These Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead Secrets Are Done, Man

In honor of the Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead remake with Nicole Richie, we've compiled an exquisite QED report full of secrets about the 1991 cult classic starring Christina Applegate.

By Natalie Finn Apr 12, 2024 11:00 AMTags
Watch: ‘Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead’ Gets a Reboot: Watch the Teaser!

Think you'll be able to go to the beach, stay out as late as you want, and do anything this summer?

Well, maybe you will! But that turned out not to be the case for high school graduate Sue Ellen "Swell" Crandell, played by Christina Applegate, in the 1991 comedy Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead. At first she's shocked to find out her vacation-bound mom has hired a seemingly kind old lady to watch the teen and her four siblings for two months... 

And then she has to find a job and keep the thermostat at 76 after the title of the film comes to pass and the kids accidentally dispose of the cash their mom left for food 'n' stuff with the body. There goes the summer!

But the action heats up when Swell, tired of cleaning the fat vats at Clown Dog (but up for watching the grunion run with sweet delivery guy Bryan, played by Josh Charles), savvily scams her way into a grown-up job as an executive assistant at General Apparel West and fakes it till she makes it.

A Look at Christina Applegate's Unforgettable Roles

Let's just say, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead wasn't what you'd call a critical favorite—but it lives on as a cult-classic, celebrated for its absurd premise, memorable one-liners and power-shoulder turn-of-the-1990s neon fashion.

And now, it's been reincarnated, starring Simone Joy Jones as the teen left in charge of her siblings after their caretaker unexpectedly expires and Nicole Richie as the fashion boss who takes her under her wing.

Iconic Events Releasing / BET+ Original Film

Calling the new release, in theaters April 12 and streaming on BET+ May 16, a "reimagination," Richie told E! News' Will Marfuggi at the film's premiere, "It's different, but it's also the same, in the sense that it's a family adventure comedy."

As for taking on the iconic role of GAW boss Rose Lindsey, played in 1991 by Joanna Cassidy, Richie was right on top of that, Rose!

"I am a die-hard fan of the original," the 42-year-old said. "I can recite the whole movie with my eyes closed."

The moral of the story is, don't ever let some deranged Mary Poppins tell you that TV rots your brain. While we still can't tell you what a QED report is, read on for a host of exquisite secrets about 1991's Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead:

Five Siblings…Picked to Live in a House…

The working title for the film was originally The Real World—which probably wouldn't have brought anything particular to mind for most people, since MTV's enduring series of the same name didn't premiere until 1992.

Stars Who Were Almost in Charge…With Children

Justine Bateman of Family Ties fame was first to be attached to the role of Sue Ellen "Swell" Crandell, but she ended up leaving the project and it lay dormant for awhile at 20th Century Fox.

A few years later, Outlaw Productions was determined to get it made, and someone at the company was friends with Married...With Children star Ed O'Neill, who got the script to his TV daughter Christina Applegate.

Getting Out of the Bundy Box

Applegate said upon the film's release in 1991 that she was eager to prove she could do more as an actress than play ditzy Kelly Bundy.

So "it is basically for me," she said in an interview, "that frustration after nine months of wearing skirts and half-tops and, you know, being brain-dead for that long period of time. It is nice to do something else."

Don't Tell Mom, the Babysitter Was Supposed to Be Perfectly Nice

Elderly babysitter Mrs. Sturak wasn't a nightmare when screenwriters Neil Landau and Tara Ison completed their first draft in 1987.

"But everybody, except for us, felt that, for the teen audience, the babysitter had to be really mean because if she was a nice lady, it would be sad," Landau told BuzzFeed in 2015. "So the mean babysitter who blows a whistle and barks commands, which is sort of funny, that was something we were forced to do and didn't like."

Of Course She Has Experience, She's 200 Years Old

Eda Reiss Merin was only 77 when she portrayed not-long-for-this-world Mrs. Sturak—and while she had a prolific later-in-life acting career playing elderly types, she made her movie debut in 1948's An Act of Murder.

After Don't Tell Mom, Merin stayed busy, appearing on The Fresh Prince of Bel-AirMurder, She WroteER and more before she died in 1998. 

Hot Chili-Covered American Summer

Lard was Clown Dog delivery driver Bryan's life—at least while he saved up for college—but Josh Charles' exciting summer job in 1990 was… going to Los Angeles to make Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead!

"I got to spend the summer in L.A., and I'd never done that before," the Baltimore native, who only went as far as Delaware to be enshrined as the lovelorn Knox in Dead Poets Society, told A.V. Club in 2020. He admittedly didn't have "strong memories" of the experience, but "it was a fun time driving to Santa Clarita every day from L.A. and shooting the movie and having a fun time with Christina and laughing."

There Is a Great Big Sign That Says Per-so-nel

Jayne Brook, who played Bryan's sister and Sue Ellen's jealous colleague Carolyn, later ended up in the role of Charles' therapist on the Aaron Sorkin-created ABC sitcom Sports Night.

And never mind that she talked like she was chewing her face. Charles described Brook as "so talented and so sweet."

So Overqualified for Entry Level It's Ridiculous

Art reflected life for Joanna Cassidy, who played Rose Lindsey, Swell's very trusting boss and mentor at General Apparel West. While Applegate was on a hit TV show when they made the film, Don't Tell Mom was her first starring role in a big film and Blade Runner actress Cassidy had been around the block a few times and took the younger actress under her wing.

"When we did the M&M scene, she didn't know what to do, she didn't know what to make of it, she didn't know what to make of me," Cassidy told BuzzFeed, recalling the scene in which Rose anxiously starts scarfing candy out of a huge jar and Swell has to talk her down. "I started throwing M&Ms at her to have her lighten up a little bit. It was just hilarious; she did not know what to do. But she was brilliant, brilliant in it."

