‘Animal House’ Oral History: From Richard Pryor to a Real Melee

Posted May 1, 2018 5:11 p.m. EDT

Richard Pryor may have saved “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

In 1978, Universal’s film division president, Ned Tanen, was in a rage about the not-yet-released Kennedy-era comedy. He was particularly livid over a scene in which white fraternity brothers and their sorority dates feel threatened by a roadhouse full of African-Americans. “Ned said, ‘You have to cut the whole black bar scene. There will be riots across America,'” director John Landis recalled in a recent interview.

A young Universal executive championed the film and screened it for the legendary comedian. “He sent Ned a note on paper that said at the top, ‘From the desk of Richard Pryor,’ and he wrote: ‘Ned, ‘Animal House’ is [expletive] funny, and white people are crazy,'” Landis remembered with a laugh. “It was like a papal blessing.”

“Animal House,” which was made for $2.1 million, went on to gross $141.6 million domestically after its release on July 28, 1978. Nearly 40 years later, we caught up with many of the cast members including Kevin Bacon (who made his film debut in the comedy) and Donald Sutherland, along with Landis and producer Ivan Reitman to tell the back story of the quintessential summer comedy.

They recalled the film’s breakout star, John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose in 1982 at 33, as well as a real food fight and an on-campus melee.

— The script, by Douglas Kenney, Chris Miller and Harold Ramis, aimed to capture the rude, subversive humor of the magazine, but the story — about the unruly fraternity Delta House at fictional Faber College — left Hollywood’s establishment cold.

JOHN LANDIS: They offered it to John Schlesinger ["Midnight Cowboy"], Alan J. Pakula ["All the President’s Men"], Mike Nichols ["The Graduate"], George Roy Hill ["The Sting"] — the most unlikely directors — and they all threw it back. It shows you just how low-priority the movie was that they gave it to me, a 27-year-old with long hair who had made “Schlock” and “The Kentucky Fried Movie.”

BRUCE McGILL (the biker Delta, D-Day): The first time I read the script, I was in the unemployment office on 90th and Broadway in Manhattan, which is not the cheeriest place. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wow, Universal’s going to make this?” They were very conservative at the time.

PETER RIEGERT (Boon, the romantic lead): I was living with my girlfriend, Bette Midler, in New York City when I read the script, and I fell out of bed laughing. She loved how much I was loving it.

— Although Ramis had written the role of Boon for himself, Landis refused to cast him.

LANDIS: Harold was brilliant, but he wasn’t really an actor — he had one performance. He never forgave me.

KAREN ALLEN (Katy, Boon’s girlfriend): Harold was really sad about that. But he became a wonderful director.

— Reitman and fellow producer Matty Simmons wanted to turn the film into a showcase for the stars of television’s relatively new smash “Saturday Night Live,” but Landis had other ideas.

LANDIS: The part of [the Delta lady-killer] Otter was written for Chevy Chase, D-Day was for Dan Aykroyd, and Bluto was for Belushi. I wanted John and Danny, but not Chevy, because I didn’t want the audience to think of it as an “SNL” movie. I had lunch with Chevy, and he was so full of himself — he lit this big cigar, and he was on his worst behavior. I said, “I know you’re being offered ‘Foul Play,’ too, but you would have to carry that movie with Goldie Hawn. ‘Animal House’ is an ensemble, like ‘SNL.'” He took “Foul Play,” and I was delighted.

CHEVY CHASE: John Landis is full of [expletive], as he usually is. He had nothing to do with my decision. I did “Foul Play” because I wanted to work with Goldie.

— The “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels wouldn’t let Aykroyd do the movie. He did give Belushi permission, but the actor had to work around the television show’s production schedule, flying back and forth between New York City and the movie’s Eugene, Oregon, set.

JAMES WIDDOES (the strait-laced Delta, Hoover): Belushi was on our set Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and he’d talk about the ideas he had for “Saturday Night Live.” He’d fly back to New York City on Wednesday night, and we’d watch “SNL” and see all the skits he’d talked about. McGILL: People always ask, “How was John?” and it’s so thinly veiled — they mean, “Was he doing drugs?” I always say, “Honestly, he was tired.” He had two speeds: full-out and asleep.

LANDIS: John was a lovely, sweet, sensitive, charming, delightful guy, and he was a drug addict. But on “Animal House,” he was completely clean. When we made “The Blues Brothers” a year later, his addiction to cocaine had gotten worse, and he would drink, so it was bad. We had to take the door off his hotel room to get him out.

KEVIN BACON: I found John to be extremely warm and funny. In fact, I would run into him [in the Village] sometimes after we did the movie, and he was always a superfriendly and generous guy. He was cool. I really liked John.

— To create a bond among the Deltas, Landis brought them on location a week early in October 1977. They went to a fraternity party on the University of Oregon campus and got into a melee.

RIEGERT: You could tell how much the brothers didn’t want us there. We were like wasps in a bumblebees’ nest.

WIDDOES: I started the fight when I knocked a cup of beer into one of the brothers’ faces. It’s not my proudest moment.

TIM MATHESON (Otter): I saw the front line of the football team coming at me and thought, “I’m a dead man.” I looked at McGill and said, “Let’s run!” They chased us down. It was not pretty.

ALLEN: Bruce got a horrific black eye. I was screaming so loudly for them to stop fighting, I lost my voice, but I got it back a day later.

WIDDOES: I ended up with a few loose teeth, but a student who’d been leading us around, her dad was a dentist, so I was in his chair at 8 the next day. That fight cemented us as a group.

— The actors playing the militaristic Omega fraternity members — including Bacon — arrived to find they were already considered the enemy.

MARK METCALF (the crazed cadet Neidermeyer): We walked into a coffee shop, and the Deltas were at a table with Landis. He said, “It’s Neidermeyer! Get him!” They started throwing food and yelling at us. — It didn’t get any easier for Bacon when he shot a hazing scene.

BACON (the abused pledge Chip): They showed me the paddle Metcalf was going to use on me, and it was made of balsa wood. I was like, “No problem.” But Landis had him hit me over and over. In the script, my character said “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” maybe three times. Landis kept yelling, “Again! Again! Again!” and it definitely started to sting.

— The cast stayed at a motel, where the debauchery rivaled the film’s toga party.

McGILL: It was too expensive to drink at the bar, so we went to a state liquor store and bought half-gallon bottles. I liberated a piano that was sitting in this forest of red waiters’ jackets in a closet and moved it to my room. We were unstoppable, man — we felt bulletproof.

METCALF: I stayed in the room above McGill’s. I wanted to party with the Deltas, but it would’ve been wrong for Neidermeyer to do that. I was kept up late by the noise. I’d polish my ROTC helmet and get deeper and deeper into character.

REITMAN: I was staying at the motel with my wife and newborn son [director Jason Reitman], so I didn’t participate in those parties. The one I remember most was the Thanksgiving dinner John Belushi and his wife, Judy, hosted at a house they rented in Eugene. They had all of the people from out of town over for turkey and all the trimmings. It was lovely.

— In need of a big-name actor to give the film legitimacy, Landis recruited Donald Sutherland to play a pot-smoking professor who sleeps with Katy. No one seemed to agree on why Sutherland bared his butt in the film.

ALLEN: My impression was Donald did it to make me feel more relaxed. Landis suddenly said to me, “We’re going to focus on your naked butt,” and that wasn’t in the script. I said, “That’s not going to happen,” and Donald said, “Well, if she has to show her butt, I’ll show mine, too.”

DONALD SUTHERLAND: I said, “Just as a joke, let’s do one take with my bare bum.” My wife said to John, “If you use this, I will never speak to you again.” He used it, and she didn’t speak to him again. It got a laugh, but I would rather my wife be happy.

LANDIS: Karen was uneasy about showing her tush. Donald had been naked in, like, 30 movies, so I asked him to show his ass, and when I explained the gag, he said, “Yes, absolutely.”

— The film was shot in 31 days. After test screenings began, word filtered back to the cast members they might have a hit on their hands.

RIEGERT: The first preview was for a college audience in Denver. I called Landis and he said, “Let me play you something.” He’d recorded the audience’s reaction, and you couldn’t hear half the lines — it was all whistling, screaming, laughing and cheering. I said, “Oh my God, what is that?” And he said, “That is the sound of a cash register.”

REITMAN: I was there, and it was like a rock concert.

BACON: Nobody had seen anything quite like “Animal House.” It defined a genre that hadn’t really existed up to that point. It was outlandish, and it pushed the boundaries of what’s gross and inappropriately sexual, but it wasn’t pornographic.

ALLEN: After it came out, suddenly the doors to casting offices flew open for us.

MATHESON: It brought a new spirit — that “SNL” feeling — into features. — It also gave an unlikely career boost to DeWayne Jessie, who played singer Otis Day in the roadhouse scene. Although his vocals were dubbed by Lloyd Williams, Jessie adopted the name Otis Day and began singing at gigs with a band. He’s still doing it.

LANDIS: For years, people would say to me, “Hey, I saw Otis Day and the Knights — they were great!” And I would say, “They’re fictional. They don’t exist. What are you smoking?” It turns out, I learned at the 25th anniversary reunion, he had been touring.

DeWAYNE JESSIE: Being Otis changed me as a person. It’s a moneymaker, dude!

— Despite its often politically incorrect humor, “Animal House” remains popular to this day.

ALLEN: I find it funnier now than I did then. You cringe at it in a way, but it’s an interesting kind of cringe. What’s great about the film is it really makes fun of everybody.

LANDIS: It captures what everybody considers the best years of your life — the first time you’re independent and feel a tremendous sense of freedom, but before all the responsibilities come.

McGILL: It taps into that time when your body is grown but you’ve not yet reached maturity. It wasn’t just a Universal picture — it was a universal picture.

RIEGERT: I heard somebody refer to it as a “training film.” Kids in eighth or 10th grade have told me they couldn’t wait to go to college because they thought it would be like “Animal House.”

MATHESON: My daughter called me when she went to college and said, “Dad, I’m at a toga party — you’ve gotta say hi to my friends.”

— Four decades later, the ties forged among the actors feel as real as any collegiate friendships.

RIEGERT: In a funny kind of way, it’s as if we went to Faber.

WIDDOES: None of us were in fraternities when we went to college. This became our fraternity.

ALLEN: To this day, I’ve never worked on a film where I stayed closer to the cast.

BACON: I have a tremendous amount of fondness for the film and those memories. It was like my first love.