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.