'Problem Child' Turns 25: Director on John Ritter Ad-Libs, Test Audience Walkouts

Problem Child - H 2015
Everett Collection

Dennis Dugan tells THR about Ritter and Amy Yasbeck meeting and falling in love on the film, explains why the first preview screening was a "disaster" and defends frequent collaborator Adam Sandler.

Problem Child was Universal's most profitable film of 1990, but its path to success was, well, a bit problematic at times.

With the John Ritter-starring comedy hitting the 25th anniversary of its July 27, 1990 release, director Dennis Dugan tells The Hollywood Reporter that the film's first test audience did not exactly appreciate the film. 

"[When] we had our first preview, 70 percent of the audience walked out [during the film], and some people were actually verbally angry," reveals Dugan, who made his feature directorial debut with the film. Dugan has directed 14 films in his career, including the Adam Sandler comedies Happy Gilmore (1996), Big Daddy (1999), You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008), Just Go With It (2011) and both Grown Ups films.

Dugan also shares his memories of working with Ritter and watching the actor and co-star Amy Yasbeck fall in love, explains how he landed the directing gig for Happy Gilmore without ever having to discuss his plans for the film and says about the critics who often give his films a hard time: "I don't give a f— what they think."

When in doubt, stand up on a table

Dugan was a successful TV director in the 1980s, cutting his teeth on episodes of Moonlighting and other shows, but he hadn't yet directed a feature when Universal was on the hunt for someone to helm Problem Child. While Dugan was pitching his take on the comedy to the studio's president, producer Brian Grazer and other execs, he decided at the spur of the moment to deliver his spiel while standing on the sturdy wooden coffee table in the president's office. "I said, 'You're looking at me like I'm f—ing nuts, and this is what we want. We want this kind of chaos,' " Dugan recalls. "About three hours later, [former Universal chairman] Casey Silver calls me, and he says, 'OK, you got up on that coffee table, and you got the job.' "

Dugan pushed for Ritter to star, but the studio took convincing

Dugan knew Ritter from their days as young working actors, and the director wanted to nab the Three's Company star for the part of adoptive father Ben Healy. But the studio thought Ritter was too much of a TV actor and that the role needed "somebody more famous." Despite getting the no, Dugan took the script to Ritter and told him to read it overnight; the actor loved it. By a stroke of luck, Universal came to Dugan the next day with a change of heart. "[The producers] said to me, 'We're thinking Ritter is a good idea — do you think you could get him?' and I said, 'Maybe,' " Dugan recalls with a laugh.

Ritter and Amy Yasbeck met at Dugan's house — and later tied the knot

Ritter and Yasbeck, who played his wife Flo, had never met before a table read at Dugan's place. "He was funny as can be, and she's funny as can be, and they just hit it off," Dugan remembers fondly. The couple, who also co-starred in Problem Child 2 and in a 1991 episode of NBC's The Cosby Show, had a daughter together in 1998 and married in 1999. 

Ritter was encouraged to ad-lib his lines, with Dugan saying about his own philosophy of on-set improvisation: "[I] just encourage it. These people are funny for a reason." Dugan adds that Al Pacino felt similarly when they were shooting Dugan's 2011 film Jack and Jill. "When we finished the first master of the first scene, [Sandler and I were satisfied with it], and Al Pacino stands up and goes, 'One more [take] for fun!' Because he always felt, maybe there's something new there,' " says Dugan, who also directed Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) and Martin Lawrence in National Security (2003).

Jack Warden turned down the film — until Dugan offered him his net points

Dugan was convinced that two-time Oscar nominee Jack Warden (Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait) was the best fit to play "Big Ben" Healy, the father to Ritter's character. But Warden said no. This prompted Dugan to tell his agent to offer Warden half of his own net points — much to Dugan's agent's chagrin — in exchange for doing the role. Warden declined to take Dugan's portion of the backend but was so touched by the gesture that he agreed to play the part, later reprising his role in the sequel as well (which Dugan did not direct).

