AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Back to School
Director: Alan Metter (Dir)
Release Date:   1986
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles and New York openings: 13 Jun 1986
Duration (in mins):   96
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Cast:   Rodney Dangerfield (Thornton Melon)  
    Sally Kellerman (Diane)  
    Burt Young (Lou)  
    Keith Gordon (Jason Melon)  
    Robert Downey, Jr. (Derek)  
    Paxton Whitehead (Philip Barbay)  
    Terry Farrell (Valerie)  
    M. Emmet Walsh (Coach Turnbull)  
    Adrienne Barbeau (Vanessa)  
    William Zabka (Chas)  
    Ned Beatty (Dean Martin)  
    Severn Darden (Dr. Barazini)  
    Sam Kinison (Professor Terguson)  
    Robert Picardo (Giorgio)  
    Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (Himself)  
    Edie McClurg (Marge)  
    Sarah Abrell (Sorority girl)  
    Dana Allison (Young woman)  
    Boris Aplon (Tony Meloni)  
    Nora Boland (Agnes)  
    Kimberlin Brown (Girl in dorm hallway)  
    Lisa Denton (Lisa)  
    Bob Drew (Contractor)  
    Holly Hayes (Girl in the crowd)  
    Jason Hervey (Young Thornton)  
    Leslie Huntly (Coed #1)  
    James Ingersoll (Judge)  
    Michael McGrady (Player #1)  
    Santos Morales (Bartender)  
    Beth Peters (Mrs. Stuyvesant)  
    Phil Rubenstein (Executive #1)  
    Timothy Stack (Trendy man)  
    Steve Sweeney (Security guard)  
    Stacey Toten (Hot tub girl)  
    John Young (Executive #2)  
    Brad Zutaut (Petey)  
    Josh Saylor (Student in Diane's class)  
    William Grauer (Drunken student)  
    Kristen Aldrich (Girl in Diane's class)  
    Beck LeBeau (Hot tub girl)  
    Tricia Hill (Lisa's friend)  
    Jill D. Merin (Girl at dorm party)  
    John James (Man in stands)  
    Eric Alver (Student at fraternity party)  
    Theresa Lyons (Cashier)  
  Rodettes: Dallas Winkler    
    Lisa Le Cover    
    Kimberlee Carlson    
  "Twist & Shout" Band: Curtis Stone    
    Michael Reid    
    Cactus Moser    
    Brian O'Dougherty    
    Davey Faragher    
    Cliffie Stone    
  Oingo Boingo Band Members: Danny Elfman    
    Leon Schneiderman    
    Steven Bartek    
    Dale Turner    
    John Hernandez    
    John Avila    
    Sam Phipps    
    Mike Bacich    

Summary: In New York City, in the 1940s, a young boy walks into Meloni’s Tailor shop and hands a report card to his father. The father warns he will never get into college with poor grades. The boy pulls nervously at his collar and says he prefers to join the family business. Many years later, the Meloni family business has grown into a chain of clothing stores called Thornton Melon’s “Fat and Tall” shops. Thornton, formerly the kid with a poor report card, has become a middle-aged man at the head of a clothing empire. In his television ads, he uses a direct style: "Are you FAT?…Well, now, you can eat all you want, because at Thornton Melon's "Tall & Fat" stores, we've got you covered." Lou, a limousine driver with a three-day growth of beard, transports Thornton to a board meeting of “Fat and Tall” executives. Food is served at the meeting and, encouraged by Thornton, the executives eat heartily as they pitch product ideas, including a chubby Melon Patch Kid that is similar to a Cabbage Patch Kid but abandoned by its parents. Thornton handles the executives’ questions with impressive acumen but drops everything when a phone call comes in from his son Jason at college. Jason sounds uneasy but declines Thornton’s suggestion that he visit home. After the meeting, Lou drives Thornton up to his majestic house and they both agree that his former residence, an older, smaller house, was better. Thornton adds that his first wife was better than Vanessa, his present wife. When Vanessa hosts a party for her art crowd friends, Thornton creates havoc among the guests, by wolfing down a huge sandwich and insulting an overweight guest. Vanessa threatens him with divorce but Thornton counters with a stack of photos of Vanessa having sex with another man. The marriage over, Thornton and Lou take a limousine ride to idyllic Grand Lakes University. After a misstep into a sorority shower room and a subsequent payoff of the police, Thornton confronts Jason with his newly gained information, that Jason’s college experience has been a series of setbacks. Jason admits he lied about being a diver on the school team; he actually works as a towel boy. Jason introduces Derek Lutz, his roommate and only friend on campus. After