In the history of film there are a few rare moments when everything just seems to go right. At such times, even the smallest and least promising movies-sometimes it’s the ones that are being taken the least seriously-have a real shot at pulling off an upset that will get the whole world talking about them. Typically starring new talent, such movies can hit Hollywood as a breath of fresh air, sometimes spawning sequels-or at least imitators. “Animal House” was just such a film, and it could hardly have been less promising during production. Indeed, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels threatened to fire Dan Aykroyd if he took the role of D-Day, which had been written specifically for him. In such humble beginnings, however, were the seeds of future greatness. Learning something new about such a movie is like meeting an old friend and finding out you never really knew the person at all. Here are five facts most people don’t know about one of the funniest movies of all time.
“Animal House” was among the first films in its genre of fun teen comedies. As a pioneer in an untested field, the movie was never going to be properly funded. John Landis only managed to secure around $2.5 million for his project, and even when he jettisoned caution and ran over budget anyway, MGM was reluctant to part with any more than a total of $3 million for the whole budget. By the time “Animal House” had completed its theatrical run, the movie had grossed over $141 million.
John Belushi was involved with the film from the start. Until established talent Donald Sutherland was brought onboard, he was also the highest-paid member of the cast, at a whopping $40,000. Sutherland was offered a choice of payment-either an up-front payment of $75,000 for three days of shooting or a percentage of the movie’s gross. Having no faith in the movie whatsoever, Sutherland took the $75,000. This was a decision he would come to regret, as the offer of gross points would have been worth an estimated $3-4 million.
At the end of “Animal House,” the audience is given a brief epilogue regarding the fate of the principal characters in the film. Neidermeyer’s fate, it seems, was to go to Vietnam, where he was killed by his own troops. In an interesting crossover, the subject comes up again in film. During a segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” directed by John Landis, a group of soldiers in Vietnam are overheard talking about “fragging Neidermeyer.”
“Animal House” was shot on a college campus in Eugene, Oregon-the same campus that had earlier declined filming permission for “The Graduate”-and is set in a small college in Pennsylvania. Despite this, the courtroom in the film displays the flag of Tennessee. Apparently, this is because the set decorator brought a Pennsylvania flag that was too small for the set. Frantic efforts to find a replacement in time were unsuccessful, and the state flag of Oregon, which actually was available, was unacceptable since “State of Oregon” is embroidered across its top. With time running short, the decision was made to use Tennessee’s flag as it was the most generic the crew could find.
Whenever a movie delights its studio by turning a hefty 50,000 percent profit, as did “Animal House,” either a sequel or a spinoff is all but guaranteed. As it happens, “Animal House” was the inspiration for a spinoff TV show on each of the three broadcast networks. ABC briefly ran “Delta House,” which was soon canceled. CBS tried its luck with “Co-ed Fever,” which was mercifully canceled after a single episode. Even NBC got in on the act, airing “Brothers and Sisters,” which also died quietly in its first season. It’s possible that Donald Sutherland was right about the movie’s bankability after all.
“Animal House” was the comedy of its generation, and anyone who saw it once has never forgotten it. It was the highpoint of John Belushi’s all-too-brief career, and it propelled a number of others to tremendous fame over the next decade-the movie was Kevin Bacon’s first major role-despite its shaky beginnings. It was the progenitor of an entire genre of wacky teen comedies that would ring Hollywood’s cash registers for years until the field was devastated by “Heathers.” Whatever peculiar combination of magic spells brought “Animal House” into existence, it’s a joy to look back on the halcyon days of the late ’70s and remember that comedy was once fresh and dangerous.