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'Animal House': Behind the scenes

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Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

In the summer of 1978, a group of overeducated smart-a–es unleashed a beer-drenched, toga-wrapped college comedy on the youth of America. The movie, the most successful comedy of its time, went on to make $141.6 million. Why? A louse named Bluto and a timeless theme: snobs versus slobs. To celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, we caught up with the Faber College alums for a look back at the making of National Lampoon’s Animal House.

I. LASER ORGY GIRLS

Chris Miller (National Lampoon writer; Animal House cowriter): Some people thought National Lampoon was a counterculture magazine. God knows, we went after Nixon tooth and claw. But we were just anti-a–hole. And in the early ’70s the world was full of them.

Ivan Reitman (Animal House coproducer): I was a big fan of the Lampoon. I had just finished producing David Cronenberg’s first movie (Shivers), and I also had a show running on Broadway. One day I called up [Lampoon publisher] Matty Simmons and said, ”Let’s make movies.”

Miller: Ivan was making weird movies in Canada. But he felt that if a movie were made with National Lampoon in the title, it could be big. The first thing they did was put together The National Lampoon Show. It opened in New York City, and the cast was Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Brian Doyle-Murray.

Reitman: When Saturday Night Live started, Lorne Michaels picked up most of the cast. But Harold Ramis was sort of left off. I told Harold we should put a movie together using some of the skits from the Lampoon Show.

Harold Ramis (Animal House cowriter): There was always a tremendous arrogance around the Lampoon. They believed that they were — and maybe they were — the smartest people writing comedy at the time. So I wrote a treatment called Freshman Year. When I turned it in, I could tell they weren’t really excited. So I asked if I could work with one of the Lampoon editors, Doug Kenney. Doug’s and my premise was Charles Manson in high school — we called it Laser Orgy Girls.

Matty Simmons (National Lampoon publisher; Animal House coproducer): Every time they had an idea it had sex, drugs…I thought, These guys are gonna get me shot. So I said, we’re gonna have to move this to college. That’s when we got the idea to use some of Chris Miller’s Lampoon stories about his fraternity days at Dartmouth.

Miller: The real animal house was my fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi. My name in college was Pinto, and I had written a story called ”Pinto’s First Lay.” Doug was a fan of those stories and suggested them as the basis of a movie.

II. THE VOMITING CULT

Miller: The first thing we did was meet for brunch one Sunday. And I remember saying that at the center of any great animal house is a great animal. And we all looked at each other and said ”Belushi!”

Simmons: Naturally, we did everything wrong. They came up with a treatment that was 110 pages — a treatment should be 15 pages. I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. Ivan and I met with Ned Tanen [then head of Universal]. And Tanen thought it was just awful. But he said, ”Can you do it for $2.5 million?”

Ramis: The studio gave us offices at Universal in New York, full of English antiques and hunting prints on the walls. I remember Doug Kenney drawing little rats on the paintings with a ballpoint. We went further than I think Universal expected or wanted. I think they were shocked and appalled. Chris’ fraternity had virtually been a vomiting cult. And we had a lot of scenes that were almost orgies of vomit. His fraternity would eat certain kinds of food to produce certain types of regurge. We didn’t back off anything.

Simmons: The studio backed off. They just figured, “Screw it, it’s a silly little movie, and we’ll make a couple bucks if we’re lucky — let them do whatever they want.”

III. THE KENTUCKY-FRIED INTERLOPER

Reitman: I had always hoped to direct the movie myself. But I’d only directed one movie — it was called Cannibal Girls and it was made for $5,000.

John Landis (Animal House director): I was hired to direct it when I had made one film called Schlock. [Landis’ second film] Kentucky Fried Movie didn’t come out until we had already started shooting Animal House. The script supervisor on Kentucky Fried Movie was living with Sean Daniel, who was an exec at Universal under Thom Mount, who was under Ned Tanen. Every day she’d go home and say “Today we had a midget in a clown suit beating naked women.” Sean saw Kentucky Fried Movie and brought me to the attention of Matty. I flew to New York to meet the writers at Lampoon headquarters. And I walked into this wall of ice.

Miller: Landis is fond of saying that he was met with stony hostility from us. And every time he says that I call him up and say “John, you f—ing liar!” I was charmed by John. He had this manic, insane energy. But he was a West Coast guy, and we were East Coast guys.

Ramis: John was really arrogant for his age and experience. He sort of referred immediately to Animal House as “my movie.” We’d been living with it for two years and we hated that. But he did seem to understand the material.

IV. STARRING MEAT LOAF AS BLUTO

Ramis: The cast we had picked was Chevy Chase as Otter, Bill Murray as Boone, Brian Doyle-Murray as Hoover, [Dan] Aykroyd as D-Day, and Belushi, of course, was Bluto. None of them wanted to do it except for Belushi. They were very competitive. Chevy thought he was onto a big movie career, and he wasn’t going to share the limelight with Belushi.

