Julia Roberts Wasn't the Original Actor Cast as Shelby in Steel Magnolias

Hear the true stories behind Steel Magnolias from creator Robert Harling.

The iconic film, Steep Magnolias will always be one of our favorites.

As a treasured part of cinematic history, specifically Southern cinematic history, we can quote most of the movie by heart. "My colors are blush and bashful, Mama." We know just when to grab the extra box of tissues and all about that armadillo cake. This beloved classic's true story still has more to share.

As the film's creator describes, Robert Harling grew up moving "from southern town to southern town, to southern town, eventually ending up in Louisiana." This nomadic childhood made it hard to make friends from place to place. His best friend was his sister, Susan–or as we've come to know her, Shelby. "She was the only person that had been with me for forever," he said in a recent phone call with Southern Living. "When we lost her, when she died in 1985, I was really in a very bad state with her loss." His brother-in-law remarrying just five months after Susan's death exasperated his grief. Harling was distraught that his two-year-old nephew would never know his mother. "When I heard Robert {nephew} call another woman, Mama, it just drove me nuts." He was quick to add that, as it turned out, she was a lovely woman and a great mother, but this was too much at the time.

Encouraged by friends, the actor put pen to paper, so to speak, to put his sister's story in print for his nephew and, thankfully, for all of us too. What started as a work of prose quickly took a turn to more familiar territory for the thespian. "I was an actor, so I thought, well, I know what a script looks like, and I know what dialogue looks like. I'm just gonna try to write this as a play. So, I did." As painful as his sister's death from complications from her diabetes was, Harling knew it was a story he must share. "My friend, Shirley MacLaine, who is in the movie, said, you just channeled it. Susan (my sister) channeled it through me…I don't even remember any kind of agony or pleasure or anything. It was just I had to get this story out. I just remember feeling like I was in some sort of race, and I got it on paper," he recalled.

How much of the story we know and love actually happened in the Harling household? Apparently, most of it. "My father shot at birds in the trees. There was an armadillo wedding cake, all of that's true. My mother donated a kidney to my sister. It failed. All of it."

Sally Field and Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias
J2 Communications/Fathom Events

Steel Magnolias' Real-Life Characters

But, since so much of it was factual to life, this caused Harling to worry as the people of his tiny town flocked to New York to see his play. After all, he aimed to capture the essence of the women of Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Still, he worried that imitation could be considered unflattering for one resident. To this day, Harling has never revealed upon whom the character Ouiser is based. "I was terrified she would be upset with me." He was living in New York at the time, but his mother still lived back down south, and he didn't want to cause any unwanted tension for her. But to his surprise, Ouiser wasn't a character whom theatergoers despised. They loved her. "I realized every woman in town was going around saying, 'you know he based Ouiser on me.' Everybody thought they were Ouiser. Except the woman who was Ouiser. She never got it. She never got it. She came to see the play, and she said, 'I know Clairee is Ruth Caldwell, and I know your mom's your mom, and your sister is your sister, and I know Liz Landrum is Truuvy but who's Ouiser?' And she's flicking ashes just all down her fur coat from her cigarette. So, I thought, mission accomplished. I got away with that one. But it's kinda crazy that the character I thought everyone would hate, everyone wanted to be."

From the Stage to the Silver Screen

The play was a success with more than just the ladies of Natchitoches. It transformed from a theater play to the classic film we all know and love. The film expanded the play's storyline.

For example, the play takes place entirely in the beauty shop, and in the movie, you get to go to the Christmas festival and the Easter egg hunt. But nothing was drastically changed from the way Harling told the story. "They said, well, this is a true story, and we're not going to mess with truth," Harling said of the film's producers. He never wavered in his decision to relinquish this personal story to the filmmakers. "I just think as a writer, you create something, and then you hand it over to someone else to give it back to you in a way that you never dreamed it could be possible."

Finding the Perfect Cast

We may be biased, but we think what the producers and directors did was just enhance an already exquisite masterpiece. To this day, this film feels as magical and greets you like an old friend every time you watch it. The actors cast to portray these powerhouse Southern women could not have been better. But this cast almost wasn't the final result.

"Meg Ryan was originally cast as Shelby. The day after we cast her, she came to us in tears and said, 'I'm sorry, but I just got offered this film, and I'll be a leading lady with Billy Crystal…' so you know we said, of course, go make When Harry Met Sally."

Sally Field and her husband at the time suggested who should play Shelby. "Sally said, 'you know there's this girl and she's been off making some movie about a pizza. She's Eric Roberts's sister." Of course, that movie was Mystic Pizza, and that girl was Julia Roberts.

"We brought her in, and she was Julia Roberts, so she was magic. She just walked into the room and lit it up, and I thought, that's my sister," Harling said

The Legacy of Steel Magnolias

Harling admits that the film and the play are still hard for him to watch, as it is so personal to him. But he recently had a chance at the TCM Film Festival to watch it on the big screen for the first time since it premiered, and he loved it. "To see it on the big screen was so awesome. You really sense it and feel it and feel the south. What the Southern woman is and the essence of that still is so vibrant through these characters. It really is, and it was kind of thrilling to realize that."

While it is challenging to re-live for Harling, he also sees this work as his purpose. "I just wanted this kid to remember my sister. I didn't want her memory to go away. And so I think I got that accomplished."

After reflecting on the staying power of his play and film, Harling recognizes that the message is timeless. "Women have been supporting each other and being cool, and great, and strong, and fabulous for thousands of years. The message is not new. I think it's reassuring," he said and added, "It stood the test of time because friendship doesn't grow old. Support doesn't grow old. Love does not grow old."

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