In celebration of Xena: Warrior Princess' 25th anniversary on Sept. 4, a look at 25 of the most interesting bits of trivia from the beloved franchise.
Xena fans, It's time to celebrate.
It's been 25 years since a mighty princess, forged in the heat of battle, arrived on TV with the debut of cult classic Xena: Warrior Princess. When the first-run syndication series arrived on Sept. 4, 1995, it introduced the world to its titular heroine (played by Lucy Lawless) and her quest for redemption for a past littered with sins committed against the innocent. And when devoted sidekick Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) was thrown into the mix, one of the most beloved—if never officially consummated—LGBTQ partnerships on TV was born.
The series, a spinoff of creator Rob Tapert's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, quickly surpassed its predecessor in popularity and was, for a time, the highest-rated drama in syndication. And thanks to a rabid fanbase that made hay out of the show and its quasi-Sapphic central characters in those early, Wild West days of the world wide web, Lawless and O'Connor were quickly made icons.
As Lawless recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 2016, "When we got the faxes of the Village Voice articles sent over to us—remember there was no Twitter or anything in those days—Renee and I looked at each other and went, 'Lesbians? Really? Okay.' It was fine with us.
"The name Xena means 'stranger,'" she continued. "She felt she was irredeemable. That friendship between Xena and Gabrielle transmitted some message of self-worth, deservedness, and honor to people who felt very marginalized, so it had a lot of resonance in the gay community. I get a lot of people coming out to me, thanking me for what I did. I'm completely undeserving of that; we were just jobbing actors having a great time here at the bottom of the world."
The good times lasted for six seasons and over 130 episodes before the show signed off in the summer of 2001. And when it did, it left behind a TV landscape indelibly altered, Tapert reasoned in EW, by the show's groundbreaking female lead. "Xena helped open the door and it wasn't just Xena, because there was the zeitgeist of female leads on TV shows," he said, "and I know it seems odd, but soon after that the captain on Star Trek was a woman, and then Buffy followed, and Alias came at the end of Xena, and then it just was an explosion."
Before you begin your binge of all six seasons in honor of Xena's big anniversary, take a walk down memory lane with us and discover 25 of the most fascinating facts from the show's production—one for each fiercely feminist year the show's been in our lives.
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When introduced on Hercules as a dark and tragic figure to contrast with the eternally optimistic Hercules, Xena was only intended to appear in three episodes and die at the end. At the time, a spinoff for the show was in the works and, impressed with how the character turned out, creator Rob Tapert decided she should not only survive, but star in her own series, reworking the planned spinoff to feature her.
When Lawless made her debut at Xena on Hercules, she did so as the sixth choice for the role. Weird Science actress Vanessa Angel was initially cast, but became too ill to travel to New Zealand for filming, leaving producers in a panic to find a replacement. The part was offered to four other actresses before Lawless—who'd already appeared on Hercules as two different characters—got the part. To differentiate her from the other characters she'd played on the show, her ash-blonde hair was dyed black.
When casting Xena's travel companion and possible life partner Gabrielle, O'Connor was not the producers' first choice, either. Sunny Doench was first offered the role, but she reportedly did not want to leave her boyfriend in the U.S. to film in New Zealand, so she backed out, paving the way for O'Connor. Like Lawless before her, O'Connor had also already appeared on Hercules as another character.
The show went on to become much more popular than its predecessor, and Hercules star Kevin Sorbo was not pleased that Xena had edged in on his turf. In the book Hercules: An Insider's Guide to the Continuing Adventures, the actor complained about Xena becoming Hercules' physical equal. "Hercules is supposed to be the strongest person in the world and a half god," Sorbo said. "And here Xena was able to do everything Hercules can do and more…I've always wondered about that…And I just found it weird. You know, make her a kick-ass chick. I don't have a problem with that, but to give her my strength on top of it was weird." Sorbo went on to allege that each show would've found greater success if they weren't so similar to the other
When taping an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno a year after the show premiered, Lawless suffered a fractured pelvis when she fell off the horse she was riding for the sketch. With the second season already in production, the producers had to quickly devise a way to keep shooting while their lead actress essentially learned to walk again, leading to the body-switch premise that saw Xena's spirit possess recurring characters like Bruce Campbell's Autolycus.
When Xena premiered, fans began anticipating an appearance from the Greek god of the sea thanks to his brief CGI-ed appearance in the show's opening credits. They waited and waited…and waited until the special effects company who worked on the show admitted in 1996 that he was created specifically for the credits and wasn't intended to appear in an episode. The fan furor over the bait-and-switch eventually lead to his appearance in a handful of episodes down the road, beginning with 1997's "Ulysses."
After Liz Friedman, an executive at Tapert's Renaissance Pictures, thought it would be funny to tack a fake disclaimer onto the end credits of an episode of Hercules, assuring the audience that no centaurs had been harmed during filming, the producers of Xena began adding blink-and-you'll-miss-'em teasers to the end of their own episodes.
The show's writers liked to borrow liberally from many cultures and religions when crafting storylines, but a 1999 story arc involving the Krishna being summoned to help Gabrielle left followers of Hinduism upset over their religion's portrayal. After protests got the episode "The Way" pulled by Universal Television, the producers did some light editing so the episode could return to air with a new introduction by Lawless, explaining what the intention of the episode was.
Despite the empowering storytelling going on in front of the camera, only five of Xena's 134 episodes were directed by women—two of them directed by O'Connor herself. In 2000, co-executive producer Eric Gruendemann told The Los Angeles Times the "bad percentage" was because there weren't enough women with experience directing both action and visual effects. "We feel bad about it," he said, "but we're not guilty because we've tried."
