In 2015, actor Jonathan Silverman sat for an interview with Larry King to promote his short-lived CW sitcom Significant Mother. Quickly, though, King asked Silverman about the movie he’s most known for. “Do people still approach you about Weekend at Bernie’s?”
“They do,” Silverman responded, with a grin. “I’m thrilled and shocked and confused that this little movie that we made 25 years ago has turned into a cult [hit]. When we made it, I was lucky just to have the job. I had no idea people would find it amusing. It’s about a guy who dies on page 20 and we drag him around the Hamptons for the rest of the weekend. But it made people laugh.”
The only thing more enduring about Weekend at Bernie’s than its appeal is the movie’s genuine strangeness. Written by Robert Klane and directed by Ted Kotcheff, a filmmaker who specialized in dramas (North Dallas Forty) and action movies (First Blood), the broad comedy is based on a premise that’s completely stupid. And that’s not me saying that: That’s Andrew McCarthy, who plays Larry, a smart-aleck employee at an insurance company who, alongside his best friend Richard (Silverman), ends up (through very convoluted circumstances) having to carry out a ruse that their boss Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser) is alive, even though he’s recently died.
“I mean, that movie was completely stupid and fantastic,” McCarthy told The A.V. Club last year. “It’s the stupidest movie. I love it. I love Bernie’s. My son — he’s 15 — he saw Weekend. He’s never seen anything I’ve been in, my kids, but he saw Weekend at Bernie’s, and he said, ‘Dad, that movie is really stupid.’ But I love Bernie. I think Bernie is great. I mean, it was ridiculous. We knew at the time it was ridiculous, and there was no top to go over. … That was a lot of fun to do, which is not always the case, because often when you’re doing a comedy, it becomes an inside joke where we think it’s really funny, but to other people it’s just not that funny. But that movie has its own logic.”
Critics didn’t think so. Siskel and Ebert famously savaged it: Siskel called Weekend at Bernie’s “a preposterous, unfunny comedy that comes across like a bad version of a slapstick Blake Edwards film … I couldn’t wait for this to end,” while Ebert said, “I didn’t find it funny, and I found it less and less funny as it went along.” Writing in The New York Times, Stephen Holden noted, “Although the setup for Weekend at Bernie’s has all the ingredients of a classic satirical farce, [the filmmakers] have made a movie that is about as sophisticated as a National Lampoon romp.”
Even those who worked on it weren’t entirely sure what they were getting themselves into. Catherine Mary Stewart, who plays Richard’s love interest Gwen, tells me, “I read the script thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so silly. How are they going to make this work? A dead guy? Come on!’ I thought it was a little barbaric having that scene where he falls off the back of the boat and he’s being dragged along through the water and banging into buoys and stuff like that. I thought, Yuck that’s not funny. That’s horrible.”
“I thought, Well, this is a one-trick pony,” Kiser says about his initial reaction to the screenplay.
The fact that it even got greenlit was something of a miracle. Producer Victor Drai, who had made the Gene Wilder rom-com The Woman in Red (now most famous for Stevie Wonder’s Oscar-winning “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), had teamed up with Klane for an adaptation of the French comedy The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, which became the early Tom Hanks vehicle The Man With One Red Shoe. “I loved that script,” Drai says. “We worked on it for like, I don’t know, six months or a year. When we finished, I asked [Klane], ‘Do you have any other ideas? I want to try to find something original.’ He said, ‘Yes, I have an idea, but nobody would ever buy it. It’s about two kids who drag a dead guy around Fire Island.’” I said, ‘That sounds crazy and funny.’”
At the time, Drai had a deal with MGM. After some initial reluctance from the studio, he got the go-ahead to develop the pitch into a screenplay. But the studio ultimately balked at the script — “If somebody pitched you an idea about two kids with a dead guy, you’d think they’re crazy,” says Drai — which forced the producer to look elsewhere to get the movie made. As luck would have it, he was friends with Kotcheff, who months earlier over lunch asked him what he was working on. “I gave him some of [Bernie’s] gags, and he said, ‘That sounds funny — please let me read the script when it’s finished.’ I had forgotten that conversation — we had another lunch and he said, ‘What happened to your script?’ I said, ‘I just finished it — do you wanna look at it?’ He read it and said, ‘I’d love to do it.’”