commenting on Derek’s purple hair, Thornton decides to help his son with a simple plan: he will enroll as a college freshman. Dean Martin, the affable campus dean, supports Thornton’s plan to enter college when Thornton offers to donate a building to the University. However, Philip Barbay, Dean of the Business School, disapproves of the school’s oldest freshman. Thornton creates a palatial dorm room by knocking out a wall between two rooms and quickly attains status as a big man on campus. While entertaining the other students with his jokes, he provides some real-world business acumen to Barbay’s business course. At the college bookstore, Thornton calls out, “Shakespeare for everyone,” and buys books for his classmates. He also hosts beer parties for his appreciative classmates. Thornton enrolls in a history class with Professor Terguson, a scary Vietnam vet who teaches with red-faced intensity, and takes English with beautiful, blonde-haired professor, Diane Turner. However, Thornton puts academics on the back burner except to seek a date with Diane. Although Diane has a relationship with Barbay, she is not impressed with his ambivalent marriage plan, which he sums up by suggesting, “we should start thinking about thinking about forming a merger." Wanting to have fun, and be romanced and loved, she breaks a date with Barbay to introduce Thornton to the poetry of Yeats. During their poetry session, their attraction to each other grows. The following day Thornton meets Coach Turnbull, the diving coach, and tells him about his Triple Lindy, a dive he performed off the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. The coach mentions that Jason did not dive well in the previous semester. On the night of the football pep rally, the roommates head off in different directions. Derek invites Jason to an Anti-Pep Rally, telling him that "violent ground acquisition games such as football is in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war." Instead, Jason chooses Astronomy homework and encounters Valerie, the girl he admires, at the library. Meanwhile, Thornton continues his party regimen and gives a rousing performance of “Twist and Shout.” Derek has paint-balled the entire football team and an angry mob of jocks comes after him and crashes the party. Lou brawls with the jocks and saves Derek’s hide. Thornton needs to write a paper on Kurt Vonnegut and Jason is shocked when Vonnegut himself shows up to assist with the paper. Thornton’s college study has deteriorated into dishonesty or, as he calls it, delegating; he hires world-class experts to write his papers. Diane tells Thornton he will not pass her class and whoever did write the paper "doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut." Barbay accuses Thornton of academic fraud and wants him to take an oral examination before a panel of his instructors. Thornton’s confidence wavers but, inspired by a pep talk from Jason, he hits the books. Thornton fights off fatigue, reading by candlelight, studying in the shower, and memorizing as Diane whispers lessons in his ear. He faces the panel of professors in a state of complete exhaustion. Thornton dozes at first as Barbay challenges him with a twenty-seven-part question on global business organization. Thornton answers the business question correctly, by stating that “the answer is— four” but admits feeling like he “gave birth—to an accountant." At Diane’s urging he recites the words to "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas. When asked the meaning of “Old age should burn and …rage against the dying light," Thornton explains that it means, "I don't take shit from no one." The day of the big diving competition has arrived. Derek heckles the competition, blasting the first diver with an air horn and flashing a mirror in the eyes of the next diver. The divers take awkward spills. Jason executes a perfect dive. When Jason’s diving team rival, Chas, begs off, claiming injury, Coach Turnbull turns to Thornton to fill in for him. Thornton executes a Triple Lindy, leaping from high board to the low board, and somersaulting into the pool to the cheers of the crowd. Afterward, Diane tells Thornton he passed the oral exams. Later, at the graduation ceremony, Thornton gives the commencement address. His words, practical as always, remind the students, "It's a jungle out there.” After advising them to “look out for Number One” without stepping on “Number Two,” he suggests to the young audience to move back with their parents. 

