here was kind of having to do something that you don't normally associate Dustin Hoffman with."

Watch Robert Roy Pool and Laurence Dworet weigh in on the coronavirus:

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