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FBI agent Roy Parmenter (Sidney Poitier, l.) befriends Jeff Grant (River Phoenix, r.) in an attempt to solve a case uncovering Soviet "sleeper" spies planted in the United States in Columbia Pictures' "LITTLE NIKITA." The taut drama of espionage and family honor was produced by Harry Gittes and directed by Richard Benjamin from a screenplay by John Hill and Bo Goldman, based on a story by Tom Musca & Terry Schwartz.
Producer Harry Gittes has guided the film through its continuous evolution over a four-year period. According to Gittes, it was former Columbia chief David Puttnam who first suggested the casting of Poitier. "The signing of Sidney was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to us. Suddenly, we had the experienced pro and the young new firebrand together in a movie, and it added an extra dimension that is remarkable on screen."
"I had read probably 200 scripts or more over the last 10 years, and I found nothing that I was interested in," Poitier explains. "When I got this script of 'Little Nikita,' I said, 'Okay, I'll read it.' At about page 15, I was interested. That was unusual for me. I was apprehensive that at page 40 I would lose interest. But instead it was still there. Well, I got to page 80 and I was just flying. I really got revved up. I told them I liked it and that's the way it went."
Poitier says he brought a sense of mystery to his interpretation of the character he played in "Little Nikita," a loner FBI agent who faces life with a bitter memory and suspicious nature. "We don't know things about him. We wonder about him. That's how I play him, as a man who protects himself in ways that would keep private those parts of him that we wonder about.
"My character is forced to re-examine himself. What he does in this movie is face certain realities, and he has to make decisions that are contrary to what would ordinarily be expected of him under normal circumstances.
"The conflict he becomes involved with is a microcosm of the conflict between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies. Not only is the life of a boy and his family involved, as in the movie, but it's the lives of the whole human species. It is a relationship picture about love and commitment. It is a picture about family. The least of it is the spy stuff."
Gittes admits that "Little Nikita" started out with a different emphasis. "At first it was a very humorous concept, and it became a more serious piece as we examined it. One of the things I've always been intrigued with is the idea that we know about the Russians' spying and they know about our spying. I mean, it's sort of a tough thing to try and rationalize spying, but I've always been intrigued with it just as a way of life and as something that we have to do in a society today just to co-exist with each other."
Gittes continues: "In developing the script, we decided that it would be interesting to see the River Phoenix character have to grow up overnight and suddenly be faced with fending for himself in an adult's world."
San Diego became a Main Street backdrop almost by accident, according to Gittes. "My cousin sent me a magazine with a story in it about himself and also a story about San Diego, a place that may have more counter-intelligence units than any other place in the United States. It's near an international border, has military installations, Marines and battleships. There is intrigue there, but it is hidden beneath the surface of this idyllic suburban setting."
The film's fictitious community of Fountain Grove had two stand-ins -- the Los Angeles town of Monrovia, where the Grant's Nursery and Roy's small house were located, and La Mesa, outside San Diego, where thousands of local residents became spectators for an Armed Forces Day Parade.
Along the route were marching bands from "Fountain Grove High School" (award-winning Mount Carmel High School), a Marine Corps color guard, floats, beauty queens, clowns, an impressive veterans group and reviewing stand. Among the crowd were many young people who turned out especially to see Phoenix, a participant in the parade.