Reitman: After the first few months of SNL, the show had taken the country by storm — much more than South Park or something today. For the first time, they were letting people like us on TV. And Belushi and Chevy were the two guys who jumped out in the first season. We tried to get Chevy for the Tim Matheson part, but Chevy turned us down to do Foul Play.

Landis: I was putting together this interesting cast. I met with [Dragnet star] Jack Webb to play Dean Wormer, and I wanted Kim Novak for Mrs. Wormer. That was interesting, meeting Webb. Here I was with my long hair and he’s just sitting there drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes. I met Meat Loaf and a bunch of other people to play Bluto in case Belushi didn’t do it.

Ramis: I auditioned for Peter Riegert’s part, Boone, but I didn’t get it. And I was too proud to be an extra.

Landis: The studio hated all of my choices. I wanted to cast straight dramatic actors, not just comedians. They all came out of the theater.

Karen Allen (Katy): I had just moved to New York, and I was studying at Lee Strasberg. One day I walked by a bulletin board and there was a flyer that said “College-Aged Actors and Actresses Wanted for Feature Film.”

Tom Hulce (Pinto): I was playing the lead in Equus opposite Tony Hopkins in Los Angeles at the time. But I was interested in Animal House because I had been working nonstop in this very intense play as an English lad in the middle of a psychosis. So I thought it would be an interesting change of pace to do a really low-end comedy.

Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer): At first I read for one of the Deltas, Otter. But as soon as I came through the door John said that was wrong and started asking me if I knew how to ride horses. And I told him six different lies about how my father was in the circus and he was a trick rider, and lots of different stories. John just went, “Uh-huh.”

Bruce McGill (D-Day): I remember getting the script and reading it for the first time at the unemployment office on 90th and Broadway. It wasn’t a cheerful place.

Tim Matheson (Otter): Originally, they offered me one of the Omega parts — but I was sick of playing straight parts. I said I’d rather not be in it than play one of those guys.

Kevin Bacon (Chip Diller): I had no career. I was in acting school at Circle in the Square. And the Animal House casting director came there. I guess I was one of the only people who was the right age. But to me it just meant a gig. This was the first time I was really getting paid to act. I was on the plane right away.

Landis: Kevin Bacon still had his baby fat. He was like 18 or something. But he had this wonderful smarminess.

Stephen Furst (Flounder): I was delivering pizzas for a company called Two Guys From Italy. I was putting my picture and resume on top of boxes that I thought were being delivered to directors and producers. I went from making $180 a week to a whopping $863.50 during Animal House. When I walked in to audition there were 50 fat guys with glasses, and I thought, Oh, gosh, they all look exactly like me.

Landis: We had Belushi, but Universal still wanted another star. Now, I had been a flunky on the set of Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia. And Donald Sutherland and I had gotten very friendly. I used to babysit Kiefer. So I called Donald, and he said, “I’ll do it, but I’m not going to do it for scale. They have to pay me” up front. I don’t remember the numbers involved, but had he taken a profit position, he’d have made at least $20 million.[pagebreak]

V. DRUNK FOOTBALL PLAYERS DYING FOR BLOOD

Reitman: The hardest part was getting a college to let us shoot there. Universities would say, “Oh, you’re from Hollywood? Come on down.” Then they’d read the script and turn us down. Finally we called the the University of Oregon.

Landis: The president of the University of Oregon at Eugene read the script and didn’t like it. But he also remembered that he read The Graduate and didn’t like it. So he figured, what the hell?

Furst: I had a Flounder moment at the airport before we flew to Oregon. I was introduced to Peter Riegert and I said, “Don’t look now, but right behind you is Bette Midler!” He looks at me and says “Let me introduce you to my girlfriend.”

Landis: I got approval to bring all the Deltas up there five days early — just to bond.

James Widdoes (Hoover): It was like freshman orientation. There was a lot of getting to know each other and calling each other by our character names. All of a sudden I was Hoov.

Landis: The Delta House graffiti was done by them that week.

Miller: When the Omegas showed up, they were instantly hated. And they were like, “What did we do?”

Metcalf: I’m told I walked in and John [Landis] said, “Hey, it’s Neidermeyer!!!” and everybody threw food at me. I’ve buried it, but it comes back to me now and again in dreams.

Peter Riegert (Boone): The first night we were all together, it was like The Magnificent Seven. Everybody held their ground like, “You’re not going to take this scene from me.”

Furst: I was so petrified. I walked in to that first dinner and there was a chair way at the end of the table and there was a chair next to Belushi. I started to walk to the end, he came over and grabbed me. He said, “Here, sit next to me…and don’t move!”

Matheson: One night there was a mixer over at one of the fraternities and these girls invited us along. So we all la-di-da’d into the SAE house….

McGill: It was the wealthy jock fraternity — and they were having a huge party. The place was rockin’. We got there, thinking we’re invited. But as soon as we walked in, it was really ugly. They started cussing at us and calling us Hollywood faggots.

