Hollywood Flashback: Rodney Dangerfield Hit the Books in 1986's 'Back to School'

Orion Pictures/Getty Images
From left: Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Downey Jr. and Keith Gordon, who played Dangerfield's son, in 'Back to School.'

A month before filming began, the script was overhauled to make the comedian's character a "likable rich guy" instead of a "schlub."

The scholastic comedy vein that Melissa McCarthy mines in Warner Bros.' May 11 release Life of the Party — empty nest parent goes to college, shows undergrads how to drunkenly frolic the old-school way — was first tapped by Rodney Dangerfield, then 64, in 1986's Back to School.

The bug-eyed stand-up, famous for his "I don't get no respect" catchphrase, had made his first major film appearance in 1980's Caddyshack, where he shared the screen with a dancing gopher. In School, he had self-effacing zingers like, "With the shape I'm in, you could donate my body to science fiction" — which in the hot tub scene seemed believable. The film also offers an appearance by then-Saturday Night Live regular Robert Downey Jr. as the quirky best friend of Dangerfield's son. ("You look like the poster boy for birth control," the comic tells him.)

The Hollywood Reporter called the Orion Pictures release "unabashedly light and lowbrow" and a "loony, carefully conceived comedy."

A month before the scheduled start of filming, Dangerfield and the producers decided that the script needed an overhaul. "We were lucky because it was a comedy; if it had been a drama like Schindler's List, having only a month would have been a disaster," says Steve Kampmann, one of the movie's four credited writers (Harold Ramis was another). "But nothing kills comedy faster than overdevelopment. One of the biggest changes was making Rodney's character a likable rich guy. He didn't want to play a schlub like he did in Caddyshack."

The film was a big success. The $11 million production ($25 million today) had a worldwide gross of $109 million ($248 million.) "There's an old saying, 'Funny is money,' " says Mike Medavoy, then Orion's head of production. School was such a hit, it ended up grossing much more domestically — $91 million compared with $51 million — than the studio's 1984 best picture Oscar winner, Amadeus

This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe