What would “Back to School” be without Rodney Dangerfield?
It probably still would be a superior movie of the youth genre, where adults are uniformly depicted as officious, corrupt, intolerant and oppressively stupid.
“Back to School” softens some of these stereotypes, or at least the performances do. Ned Beatty as a college president has to set a precedent for raising the level of two-faced officialdom to that of supreme unction.
Sally Kellerman’s literature professor, who takes the lectern breathlessly reciting the Molly Bloom soliloquy from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” is an exquisite reminder of every teacher we’ve ever had who polluted a classroom with his or her deadly affectations.
Without Dangerfield, however, “Back to School” probably would not be one of the surprise hits of this young summer. It might not have made it so big even with him, had the premise of the screenplay (written by Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei and Harold Ramis) not been radically changed.
“Originally, I went back to college as a poor guy trying to help his son get through and embarrassing him by working in a car wash, things like that,” Dangerfield said. “It was Harold (Ramis) who suggested we change it to a rich guy.” Voila! Now Dangerfield is Thornton Melon, uneducated self-made millionaire businessman (owner of a chain of Tall and Fat clothing stores) whose son (Keith Gordon) is doing miserably in his freshman year at Grand Lakes University. Melon senior strikes a deal with Melon Jr.: If he can make it through, so can the son. When the college president delicately inquires about Melon’s nonexistent high school transcript, Melon offers to build a business college on campus. You can see the wheels whirring in the college president’s head.
“I think (the change) made more of a human touch,” Dangerfield said. “No matter what, the father and son stay close. Melon is a right guy, not like the character I played in ‘Caddyshack,’ who was not me. I had my hook in Melon. He was generous, fair; he was all right. He didn’t turn bitter with success or his bad marriage.” (Adrienne Barbeau plays Melon’s concupiscent wife, who can’t stand him, and an old Dangerfield joke has been dusted off to describe their marriage: “I’m an earth sign. She’s a water sign. Together we’re mud.”)
Someday, film critics may speak of the Dangerfield oeuvre, and how he evolved from his first low-budget film, “The Projectionist,” into a character who learned how to more or less blend in with what was going on around him (though, in “Back to School,” Dangerfield is still Dangerfield--eyes bulging, head popping). But movie making holds no mystique for Dangerfield, who, at 64, is a bit beyond the blandishments of commercial success. He doesn’t even appear to like making them.
“They don’t have the same emotional satisfaction as doing live shows,” he said on a recent afternoon in a West Hollywood hotel room. He was dressed in a bathrobe and sipping from a bottle of Evian water, flushed from a New Yorker’s overexposure to California sun. “Movies are tedious. You work 12 to 14 hours a day, without laughs. With a live show you have a romance with the audience.”
Dangerfield was laconic to the point of being taciturn this day. A deep unhappiness seemed to be pulling at him. Perhaps school talk reminded him of growing up in New York’s Kew Gardens, where, as a boy named Jacob Cohen, he had an entertainer father who didn’t use the family name (he billed himself as Phil Roy and when Dangerfield went into show business as a comedian, he used the moniker Jack Roy). Phil Roy was gone most of the time, and Dangerfield has recalled elsewhere the memory of working as a grocery boy and having to make deliveries to his schoolmates’ homes after school.
“I always felt below other people,” he said. “Success, money doesn’t change that.” The memory of an earlier career struggle that ended in defeat is with him, too. “I quit show business when I was 28 and went to work as a paint salesman. I wanted a home and a family. It didn’t work out.” He paused, a sour look on his face, and took a pull from the Evian bottle.
“I went back into show business in ’62.” It was at then that a club owner dubbed him Rodney Dangerfield. “I was broke. I owed $40,000. I lived in a dungeon hotel in New York. Everyone said I was finished.
“It turned around when I wrote a joke for ‘The Ed Sullivan Show'--I was on four times. Every joke needs a premise. I did a hide-and-seek joke where I say, ‘When I went to hide, nobody came to look for me.’ That got a big response. I went from there. I did ‘Tonight Shows,’ ‘Caddyshack’ and ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The rock groups picked up on me. Led Zeppelin, Kiss, used to come to the club” (his New York club, Dangerfield’s, which is still going strong, though he doesn’t perform there anymore). “I’ve learned to cope with good and bad. For a 22-year-old, success is tough to handle. For me, it’s a job.”
It’s a job he works at with excruciating detail and tireless demands on himself. For this article’s photo, for example, he worked for five hours for only three shots in Las Vegas, where he’s currently appearing.
“I’m keeping healthy,” he said. “I’m on the Pritikin diet. No fats, no sugar, no starches.”
“Hey, everybody cheats a little,” he replied.
It was the only moment of levity in the interview. At its close, he looked a bit surprised and said, “That’s it? That’s all?” For a moment it appeared that, once again, he thought he was getting no respect.