Matheson: As we were heading out, the front yard was filled with drunk football players dying for blood. And Jamie Widdoes threw a cup of beer and that ignited everything.

McGill: Before you know it Peter Riegert is airborne, and Jamie Widdoes is getting pounded. And they circled up on Tim. I wasn’t sure whether I should go in there swinging. And as soon as I got up there I got sucker punched.

Widdoes: I just know I ended up on the ground getting kicked. I was in the dentist’s chair at 8 the next morning because I got my teeth knocked in.

McGill: I got stomped bad. I had a black eye like one of those Tareyton cigarette commercials. We didn’t tell Landis. I told him I got my black eye playing touch football. But he found out.

VI. THERE WAS A LOT OF STRANGE SMOKE

McGill: After that we figured we weren’t too welcome with the locals. We were all out at this motel on the freeway called the Rodeway Inn.

Riegert: It was a kind of campus. We all had gargantuan energy and no families or anything, so you never slept.

Matheson: We noticed an old piano in the lobby and no one was playing it so we decided to take it to McGill’s room. We wheeled it across the parking lot through the rain. And every night after work, that’s where the party was.

McGill: I’d howl on that piano. There were nights I wanted to sleep and I couldn’t get people to leave.

Simmons: There was a lot of strange smoke.

Landis: McGill’s room became party central. But I was sort of the principal. If I walked in and they were smoking a joint, it got stashed right away.

Bacon: The vibe was very much like it was in the movie. The Delta guys certainly didn’t want to hang out with me. I was kind of young and not cool. I definitely felt like an outcast because they had all these amazing parties. Sometimes I found my way in the door, but generally no.

Metcalf: The Deltas partied there every night. And I had them move my room right above his so that I had to listen to all this partying to get into character. I would sit up there and spit polish my riding boots and brood and make plans for what I could do to get revenge on them for their decadent way of life.

VII. SENATOR JOHN BLUTARSKY

Matheson: Belushi would’ve been there, I guarantee you. But they wanted to keep John away because they knew his tendencies. So they got him and [his wife] Judy a house in the suburbs.

Landis: John was clean. And he was working hard because he saw this movie as a big opportunity. When we did Blues Brothers later, he had a very bad cocaine habit. On Animal House that wasn’t true.

McGill: Belushi would work with us Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, then head back to New York for SNL.

Allen: John didn’t have a lot of time to hang out. But he invited us up to the house on a couple of occasions.

Bacon: Belushi threw parties for the cast and shipped back lox and bagels and stuff for us. I had maybe a couple of scenes with him — you know, he spit mashed potatoes on me.

Widdoes: John developed an impersonation of me and would follow me around and sing this commercial for Freshen-Up gum that I had done.

Furst: The last scene I shot in the movie was where Belushi is trying to cheer me up after my car is wrecked and he’s breaking bottles on his head. What you see on the screen is Take 18. I could not stop laughing.

Landis: I spent a lot of time with John figuring out who Bluto was. We decided he was a cross between Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster. The scene where John’s devouring everything in the cafeteria line, I was behind the camera going “What’s that? An apple. It looks good. I think we should EAT THE APPLE!!!” Then I’d go, “Uh-oh, a hamburger!”

McGill: The first time Belushi ever got up in front of a crowd and sang blues was at the Eugene hotel. He was really nervous. And he got up and sang “Hey, Bartender.” It was a really great night for him.

VIII. KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD

Reitman: The first preview screening was four months before it opened, in Denver. I’ve been in the business for 25 years now, and I’ve never had a screening like that one. From the first joke when the mannequin flies out the Delta House window, the audience started bouncing. They just went nuts. Then everyone was our best friend.

Riegert: John Landis called me up after a screening in Colorado. And he played me a tape. It just was noise. I said, “John, what is that?” And he says “That’s the audience!”

Miller: I thought it would be popular — maybe even a hit — but not Gone With the F—ing Wind.

Matheson: Animal House was just lightning in a bottle. I guess it just spoke to a time in most people’s lives. It’s funny, everyone comes up to me and says we were just like you guys in college. Everyone sees themselves as the good guys, no one thinks they were an Omega. But they were all the Omegas.

Bacon: When the movie came out I was waiting tables. It had no effect on my life. I’d have a hard time convincing people that I was actually in it — and I was trying to desperately. You always fantasize about things like that having a huge impact. But I just went back to the bar where I worked.

Ramis: I literally took the reviews to the bank. I’d just put a down payment on a house and I said, “I have a piece of this movie.” The guy laughed and gave me the loan right there.

Miller: We [writers] had net points, which are usually like monkey points, but this movie made so much money they couldn’t hide it. There was no accounting creative enough to deprive us.

Furst: Every time I get a check in the mail for $37, I know it played somewhere in the world. I didn’t get rich or anything. But at least I never had to say, “Would you like pepperoni on that?” again.

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