role call

Christopher McDonald Answers Every Question We Have About Happy Gilmore

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Universal Pictures

If you need to remember one thing about Happy Gilmore’s pro-golfer villain Shooter McGavin, it’s that he’s defined as much by his goofball pageantry as he is by his swings and putts. Here’s a pompous man whose virtuosity of the sport is never questioned, even if the arrival of a certain someone (Adam Sandler) threatens to topple his No. 1 status and matching monochromatic neutrals. But how could you hate Shooter? It’s impossible! Seriously, just try. One minute he purchases Happy’s grandmother’s home as a ransom tactic, and the next, he gets humbled after believing that “I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast” is a good burn. He decides to hire a guy to run Happy over with a car, but not before working himself into a tizzy trying to master Happy’s signature swing. You fear him, you laugh at him, you realize you kind of want to be his golfing buddy, and the cycle continues.

Veteran actor Christopher McDonald has continued to embrace his Shooter persona with an admirable amount of pizazz in the 25 years following the film’s 1996 release, most recently with a virtual tee-off battle against Sandler to celebrate its anniversary. As he told Vulture in a recent interview, a day rarely goes by without being approached by a Happy Gilmore fan, and he continues to be amazed — if not a little confused — that Shooter has remained in the pop-culture zeitgeist all these years later. (Still don’t believe us? Just look at this Twitter account.) “I tend to return all of my fan mail, because I’m very grateful that people love the movie. Ninety-five percent, maybe 90 percent, is Happy Gilmore,” McDonald said with a laugh. “And I’ve probably been in a hundred movies at this point.”

To learn more about the second-greatest golf movie ever made and, of course, the art of playing such a likable dick, we hopped on the phone with McDonald to chat about how Happy Gilmore ended up becoming the defining role of his career. Among other tidbits, he also discussed why he initially turned Shooter down, his favorite improvised moments, and the bummer of a reason why he never appeared in another Sandler film. For an optimum reading experience, please proceed with a Diet Pepsi.

Happy Gilmore is one of those rare films where I actually laugh out loud while watching it. All these years later, it’s never gotten old.
I tell you, generations of people respond to this movie because they just love to laugh. When it came out, it was a modest hit, but when it hit television I couldn’t walk down the street. I do Cameos pretty frequently, and I get requests from all over the world. I’ve gotten grandparents and their grandchildren. It’s lovely to have a hit like this, I’ve gotta say. It keeps on giving. If I can make people laugh, that’s great, because the world’s pretty screwed up. It makes people feel good. It’s a blessing.

Can you give me a better sense of where you were in your life and career when you were approached for the film? You already had a track record for playing very convincing villains.
That’s right. I started out in villains by doing a play by the great Mark Medoff called When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? I thought that villain was so delicious to play. You could captivate the audience and hear a pin drop. So cut to decades later, and I’m up in Vancouver finishing a movie called Unforgettable with Ray Liotta and a lot of terrific actors, and I ran into [director] Dennis Dugan in a hotel lobby and he goes, “McDonald, we’ve been looking for you! We want you to do this part, take a read!” So I read it and I liked it very, very much, but I said no.

Oh wow. Why was that?
I had small children at the time. I didn’t want to be a bad dad. So I said, “Thank you, I’m honored and this sounds like a really fun time, but I have to go back to my family.” Dennis, being the enterprising person that he is, said, “Okay, I understand that.” He went to the producers and said, “We got him!” The producers were ecstatic and asked him how he did it. “Well, I kind of had to give Christopher housing for him and his entire family.” They were like, “What?! Do we have the budget?!” I thank Dennis tremendously for that.

But also, around the same time, I had gone out to play a golf tournament with my friend Detlef Schrempf and we won. I got the feeling that maybe I should reconsider Happy Gilmore. I told the team, “Okay, I think I want to do this, but I have to meet Adam.” I went back to Vancouver, sat down with Adam, and he pretty much had me at hello. I was a fan. He wasn’t as huge as he is now, but he was so freaking funny. We sat for about an hour and laughed and laughed. After that, I knew I had to do the movie.

What did you two talk about?
Gosh, I can remember some details but it’s a little hazy at this point. I remember he was just Adam. Being in an Adam Sandler movie is such a joy, because everything is light, funny, and improvisational. He surrounds himself with his boys and his friends. We talked about sports and little things about golf. He really wanted to put a spin on the sports genre. Happy hates the game and the jerks playing with plaid suits, so he comes out with his combat boots and hockey T-shirts. I told Adam that family was a big concern for me. He wasn’t married yet, but he was completely understanding. He liked describing the back-and-forth madness between Shooter and Happy. We also talked about Bob Barker coming on at the last minute, because someone else had dropped out. Bob said he would do it if they let him do his own fighting and if he won the fight. He insisted that he didn’t need a stunt double until he fell down the hill.