Production Company: Paper Clip  
Production Text: An Alan Metter Film
Distribution Company: Orion Pictures Corp.  
Director: Alan Metter (Dir)
  David Rawlins (2d unit dir)
  Robert P. Cohen (1st asst dir)
  Jerald B. Sobul (1st asst dir, 2d unit)
  Steve Cohen (2d asst dir)
  Michael Looney (2d asst dir, 2d unit)
  Dustin Bernard (2d 2d asst dir)
  Chuck Russell (Prod mgr)
Producer: Chuck Russell (Prod)
  Estelle Endler (Exec prod)
  Michael Endler (Exec prod)
  Harold Ramis (Exec prod)
Writer: Steven Kampmann (Scr)
  Will Porter (Scr)
  Peter Torokvei (Scr)
  Harold Ramis (Scr)
  Rodney Dangerfield (Story)
  Greg Fields (Story)
  Dennis Snee (Story)
Photography: Thomas E. Ackerman (Dir of photog)
  Frederick Moore (Dir of photog-Triple Lindy, 2d unit)
  Douglas H. Knapp (Cam op)
  James Anderson (Cam op, 2d unit)
  Alan Gornick Jr. (Underwater cam, 2d unit)
  David Parrish (1st asst cam)
  Jeffrey S. Leader (1st asst cam, 2d unit)
  To Lee (2d asst cam)
  Jeff Goldenberg (2d asst cam)
  Michael Riba (Cam tech, 2d unit)
  Ward Russell (Gaffer)
  Dan Delgado (Best boy elec)
  Michael W. Blymer (Lighting tech)
  Michael J. Laws (Lighting tech)
  Dennis Wehr (Lighting tech)
  Kenneth Rissien (Lighting tech, 2d unit)
  Frederick White (Lighting tech, 2d unit)
  Ted Rhodes (Key grip)
  Kurt Young (Dolly grip)
  Daniel Jimenez (Dolly grip, 2d unit)
  Manuel Jimenez (Best boy grip)
  Lee Jimenez (Grip)
  Michael Salts (Grip)
  Mark Pearson (Grip)
  Laurin Benson (Grip)
  Michael Liakos (Grip, 2d unit)
  Joyce Rudolph (Still photog)
  Inter Video (Video playback)
Art Direction: David L. Snyder (Prod des)
  Marjorie Stone McShirley (Asst art dir)
  David Russell (Prod illustrator)
Film Editor: David Rawlins (Ed)
  Darren Holmes (Asst ed)
  Richard Alderete (Apprentice ed)
  Sunrise Film, Inc. (Negative cutter)
Set Decoration: Linda DeScenna (Set dec)
  Edmund Silkaitis (Set des)
  Ric McElvin (Leadman)
  Steve Husch (Set dresser)
  Tom McCown (Set dresser)
  David Quick (Prop master)
  Stanley Ascough (Property, 2d unit)
  David Aaron (Asst props)
  Bruce J. Gfeller (Const coord)
  Steve Callas (Propmaker foreman)
  Greg Callas (Propmaker foreman)
  Dick Girod (Propmaker)
  Carlos Burbano (Greensman)
  Jean Andrews (Standby painter)
Costumes: Durinda Wood (Cost des)
  Ellis Cohen (Cost supv)
  Sandy Ampon (Women's cost)
  Janet Stout (Women's cost)
Music: Danny Elfman (Mus)
  Lennie Niehaus (Instrumental score cond by)
  Linda Goldner Perry (Mus supv)
  Dick Bernstein (Mus ed)
  Bob Badami (Mus ed)
  Neil Brody (Re-rec mixer, Music)
Sound: William Nelson (Sd mixer)
  Jules Strasser (Boom op)
  Mychal Smith (Cableman)
  Neil Burrow (Supv sd ed)
  Gordon Davidson (Supv sd ed)
  Mark S. Gordon (Supv sd ed)
  James J. Klinger (Supv sd ed)
  Jim Matheny (Supv sd ed)
  Don S. Walden (Supv sd ed)
  Burton Weinstein (ADR ed)
  Mike Wilson (Asst sd ed)
  Melinda Cooke (Apprentice sd ed)
  Vanessa Ament (Foley walker)
  Hilda Hodges (Foley walker)
  Gary Bourgeois (Re-rec mixer, Dial)
  Chris Carpenter (Re-rec mixer, Sd eff)
Special Effects: Michael Lantieri (Spec eff supv)
  Timothy J. Moran (Asst spec eff)
  Dan Curry (Main title seq des by)
  Cinema Research Corporation (Titles by)
  Pacific Title (Opticals by)
Make Up: Halle D'Amore (Head makeup)
