It was the movie nobody wanted to make, a raunchy college tale filled with beer-soaked parties, a dead horse left in the office of the dean and the declaration that “fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.” It wound up as a classic comedy, setting box office marks that will never be topped. But 40 years ago when Animal House debuted in theaters, few expected it would be a hit.
Sean Daniel, then a 20-something junior executive at Universal, recalls what Ned Tanen, president of film production, said to him at the time: “This is exactly the kind of movie this company doesn’t produce because it might offend so many sensibilities.”
“If, in 1977 when we were shooting the film, you would have told me I’d be having a conversation with a writer celebrating the 40th anniversary of the film we were making, I wouldn’t have known what that meant,” says actor Peter Riegert, who played Boon, one of the key characters in the film.
“Did I know I was going to be part of something iconic?” says Kevin Bacon, speaking about his first movie role. “I had no idea.”
National Lampoon’s Animal House is one of the most beloved movie comedies of all time, as well as one of the most successful. The 1978 film was made for a mere $2.3 million, and became the third highest-grossing movie of the year behind only Grease and Superman, which was made with a $55 million budget. Its $140-million-plus take made it the top-grossing comedy (and the No. 6 film overall) of the 1970s, a decade that included such megahits as Star Wars and Jaws. Adjusted for inflation, the box office haul for the movie today would be almost half a billion dollars.
“For any movie to surpass $100 million at the box office was very rare in the ’70s, let alone an R-rated comedy,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore, a global media measurement company. “It wasn’t just a movie—it was a cultural phenomenon.”
“It created a new language of comedy for the Baby Boom generation,” says Ivan Reitman, one of the film’s producers. “It’s amazing how it’s held on to become an important part of the culture.” And Dan Aykroyd, who was creative partner with the film’s star, John Belushi, calls Animal House “the seed that provided a living for a lot of actors, myself included.”
Its popularity translated to critical credibility, starting with its selection to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. It was No. 1 on Bravo’s 2013 list of comedies, and No. 4 on a 2014 readers’ poll in Rolling Stone magazine of the 25 funniest movies of all time. Pick any list of history’s most hilarious films and you’ll find Animal House comfortably ensconced near the top.
“It is a classic because it was superbly done,” says Matty Simmons, the founder of National Lampoon and one of the films producers, “and because it was a funny, funny movie. And it will still be funny in 100 years.”
The Crazy But Lovable Deltas
Set in 1962 at fictional Faber College, an Ivy-ish school that resembled the Dartmouth of that era, Animal House focuses on Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst), freshmen who are visiting fraternity houses during Rush Week. After being treated like dirt at the snobby Omega House—where the dress is coat-and-tie and the refreshments are punch and cookies—they head for Delta House. “I heard Delta’s the worst house on campus,” says Kroger.
They enter the ramshackle frat house on the heels of Belushi’s Bluto, the house’s resident force of nature. He snatches a bottle of beer that comes flying through the air, and a second smashes against the door. “Grab a brew,” he says. “Don’t cost nothing.” Delta House is home to a crew of lovable, beer-swilling hell-raisers led by the skirt-chasing Otter (Tim Matheson), his quip-spouting pal Boon (Riegert), the gearhead D-Day (Bruce McGill) and Bluto. They take college only as seriously as necessary to shield them from the adult world.
The Deltas accept Larry and Kent as pledges, renaming them Pinto and Flounder, and the fraternity brothers spend the rest of the film ignoring their studies and fighting for the right to party against the snooty Omegas and their oppressive overlord, Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon). There are food fights and toga parties, road trips and all manner of unrepentant mischief. When a particularly sadistic Omega named Douglas Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf) bullies Flounder during ROTC, the Deltas get even by helping Flounder hide Neidermeyer’s horse in the Dean’s office—with spectacularly funny results. So the Dean enlists the Omegas in a scheme to put the Deltas on “double secret probation.” When the Omegas foil a Delta scheme to cheat on an exam, the Delta house GPA falls so low that Dean Wormer kicks the fraternity off campus. But the Deltas make one last stand by disrupting the college’s homecoming parade in the grand finale.