In his 2017 memoir Director’s Cut: My Life in Film, Kotcheff offers his own memory of events. According to his recollection, Klane told him about an image that fixated him — “two guys are dragging around a dead guy pretending he’s alive” — but that he was stuck on the execution. “There’s a script, but it’s not good, more like a treatment,” Klane supposedly told him, adding, “It has a salvageable idea: The two guys have shown up at a beach house for a weekend of partying and find their host dead, but they’re determined the party will go on regardless.”
In an age of high-concept comedies like Three Men and a Baby and Crocodile Dundee, Kotcheff felt Weekend at Bernie’s could be huge. “I loved [the idea] because it was so extreme,” Kotcheff writes. “I thought it was not only hilarious, but also dark and full of comedic and satirical possibilities.”
With Kotcheff attached, Drai was able to get financing, hooking up with Gladden Entertainment, a production company run by David Begelman, who in the late 1970s was indicted for grand theft and forgery. “He said, ‘Listen, if you have Ted Kotcheff as a director and it’s under a $15 million budget, I’ll greenlight the movie,’” recalls Drai. “So we made the deal.”
The casting of McCarthy and Silverman was a no-brainer. McCarthy was a hot commodity, famous for films like Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero and Mannequin. As for Silverman, he had made his name on Broadway, discovered by Neil Simon, who cast him for Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. (Silverman would reprise his Brighton Beach Memoirs role for the 1986 film.) Both actors had been hired for Weekend at Bernie’s when the filmmakers turned their attention to casting their other two leads.
“At that point, I’d done quite a bit of work,” remembers Stewart, who had been the star of The Last Starfighter and Night of the Comet. “I was sort of a known entity in Los Angeles.” Despite her initial hesitation about the script, she knew she should go out for it. “It was going to be a pretty big thing — Ted Kotcheff as the director, Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman as the leads. Plus, it was a comedy — that was one of the things that appealed to me because I hadn’t done a lot of comedy before.”
In typical Hollywood fashion, Stewart was convinced she’d blown the audition, which had her reading opposite Silverman in front of Kotcheff. She tells me, “I got out of that audition and was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I screwed up so bad.’ I called my manager immediately and said, ‘I blew it. I screwed up the lines. I’m so screwed here, they’re never gonna hire me.’ I was really, really concerned about it. I don’t know if my manager called them or if he just waited to hear back, but apparently I didn’t screw up as badly as I thought.”
What she also didn’t know was that Drai had always wanted his wife to play Gwen — which the studio balked at. “I was so sad because she was perfect for the part,” Drai says, “so we ended up with Catherine, who was fine. [My wife] would have been better than Catherine, but that wouldn’t have changed the movie.”
“That isn’t something I was privy to, put it that way,” Stewart says when I mention Drai’s comment. “I did meet her at the time, and she was lovely, but I had no sense that he wanted her to be in it. It’s interesting you say that, though, because she was lovely, and she was on the set quite a bit. I feel sad for her now, because if she really wanted to be in it as well, it must’ve been difficult for her to be on the set watching me do her role. I admire the fact that he allowed me to play the role if he’d pictured her in it.”
There was similar behind-the-scenes drama involving finding the perfect Bernie. Kiser, a veteran stage and screen actor, was excited to try out for the part — except he’d just been involved in, as he calls it, “a little, small motorcycle accident. They had to shave part of my head, right in front, to put seven stitches in, so I didn’t have any hair.” Figuring he’d missed his opportunity, he focused on recuperating from the accident.
Cut to a month later: His agent called him up, saying that the filmmakers were still looking for their stiff. Kiser, normally clean-shaven, had let his facial hair grow during his downtime, but when he went to the mirror to shave, an idea came over him. “I’m just going to leave this mustache on,” Kiser recalls. “I never had a mustache in my life. I said, ‘I don’t know why — I’m just going to leave this on.’”