  Janna Barbara Phillips (Asst makeup)
  Donna Barrett Gilbert (Key hair stylist)
Production Misc: Melissa Skoff (Casting)
  The Atmosphere Agency (Extras casting)
  Karen Standard (Casting asst)
  Kathy Lymberopoulos (Prod assoc)
  Mary McLaglen (Prod coord)
  Douglas Burdinski (Prod controller)
  Margaret Scarpello (Prod accountant)
  Alicia Anthony (Post prod auditor)
  Judy Rosenthal (Scr supv)
  Esther Vivante (Scr supv)
  Mary Ann Newfield (Scr supv, 2d unit)
  Cass Martin (Loc mgr)
  Joseph M. O'Har (Loc mgr)
  Pam O'Har (Loc mgr)
  Cannom Creations, Inc. (Prosthetics by)
  Michael McDuffee (Transportation coord)
  Timothy Roslan (Transportation co-capt)
  Dick Padgett (Transportation co-capt)
  Katherine Ann Moore (Unit pub)
  Animal Rentals Unlimited (Animals provided by )
  Sharon Morov (Prod secy)
  Lori O'Konek (Madison prod secy)
  Rachel Friedman (Asst to the prod)
  Jean-Claude Bonnardot (Prod asst)
  William Watts (Prod asst)
  Joe Camp (Prod asst)
  Regi Plummer (Prod asst)
  Melanie Roy (Prod asst)
  Phyllis A. Levin R.N. (First aid)
  Jean Chapman (First aid)
  Mark C. Grech (Craft service)
  Tony's Food Service (Catering by)
  Keylite Production Services, Inc. (Prod services and equip by)
Stand In: Dick Ziker (Stunt coord)
  Pete Antico (Stunts)
  Gregory Barnett (Stunts)
  Todd Bryant (Stunts)
  Harold Burton (Stunts)
  Justin De Rosa (Stunts)
  Tom Elliott (Stunts)
  Richard Epper (Stunts)
  Gary Epper (Stunts)
  Allan Graf (Stunts)
  Carlos A. Herzer (Stunts)
  Bill Hooker (Stunts)
  Hugh Hooker (Stunts)
  Gary Hymes (Stunts)
  Anderson Martin (Stunts)
  John C. Meier (Stunts)
  Don Charles McGovern (Stunts)
  William Oliver (Stunts)
  Noon Orsatti (Stunts)
  Manuel Perry (Stunts)
  Charles Picerni Jr. (Stunts)
  Steven Picerni (Stunts)
  Carol Rees (Stunts)
  Cyndi Lee Rice (Stunts)
  Michael Runyard (Stunts)
  Spike Silver (Stunts)
  Dean Wein (Stunts)
  Scott Wilder (Stunts)
  Julia Alexander (Tech adv-Diving)
  Mike Ostavich (Stunt diver)
  Mark Lindout (Stunt diver)
  David Draves (Stunt diver)
  Dana Burgess (Tandem diver)
  Abbe Masel (Tandem driver)
  Jim Mantrell (AE diver #1)
  Dan Walter (AE diver #2)
Color Personnel: Bob Hagans (Col timer)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Country: United States
Language: English

Songs: "A Dream," performed by Enrico Caruso, written by C. Cory & J. C. Bartlett, courtesy of RCA Records, Inc.; "Back to School," performed by Jude Cole, written by Mark Leonard & Richard Wolf, produced by Gary Skardina & Linda Goldner Perry; "Dead Man's Party," performed by Oingo Boingo, written by Danny Elfman, produced by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek, courtesy of MCA Records, Inc.; "Educated Girl," performed by Bobby Caldwell, written by Bobby Caldwell & Randy Goodrum, produced by Randy Goodrum & Bobby Caldwell; "Everybody's Crazy," written and performed by Michael Bolton, produced by Neil Kernon, courtesy of Columbia Records; "I'll Never Forget Your Face," performed by Phillip Ingram, written by Richard Wolf & Wayne Perkins, produced by Richard Wolf; "Respect," performed by Aretha Franklin, written by Otis Redding, courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corp., by arrangement with Warner Special Products; "Twist and Shout," performed by Rodney Dangerfield (opening verses sung by Curtis Stone), written by Bert Russell and Phil Medley, produced by Steve Stone & Linda Goldner Perry.