As the cool, calm and ever deboinair Otter says after he and his brothers have all been expelled, “This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.” Bluto responds, “We’re just the guys to do it.”
“The Funniest Thing I’ve Ever Read”
Animal House was born out of concern. National Lampoon magazine, created in 1970 by alumni of the Harvard Lampoon, was a phenomenon by the mid-1970s, but the irreverent monthly began hemorrhaging talent when TV producer Lorne Michaels swooped in and cherry-picked writers and actors from the humor magazine for the new late-night TV show he was creating for NBC that would become “Saturday Night Live.” Matty Simmons feared that his magazine was losing its best writers to the more lucrative platform of television. When founding editor Douglas Kenney threatened to leave because he was burnt out, Simmons tantalized him into staying by saying, “You can’t leave now—we’re going to make a movie!”
Reitman, a young Canadian producer at the time, had suggested making a movie to Simmons, and became a producer. Kenney teamed with Harold Ramis, a Second City alumnus and former Lampoon radio and stage show cast member, and they wrote a wild sex-and-drugs comedy about Charles Manson in high school. Simmons insisted they age the characters up to college and added Chris Miller to the mix, whose short stories about his days in a wild Dartmouth fraternity in the early 1960s were one of the Lampoon magazine’s most popular features. The trio built their story around Miller’s tales of debauchery as a member of Dartmouth’s original animal house, the Alpha Delta Chi fraternity. Several of the character names were actual nicknames of Miller’s frat brothers, including Otter, Flounder and Pinto, Miller’s own handle.
None of the writers had ever read—let alone written—a screenplay. As Ramis explained in a documentary that accompanied the 2003 DVD rerelease of the film, “Ivan gave us copies of a paperback of the script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He said, ‘This is how a screenplay looks.’ That was all we knew. None of us had been to film school or written a script before.”
Once the script was in place, the film needed a director. Reitman wanted to direct, but, given that his last film was a Canadian quickie called Cannibal Girls, that idea was a nonstarter with the studio. At the time, Daniel’s then-girlfriend was working as script supervisor for a raucous sketch-comedy film, Kentucky Fried Movie, and came home every night to tell Daniel about the hilarious doings on the set that day. He watched some dailies, which were funny enough that the film’s brash young director—John Landis—caught his attention. Daniel and Mount gave him the script.
“It really was the funniest thing I’d ever read,” says Landis. Riegert was particularly taken by the horse scene, in which Flounder is handed a gun to take revenge on the beast that has tormented him throughout the film. The kind-hearted Flounder can’t harm an animal, so he shoots the gun in the air—and the horse promptly drops dead of a heart attack. “I was reading it one night before I went to sleep,” says Reigert. “And when the horse died, I literally fell out of bed laughing.”
The first script reflected Miller’s original stories and included the kind of cheerful sexism and casual racism that were a hallmark of the Lampoon humor. It also had plenty of puke. “Yeah, there was a lot of projectile vomiting in the first script,” says Landis, who got the writers to take it out. Landis worked with the writers, trying to focus them on a crucial idea. “My biggest contribution was telling them, ‘You have to like somebody in this movie’ because, initially, everyone was mean to everyone else,” Landis says. “I introduced the basic concept of good guys and bad guys. Delta had to be a home, a brotherhood. We put all of the positive things into the loser fraternity. The elitism, racism, classism, anti-Semitism—we put that into the other house, the Omegas.”
“John saw that it was about making the Deltas people you loved,” says Daniel. “It was a crucial insight to why it ended up working.”