Kiser is fond of saying that the mustache got him the part. But there was a certain actorly instinct behind the choice, too. “I knew that these clean-faced young kids — with a guy with a mustache in a suit — was right. It just felt right at the time.”
“We had no idea how Bernie should look,” says Drai. But when they saw Kiser, they knew he was their guy. “It was just his face — it was perfect. It was very important for us that Bernie have sunglasses on [when he’s dead] because we didn’t want to see the eyes moving. I had a pair of glasses I was wearing, and I said, ‘Please wear these.’ As soon as he put the glasses on his face, we knew he was Bernie.”
Kotcheff and his stars shot the movie’s early New York segments first before decamping to the Wilmington area of North Carolina, which would be the fill-in for the story’s Hamptons settings. (In Weekend at Bernie’s, it’s actually called Hampton Island.) “We had all the money we needed,” Drai says, “but we couldn’t find in the Hamptons a house that people would rent to us to shoot — because they don’t give a shit, [rich] people with that kind of house. [The North Carolina shore] looked exactly like the Hamptons, except they don’t have great houses — all the houses there are kind of shitty. So we ended up building the house on the beach.”
Once the cast and crew got to North Carolina, Kiser had to shift to being Dead Bernie, but he quickly realized he was a pretty terrible corpse. “I went to the dailies of the first time that I was dead,” Kiser says, “and I’m looking at the thing and I said, ‘No, it’s not funny. He’s just dead — it’s not funny-dead.’” In a panic, he went back to his hotel room that evening, trying to figure out how to make his character funny, even though he isn’t moving. “I went back to Acting 101: ‘What is this guy trying to do? Well, he’s goofing on these guys.’ So I decided I’m just going to goof on them all through the whole movie and see if I can break these guys up.”
Kiser thinks it was around three in the morning when what he calls “the Bernie smirk” came to him. “I was looking in the mirror, and I just” — Kiser makes a sound that resembles “mmm, hmmm, mmm” — “and I realize I have to hold it for, like, two minutes. In other words, I had to find something on my face that I could hold [in a funny way]. I experimented — I could fall right into [that smirk] just by going, ‘Mmm, hmmm, mmm,’ and that smirk would come.”
When Kiser tried “the Bernie smirk” the next day on set, he knew he’d nailed it. “If you can break up a crew — those guys have been there for 80 years, and they’ve seen everything. I always base comedy on crews. If I can break them up, then I got it — and I broke them up. The next day, we go to dailies and I see myself dead with this Bernie smirk, and everybody starts laughing. That changed the whole character of the thing: Every time you saw him, he was funny.”
Even more important than making the dead Bernie funny, Kiser’s late-night revelation subconsciously allowed audiences not to feel too bad about everything that happens to the poor schmuck after he’s murdered. Larry and Richard put Bernie through a series of ordeals in which his body is tugged, pulled, dragged and dropped, but Kiser’s whimsical half-smile makes it seem like he’s actually not all that perturbed at the utter loss of dignity. (And when he inexplicably gets laid at one point, just imagining his deadpan reaction is the perfect punch line.)
On one level, playing dead for most of a movie seems like a breeze. Kiser says he went into a meditative state during filming. “I don’t know where it came from — once I went into that Bernie smirk, no matter what happened, I could stay in that thing.” But it was also an opportunity for others to screw with him. “We certainly had fun with Terry Kiser,” Stewart says. “If he had to hold his breath during a scene, a couple of times after the scene was completed, Ted wouldn’t say ‘cut,’ so Terry had to stay [dead] as long as he absolutely could. They thought that was pretty funny.”
When Siskel and Ebert reviewed Weekend at Bernie’s, they noted that they were so bored during the film that they actually started focusing on whether they could spot Kiser breathing while he’s Dead Bernie. They aren’t the only ones who’ve engaged in this fun parlor game. “I’ve gotten letters and cards from people,” Kiser tells me. “There was actually a group that would watch the movie and try to bust me to see if I breathe. They’d watch it, like, 20 times and be like, ‘Okay, right there — I see it.’” So, fine, the cat’s out of the bag: Kiser couldn’t hold his breath for two minutes straight during a scene. “My feeling is, ‘Well, at least I got you for a minute-and-a-half.’”