Right on Top of the Zeitgeist

Landau could not have foreseen what would be the film's most quoted line.

"I worked in a lot of offices and was around a lot of corporate culture and if anybody ever asked you something, no matter what, you always said, 'I'm right on top of that,'" he explained. "It was something my boss had said when clients are in the office."

Added the film's casting director Sharon Bialy, "When we start assistants off and they're in their twenties, they'll actually go, 'I'm right on top of that, Rose!' And it's like, 'How do you know that?!? You were 12 when that came out!'"

More Adventures in Babysitting

Keith Coogan first auditioned for the role of love interest Bryan, several years after he played high school freshman Brad, who was eager to be looked after by Elizabeth Shue's pretty caretaker in 1987's Adventures in Babysitting

But he really leaned into the part of Swell's brother Kenny, shaggy slacker turned clean-cut aspiring young chef by summer's end.

"The timing was weird because a friend of mine and I had been messing around with a video camera, filming this little cooking sketch we had about two stoners who could barely get through grilled cheese sandwiches," he told BuzzFeed. "It was like I had been working on the character before I even knew it existed."

The Little Rascals

On first pass, Swell's little siblings are money-swiping, entitled creeps—but maybe they were just feeling a little neglected! Eventually Kenny, Zach (Christopher Pettiet), Melissa (Danielle Harris) and Walter (Robert Hy Gorman) realize the importance of sticking together and try to make Swell's life a little easier.

And off-camera, "we all became like siblings," Harris told BuzzFeed. "We played together and hung out together. Christina, I just wanted to be her... I looked up to her and loved her clothes. We connected as the only girls on set with a bunch of boys."

Everyone was great, Harris recalled, and she became really good friends with Gorman. But she had "the biggest crush" on Pettiet, who in turn was "in love with Christina, so it was really hard."

A Different Party of Five

Harris got a chance to audition for Melissa after the production's original pick, Jennifer Love Hewitt, wasn't able to get out of her Kids Incorporated obligations.

Mourning a Movie Brother and Real-Life Friend

After Don't Tell Mom, his first movie, Pettiet had some smaller film roles (including "15-Year-Old Kid At Surfboard Shop" in Point Break) and appeared on TV throughout the 1990s. His final part was an episode of Judging Amy in 1999 before he died of an accidental drug overdose on April 12, 2000—nine years to the day of Don't Tell Mom's theatrical release. He was 24.

"I was really close with Christopher, which is really sad for me every time I think about that," Applegate told BuzzFeed. "He was a really special, special young man. Dark and twisty inside, which I gravitate towards. I loved him. I really did. It's the saddest thing that could ever happen."

And Harris' childhood crush had blossomed into something more: She and Pettiet had been on a few dates together before his death.

"I randomly ran into him and we reconnected," she said, "and I was like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe this is happening.'"

The X Factor

Casting director Bialy really fought for a pre-X-Files David Duchovny to get the minor role of GAW inventory clerk Bruce, Carolyn's slickly coiffed partner in sussing out who Sue Ellen really is.

"He'd done nothing!" Bialy told BuzzFeed, recalling the very short CV he had at the time. "I remember somebody said to me he didn't feel like a smart guy and I remember saying, 'He went to Harvard!'" (That's Princeton, followed by Yale for his master's in English. But, they all have ivy.)

Not at All Bogus

The screenwriters were admittedly concerned that director Stephen Herek, who had previously made Critters and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, wouldn't do their film justice. "We liked him personally," Landau told BuzzFeed, "but were worried the movie would get dumbed down or too silly."

The production turned out just fine—and Applegate really appreciated Herek's approach.

"He's a very sensitive person," she told E! News in 1991, "so everything that he does comes from his gut. We've talked about this before, he and I, about how we don't like to make lots of notes on stuff. We like it to come from a gut feeling. Sometimes he'll just come up to me and say, 'Do it again. Same thing, but different.' And I'll know exactly what he's talking about."

Highbrow in Hindsight

While Applegate had fond memories of the vibe on the production, looking back at Swell's style, she was not feeling those full eyebrows.

"No one said back then, like, 'Maybe we should pluck that stuff on your face?'" Applegate observed on Access Hollywood in 2017. "At one point I'm doing makeup and they have this really tight shot, and it's like, Sasquatch. Literally, hair down to my eyelashes."

What's in a Name, Really?

When Warner Bros. settled on the movie's eventual title, screenwriter Landau said, "We hated it! We were so embarrassed."

It felt like their "worst fear" was coming true, he added, "that it would become this stupid movie."

And apparently even at 20 years old Coogan thought the title was lame, lamenting to BuzzFeed 24 years later, "Like, really? It is so long and has so many apostrophes and possessive things—I thought it was doomed because of the title."

Dead on Arrival?

Well, DTMTBD was kinda doomed, at least as far as reviews (it's 35 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), but it made a modest $25 million at the box office on a $10 million budget. More importantly, though, it has enjoyed quite the afterlife, becoming a hit thanks to video store rentals and endless replays on cable.

"The cult following of Don't Tell Mom is so surprising, because the movie didn't do well when it came out," Applegate told Variety in 2022. "I was so like, 'I only want to do indies' [to be taken more seriously]...And here was this studio film, and I was like, 'I'm selling out, man!' God, I hate that person; I'd do anything to do a studio movie these days. Now, that 'I'm right on top of that, Rose!' is still something that people quote all these years later—30 years later—freaks me out. But it hit a chord."

The ever-upbeat Cassidy, meanwhile, couldn't believe DTMTBD wasn't more well-received when it first came out.

"It was adorable," she told BuzzFeed. "This movie should have been huge."

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