Composer: J. C. Bartlett
  Michael Bolton
  Bobby Caldwell
  C. Cory
  Danny Elfman
  Randy Goodrum
  Mark Leonard
  Phil Medley
  Wayne Perkins
  Otis Redding
  Bert Russell
  Richard Wolf
Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Orion Pictures Corporation 29/8/1986 dd/mm/yyyy PA298065

PCA NO: 27622
Physical Properties: Sd: Dolby Stereo in selected theatres
  col: Deluxe
  Lenses/Prints: Lenses and Panaflex Cameras by Panavision

Genre: Comedy
Subjects (Major): Businessmen
  College life
  College students
  Fathers and sons
Subjects (Minor): College deans
  Examinations, Academic
  Pep rallies
  Romantic rivalry
  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Note: The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and notes were written by participant John Theofanis, a student at University of Texas at Austin, with Janet Staiger as academic advisor.

The film’s opening credits alternate with a montage of black-and-white photos of New York City street scenes that transition to color images of suburban landscapes, suggesting the passage of time. According to studio production notes, in order to create the film’s fictional school, Grand Lakes University, three college campuses were used as shooting locations: University of Wisconsin, University of Southern California, and California State University, Los Angeles. The production notes reported, coincidentally, that the only school that actor Rodney Dangerfield (“Thornton Melon”) ever applied to as a young man was the University of Wisconsin. In the notes, Dangerfield commented, “It took forty years but I finally got here.”
       The studio notes added that before creating the film’s luxurious dorm room set, production designer David L. Snyder asked college students for their ideas about what a fantasy dorm might look like. The dorm room was built at the historic Laird Studios in Culver City, CA, which was originally built as Thomas H. Ince Studio in 1919. The studio lot has also been known through the years as DeMille Studio, Pathé, RKO-Pathé, Selznick International, Desilu Culver, Paramount Culver and Culver City Studio, among other names. Other shooting sites for the film were the rehearsal halls of Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, which were converted to portray the film’s classrooms. The natatorium in California’s City of Industry was the site for the outdoor diving meets. For the swimming scenes, director Alan Metter cast expert college divers, who were asked to “do their worst” in order to portray the members of the inept Grand Lakes squad in the film.
       In Dangerfield’s autobiography, It’s Not Easy Being Me , he credits writer Harold Ramis with the transformation of the premise of Back to School . Dangerfield worked with an initial team of writers and produced a script in which the “poor schmo” Dangerfield would portray goes to college to motivate his son. Ramis suggested that it would “be a lot funnier if the character was a rich guy.” Dangerfield urged Orion Pictures to delay production and hire Ramis for a re-write, and the studio consented. Dangerfield added that Back to School grossed almost a $100 million.
