What an immense treat to listen to director John Landis and the cast of National Lampoon’s Animal House tell so many great stories about the making of their comedy classic, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Animal House was definitely a game-changer when it was released in 1978. Spearheaded by the irreverence of National Lampoon’s brilliant Doug Kenney, who co-wrote (and also played Stork) with Harold Ramis and Chris Miller, the film was the first balls-out, raunchy ensemble comedy, setting the stage for this hugely popular genre to follow. It was also one of the most profitable movies of all time, making about $141 million (you can do the math on how much that is today).
I saw it when it was first released as a youngster (one of my first R-rated movies), and I laughed my ass off, especially with the late John Belushi’s standout performance as Blutarsky. Saturday Night Live had only been on for one year, and the only breakout star at that time was Chevy Chase (more on him in a bit). Belushi had been affiliated with National Lampoon as one of the writers and performers on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, but Animal House was his moment to finally shine.
The scene when he runs into the Administration building on the covert operation to get Neidermeyer’s horse into Dean Wormer’s office, stopping and crouching every few feet to look around, pretty much cracks me up every time I see it. That, and the food line scene or when he just dumps a jar of mustard on his chest. I’ve probably seen Animal House hundred times or more since then, but being able to view it with a couple hundred like-minded movie lovers at the 2018 TCM Film Festival on Sunday was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and made it even funnier than ever.
The best part of the evening, however, was the Q&A before the film screened. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz moderated the panel, which included director John Landis, singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop and stars Tim Matheson (“Otter”), Bruce McGill (“D-Day”), James Widdoes (“Hoover”), Martha Smith (“Babs”) and Mark Metcalf (“Neidermeyer”). Absent were Peter Reigert (“Boone”), Karen Allen (“Katy”), and the late Stephen Furst (“Dorfman”), who passed away just last year (his wife was in attendance, though). And of course Belushi, who was talked about fondly by Landis and his fellow cast members.
While they all had great stories, Landis dominated the panel with many of his making-of tales. First of all, Universal Pictures was not keen on making the movie at all, especially after reading the script, and according to Landis, they asked just about every other well-known director at the time to take it on before they finally offered to Landis.
One of Landis’ best stories centered on how he did not want Chevy Chase to play the role of Eric “Otter” Stratton (which eventually went to Tim Matheson, who thanked Landis on stage). Kenney, Ramis and Miller wrote the script with Chase in mind for the role because Kenney and Chase were close friends. Blutarsky was written for Belushi, and D-Day was written for Dan Aykroyd, who knew Belushi from Second City.
Landis said he did want Belushi and Aykroyd because they weren’t big names yet, but since Chase’s star was quickly rising, the director didn’t want him because he was already too big of a star. The Universal suits and producers Ivan Reitman and Matty Simmons, however, did want Chase and were pushing hard for him.
At the time, Chase was also being offered Foul Play with Goldie Hawn, and so at the lunch meeting with Chase – who, Landis said, “was at his most obnoxious” – the director basically posed it like this: Animal House was an ensemble comedy in which Chase would be just one of the main players, like SNL. With Foul Play, he would be the romantic lead in a comedy with one of Hollywood’s hottest stars at that time. Landis laughed, “Ivan Reitman was kicking me so hard under the table.”
Needless to say, Chase turned them down and made the right choice. Foul Play is another movie I just adore. Chase and Hawn are so sweet and funny together in it. I probably saw it about 20 times that same summer Animal House was released because it wasn’t R-rated and movies were way cheap back then.
Another great story came from Widdoes, McGill and Matheson, who talked about coming to the University of Oregon in Eugene (which stood in as Faber College) a week before filming to bond as Delta Tau Chi brothers. Two days before shooting began, the boys, along with Karen Allen, Peter Reigert and James Daughton (“Greg Marmalard”), decided to crash a real fraternity party – and they were not welcomed. “You Hollywood fags think you can come in here and steal all our women!” one of these frat guys said to Widdoes. “Obviously, there’s a lot wrong with that sentence,” the actor quipped.
Apparently, it escalated quickly when Widdoes knocked a beer out of one of the frat guy’s hand, and the cast found themselves in a full-on brawl. At one point, both McGill and Matheson were on the ground, and Matheson said he turned to McGill and said, “Don’t run or they’ll kill us!” but then after being knocked down again, McGill said, “Timmer, we’re gonna have to run!” And they hightailed it out of there.
The whole panel also paid tribute to Belushi. Musician Stephen Bishop, who wrote the Animal House theme song and played the poor hapless partygoer who has his guitar smashed by Belushi after listening to his insipid song, said he and Belushi became friends. At one of his parties, Bishop said he was in the kitchen with the comedian and talking about Animal House and Belushi turned to him and said, “You know I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as that.”
Landis also talked about how the Universal execs demanded they have at least one star in the movie, and the director convinced Donald Sutherland to star (as the English professor Mr. Jennings). Ironically, Sutherland turned down backend points because he was only shooting for a few days and wanted the bigger money up front. Big mistake.
But Landis said out of everyone involved, it was veteran character actor John Vernon, who played the villainous Dean Wormer, who saw the importance and the potential of Animal House. Landis recounted how Vernon took him aside and said, “I don’t think you understand how important this is. It’s amazing Universal is making this movie, we’re doing good work!” Landis added, “It’s 40 years later and I guess John was right!”
Indeed. Animal House still stands as one of the best comedies of all time and worth watching every time it’s on.