Kiser loves talking about some of the film’s memorable moments, including the scene where Richard and Gwen are kissing on the beach at night — just as Bernie’s body unexpectedly washes ashore next to them. “We knew that was funny, and so, in rehearsal in New York, we’d try that bit,” he says. Kiser was attached to a board for the actual shot. “We get onto the set, and we’re near the sea. I think they had 10 or 11 crew guys out in the sea, and I’m on the board, and they’re trying to push this board as a wave comes in — [they’re trying to] make it look like the wave just kind of landed [in frame]. Well, the guys at the end of the board were choking because they were underwater. Ted starts yelling, ‘Goddamn it, hold the wave back!’ I’m like, ‘That’s God, Ted. That has nothing to do with your crew.’ That was so funny — I’m on this thing, and people are drowning.”
You might assume that the filmmakers would want to amp up the movie’s lewd, sexy aspects. But Drai fought to keep Weekend at Bernie’s at a PG rating. (It ended up being PG-13.) Drai tells me, “[Others] wanted to put a little bit more tits and ass, but I said, ‘I don’t need it. The film is great and funny — it’s not what I want to do.’ If I had to do that, then it’s not what I want to sell.”
Still, nudity found its way into the production — well, at least in the promotion of the film. “I did an eight-page spread in Playboy with all the Playmates of the Year,” says Kiser. “They shipped down these Playmates — these gorgeous girls — to do a photo shoot with Bernie. Before we started shooting I said, ‘Girls, I’m a guy — I’m going to look at your tits. I’m not going to be shy and be like, ‘Oh shoot, I can’t look.’ They laughed — they were a little shy at first, and then after 10 minutes of the shoot, everybody was just naked and it was just fun.”
“There were these gorgeous people on the set, so it was very festive,” Kiser continues. “It was always fun — people were in bathing suits and it was warm, and we’re on the beach and we’re in the pool. There wasn’t too much tension on the set.”
But there were aches and pains. During the film’s more dangerous stunts, Kiser had a stunt double. Even so, the role required a large amount of physical comedy from Kiser, who got roughed up along the way. “I broke three ribs during the course of the filming,” he says. “I had a nerve in the back of my neck press down that was causing violent dizziness when they kept dropping me on the couch on my head. I got battered up. There was a couple of days they had to carry me to the set and put me in position.”
The busted ribs occurred during the sequence when the boys take Bernie on the boat, the corpse eventually falling off the back with a rope tied around him. A stuntman handled the “waterskiing” portion at the end of the sequence, but Kiser says, “I hit the back of that boat on a wave and cracked the ribs. It wasn’t like we were careless — [we were trying] something new that nobody had experienced before. When you’re dead and you fall, you fall straight. The stunt guys were getting hurt, too, because they had never experienced these types of falls. I had a stunt double [get] 17 stitches in his face because he fell straight down — he tore his face off.”
Depending on whom you ask, different people came up with the film’s ultimate title. (At the script stage, it was called Hot and Cold.) Kiser says it was him. “Halfway through the movie, I went up to the producer and the writer and I said, ‘Boys, this isn’t Hot and Cold anymore, I hate to tell you.’ They didn’t realize how much Bernie had become the forefront of everything. I said, ‘Weekend at Bernie’s,’ and they said, ‘I think you’re right.’” In Kotcheff’s book, he takes credit for the title, saying that it came to him after a successful test screening. “I always thought Bernie was a funny name,” he writes, “so I came up with Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Whoever’s idea it was, what everyone can agree on was that the film tested well with audiences. “By the time it opened, we had had something like three previews with young kids,” Kiser says, “and they were screaming. We knew we had something that was really good and funny. We went to one of the theaters that were opening the thing, and it was the same response. We literally graded the laughs — after you’ve seen it 10 times, you know, ‘Okay, now here’s the big [laugh], it’s coming up right here.’”
Fox, who distributed Weekend at Bernie’s, was so excited, in fact, that the studio decided on an ambitious release strategy: The film would open July 5, 1989, the same weekend as the hotly anticipated Lethal Weapon 2.