The secret, says McGill, is that the raucous, cheerfully dirty comedy is actually an old-school approach in modern disguise. “It’s a classic form,” says McGill, who was doing Shakespeare in the Park in New York when he was cast as D-Day, the mustachioed, motorcycle-riding partner-in-crime to Belushi’s Bluto. “I don’t want to be the snobby old classicist but, really, Animal House closely follows Aristotle’s Poetics, in terms of the consistency of character, time and place,” McGill says. “This film was a pure period piece, about a protagonist and an antagonist, with a happy resolution.”
The fact that the story is set in 1962, a cultural cusp, just before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the generational upheaval that seemed to explode with the American arrival of the Beatles, gave the filmmakers license to insert jokes about attitudes of the time and about huge cultural changes that lurked in these characters’ immediate future.
Says James Widdoes, who played mild-mannered Delta fraternity president Robert Hoover, “They were very specific that they wanted this to take place before the Kennedy assassination, which was a seminal moment, the end of an era.” Adds Landis: “I found it extremely political. No one else seemed to notice that this was about the real beginning of the ’60s—that the film ends in civil insurrection and anarchy.”
The movie gave a group of young actors an early break, including cinematic first-timers like Karen Allen and Bacon. “I’d never met a person who had made a film,” says Allen. Bacon was a 19-year-old waiter taking acting classes when he was cast, and was such a newbie that he waited to get in with the crowd at the New York premiere until one of the other cast members on the red carpet spotted him and plucked him out of the line. “To be flown across the country and taken to be part of this beautiful chaos that is film production—it was overwhelming,” says Bacon, who played Chip, an Omega freshman who tries in vain to calm the chaos in the film’s final scenes. “I felt like I was looking into the future. I felt like, ‘This is where I’ll spend my life.’ ”
For Matheson, who began acting as a kid on shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “My Three Sons,” the film offered a chance to break out of the TV track to which he seemed confined. “Until then, most of the directors I’d worked with were 20 years older than me, and here was one that was younger than I was,” Matheson says. Still, Matheson had to convince the producers he was right to play Otter, the smooth-talking ladies’ man: “They wanted me to play one of the Omegas,” he says. “I’m not that self-assured guy that Otter is, but I had a sense of the character. When I auditioned with Peter [Riegert], we just hit it off and I stayed in the running.”
Landis had a casting brainstorm for Dean Wormer, the film’s villain: TV producer and actor Jack Webb, best known for the archetypal TV cop show, “Dragnet.” He even had lunch with Webb, who smoked cigarettes and drank a Martini while Landis pitched him; then Webb politely turned him down. So Landis hired John Vernon, who he’d just seen as the villain in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales.
The studio wanted another big name. “You get me a fucking movie star,” Tanen yelled at the director, so Landis reached out to Donald Sutherland, a personal friend, who was about to film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in San Francisco, and convinced him to come to Eugene, Oregon, for a couple of days to film scenes as Professor Jennings.
The writers had, in many cases, far different actors in mind as they worked on the script: Chevy Chase as Otter, Bill Murray as Boon and Dan Aykroyd as D-Day, joining his SNL partner Belushi, who was playing Bluto. Simmons, still smarting from the earlier Lampoon defections, said, “This is not a ‘Saturday Night Live’ movie—it’s a National Lampoon movie.” Aykroyd, under pressure by Michaels to stay at SNL because Belushi was already set, honored his obligation and passed up the film.
But the main attraction obviously was Belushi: “I made the comment that at the center of any great Animal House is a great animal—and the three of us looked at each other and said, ‘Belushi!’ ” Chris Miller told Entertainment Weekly in 1998.
Belushi was the breakout star of the film. From his impersonation of a zit in the campus cafeteria, his smashing of a folk player’s guitar at the toga party and his inspirational (if misguided) “Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech, his role, at its best moments, required a silent-comic performance that could still convey the outsized impulses of Bluto.
“For a guy with not that many lines, he steals the movie,” Widdoes says. “When he’s window-peeping on a ladder at the sorority and he looks back into the camera—the first time I saw that with an audience, I had never heard such a big laugh at a film. Everybody just lost it because they were so not expecting that.”
