When is the year’s biggest big-screen comedy also its most successful horror movie? When that movie is Three Men and a Babythe unlikely ’80s blockbuster directed by Leonard Nimoy and starring an avengers-style team-up of three of the decade’s most eligible leading men: Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg. Premiering in theaters on Nov. 25, 1987, the PG-rated family picture grossed nearly $170 million at the domestic box office, making it that year’s top earner over such era-defining adult hits as Fatal Attraction and Good Morning, Vietnam.
In the 35 years since its release, though, Three Men and a Baby has enjoyed an even more successful afterlife as the subject of a spooky urban legend that refuses to die. Starting in the early ’90s, rumors circulated that Nimoy and his crew inadvertently captured an actual haunting on camera. The evidence? Viewers noted that a ghostly figure appears in the background of one scene, peering out from behind the curtains at Danson and his co-star Celeste Holm. This ghost eventually acquired a spooky backstory — one that involves a 9-year-boy who supposedly killed himself in the house where the movie was filmed, and his spirit lingered behind to haunt the place.
That macabre off-camera narrative definitely doesn’t match Three Men and a Baby‘s gentle on camera tone. An English-language remake of the 1985 French comedy Three Men and a Cradle, the movie casts its leading men as a trio of unrepentant bachelors — studly architect Peter (Selleck), heartthrob actor Jack (Danson) and charming comedian Michael (Guttenberg) — who are happily leading the swinging single life in the same Manhattan apartment. Imagine Joey and Chandler without the caffeine addiction and penchant for animal roommates.
But these friends’s good times come to a screeching halt when they find a baby girl named Mary on their doorstep. It turns out that she’s the result of Jack’s hook-up with another performer, Sylvia (Nancy Travis), who expects him to take some accountability. After surviving a crash course in infant care — and a very ’80s subplot involving dangerous drug dealers — they morph from single guys into single dads. Single dads who are also able to perfectly harmonize on standards like “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.”
Three years after Baby hit a box-office home run, Selleck, Danson and Guttenberg re-teamed for 1990’s Three Men and a Little Lady, which proved to be more of a solid double financially. (Nimoy didn’t return behind the camera for the second chapter, replaced by Dirty Dancing helmer Emile Ardolino.) But the sequel did goose the video rental numbers for its predecessor, and the ability to rewind and freeze-frame VHS tapes is what brought the ghost child to wider attention. Playing back the scene with Danson and Holm — who has a small role as Jack’s mother in the film — viewers at home were able to take their time to spot the figure whose presence just barely registered in the theater.
News spread slowly in the pre-internet era, but this particular urban legend proved sticky enough to find its way into local newspapers and, eventually, the Dec. 24, 1990 issue of people magazine. That article outlined the ever-evolving details about the child’s supposed life and death, reporting rumors that he spent his short lifetime in the house that doubled as the central bachelor pad.
That room was also where the nine-year-old apparently killed himself — with the very gun that some eagle-eyed viewers reported seeing next to him in the curtains. There were even those who claimed they remembered seeing the boy’s mother making the talk-show rounds after spotting her dead son in the movie.
The dawn of the YouTube age roughly a decade later resurrected the Three Men and a Baby equipment all over again. The platform hosts dozens of ghost-spotting videos, and annotated screen grabs are all over paranormal websites as well. Nimoy’s film is a mainstay in the library of Hollywood titles that are believed to have some kind of haunting in them — a list that includes The Wizard of Ozs hanging Munchkin and Ben-Hur’s dead stunt man.
the Star Trek icon passed away in 2015, and never publicly addressed the ghost story during his lifetime. Reached for comment, his daughter, Julie Nimoy, indicated that he didn’t discuss it with his family either. “My only memory is that my dad loved working on the film and that is was such a wonderful experience,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment via email. “Not only because it was extremely successful at the box office, but working with Ted, Tom and Steve was such a pleasure. It was definitely his favorite film and the one he was most proud of.”
Out of the main cast, it was Selleck who finally went on the record during a 2017 appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show during which they acknowledged the movie’s 30th anniversary. the Blue Bloods star first blew the host’s mind by revealing that the pee stains on the shirt he wears in the movie’s poster were authentic infant urine. “Annie Leibovitz took the picture… and the baby pees all over me. She said, ‘Don’t change, don’t change!’ She just keeps taking pictures. So it’s actually for once in my life a genuine expression.”
That gave Fallon the opening to address the ghost in the room, asking his guest directly to comment on the urban legend. “This was a big deal for video sales,” Selleck remembered. “Maybe Disney made it up! The story was this kid died in the house where we shot the movie — this little boy. I saw it and it looks a little spooky.”
But the actor also debunked one of the main tenets of the ghost story: namely that they filmed the movie in an actual house. “We shot on a soundstage. They built the set and all.” (While set in New York, the bulk of Three Men and a Baby was filmed in Toronto.)
As for the identity of that ghostly figure… well, that was solved back in 1990. people magazine spoke with Touchstone Home Video spokesperson Steve Feldstein, who explained that the the “ghost” was actually a cardboard cutout of Danson in a top hat and tails that represents another memento from Jack’s acting career. “He played a vain actor who had posters of himself all over the room,” Selleck recalled on The Tonight Show. “I thought it was always a full-sized poster that had been knocked over. That was my theory.”
Feldstein’s explanation was backed up by the movie’s co-producer Robert Cort. “I think someone just left it there,” Cort said of how the cutout found its way onscreen in Danson and Holm’s scene. You can spot the cutout towards the end of the movie when Sylvia shows up to reclaim Mary. Instead of hiding behind the curtains, Danson’s cardboard self is in full view.
At the same time, that later scene ends up confirming the urban legend for the paranormally inclined. As ghost boy advocates have argued over the years, the Danson cutout looks significantly different from the more boyish figure who appears over Holm’s shoulder. Feldstein tried to head that theory off at the pass back in 1990, count people: “An odd camera angle makes it look like a kid in suspenders.”
Not for nothing, but in his Tonight Show appearance, Selleck appeared to join Team Ghost Boy when he saw the two images side-by-side. “I believe that’s a ghost!” he told Fallon after studying the pictures. “I think it is ghost boy. And, actually, I’m going to call Ted and Steve, because I think we participated in the video sales. It’s a ghost!”
Selleck also revealed that, at one point, Disney was mulling a Father of the Bride-esque third installment in the franchise that would have reunited Jack, Peter and Michael to give away Mary on her wedding day. The title? Three Men and a Bride, of course. “I thought it was a great idea, but nobody’s called and nobody’s written,” Selleck said five years ago.
Then again, with both Three Men movies now streaming on Disney+ it’s possible that the Mouse House could revive the series as a streaming event in the same way they’ve resurrected Hocus Pocus and Sister Act. But the wedding pitch would obviously have to be tweaked to incorporate the franchise’s spectral superstar. “I think it would be expected to have some supernatural element,” Selleck admitted.
Hear us out, Disney. How about… Three Men and a Corpse Bride?
Three Men and a Baby is currently streaming on Disney+.