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An Oral History of Rodney Dangerfield’s ‘Back to School’

Back to School, the 1986 comedy starring Rodney Dangerfield, is set at the fictional Grand Lakes University and was filmed on the bucolic campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which boasts expansive lawns created by 20,000-year-old glaciers.

The Rodney Dangerfield Institute, on the other hand — a comedy-education program established earlier this year by Dangerfield’s widow, Joan — is set on the north end of a concrete quad at Los Angeles City College and offers courses at a mere $46 a unit. All of which is fitting, given Dangerfield’s chronically disrespected, down-on-his-luck “everyman” persona. It’s not easy, he once told the Los Angeles Times. “I play hide-and-seek, and no one comes to look for me.”

Perhaps not the biggest film success of his career (most would agree that’s Caddyshack), Back to School definitely counts as Dangerfield’s best star turn. “Rodney didn’t just star in Back to School,” notes Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation, “he possessed that movie.”

He also inspired audiences to turn out in droves. In fact, per box-office receipts, Back to School was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1986 — outperforming both Aliens and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. People magazine even put Dangerfield on the cover (alongside Danny DeVito, whose Ruthless People came out the same year), referring to both as “Hollywood Hunks.” “I consider Back to School to be Rodney’s biggest hit,” says comic Harry Basil, who opened for Dangerfield in Vegas for 10 years and co-wrote numerous films with him (Meet Wally Sparks and My 5 Wives among them). “Along with Animal House, it’s a timeless college comedy new generations always seem to discover. Rodney will live on forever because of this film.”

As a tribute to the film and Dangerfield — as well as a means of raising money for people studying cinema and theater at L.A. City College — a couple of weeks ago, the community college hosted a live stage reading of Back to School. With Dangerfield no longer with us — he died in 2004 at the age of 82 — Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) stepped into the film’s lead role of big-and-tall store tycoon Thornton Melon. (“Being a big Jew helps,” Garrett jokes when I ask for his tricks on channeling Rodney. “He also was a comedic hero for me growing up and was one of the first impressions I ever did.”) Comedian/impressionist Craig Gass delivered the late Sam Kinison’s epic Vietnam War rant. Jeremy Guskin depicted a young, snarky Robert Downey Jr., while Paul Rodriguez read the role of Lou, Melon’s faithful driver/muscle, originally played by Burt Young.

Also in attendance were Joan Dangerfield; Back to School producer Chuck Russell; Adrienne Barbeau, who played Melon’s ex-wife; and Basil, who read the stage direction.

What follows is an oral history of Back to School based on a Q&A following the live reading, subsequent interviews I held with the participants and previously published material about Dangerfield and the film.

Robert Schwartz, Executive Director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation (LACC): When we were trying to think of how to get some press and visibility to the institute, Back to School immediately jumped to mind. It’s about a father being there for his son who’s having trouble getting through school. So it parallels a challenge we see at LACC all the time: students who’ve struggled one way or another while overcoming obstacles to their education. In addition, I regularly sign vouchers for books and give out scholarships and stipends to people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, which kind of mirrors Rodney’s character in Back to School.

As for Rodney, he came from very modest beginnings. He was an aluminum siding salesman in New Jersey and didn’t get started in show business until his 40s. Comedy was a second chance — a renewal of what his life was all about — and that’s what L.A. City College is all about. [Editor’s Note: Richmond Hill High School in Queens was as far as Dangerfield got in school.]

Joan Dangerfield, Rodney’s widow: The initial Back to School story had a financially strapped father going to college with his son and struggling to pay their tuition by working at a car wash. Harold Ramis suggested they flip that and have Rodney’s character be an uneducated self-made millionaire, a character Rodney identified with more than the one he played in Caddyshack because he was basically a “right guy” who was generous and fair. Instead of becoming bitter after his bad marriage, he plowed through, wanting the best for his son, and was soon involved in a new romance.

Incidentally, Joan keeps a bottle of Rodney’s sweat in her refrigerator.

Joan Dangerfield: I discovered that Elvis had a handkerchief that was apparently stained with his sweat and it went for a lot of money. So Rodney had a “eureka” moment. He said, “I sweat more than anybody! My sweat has to be as good as Elvis’ sweat, right?” My job became the “sweat collector,” I’d take a sponge and spoon and collect his sweat — about an inch at a time. I thought we could water it down but he said, “No, that wouldn’t be right.”

I still have it. I’ve kept it in the freezer for about 15 years now in an airtight Tupperware container. When the Grammy Museum asked to create an exhibit honoring Rodney, their curators came over to help select items to display. I thought the sweat would be unique and fantastic, so the night before, I let it melt and transferred it to a pretty container for their visit. They were very polite, but they didn’t want it.

Harry Basil: Young people loved Back to School because it had this rich old man spouting off funny one-liners, but it had a young cast as well. That was the success of Caddyshack, too, which had both the young caddy characters and older character actors like Ted Knight, Rodney, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. So it had a broad appeal. Back to the School did as well, for the same reason.

