School Ties at 25: A complete oral history
In 1992, a class of unknowns enrolled in an elite 1950s prep school — and graduated as stars. Brendan Fraser, Chris O'Donnell, Anthony Rapp, and more look back on the film that launched a new Hollywood generation.
Like the fictitious all-boys St. Matthew’s Academy it depicted, School Ties was a formative training ground for the best and brightest. Ten years after he helped launch the careers of Sean Penn and Tom Cruise in Taps, producer Stanley Jaffe gathered the next generation of Hollywood on a leafy New England campus for a 1950s-set drama that examined the dark underbelly of America’s privileged class. Brendan Fraser was the hero, a blue-collar football recruit who immediately thrives at prestigious St. Matt’s — until his WASP classmates discover that he’s Jewish. His viciously bigoted tormentor: Matt Damon. Caught in between were Chris O’Donnell and a slew of other baby-faced future stars, including Ben Affleck.
Twenty-five years later, School Ties is a worthy time capsule of 1990s young Hollywood. But it also resonates in 2017 for its depiction of insidious bigotry.
“This country today is at a point that I never believed in my lifetime we’d see again,” says Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, who co-wrote the script. “Anti-Semitism is rampant. It’s not even hidden. School Ties was deliberately dated when it was made, but it hasn’t aged.” Here, Jaffe, Wolf, Fraser, and others look back at a film that continues to reverberate.
Jaffe conceived School Ties in the early ’80s as a movie he planned to direct, but it took nine years to bring it to the screen. Fortunately, he finally found a studio exec to greenlight the project — himself. In 1991, he joined the brass at Paramount, which fast-tracked the project. He and then-producing partner Sherry Lansing hired Robert Mandel (F/X) to direct, based on a script by Wolf (Hill Street Blues) with rewrites by Darryl Ponicsan (Taps). Casting the young men who attended St. Matthew’s meant auditioning just about every up-and-coming actor in Hollywood.
STANLEY JAFFE (producer): It always bothered me that people would say, “Don’t Jew me down,” and not even think about who they were speaking to. I sat on the board of a number of schools, and there was a quiet problem with anti-Semitism. Our [main character] David Greene doesn’t tell people he’s Jewish, nor should he have had to. That’s why I wanted to do School Ties. The boarding school was going to give him a pass out of a life that he would otherwise have remained in.
PAT McCORKLE (co-casting director): I saw over 5,000 young men. Those were videotape days. Anyone who is now between the ages of 40 and 50 auditioned for School Ties. We looked for a year and a half for the David Greene part. Noah Wyle, Kyle Chandler, Matthew Perry — all those kind of guys read for it.
ROBERT MANDEL (director): Brendan Fraser hadn’t done a movie. They found him in Seattle. We liked him because he felt other than everybody else. He was a little taller, a little bigger. He was not Jewish, but he felt “other than.” A couple of people [we cast in supporting roles] wanted to do David — very much. But you put Brendan in a group of 10 other guys, he clearly was David. If the movie is about blending in, then he was going to have a harder time blending in than Chris O’Donnell, Matt Damon, and any of the others.
JAFFE: Matt had a quality that was extraordinary. I thought of him to play the main role, but then I thought, “No, I just can’t do that.”
BRENDAN FRASER (David Greene): I was appointed to meet with Sherry after doing a reading. I was wearing an awful shirt by today’s standards. I read with Matt Damon. I got the job because of Matt. I believed everything that came out of his mouth. I remember having this moment of thinking, “Just match [his] pitch. Don’t put curlicues on this. Don’t swing for the fences.” I felt great after that. I had so much admiration for him.
RANDALL BATINKOFF (Rip Van Kelt): I actually screen-tested with Kyle Chandler. He read for David. He obviously wasn’t what they were looking for, but he did a great job. He and I went and had a couple cocktails at this dive bar in Hollywood afterwards to unwind. I haven’t seen him since, but things worked out for him quite well regardless.
CHRIS O’DONNELL (Chris Reece): I was at Boston College and went to Stanley’s office in New York to audition. They were interested in me for Matt’s part [Charlie Dillon] and my part. In hindsight I think Matt’s character was more interesting. But at the time I gravitated to wanting to play someone who was more likable. I think part of that was just being so green, not realizing that it would be much more interesting to go against type and play someone out of my comfort zone.
ANTHONY RAPP (Richard “McGoo” Collins): Rick Linklater [who directed Rapp in Dazed and Confused] really went to bat for me because the studio wanted somebody else for McGoo.
O’DONNELL: Nobody really knew who any of us were at the time. It’s so funny. Cole Hauser [Jack Connors], who we all thought was older than us, was, like, 16 years old. He was a man-child.
ŽELJOK IVANEK (Mr. Cleary): Peter Donat [headmaster Dr. Bartram] was the only connection I knew ahead of time. When I was growing up in the Bay Area in the ’60s, my family used to go to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and he was one of the main leading actors. It was a thrill that I got to meet him after all those years.
McCORKLE: For [the role of] Sally, Stanley and Bob wanted a Grace Kelly type of a girl, that kind of sweet innocence. We kept saying the Breck Girl, that perfectly coiffed Breck Girl.
AMY LOCANE (Sally Wheeler): I was a girl in the center of all these heartthrobs. For a girl who went to an all-girls school, it was interesting. There’s nothing like being in your early 20s when you’re just getting into your career. There’s so much excitement.