Nearly 30 years later, Drai is still furious about that decision. “We think we have a $100 million movie — we’re sure we have a big hit,” he tells me. “Well, those dumbbells at Fox decide, ‘Okay, we’re going to counterprogram.’” Then, as now, Hollywood studios will often release a movie that’s radically different than a guaranteed blockbuster — the logic being that there’s a whole audience out there who won’t see the big, surefire hit who would be interested in your movie. Fox gambled that Weekend at Bernie’s would cater to a different — but still sizable — crowd than would want to check out the Mel Gibson action sequel.
“I wanted to kill them,” says Drai. “I say, ‘Are you crazy? Why you want to go and do that? Let’s wait a couple weeks [to release Bernie’s].’ They said, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry.’ Guess what? We didn’t bomb, but we didn’t hit what we were expecting.”
In its opening weekend, Bernie’s landed in eighth, being beaten by such holdover smashes as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, The Karate Kid Part III and even Dead Poets Society. (Lethal Weapon 2 was the weekend’s №1 film.) “Fox stopped advertising [the movie] because we didn’t do the number they wanted,” Drai recalls. But Bernie’s wasn’t dead yet, doing steady business over the next several weeks. “[Fox] said to me, ‘Sorry that we fucked it up.’ I said, ‘Yes, I know you fucked it up.’”
But the movie caught on overseas — especially in Italy, where it made more than E.T. “We did very well all over the world,” says Drai. “Except in France — I don’t know why.” Soon, talk swirled around doing a sequel. “I get a call one Sunday morning after the first movie was out a couple months,” Kiser says. “It’s Victor Drai — he says, ‘Terry, come over to the house right now. Klane’s on his way.’” When Kiser arrived at Drai’s house, champagne was waiting. “He says, ‘We just got the money for the second one. Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to be someplace where it’s warm, where I don’t have to wear shoes and I can go in the water.’ That’s how St. Thomas came up.”
Weekend at Bernie’s II reunited McCarthy, Silverman and Kiser for another comic misadventure — this time in St. Thomas — but without Kotcheff, and without Stewart. “I didn’t even know they were doing a Weekend at Bernie’s II,” she says. “I think they just wanted to try something completely different. I don’t know — I wasn’t informed of it at all. I was really surprised actually — and I guess, yes, I was a little hurt. But when you look at that movie, it’s just a completely different thing. I’m happy to be in the original.”
When asked about Weekend at Bernie’s II in that 2017 A.V. Club interview, McCarthy merely responds, laughing, “I mean… no one was really thinking there, were they?” The sequel failed to do as well at the box office, although Drai happily points out that he did a lot better financially with II. “We didn’t see a penny [from the original],” he says. “If you don’t have a gross deal, or you’re not the major director or producer … I did Weekend at Bernie’s II independently, and I made maybe 10 times the money I made on [the first Bernie’s]. Everyone made money.”
Opening almost exactly four years after the original, Bernie’s II got equally poisonous reviews, but it did contribute an unlikely bit of minutiae to the culture. In the sequel, Bernie, through the power of voodoo (don’t ask), is able to move, leading to a scene in which he becomes a chain in a conga line.
Years later, Kiser’s goofy moves became integrated into a dance that went viral, aided by hip-hop artist ISA’s 2010 track “Moving Like Berney” [sic]. “It was a movement, not just a statement,” ISA (aka Anthony LaVarry) later said of his song. “I wanted to show people: No matter what, you can keep moving.”
“People are calling me saying, ‘Terry, they’re doing the Bernie dance all over the place,’” recalls Kiser. “‘They’re doing it in every nightclub in Florida, it’s a big deal.’ Athletes started incorporating Bernie’s zombie-like gyrations into their celebrations, especially the Oakland A’s, who in 2012 adopted “Moving Like Berney” as their unofficial anthem. (Even the A’s fans got into the craze.) “It kind of relaxes everyone a little bit and puts everyone in a good mood,” reliever Jim Miller said at the time. “It’s a lot of fun around here right now. We are playing good baseball and enjoying it.”