Universal wasn't pleased with how much footage Dugan was shooting

Gilbert Gottfried landed one of his first prominent film roles in Problem Child, playing the orphanage's slimy adoption agent. Dugan kept the cameras rolling for Gottfried's scenes, allowing the comic ample room to improvise, but studio execs took umbrage when they saw how much film Dugan was burning through. "We shot 18,000 feet of film [in a day], which is a lot — normally, you'd shoot four or five in a day," Dugan says. "[The execs] got me on the phone, they go, 'What are you doing? Why are you shooting so much film? This is crazy! You're going over!' I said, 'When he's improvising, you got to be rolling.' They go, 'All right, all right — try to hold it down.' I go, 'How do I do that?' " Ultimately, the director won out. 

Initial test audiences were not impressed, to say the least

After the film was finished, Universal held a test screening and the first audience was underwhelmed. "We had our first preview — 70 percent of the audience walked out [during the film], and some people were actually verbally angry," Dugan admits. The film "scored a 30, and you're in trouble if you're in the 60s," he says, calling the screening a "disaster." Nonetheless, Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock was steadfast in his support of the project. "[Pollock] takes me back into the theater, sits me down in the chair and he goes, 'F— 'em, they're wrong. They're wrong. This movie's going to be a hit.' " This led to two weeks of reshoots, including a retooled ending and the addition of key scenes like the girl's birthday party.

You're on top of the world, until you're not

Tom Pollock was right to not panic. Problem Child opened in third place with $10 million, on its way to a domestic gross of $53.4 million. "That was really fun," Dugan says. "Believe me, it's fun to have a hit. It's more fun than not having a hit." However, he soon learned what not having a hit feels like, as the Zucker-brothers-produced film he directed as his follow-up, 1992's John Turturro-starring Brain Donors, was dead on arrival. "Brain Donors was a flop, so then I didn't have any meetings [with film studios]," he says. "I went back to TV."

Enter: Adam Sandler

During the casting process for Brain Donors, Dugan pitched Sandler on four different occasions to the Zuckers to play a role in the film, and each time, the producers weren't interested. A few years later, Dugan heard that Happy Gilmore producers were looking for a director, but Dugan only had a night to read the script and prep his pitch. "I [wrote] like ten pages of notes," Dugan says. But as soon as he walked into the meeting and saw Sandler, his notes didn't matter. "Sandler goes, 'You!' And I go, 'You!' ... He said, 'You stuck up for me, so you're doing this movie.' " And that was that — Dugan never had to pitch a single word to Sandler or the team.

Dugan isn't crazy about critics

The director felt burned by critics on Problem Child and Brain Donors, so he hasn't read a review of any of his films since those two, and he believes that more publications should have critics who specialize in critiquing comedy. "To hate Grown Ups is just ludicrous," he says. "It's a funny movie. We didn't mean it to be anything else but a hang-out movie, where you go sit down and get a lot of laughs from a bunch of guys just hanging out."

Dugan adds: "I don't give a f— what [critics] think. I give a f— that almost every one of my movies opens up number one and makes a giant profit for the studio, and people buy them, rent them, quote them and have a good time seeing them." And he says about Sandler, "How f—ing dare anybody say that he's a shitty [entertainer]."

Grown Ups 3 might happen — but don't hold your breath for Happy Gilmore 2 

Dugan says about the possibility of Sandler making a Happy Gilmore sequel: "I can't imagine he'd ever do that, but it's Hollywood, so you never say that'll never happen." More likely is a third Grown Ups movie, which Dugan says Sandler would be interested in. "There's been talk of another Grown Ups, but I don't know where that stands," explains Dugan, who is also working on a number of feature scripts and a cable pilot and frequently discusses potential projects with Sandler.

Email: Ryan.Gajewski@THR.com
Twitter: @_RyanGajewski