McGill was often teamed with Belushi in scenes. He recognized that his best approach was to engage but also to support. “I thought, ‘Don’t try to out-Belushi Belushi,’” he says. “You’re the straight man, so just stand back and take him in.”
While they were shooting the film in the fall of 1977, Belushi divided his time between Animal House in Oregon and “Saturday Night Live” in New York. He’d fly to Oregon on Sunday to be on the set Monday through Wednesday, then board a plane back to New York for rehearsals Thursday and Friday, and the live Saturday show. He’d hop a jet back to Oregon on Sunday to start the cycle all over again.
Belushi already had a reputation for the appetites—for food, drink and other intoxicants—that would eventually kill him. But he was on his best behavior in Oregon. Landis put Belushi and wife Judy in their own house, away from the cast’s late-night shenanigans, so he could be rested for the grueling schedule.
“Belushi was so amazing to be around,” Matheson says. “He’d done so much comedy. He was this constant anchor in the scenes, saying, ‘Good work.’ He couldn’t have been more supportive.”
“John was really very conscious that the rest of the cast were all actors,” Widdoes says. “That fueled him. None of us were sketch comics; we’d all trained as actors.”
Once casting was complete, Landis had all the Deltas come to Oregon a week ahead of everyone else to rehearse, choose costumes and get into character. “I hadn’t gone to college,” says Matheson, “so that movie was my college experience.” Part of that experience was a trip the actors took to a fraternity party just before shooting began. Like the people they would soon portray onscreen, trouble found them.
A group including Matheson, Riegert, McGill, Widdoes and Allen found themselves ushered up the stairs in a palatial frat house at the University of Oregon, where the movie would be filmed. They ran into a wave of fraternal hostility. So they decided to leave. Widdoes, who played the cautious and worrying Hoover on screen, escalated the situation as the rest of the actors were trying to leave when he was confronted by an angry student. “He was saying things like, ‘You Hollywood fags think you can come up here and steal our women’ and I kind of lost my cool,” Widdoes says. “I knocked the beer cup out of his hand and the beer went flying.”
Riegert: “What I remember most is how quickly it had deteriorated.”
“All of a sudden, all these guys just came at us in a wave and I thought, ‘I’m dead,’ ” says Matheson, who ended up at the center of a beating. “I remember seeing Tim in a corner, crouching down, his hands covering his head while people were whaling on him,” says Riegert. “We were outside and Karen started yelling and walking back toward the house and I put my arm around her and said, ‘I think you’re going the wrong way.’ And then suddenly I was being pounded in the back of the head. Somehow we got out of there.”
“I saw Bruce coming back for me and he said, ‘Just don’t run or panic,’” says Matheson. “Then we both got knocked down—and we looked at each other and said, ‘We gotta run!’ And we beat a hasty retreat. McGill saved my life.”
“We all got out alive,” says Widdoes. “But we got whooped.”
The Deltas bonded during the fight. The entire cast was housed at a Rodeway Inn, but by the time the actors cast as the Omegas arrived on location, the Deltas were so close-knit that they treated the Omegas as the enemy. McGill’s room at the Rodeway Inn became Party Central—for the Deltas. But the actors who played the Omegas were never invited. To fuel the anger of his Neidermeyer character, sergeant at arms for Omega House, Metcalf had his room placed directly over McGill’s so that, as he sat and worked on lines each night, the sound of the party came thumping through the floor.
“Many of us knew each other before the film. Bruce and Peter and I were drinking buddies in New York,” Metcalf says. “And we went back to that relationship after the movie. But the characters were so well-etched that we do all still relate to each other in that way, to some extent.”
Animal House was a small studio film, and the studio treated it with about the same respect given the Deltas by the Omegas. Landis had requested a large camera crane mounted on the back of a truck, but it was taken back a day early. “They needed it for an episode of ‘The Incredible Hulk,’” Landis says. He and his crew scavenged and repurposed settings, props and costumes, taking a DIY approach to meet the 30-day shooting schedule. Landis’ future wife, Deborah Nadoolman, who was the film’s costume designer, came up with the film’s most iconic garment in a moment of inspiration.