Did you take advantage of being on a very improv-heavy set?
The very first scene I did I improvised, and it’s the one I’m best known for. Shooter and Happy are exchanging words outside his grandmother’s house and he goes, “You’re gonna beat me? At golf? Ha, you’re in big trouble pal, I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!” Happy, of course, is like, “You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?” When I walked away I turned around and had absolutely no comeback. So I just took a long pause and blurted out, “No!” Well, that was an ad-lib, and the whole set was laughing. That’s when I knew I could have a little fun. When I’m being heckled on the golf course, I improvised, “Go back to your shanties! This is golf, not a rock concert!” Oh God, and when the beach ball comes onto the golf course. I just put my putter into it and I ripped that thing until it hurt my shoulders. It was so silly, but they still kept it. Also, it’s funny, because I’m a pretty great golfer in real life. I kept making shots when the script called for me to miss them. I would have to apologize and assure everyone I would miss it next time. [Laughs.]

Do you have another favorite quote that you feel was overshadowed by that shit masterpiece?
“Miss, can I have a Pepsi? Miss. Diet.” What a privileged doofus he is. I actually dressed him based on Greg Norman, one of the greatest golf players of all time. Greg always looked so sharp and preppy when he played. He wore a golf hat that I ended up not using, but he was so meticulous with his outfits. The sweater vests, the cardigans. There was a lot of entitlement and privilege surrounding golf until Happy Gilmore came onto the scene. And now everyone plays golf and attempts Happy’s shot.

What do you think Shooter possesses that has made him such an enduring villain 25 years later?
It’s interesting, because people love to hate Shooter. It’s all in the writing and in the attitude. I didn’t want to push it so far that people would respond, Oh, he’s a jerk. Don’t get me wrong, he is a jerk, but it was all about him. Even when his introduction happens and you see him on the stage, he’s looking over at the trophies and gets snapped back into reality by having to give his speech. He’s all business all the time. It’s all about Shooter.

It’s very perplexing to think about, though. Why is it that people put up with this guy? You can see that he’s twisting the knife. He’s giving what he’s getting, too. Happy was giving Shooter a lot of grief. It’s the rivalry of these two guys. Look at Maverick, for example. You have Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise, and Val is such a dick. It’s all testosterone. That wouldn’t have played so well in a comedy. You have to have the comedic moments to balance it out. “Oh, that’s your room? I’m going to use it for my trophy room!” The humor doesn’t come out like venom. It’s the repartee between those two that made it special.

You get a brief scene of actually trying to attempt Happy’s iconic golf swing. Tell me, is there any cinematic truth to it being good for a long drive? And is it hard to do without falling?
First of all, that was actually an improv moment, too. I selfishly wanted to try it and was like, “Oh, you know what? Shooter should try to do that swing. It would be good for the character.” In real-world golf, anything you do behind the ball is legal. The crew said I could do it, so we literally walked 40 yards away to another part of the course. I wanted to be terrible at it, but it wasn’t difficult. [Laughs.] It’s not an easy shot to do. But every golf pro I’ve met over the past two decades have all done it. And most of them said it wasn’t easy and required a lot of practice. But that scene ended up being terrific because it shows another moment of Shooter’s frustration. I still can’t do it, all of these years later.

Your “not happy” dream sequence is perfectly silly comedy. What do you remember about having to suck on a Gene Simmons–esque tongue?
I’ve blocked that out. [Laughs.] I know Gene Simmons, and we had a good laugh about it. It all balanced out with the Julie Bowen moments when I just had to be a devilish guy who was standing above Happy’s girl and flipping his collar up. There are outtakes of it where I actually bit the tongue off his grandmother’s face and ripped the mask off, and then another one where I smoked her tongue. Another great memory is when at the very end, Shooter is gloating about making this gorgeous put. I begged Dennis to let me try to make the shot on my own and not use editing. He goes, “I’ll give you seven tries and that’s it.” So the background actors and spectators started betting right and left about if I would make the shot. It wasn’t a smooth golf course — it was actually built around a botanical garden. I finally made it on the fifth take, and the crowd reaction shot was genuine because these people either made or lost money.

Did you use a golfing double despite your experience with the game?
I did everything myself except for the one shot when Shooter plunks a ball into the water. They asked me if I could do it from the angle where I was standing, but I didn’t think I could. They had another guy come in and he was successful after about three takes. That was fine; it wasn’t that special of a shot. But yes, I did all of my own golfing. I got wonderful lessons from a professional golfer, and whenever a scene was being set up, we would step to the side and do some golfing to get my swing really smooth. I put a lot of time into that, and I fell in love with the game again. Golf is such a mental game also, and then the stakes were higher with a movie being shot. There are a lot of people around. You don’t want to hit anybody.