Joan Dangerfield: Rodney invited me to the set a few times, once when he was suffering from gout. He was in a lot of pain, but didn’t want to disrupt the schedule or let anyone down. Fortunately, it was the day they filmed him sitting in a chair fielding questions, his oral exam. He actually did some of his best acting that afternoon when he recited the Dylan Thomas poem,Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

Chuck Russell, producer: That set was as fun as it looked. But with Robert Downey Jr., Sam Kinison and Rodney, it was a little bit like herding chickens.

Adrienne Barbeau: I always said that [director Alan Metter] should’ve been given an Academy Award for getting Rodney to stand still. He was hysterically funny. He’d start a riff, and Alan eventually would have to step in and say, “Rodney, that’s so funny, but I don’t think it works here.”

Russell: Rodney knew his act cold and he didn’t have a lot of patience. We’d lose him after four or five takes. He was a force — both on set and in the clubs supporting new comic talent.

Wayne Federman, comic: I was a 24-year-old comedian just trying to break in. It was hard. I met Rodney on the sidewalk in front of [NYC comedy club] Catch a Rising Star. He was in a bathrobe and smoking pot with a few other comedians who told him I was a new comic. Rodney said, “I’m always looking for jokes. I’ll give you $50 for anything you write for me that I use.” It was a very generous offer.

Joan Dangerfield: Rodney liked to give Sam and other young comics advice about women, life, depression, success and failure. He loved Jim Carrey, who was still a teenager when Rodney hired him to open his Vegas shows.

Jim Carrey, from the foreword of Dangerfield’s autobiography, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs: Rodney is, without a doubt, as funny as a carbon-based life-form can be. But what most people don’t know is that Rodney’s also a very sweet and generous man.

Basil: Rodney came to a showcase at the Comedy Store I was on along with Louie Anderson, Bob Saget, Yakov Smirnoff and others. He liked my act and casted me in his first HBO special, the 9th Annual Young Comedians Special in 1984. We first met in the Green Room at Dangerfield’s, Rodney’s comedy club in New York City. His testicles were hanging out of his robe. Anyone who spent any private time with Rodney saw them. He was only comfortable in a bathrobe, but he never tied it shut all the way and never wore underwear. So the boys kinda hung out to catch some air. They were exceptionally low-hanging, like a grandfather clock.

Joan Dangerfield: In the 1980s and 1990s, Rodney hosted a number of specials where he showcased young talent. Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay, Rita Rudner, Jerry Seinfeld, Harry Basil, Bob Nelson, Louie Anderson, Bill Hicks, Dom Irrera, Jeff Foxworthy, Roseanne, Tim Allen and Bob Saget were featured on those shows, certainly proving Rodney’s eye for talent.

Garrett: Folks typically don’t give you a leg up when they can in our industry. Rodney always did. He helped out so many comedians. He knew talent. That said, he never picked me. Just Jim Carrey, Sam Kinison, Harry Basil, Andrew Dice Clay and Roseanne — all the people in rehab.

He gave Sam Kinison, a Pentecostal preacher-turned-comic, his big break with a spot on the Young Comedians Special.

Rodney Dangerfield, from A Tribute to Sam Kinison: He was a stroke of genius. His style was so wild, so great — he was one of a kind.

Joan Dangerfield: He loved Sam like a son.

So much so that he created a part for him in Back to School: Professor Terguson, the rage-filled Vietnam vet-cum-history-professor.

Joan Dangerfield: Rodney really wanted Sam to be in the movie, so they created the role of the contemporary history professor especially for him. It became one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.

Russell: We needed shocked looks on students’ faces for the reverse [angle]. So I told Sam to do just his act, which was very blue. It freaked out those college kids. I can’t even repeat he was saying.

Basil: It was a showstopping scene. Sam told a story about hanging out with Ned Beatty [who played the dean of Grand Lakes University] on the set and made a comment like, “I’m only on screen for about five minutes.” Beatty said, “Yeah, so was I in Network, and I was nominated for an Oscar. It doesn’t matter how small your part is, if you make some noise.”

Sam definitely made some noise.

In addition to Robert Downey Jr. and Dressed to Kill star Keith Gordon (as Dangerfield’s onscreen progeny), Back to School featured 1980s iconic blond teen villain William Zabka in the role of the campus dickhead. When Zabka, who played Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid and Greg Tolan in Just One of the Guys, landed the part of Chas, he noticed a pattern forming.

William Zabka, from a 2010 interview with The A.V. Club: “When Back to School came around, that was the first time I thought, Wait a minute, this is starting to happen too much! I actually tried to have more fun with Chas. I thought, I’m going to be funny now. I don’t want to just play a jerk. So I put on a funny walk, and I had a scarf a bunch of times. They cut out most of my funny bits, though. In fact, the director [Alan Metter] pulled me aside one day and said, ‘We need you to be more like the guy you did in The Karate Kid. You’re coming off as too likable and funny.’”