In 1991, the cast of no-names descended upon Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, which would stand in for St. Matthew’s. The actors instantly bonded during a brief rehearsal period — and especially during the on-field training required to portray football players — though some of them would go on to compete against one another for the plum role opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.
BATINKOFF: Bob had us rehearsing and doing all these acting games. There was a rumor that some studio execs were watching us for a few days and that some of us were going to be fired. It never happened, but everybody was bringing their A game to the rehearsals.
O’DONNELL: We were going up to [UMass Lowell] to lift weights with the football team to get in shape. Matt was always the strong kid.
MANDEL: Many mornings were spent at football practice. They had a coach; we worked out plays. All of the football was pretty carefully choreographed because that does take a lot of time when the cameras are rolling. Some were more athletic than others.
FRASER: Oh, I faked most of the football. I wasn’t that kind of guy with rough-and-tumble sports. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like getting hit. It hurt. It’s funny afterwards that I did pretty well for the next 20 years, falling down and getting hit.
LOCANE: Brendan had kind of removed himself from the cliquey fraternity thing that the rest of the guys were in. He could have done it for the character, but I just remember that was sort of interesting.
O’DONNELL: We all lived in these apartments right next to a dump in Lowell, because we were supposed to be at the Radisson in Chelmsford but got sick of it. But if the wind blew the wrong way, the smell was so bad. It was ungodly. Brendan stayed at the hotel.
MANDEL: Clearly, Matt and Ben [Affleck] were very close friends before they got to the set. In my memory, Chris was a bit of a clown. If you said, “Okay, everybody, get in the bathroom and [pretend to] do what you would do: brush your teeth, shave, whatever,” Chris would sit on the bench and clip his toenails. He would make a lot of funny choices.
BATINKOFF: We all bonded. I mean, we were all very close. [Later that year] I did Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I told the director about Ben, so he came in and did a little cameo.
RAPP: I couldn’t see out of the glasses McGoo had to wear. Have you ever looked through a prism? That’s what I could see. I couldn’t see anybody’s face when I was acting with them. It was crazy.
BATINKOFF: While we were shooting School Ties, we all went to New York to try out for Scent of a Woman. I read for it. Matt read for it. Chris, of course, got it.
IVANEK: One nice thing that came out of that is that the kid [Mac McGivern] I tortured the most — who is played by Andrew Lowery — we’re actually still in touch. He lives in Sweden now. He’s the one I’ve kept up with the most.
Though the actors speak fondly about their off-camera antics — Batinkoff likes to tell a story about an old Chevrolet Chevelle with no brakes that he and Hauser bought — their most indelible memories were the scenes when their characters show their true colors after Charlie exposes David’s secret that he’s Jewish. Then, when a teacher discovers that a student cheated on an exam, the class has to turn in the guilty party: Charlie or David.
RAPP: We filmed the tribunal scene all day long. Part of my role as an actor is to shine a light on darkness. If you’re playing a racist or a bigot, you have to go there. By the end of that day, I really had to go home and stare at the wall. It just felt so bad to evoke that over and over again, all day long.
LOCANE: I do remember getting some flak from people in the industry that I, as an actress, should have taken some of the language out. Like the line “When you kiss him, does his nose get in the way?” Basically, [they were saying that] as an actress, I should have been more responsible because so many people in the industry were Jewish.
FRASER: We were all dramatically accustomed to being made aware of the film’s theme, that we’ve all wanted to belong at some point or another in our life. We’ve all felt like our nose is pressed up against the glass and we’re on the outside looking in.
Released on Sept. 18, 1992, School Ties earned generally positive reviews, though Janet Maslin of The New York Times said it echoed other prep-school stories and therefore followed a “predictable path.” The film opened at No. 5 and quietly slipped out of theaters a few weeks later after grossing only $14.7 million.
O’DONNELL: Coming in the wake of Dead Poets Society, people were probably asking, “Is it as good? Probably not, so I’m not going to see it.”
JAFFE: I was hoping it might’ve opened bigger. But I didn’t complain. Sometimes they’re not all winners.
BATINKOFF: We just lacked star power. If we released that movie today, you know what a monster hit it would be?
LOCANE: Of course, that was at the time I was getting fired from Melrose Place, so I suppose it would have been amazing if it were, like, the No. 1 movie. But you know what they say: Classic movies never go away.
RAPP: Because of Ben and Matt and Chris and Brendan, who went on to have such fame and fortune, that’s probably what has retroactively brought attention to it. But I always thought it had real power to it.
DICK WOLF: The thing that’s amazing is how the country is completely different than it was 50 years ago, 60 years ago. But one inch below the surface is the same horrific crap, and that’s what this movie shows. I’d love it if they rereleased it.
MANDEL: [Before the movie] I took a trip to Andover and Exeter and Choate. I made some calls to Jewish alumni from the 1950s, and one of them told me about anti-Semitic things that happened to him while he was at prep school. But then I noticed that he sent his children there. So I said, “How could you send your children to the same school?” And he said, “Well, had I not gone to the prep school, I couldn’t have met the Roosevelts. I wanted my children to have those associations.” It’s a story that stuck with me all these years. These prep schools had skeletons in the closet, which they do now, too.
FRASER: I was in the Singapore Airport on a layover and I encountered a traveler who said she was a rabbi. She told me that she was working in Israel in an outreach program for Israeli kids and Palestinian kids. She said when they put the kids together it was awkward, so to break the ice, they showed them School Ties, and it was able to stimulate a dialogue. And damned if I didn’t feel like I earned a stripe of some kind that day.