Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring what might have been in TV and film comedy, taking a different comedian, writer, or work each week and examining the casting possibilities and career moves that almost came to be. This week: the nixed casting possibilities for the 1978 movie Animal House.
It’s difficult to put into perspective how huge a pop cultural event the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House was in the summer of 1978. While there was a big hubbub made over The Hangover two years ago when it became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time; when inflation is factored in, that film pales in comparison to the attendance figures for Animal House. Adjusting for ticket price inflation, Animal House made $476 million in today’s dollars, more than any comedy released in the past 20 years.
Every SNL star who’s had a big movie career after leaving the show owes a debt of gratitude to John Belushi and Animal House because the film made him the first SNL castmember to cross over with a mega hit movie, paving the way for the likes of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and most recently, Kristen Wiig. Animal House’s popularity also allowed for its creative team to dominate the comedy pocket of the film industry in the 1980s. Director John Landis, producer Ivan Reitman, and writer Harold Ramis became three of the three biggest behind-the-scenes guys in comedy following Animal House’s triumphant box office run. Animal House was a hit R-rated comedy, which was a rarity at the time. The film spawned a whole subgenre of raunchy R-rated comedies that is still with us today. Movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Porky’s, American Pie, The Hangover, and the entire Judd Apatow canon wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Animal House.
The movie that changed American comedy forever could have been very different, though, if some of the original casting ideas had gone through. Let’s take a look at the various actors and actresses who came close to landing roles in Animal House but didn’t make it into the film for one reason or another.
Who got it: John Belushi
Meat Loaf was John Landis’s second choice for the role of Bluto. Landis met with Meat Loaf and a few other actors in case John Belushi dropped out. Like John Belushi, Meat Loaf is a big guy with a big, boisterous personality and screen presence, but Belushi’s performance is what made Animal House so popular. With another actor in the role, it’s easy to imagine the film wouldn’t have been anywhere near as big a hit.
Who got it: Bruce McGill
The role of D-Day, the motorcycle-riding member of the movie’s central frat, was written with Dan Aykroyd in mind. Aykroyd was an avid motorcyclist back in the 70’s, and he would have been a nice fit for the part. Plus, he’s done the best work of his career with the Animal House team, working with John Belushi on SNL and The Blues Brothers, Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman on Ghostbusters, and John Landis on Blues Brothers and Trading Places. Aykroyd would have been able to draw on these fruitful creative relationships for Animal House, but SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels, who had already lost John Belushi to the movie, forbade him from taking the part, according to John Landis. Landis claims in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s SNL oral history, Live from New York, that Michaels threatened to fire Aykroyd if he did the movie. If Michaels had two of his actors skipping rehearsals for Animal House, it would have been too great a hindrance to SNL. Putting another SNL face into Animal House’s cast would have taken the spotlight off of John Belushi a little bit, too. Part of the reason Belushi’s performance here stands out so much is that most of the film’s actors were mostly unknowns and let’s face, didn’t have the comedic chops of a John Belushi.
Who got it: James Widdoes
Bill Murray’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, recognizable character actor and co-writer of Harold Ramis’s subsequent “slobs vs. snobs” outing Caddyshack, was the original choice for Hoover, the president of the fraternity. Doyle-Murray, who was a writer for SCTV at the time and an alumnus of the National Lampoon Radio Hour and Second City Chicago, never became a movie star like others in the Second City/National Lampoon/SNL clique, but Animal House could have been an opportunity for him to break through. Brian Doyle-Murray ended up having a successful career as a character actor, beginning in the 1980’s; he’s mostly been typecast as grizzly old cranks and clueless businessmen in stuff like Christmas Vacation, Wayne’s World, Get a Life, and Groundhog Day.
Who got it: Peter Riegert
Although he had been an actor on SCTV and at the Second City Theatre, Harold Ramis was mainly working behind the scenes at the time Animal House was produced. Ramis auditioned for the part of Boon, but he didn’t get it. He proved to be a very funny movie actor a few years later when he starred opposite Bill Murray in Stripes. Ramis’s supporting roles in Stripes and Ghostbusters, both of which he co-wrote, showed he’s at his funniest when he’s reading his own words and that his words are at their funniest when being read by him. Harold Ramis’s sarcastic charm would have been at home in Animal House, even if he was a little too old to be playing a college student (like Belushi and most of the guys in Delta House).
Who got it: John Vernon
John Landis met with Jack Webb of Dragnet fame and offered him the role of Dean Wormer before going to John Vernon. Webb’s last onscreen role was in 1971, and it’s unlikely that a college comedy from a budding director would have brought him out of retirement. While Webb was an interesting casting choice, John Vernon’s performance as Dean Wormer has become an archetype unto itself, the model for no-nonsense college deans and school principals in movies ever since.
Who got it: Verna Bloom
Kim Novak, best known for her dual roles in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo, was John Landis’s first choice to play the Dean’s alcoholic wife, Mrs. Wormer. Landis offered the part to Novak, but by the late 70’s, she was rarely acting and a bawdy sex comedy wouldn’t have been the type of project this dignified actress was looking for.
Who got it: Tim Matheson
The character Otter was originally written for Chevy Chase. When the part was offered to him, Chase was trying to decide between making Foul Play with Goldie Hawn and making Animal House. Producer Ivan Reitman wanted Chase but director John Landis didn’t. Here’s Landis in Live from New York, explaining how he subtly nudged Chase into not taking the movie:
“… I was adamantly opposed to casting him. I had nothing against Chevy, I just believed that he wouldn’t feel honored, and that he was too old. So I had this wonderful famous lunch… where Ivan [Reitman] and [former Universal Pictures President] Thom Mount desperately blow smoke up Chevy’s ass, trying to convince him to take Animal House even though he’s been offered Foul Play… I was doing everything I could to sell it to him. And finally I had a masterstroke. I said, ‘Chevy, if you take Foul Play… you’re opposite Goldie Hawn, a major sex star, you’re like Cary Grant. But if you take Animal House, you’re a top banana in an ensemble, like SNL.’ And under the table Ivan gave me I think the most vicious kick I’ve ever had. He was furious, but it worked: Chevy took the other movie.”
Chase was a big celebrity - SNL’s first breakout star - when Animal House was barreling towards production in 1977 and it would have been a coup for Landis and Reitman to secure him for the movie. Chevy Chase may have had plenty of fans at the time, but if he were in Animal House, he would have stolen the spotlight from John Belushi, taking a little focus away from what became an iconic performance.
Who got it: Peter Riegert
Bill Murray was who the creative team had in mind for the role of Boon, but, like Aykroyd and Belushi, Murray was locked down to SNL at the time. Lorne Michaels allowed John Belushi to split his time between the sketch show and filming Animal House in LA, but he couldn’t lose half his cast to Hollywood. Bill Murray kicked off his movie career the following summer with Meatballs, another slobs vs. snobs comedy from Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman. If he’d been cast in Animal House, though, Bill Murray might have become a movie star a little sooner and with a bigger debut film.
Letting his movie career wait a little while ended up being the best thing for Murray. At the time of Animal House’s production in 1977, Murray was fighting to prove he was a worthy replacement for Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. Focusing on SNL instead of movie stardom for a year helped Murray to win audiences over on TV, so that, by the time Meatballs and Caddyshack hit theaters, he was a beloved TV star who audiences wanted to see hit the big time.
Bradford Evans is proud to have never had that cliché John Belushi “College” poster on his wall in college.