While walking home with his date — Professor Diane Turner, played by Sally Kellerman — Dangerfield spots a pair of dogs humping on the lawn outside his dorm and says, “Get a room.” The line sounds cliché now, until you realize that, as with so many other iconic one-liners, Dangerfield likely originated it.

Basil: “Get a room” sounds like Groucho Marx or even W.C. Fields, but it could’ve been Rodney’s. That’s the thing about Rodney. He’d been writing jokes for a long time, so you never knew. We did another line in Meet Wally Sparks where he walks by a couple on the dance floor. They’re making out, and he goes, “You two should get a room.” He takes two more steps, sees a fat couple and says, “You two should get a warehouse.” In another joke he wrote in The 4th Tenor, there was a fat couple eating ferociously in a restaurant. He came up to them and said, “Is everything all right?” And they kept eating. “Is everything all right?” he asked again. But they kept stuffing their faces. Finally, he said, “When you come to the white part, that’s the plate,” and walked away.

Joan Dangerfield: Rodney’s favorite line in the movie was actually, “Why don’t you call me sometime when you have no class?”

Danny Elfman’s peppy, symphonic score soon became synonymous with 1980s comedies. Elfman would go on to voice the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, compose the score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and write the theme song to The Simpsons, among a staggering amount of other indelible work.

Russell: We took a risk on Danny Elfman, and he went on to be one of the most celebrated composers in Hollywood, scoring iconic films like Midnight Run, Batman and Beetlejuice.

Basil: Almost every director in Hollywood would use Danny Elfman’s material from Back to School and Pee Wee Herman as a temp score. They’d say, “We need something like this.” That Back to School theme music ended up in a lot of trailers, too.

Despite Dangerfield’s having appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson some 80 times, when it came time to promote Back to School, he decided to sit on the couch of a Carson protege instead.

Basil: He did Letterman. It’s kind of an awkward interview because Dave’s not that friendly to him. I don’t think anyone knew why he wasn’t doing the Tonight Show.

Turns out, it was a longstanding grudge born from a drunken evening.

Basil: He helped Johnny home one night after Carson was drinking. Johnny said, “I’m fine,” but Rodney kept driving alongside him slowly and waited until he got in the house with the door shut and the lights on before finally leaving. Johnny never called him to thank him. Sometimes Rodney would let little things like that stew in his head. We thought it was crazy he was holding onto this grudge. “Johnny loved to drink, and a lot of people helped him get home,” I’d say. “Johnny didn’t know you were doing all that — he was drunk out of his mind!” But Rodney would shake his head. “Man, that’s not right,” he’d say. “I got him home. Probably saved his life. And he hasn’t even called me? Fuck it, I’m not doing his show anymore.”

Time went by, and we’d say, “Rodney, when are you on Carson next?” and he’d say under his breath, “I’m not doing that fucking show. Do you know what he did to me?”

Rodney didn’t do the Tonight Show for Johnny’s last 10 years on the air.

Speaking of grudges…

From Dangerfield’s Washington Post obituary: In 1995, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rejected Dangerfield’s application for membership. A letter from Roddy McDowall of the actors branch explained that the comedian had failed to execute “enough of the kinds of roles that allow a performer to demonstrate the mastery of his craft.”

Dangerfield played the rejection to the hilt. An early adopter of at least official web presences, he’d already established his own website (“I went out and bought an Apple computer; it had a worm in it”), and his fans used it to express their indignation. The public reaction prompted the academy to reverse itself and offer membership, which Dangerfield declined.

“They don’t even apologize or nothing,” he said. “They give no respect at all — pardon the pun — to comedy.”

Since Rodney’s death, Joan Dangerfield has been fiercely protective of his legacy, even launching a campaign to get an unflattering mural removed from a wall in his native Queens. On the flip side, Back to School she says, is a fitting legacy.

Joan Dangerfield: Rodney was thrilled Back to School was a commercial success and got positive reviews. He also loved the people he worked with and the character he played.

Rodney wished he had guidance when he started out. He worked all the local clubs, but couldn’t get a break. When he was 28, he quit show business to get married and live a normal life. He said, “To give you an idea of how well I was doing, at the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit.”

He went back into show business 12 years later when he was $40,000 in debt to a loan shark, his marriage was in trouble and he was living in what he called a “dungeon hotel” in New York. Everyone said he was finished, but this time, he killed the crowds with jokes he’d been writing and throwing into a duffel bag while selling aluminum siding. Turned out the bag was full of gems born out of real disappointment and the fact that nothing in life works out, at least for him.

After he became a success, if he spotted someone with talent at a local club, he went out of his way to help and encourage them. Even a few months before he died, we dropped by the Laugh Factory on Sunset to try out jokes and caught a few newcomers. On the way home, Rodney called the owner and asked to speak to one of them. He loved his material and wrote a joke for him to try adding to his routine. A few nights later, he got a call from the comic saying the joke went over big. Rodney was really happy for him.