While Xena and Gabrielle quickly became beloved in the queer community for their devotion to one another, Tapert admitted that the studio never wanted him and the writers to take things between the pair into a more explicitly romantic territory. "The people I deal with at the studio have an expression which they call the 'Ellen effect,'" he said in a 2000 interview. "You get a curiosity, and then after that, you see people turn off the show in droves. They come in, they see the show, they`re with it for a while, and then they hail on you and they don`t think they ever have to go back to it.
"We had a famous episode a long time ago, 'The Quest,' which was our highest-rated episode, and after that we started to go downhill, and then there was 'A Day in the Life,' which was the girls in the hot tub together playing hide the soap," he continued. "After that, our executives put a great deal of pressure on us to stop, to not go down that road because it could only lead to ruin."
As Tapert told Entertainment Weekly in 2016, he and his writing staff believed they were ahead of their time in quite a different way when it came to romance on Xena. "The truth was, and I know it's such a different era, we thought we were pushing the boundaries by giving Xena a history of having men of color in her past," he said when addressing Xena and Gabrielle's relationship. "But over time, as these two characters took on a life of their own, people breathed their own lives and hopes into them."
When Lawless got pregnant with her second child during the show's fifth season, the producers accommodated their star's major life event by writing it into the show. And that's how Eve, Xena's daughter, came into existence.
Quentin Tarantino was a massive fan of the show. In the 2004 documentary Double Dare, he gushed, "Xena has no apologies. Xena is a really cool show. It's got cool characters. Lucy Lawless is terrific in it. I love that girl who plays Callisto, and the action in it is a lot of fun. The scripts are really good. There's really cool storytelling going on. The backstory of Xena's character is quite magnificent." He was especially drawn to Zoë Bell, the stuntwoman who handled Xena's stunts, casting her first as Uma Thuman's double in Kill Bill before having her play herself in Death Proof.
Xena's weapon of choice—her chakram—is a real weapon that dates back to 2nd Century BCE India. Warriors would carry up to seven of the steel or brass rings on their arm, twirling each around their index finger before sending it their enemy's way with a sharp flick of the wrist.
Composer Joe LoDuca composed the show's theme music as an adaptation of the Bulgarian folk song "Kaval sviri." The chanting, performed by Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, is translated into Bulgarian from LoDuca's own lyrics, which read, "The woman rides alone/(Her) past nearly crushed her/Meeting the armies of the dark world/Battling in the name of good/The sound of horns is coming/Make way for the battle/Drums beat at (the) rhythm/(The) Princess is here."
Though the show filmed in New Zealand and made use of plenty of local talent, the production was intended for American and international consumption, so the producers asked everyone to use a similar accent. The one they settled on? Southern Californian.
Before he was a star in his own right, Karl Urban appeared in several episodes of the show, playing both Cupid and Julius Caesar—sometimes in the same season!
After future Suits star Gina Torres popped up in a season three episode as Cleopatra, she landed a starring role in Tapert's Cleopatra 2525—playing someone named Helen. The titular Cleopatra in that series was played by Jennifer Sky.
In 2015, NBC announced plans to reboot the series with Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch at the helm. After generating a flurry of fan anticipation when he declared, in a Tumblr post, that his take on the franchise would be "fully exploring a relationship that could only be shown subtextually in first-run syndication in the 1990s," Grillo-Marxauch left the project in 2017 because of "insurmountable creative differences." Later that year, NBC Entertainment's then-president Jennifer Salke confirmed that the reboot was dead.
While talk of a feature film has occurred from time to time in the years since the show went off the air, Tapert emphatically put an end to rumors in 2009 when he hinted at legalities that would make a movie starring Lawless and O'Connor as their beloved characters an impossibility. "It's something that just won't happen," he told TheTorchOnline.com. "I don't think it's going to happen for Lucy and Renee. In twenty years or ten years, in some amount of years, like McGyver, like Charlie's Angels, it [could] happen like that [with other actresses]…It's a question of [rights and financing.] All of the above."
As fans know, Ares, the god of war, has an attraction to Xena throughout the series that saw the two characters volley back and forth between being enemies and love interests. Their relationship almost got even stranger, as it's rumored that season three episode "The Furies" was originally scripted to reveal that he was also her father.
The series only ever won one Emmy, with LoDuca taking home a trophy in 2000 for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. And no, the win wasn't for either musical episode he wrote for the series.
When Lawless landed the role of Xena, she was a freshly divorced single mom. By 1998, she and Tapert had fallen in love and gotten married. Since their time working together, Lawless has appeared in several of her husband's later projects, including Spartacus and Ash vs The Evil Dead. They're also the proud parents of two children of their own.
In the first season's opening credits, O'Connor was nowhere to be found. That changed at Lawless' insistence, and from season two onward, both were included in the sequence. Of her relationship with her former co-star, Lawless told EW, "We went through our twenties together. We're really, totally sisters. There is a lot of trust and protectiveness between the two of us."
While Xena survived her first appearance in Hercules, she wasn't so lucky by the time the show wrapped in 2001. And the character's wrenching death in the series finale remains a regret for Lawless. "[Xena's death] is a huge regret on my part, because we didn't realize really what it meant to people," she told EW. "We thought, 'Oh, that's a really strong ending.' Now I just say to fans, 'Let's pretend that never happened.'
(E! and Universal Television are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)
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