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Looking Back: Three Men and a Baby (1987)

I only had one moment in my life where I got to meet Leonard Nimoy. It was at the Denver Starfest, an annual sci-fi, fantasy and horror film/arts convention and the former Spock was there as pop culture royalty. There was something so regal, mysterious and composed about Nimoy, he always seemed to be tuned into his most famous character, the emotion-free but profoundly intelligent, compassionate Vulcan. After waiting in line to have him sign a friend’s DVD cover, I mustered out the one sentence I had been wanting to say to him: “Mr. Nimoy, thank you so much for ‘Three Men and a Baby.'” He glanced up from the table, gave me a look both bemused and kind of stunned. He smiled and warmly said, “You’re welcome.” That was it, the only exchange of any kind I ever had with Nimoy, a film and television icon I grew up with. I said what I said because I wanted to express my gratitude for a film he directed, which was a favorite I revisited often in my childhood. While most cinephiles will be quick to note that Nimoy directed the third and fourth installments of the “Star Trek” film series, many may not recall that he directed, no joke, the biggest box office hit of 1987.

Nimoy’s film begins with visual and audio cues that tell us, this movie was made in 1987: a montage with sped up action sets in place the simple, sitcom-ready-premise. This is the story of Peter, a wealthy architect (played by Tom Selleck) who shares his massive, eclectic and downright awesome New York apartment with his friends, Jack, an actor (played by Ted Danson) and Michael, a comic book artist (played by Steve Guttenberg). The opening credits, with their silly, fast-forwarded antics, cue us in that these three are close chums, live together, party hard and lots and lots of sex. This being a PG-rated live action Disney movie (released by the Touchstone Pictures unit of the Mouse House), everything is implied, nothing questionable is shown.

Despite the excessive use of Miami Sound Machine in the first ten minutes and lots of bachelor pad machismo (“so many women, so little time”), Nimoy doesn’t make the mistake that “Crocodile Dundee” did the year before and insert cocaine use into what is otherwise a family-friendly farce. In fact, Nimoy allows an even greater mistake (also involving on-screen narcotics)  to muddy up his movie from the start.

The premise quickly kicks into gear, as Jack heads off to Turkey to make a movie and departs by informing his roommates that a “package” will arrive for him (an earlier moment during the party sequence suggests that the package in question is something questionable). Peter finds an abandoned baby left in front of his door step, thinking that this must have been what Jack was referring to as the expected “package.” He and Michael are horrified and pitifully ill-prepared to babysit the infant, who apparently has been left by his mother, one of Jack’s former co-stars. The two ladies’ men and frequent partiers pair up and struggle to take care of the baby, whose diaper and eating habits threaten to tarnish their slick pad. This alone was all the movie needed and these scenes are still hilarious.

The problem is the B-plot, in which two heroin dealers arrive to pick up the actual package, are burned by a misunderstanding and threaten Peter and Michael to deliver the drugs left for Jack. This part of the movie is terrible, with the two bad guys acting like villains out of a “Police Academy” sequel.

My memories of this movie go straight to Selleck offering Guttenberg “a thousand dollars” to change the baby’s diaper or the bit where Danson belatedly shows up and bonds with his little girl. All these scenes are great, well played by the three leads who manage to make their womanizing, vaguely pathetic characters downright charming. If only Nimoy had used a little more imagination and edited the drug subplot out of the movie (a relatively easy task, considering how neatly the movie recovers once the B-plot wraps up), this would be a much better movie.

“Three Men and a Baby” is based on the 1985 French film, “Trois hommes et un couffin,” which translates into “Three Men and a Cradle.” Nimoy’s film was such a gigantic, surprise blockbuster, it inspired a few other live action Disney farces that were based on French films. Some weren’t all bad (like the Martin Short/Nick Nolte “Three Fugitives”), though a few were (like the Gerard Depardeau vehicle, “My Father The Hero”). It’s easy to see why Nimoy’s film went over so big, as the key scenes are so funny, they almost make you forgive and forget the dumb moments where Danson dresses in drag for no good reason and plots to trap the drug dealers, only to be halted by a diaper change (!).

The real-life “ghost” urban legend continues to lend one of the film’s best scenes an added charge. When Jack’s mother (beautifully played by Celeste Holm) visits him and her granddaughter for the first time, a figure is visible behind a curtain in one scene.  Although it’s been revealed to be a cardboard cut-out of Danson, distractingly misplaced in the background, many believed it be the ghost of a boy who died in the apartment set (a quickly rebuked claim, since much of the film was shot on a soundstage). Whether you believe in the “ghost” vision or choose to live in reality, the undeniably eerie sight of a boyish looking figure, looming over Danson and Holm as they tend to the baby, is fitting. The movie is about a cluster of Peter Banning’s, men who have been “grownups” for so long, they forgot that they were once “lost boys” like the baby left at their doorstep. The three “bad boys” force themselves to be men and not rely on the women in their lives to raise the baby. Since Jack’s existence seems to be making up for some broken childhood, the infamous “ghost” figure in that one scene is in line with his character’s state of mind. Otherwise, little here requires much though, as it all goes down easy and tidies up neatly into a contrived final scene. Nevertheless, if you can overlook (or, even better, fast forward) through the inept drug dealer subplot, “Three Men and a Baby” maintains its charms.

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