Native Detroiter who wrote 'Ghost' reminisces about film as it turns 30

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit native Bruce Joel Rubin remembered the day his agent called to say he would no longer represent him because nobody wanted to make movies about ghosts. 

Rubin was devastated. 

This was the same day in 1984 he and Blanche, his wife of 51 years, sold their Illinois home to move to Hollywood with their two sons. 

“I thought everything was over, but (Blanche) said it was the best thing that ever happened to us. How she knew that I don’t know, but it did turn out to be the best thing,” said Rubin, 77, who graduated from Mumford High School in 1960 and attended Wayne State University. He now lives in Hudson Valley, New York.

 Within a week of moving, they found a house, Rubin had a new agent and work as a writer, but it took another five years to get his supernatural romantic thriller “Ghost” made. 

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in the famous pottery scene in "Ghost."

As the movie marks its 30th anniversary on Monday (COVID-19 has postponed a special showing of “Ghost” in movie theaters but it is streaming on various sites), Rubin reminisced about how he pitched it numerous times and fought to get the late Patrick Swayze cast in the lead role — something director Jerry Zucker opposed. 

“I’d seen Patrick on a Barbara Walters interview, where he was talking about his dad and started crying,” recalled Rubin. “That really moved me. He was so authentic and real. I felt he needed to read for our film.” 

Behind Zucker’s back, Rubin called Swayze’s agent, asking Swayze to read — something Zucker learned years later. 

Detroit native Bruce Joel Rubin and his wife of 51 years, Blanche. Rubin won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the movie “Ghost,” which celebrates 30 years this year.

“(Swayze) nailed it,” said Rubin. “When he read the last line — ‘The love inside, you take it with you’ — everyone in the room started crying (even Zucker) and he got the part.” 

Many of Hollywood’s leading men were considered for “Ghost,” including Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. 

“(Ford) didn’t get the movie. He couldn’t understand why he’d want to play a dead man,” said Rubin. “If Patrick didn’t say yes, the movie would’ve fallen apart.” 


Rubin always wanted to tell a ghost story from the ghost’s perspective. 

“One day, I was watching a production of ‘Hamlet,’ which begins with the ghost of Hamlet’s father saying, ‘Revenge my death,’” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, let’s transpose that into the 20th century; it’d be an interesting story.’ And the idea hit me.” 

In “Ghost,” banker Sam Wheat (Swayze) and girlfriend Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) live in Manhattan. Though he loves her deeply, Sam would only say “ditto” in response to Molly’s “I love you.” 

At work, Sam informs co-worker Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn, who’s married to “Ghost” production designer Jane Musky) about unusually high balances in several bank accounts. That night, Willie Lopez (the late Rick Aviles) attacks Sam and Molly. A gun fires and Sam chases Willie off. Turning around, Sam sees Molly holding his dead body, realizing he was killed. Now a ghost, Sam’s invisible to the mortal world. As weeks pass, Sam remains by a distraught Molly, unseen and unheard. 

He learns Carl was laundering money and sent Willie to steal the bank accounts’ passwords from Sam, not kill him. To protect Molly, Sam recruits psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Oscar-winning role). Only Oda Mae can perceive Sam. In the end, Sam thwarts Carl and shares a final kiss with Molly, who now sees him, before ascending to heavenHeaven.

“(‘Ghost’) taps into something very primal with people,” said Rubin. “It’s that urge to have one last moment with someone you love; it satisfies that fantasy… (Sam returned) from the other side just to say ‘I love you’ — something he couldn’t say to Molly when he was alive — and that’s very powerful.” 

Goldwyn agreed. 

“It’s just one of those beloved films and I’m proud to have been a part of it,” Goldwyn said. “I remember feeling at the time that we made it… this movie has everything: It’s a love story, it’s a thriller, it’s a comedy, it’s a ghost story. Above all of it is the theme that love transcends death. I think that’s so emotionally resonant, that people want to keep going back and back to re-experience that.” 

The No. 1 movie of 1990 

When “Ghost” debuted July 13, 1990, nobody had any idea it would become the No. 1 movie of 1990, grossing more than $505 million worldwide at the box office. 

“I was as surprised as anybody else,” said Rubin. “It was pretty amazing.”

During a “Ghost” sneak-peak in Detroit, Rubin said he didn’t dare look around the theater in case there were vacant seats. 

“I just couldn’t bear the thought nobody wanted to see my movie,” he said. “All of the sudden, I started seeing people sitting in the rows ahead of me, and I was really surprised. Then I turned around and the entire theater was completely full... I had no idea where these people came from and how they knew about the movie — it was just a preview! I saw people sitting in the aisles! I’ve never seen that before… When (‘Ghost’) came on, they loved it. They just loved it. I was excited.” 

Zucker called Rubin from Los Angeles, stating previews had sold out nationwide — the first indication “Ghost” would be big. 

“On opening night, the cast and crew went around in a bus to different theaters in L.A. At one theater, there was a line around the block — I couldn’t believe that. Turned out, it was not only the line for the next showing, but for the showing after that!” said Rubin. “We sold out every single theater. And we continued to sell out every single theater throughout the rest of the summer. We opened in July; we were still playing in December.” 

Rubin won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Winning the Oscar — a lifetime dream — was a mythic moment. “It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life,” said Rubin. “I would say it was the most perfect film experience I’ve ever had.”

The legacy of ‘Ghost’ 

Rubin’s astounded “Ghost” has endured so long. 

“(Movies) come and go with the seasons. For ‘Ghost’ to still be part of the culture 30 years later is unexpected and very special,” he said. “I don’t know why people embrace it so deeply. (Parents) tell their children to see it, who tell their children to see it. It talks about something very meaningful to the human psyche. This idea that death isn’t an ending — I think that’s very important for a movie to address or affirm. And then there’s this incredibly romantic idea that you’re able to have one last moment with someone you love. Those are the key elements to why the film keeps playing — it touches the human psyche in a very deep way.” 

“Ghost” has been a wonderful gift, Rubin said. 

“For a kid from Detroit to have any access at all to something on an international scale is very special,” he said. “There’s no direct line, there’s no way to get your material on the big screen. I hoped and prayed since I was a little kid I’d make movies, but there was no way to know how that would ever happen. Yet through all these circuitous routes one takes in life, those doors finally opened for me late in life.” 

Rubin said his Detroit roots prepared him for his future. 

“I was grounded in ways that I never would’ve been had I grown up in California or elsewhere,” said Rubin. “Something about Detroit gives you a sense of the goodness of human life. I feel very good that I came from there, that I learned a lot, and that I was able to transfer what I learned… to the films I made.”