“She used press-on letters on a sweatshirt and put the word ‘COLLEGE’ on it—she made that up,” Landis says. “She held it up to me and said, ‘Do you think this is funny?’ ”
The prickly Tanen was supportive of Mount and Daniel, even if the executive didn’t really get the film: “He told me, ‘Everyone in this company hates this script. That really makes me know we should make it,’ ” Daniel says. “He liked to stick it to people. He gave us $2 million and said, ‘Go away and come back with a movie. And keep your head down.’ ”
Hints Of A Hit
Most of the cast members were too inexperienced to understand what a rare experience they were having. But the veteran who played Dean Wormer got it. “John Vernon was the only person who took me aside and said, ‘I think this movie is going to be a big hit,’ ” Landis recalls. “He said, ‘I’m serious—and I want to thank you for letting me be part of it.’ It was quite a moment.”
The exposed film was sent from the shoot site in Oregon back to Hollywood to be developed, so executives could review the daily footage. When the Animal House dailies started coming in, word began to spread. “The dailies were funny and the head of post-production was laughing at them,” Daniel says. “He told some of the other old-time guys. By the time they’d filmed the 20th day, the screening room for the dailies was full of executives, laughing their asses off.”
As he worked on the film in the editing room, Landis seemed to know what he had. “We started getting these wonderful two-sentence letters from John that said things like, ‘You have no idea how funny you are,’ ” Widdoes recalls. Adds Martha Smith, who played “Babs” Jenson, “He’d send little postcards that said, ‘We are making a classic.’ ”
Tanen, however, was unconvinced. When the producers and Landis finally screened the finished film for him, he watched silently, then stopped the projector after the scene where Otter is lured to a hotel room and beaten by the Omegas.
“Is that funny?” he demanded. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be funny,” Daniel offered. Tanen fumed: “Ask your director. Is that scene funny?” Landis now took a turn: “No, but it’s not meant to be funny.”
“So,” Tanen said, voice rising, “we’re making comedies that are not meant to be funny?” He stalked out.
By the time of the first preview in the early summer of 1978, Landis knew the pressure was on: “We were all very nervous,” he says. “We screened it in Denver, for a truly virgin audience that had no idea what it was going to see. And it was just amazing, rapturous and rowdy and loud. I had a small tape recorder because I wanted to tape the response—and I immediately ran out to the lobby and called John Belushi and played the tape for him over the phone.”
Riegert remembers a similar phone call: “I said, ‘What is that?’ And Landis said, ‘That’s the sound of a cash register!’ ”
Editor George Folsey Jr., recalls, “It was so raucous at the end of the movie that I actually was scared. I thought it might turn into a riot.” In the studio’s eyes, Landis says, “We went from war criminals to heroes.”
Well, almost. After the Denver screening, Tanen took Landis aside to express concern about the film’s road-trip scene, in which the Deltas wind up as the only white patrons in an African-American roadhouse. “Ned was convinced that there were going to be race riots across America because of that scene,” Landis says. Luckily, Mount had overseen several films by comedian Richard Pryor; he asked Pryor to come in and watch the film as a favor, to see whether it pinged his highly attuned antennae.
Afterward, Pryor sent Tanen a note: “Ned—Animal House is fucking funny. And white people are crazy.” The scene stayed.
The film’s success was virtually instantaneous. Riegert and his girlfriend went to the Sutton Theater in Manhattan a few days after the film opened and were amazed when the theater’s employees spotted him and yelled, “Boon!” They let him stand in the back of the sold-out theater. “That’s when I knew this film was going to be a monster,” Riegert says. “I thought they were going to rip the seats out of theater. I had never experienced laughter like that.”