This is really starting to seem like an all-expenses paid golf vacation with your family disguised as an Adam Sandler movie.
The whole experience was wonderful, perhaps the best time I had filming any movie. The cast would get together on weekends and go over to one of the wardrobe girls’ houses for pool parties and relaxation. I was so glad that I wasn’t stuck in a hotel for three months. The hotel scene gets depressing after awhile. You go to the bar downstairs, go to the gym, and that’s it. But when you have a big house right on the water and your kids get to go to their tae kwon do classes? And you get to come home and see your wife and have dinner every night? It made all the difference in the world for me. It was joyous. I can’t remember a bad moment at all.

Do you like to think that Shooter eventually won himself a Gold Jacket?
Oh, yes he did. He came back the next year. Happy got off the tour, he bought the house back, and he was done. So it was Shooter’s tour in 1997, he came back and won it in 2000, and then he came back in 2003 and won again. And now he’s on the senior tour. He’s still got a spark in him. Like, he’s building golf courses and flaunting the fact that it’s “built and designed by Shooter McGavin.”

That reminds me, I think I’m up to eight bobbleheads of him now. People line up to get them signed. Or shirts or hats. It’s the only movie I have that’s like that, other than Grease 2 and those crazy fans who dress up like Goose. A few years ago I was at the U.S. Open enjoying the games in a private box, and Tiger Woods comes in with his daughter. We said hello but I didn’t want to bother him too much. I mean, he’s the best thing for golf in a generation. But he wanted to take a photo! We did a selfie and it wound up on the internet with a bunch of funny headlines. My favorite was, “Greatest Golfer in the World Takes Picture With Tiger Woods.” There’s a lot of Shooter love out there, and I’m a grateful man because of it.

I just want to do more with Adam. Every time I ask he says, “Dude, you’re always gonna be Shooter!” I say I can do a hundred different things. Look at the other parts I’ve played. “Dude, you’re always gonna be Shooter!” Maybe that’ll change soon.

That’s interesting, because Adam famously has a close group of actors that he collaborates with, and I was always surprised that you never turned up in another one of his films. Why do you think that is? Is it really because the role is so defining?
That’s a good question. I’ve indeed gone and auditioned for things for him at his Happy Madison headquarters. I’d go up and have a nice chat with him each time, and it just never happened in the end. When I’ve asked him, “Dude, I’d love to work with you again, you’re so much fun and we’d have a lot of laughs together,” it’s always, “Dude, you’re always gonna be Shooter!” At this point, I think it might be because the role is so iconic that it might take something away from a movie? I have no idea. I haven’t given up. Hopefully in the future. I know he has a great new deal with Netflix, so maybe he’ll do a Happy Gilmore 2. I would love to do a sequel, too, but Adam says he doesn’t do sequels. So I’m sort of stuck in that world, which I kind of understand, but at the same time I don’t understand.

Do you recall the other roles you auditioned for Adam?
I can’t remember the names, but Dan Patrick got a part I was going for. I know that much. But they were all small roles, not another lead. I did appear in one film that Adam produced, called The House Bunny. It was small but a lot of fun. I block films out when I don’t get the part, you know what I mean?

Were you ever approached by one of Subway’s rival sandwich companies for an ad campaign?
Boy, that’s funny. Never, but that’s a really good idea. It’s not too late. Let’s get Jersey Mike’s. I love Jersey Mike’s.

So, Vulture recently ranked every Adam Sandler movie, and there was a bit of divisiveness with readers as to where Happy Gilmore was placed. Want to take a guess?
Number three.

Number nine.
Oh, that’s not right. [Laughs.]

Trust me, I agree! The argument was that even though it was an important film for Adam’s growth as a comedian, he still hadn’t worked out the kinks of his angry-clown persona.
I understand that take. I’d have to put Uncuts Gems as number one and Punch-Drunk Love at number two. They were great directors who came and challenged him, and he rose to the challenge. Both of those performances were spectacular. Kudos to Adam for his trajectory. They call him the McDonald’s of movie-making. You go there and you feel good. It’s comfort food and it’s comfort filmmaking.

Where’s the weirdest place you’ve been approached by a Happy Gilmore fan?
That’s easy. I’m a big Buffalo Bills fan, and a few years ago I was enjoying a game at the stadium. I had to go to the bathroom, so I’m standing at the urinal and relieving myself. A guy came up to me, slapped me on the back, and goes, “Dude, fuckin’ Shooter’s here! Oh my God!” I was like, “Can I finish?!” [Laughs.] I didn’t know what the hell to say. What’s wrong with some people? There might have been alcohol involved on his end, but it was embarrassing and I didn’t appreciate it. Then, of course, the huge bathroom line was staring at me. I put my head down and got out of there quickly.

Okay, so let’s set some boundaries with fans: Do not approach you in the bathroom.
Yeah, please catch me in the hallway.

More From This Series

See All
The role was originally offered to Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon, who never responded to Sandler’s repeated attempts to get in touch. To think the world would’ve been deprived of “The price is wrong, bitch!” This interview was conducted before Woods’s February 23 car crash became public knowledge.
Christopher McDonald Answers Our Happy Gilmore Questions