       The production of Back to School resulted in series of lawsuits. The 6 Apr 1990 HR news item notes that a husband-and-wife writing team filed a $30 million breach of contract suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Orion Pictures Corp., Dangerfield, Ramis and others, claiming that their script was used to make Back to School . The 9 Apr 1990 LAT similarly reported that George and Elizabeth Gage of Telluride, CO claimed they submitted a screenplay called “Second Season” to Orion in 1979.
       As reported in a 21 Sep 1988 Var news item, Metter sued Orion Pictures for not paying him all he was due for his work on Back to School , claiming he was owed approximately $2,000,000 representing his five percent share of the film’s net profits. Also named as defendants were Dangerfield and Paperclip Productions. According to 12 Jun 1990 Var news item, Dangerfield countersued Metter for suing without reasonable cause. Dangerfield’s lawsuit alleged that Metter knew Dangerfield had been released from obligations to account for profits from the film and that Metter’s suit was “a product of ill will as a result of statements that Dangerfield made.” A brief note in the “Hollywood Soundtrack” column in the 16 Jul 1986 issue of Var reported that casting director, Caro Jones, sued the producers of Back to School , claiming that she did not receive full pay or the proper screen credit.
       In an Aug 1986 Box review, critic Jimmy Summers described the film as a “guilty enjoyment” and predicted the film’s “youth-oriented backdrop” would increase Dangerfield’s fan base. Summers noted that the dichotomy between Dangerfield’s rapid fire one-liners and the other characters’ more oblivious responses “does create a rather odd rhythm for dialogue.” Critics gave generally positive comments regarding Dangerfield’s performance. The 11 Jun 1986 HR reviewer praised Metter’s work with other key characters, stating that, “Performances under Metter’s insightful direction never veers off into caricature.”
       The HR review singled out Sally Kellerman, whom he described as “superb as an Isadore Duncanish, romantically inclined English teacher.” He also praised Keith Gordon as “convincing as Dangerfield’s insecure and well-intentioned son”; Ned Beatty as “marvelously two-faced” as the college’s dean; and Paxton Whitehead as “a snide and dusty academic” and “Dangerfield’s business professor and love rival.” The 11 Jun 1986 Var review, took a contrasting view of the film’s supporting cast, perceiving a string of stereotypes, such as “the tweedy uptight business professor” and “the touchy-feely literature instructor.” Var also perceived a lack of conviction in the father/son storyline, stating the “audience is supposed to feel for Dangerfield’s too-serious and under-achieving son Jason (Keith Gordon)—but we don’t.”
       The LAT reviewer, Kevin Thomas, predicted a future Hollywood leading man in Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance. New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael, in the 28 Jul 1986 issue, found little to like in Back to School , calling Dangerfield “the King of Lower Slobovia.” However, she applauded the comedic skills of Downey, describing him as “a free-form physical comedian with the zapped big eyes and serene, dreamy smile of a true harlequin” who gave the movie “its only airy touches.” In the 14 Jul 1986 NYT review, critic David Denby marveled at Dangerfield’s performance. He stated, “Dangerfield jiggles for a second before each line, and he pops his eyes like crazy—there are moments when he’s just delivering gags. But after a while you look a little closer, and you realize that, amazingly, he’s giving a performance . The picture is not just a campus comedy; it shows what happens to a powerful man when he faces an entirely new situation and Rodney Dangerfield shows some vanity and fear and also some pride.” 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Hollywood Reporter   11 Jun 1986   p. 3, 14.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Jun 1986.   
Hollywood Reporter   6 Apr 1990.   
Hollywood Reporter   9 Apr 1990.   
Los Angeles Times   12 Jun 1986   p. 1, 6.
New York Times   13 Jun 1986   p. 16.
New Yorker   14 Jul 1986.   
Variety   11 Jun 1986   p. 14.
Variety   21 Sep 1988.   
Variety   12 Jun 1990.   

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