Universal quickly shifted gears, expanding from a limited release to a much wider one. The film shot to No. 1 in the weekly box-office rankings, then stayed there for more than two months. It spawned a renewed craze of toga parties at colleges around the country, even as Belushi appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the headline “College Humor Comes Back.”
When Animal House was released in 1978, the average movie-ticket in the United States cost $2.34. Today it’s more than triple the price, $8.95. A box office tally of $140 million in 1978 prices meant there was significant repeat business: “The true impact of a movie is measured by how many times people felt compelled to see it,” says box office analyst Dergarabedian. “People obviously went back to see Animal House a lot.”
The reason for the repeat business was the quality of the product. The film was outrageously funny, it was hilariously rude, and it was deceptively smart in its use of nostalgia for an innocent period as a way to inject it with subversive ’70s humor.
“Everybody was in their 20s, including the director and the producers,” Reitman says. “This film resonated with the Baby Boomers; it was the first film to really do that in comedy. Comedies prior to this had been created, really, for the World War II generation.”
Says Mount, “Every young person chafes at authority—and this movie says, ‘Resist authority.’ It’s one of the great anti-authoritarian movies. It speaks to everyone who even momentarily wanted a walk on the wild side.” Says Daniel, “This was a very political movie that was all about rebellion. I felt we made a movie about the ’60s without making a movie about “the ’60s.”
Aykroyd, who would go on to work with many of those involved in the film, says, “It was the gateway to a new anarchic generation of comedy.”
Folsey, who subsequently edited and produced several of Landis’ films, points to the film’s emotional appeal, which goes far beyond its raucous humor. “There’s an underlying sweetness in the way the Deltas love and support each other,” Folsey says. “Everybody thinks the film is going to be so raunchy, but what separates it from all the movies derivative of it is a general feeling that these guys care about and support each other. There’s a bond created by the Deltas that an audience really responds to. I think that gives it its longevity.”
The Animal House Legacy
The influence of Animal House can be seen in a subsequent wave of films that seemed to follow its template, such as Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, American Pie and Old School. “It’s one of the most copied films ever, and it created the R-rated comedy,” says Landis. “Honestly, I’m not thrilled with a lot of what followed.”
The film’s success boosted careers in all directions. “It probably made it possible for me to work in films, which was something I’d never thought about,” says Allen. Smith says all the cast members “got courted by agents.” Actor DeWayne Jessie took it a step farther. In the film, he played singer Otis Day, whose R&B band, the Knights (which included future blues legend Robert Cray playing bass), shows up at the Dexter Lake Club and at the Delta House shindig where they play “Shout,” a song that went on to define generations of parties. After the film’s success, Jessie officially changed his name to Otis Day and began to tour with his own version of Otis Day and the Knights, something he still does. “Overnight I went from being DeWayne to being Otis,” he says. “It changed the course of my career.”
The film also inspired endless encounters with fans in subsequent years who were sure that the filmmakers had, somehow, mined the viewers’ own experiences for the movie.
“I’ve had literally thousands of people come up to me and say, ‘That was my school that film was based on,’ ” Landis says. “I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘I knew a guy exactly like that when I was in college.’ ”
There are hit comedies every year, but few with the staying power to be a perennial favorite 40 years after its release. A kind of sacred text to the Baby Boom generation that was its target audience, Animal House has won a devoted following among each generation that followed. As Matheson notes, “There’s a new crop of college students every year. And every year, somewhere, there’s a father who says to his kid, ‘You’ve got to see this before you go.’” Adds Riegert, “It’s a celebration of ‘Who gives a shit?’ When you’re young, you feel immortal and that’s how these characters behave.”
When Animal House was released 40 years ago, nobody could have anticipated how celebrated it would be four decades later. But some had inklings.
“I do remember thinking, while we were making the film, ‘What if this is the most successful project I’m ever in?’ ” Riegert says. “And, really, it probably was. You don’t replicate a success like this very often.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, N.Y.