“Moving Like Berney” got so big in the Bay Area that year that Kiser was invited to throw out the first pitch at a game. “The whole crowd has Bernie’s face on a stick,” Kiser says. “So I’m looking out at 35,000 Terrys, which is a little intimidating right there. But it was a bucket-list thing — I mean, who the hell doesn’t want to throw out an opening pitch of a Major League Baseball game?”
Weekend at Bernie’s continued to swirl around the outer regions of the zeitgeist in other ways, too. During the 1998 Friends episode “The One With the Frozen Embryos,” the friends engage in a trivia contest about each other, and we learn that while Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) claims that Dangerous Liaisons is her favorite movie, it’s actually Weekend at Bernie’s. Silverman’s sitcom Significant Mothers featured an homage to Bernie’s in one episode where a character eats gummy bears that have marijuana in them and is incapacitated. (Kiser made a cameo in the episode.) And when Bernie Sanders unsuccessfully ran for president in 2016, he’d have fundraising events cheekily called “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
The movie’s plot also may have inspired some criminal activity. In 2008, The New York Times reported a local news story in which “[t]wo men were arrested … after pushing a corpse, seated in an office chair, along the sidewalk to a check-cashing store to cash the dead man’s Social Security check.” (A police spokesman told the Times, “Hell’s Kitchen has a rich history, but this is one for the books.”)
If one needed any more proof of the film’s persistent cultural standing, look no further than a 2014 lawsuit filed by Klane and Kotcheff against MGM Holdings and Twentieth Century Fox, claiming they were due profits from Weekend at Bernie’s. The suit said, in part, “Each of them [has been] deprived of at least hundreds of millions of dollars despite fully performing under the agreements and delivering one of the most hilarious and endearing goofball comedies of the ‘80s.” (In his 2017 memoir, Kotcheff offered a follow-up, writing, “To our dismay, we learned that it was too late to sue. There is a statute of limitations on lawsuits dealing with company profits after the 10-year mark; so all the money the film made in the first 10 years is beyond our legal reach. MGM has agreed to give us our share of the profits that been made in the time afterward.”)
According to Drai, the lawsuit speaks to a larger issue involving the film’s messy rights situation, with different entities controlling different territories. “I tried to get the rights to do a remake,” says Drai, who thinks the new version should feature black characters. “It’s funnier to do that,” he says, adding that a remake “[needs] to have a different angle to it. … But nobody knows who owns what, so that’s where we are.”
That said: “Another part of me doesn’t want to touch it,” Drai continues. “It’s such an iconic [film] — I don’t need the money.” He’s out of the movie business now, running nightclubs in Vegas. “All my clients and the people who work for me are young people — they all know the movie, and that shocked me.” He doesn’t bring up Bernie’s to those around him, but when they find out he produced it, they want to talk to him about it. “They’re like, ‘Oh my god, I love that movie!’ It’s funny.”
“It was pretty unique for the time,” Stewart says. “It was one of the first groundbreaking, real sophomoric kind of [comedies] that guys gravitate to. That real slapstick, broad humor appealed to the male audience.”
She hasn’t seen the film in a while, but it’s not entirely removed from her mind. During her off-days during the shoot, she’d explore Wilmington a little, hanging out on the beach and reading. Years later, her current husband had a place north of Wilmington where he took her when they were dating. Laughing, Stewart recalls her first time at the guy’s place: “I thought, I like this area. I have a little experience in this kind of place. I was very happy that he had a place there; we’ve just maintained it ever since.” (If you’re looking for the original Bernie’s house, though, don’t bother: The filmmakers tore it down after production.)
As for Kiser, he may give a lot of credit to that mustache for landing him the part that made him famous, but he had no problem parting with it. “Shaved it off,” he says flatly. “Never had it again.”
“I have no idea. I guess I didn’t feel comfortable with a mustache. I guess that was it.” When you talk to Kiser, it’s almost like Bernie is some other person — not a part of himself — and maybe that’s also why he had to part with the facial hair once Bernie’s was over. “I’ve held onto this [idea] for so many years,” he tells me. “You know, ‘Is he right [for the part]? Is he a good actor?’ No, mustache — it goes back to the mustache. The mustache got the job, and so I just had to fulfill my role to the mustache.”