CANNON MONTH 2: Back to School (1986)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was originally on the site on June 10, 2021Back to School was not produced by Cannon but was released on video by HBO/Cannon Video.

I always wondered if William Atherton and Billy Zapka had a support group. They’re great actors, but they seemed to excel at one role: being the absolute biggest jerks possible. I’d love to see a movie where they were in community service together, trying to right their wrongs, but slowly seething that society is throwing trash at them when they’re trying to clean a highway, knowing that they’re going to eventually become bullies again, but this time in the service of good. Their case worker? Ron Silver.

Anyways, Back to School was dedicated to Estelle Endler, Rodney Dangerfield’s longtime manager who guided him in his second time as a stand-up and got him into movies, where he’d find the kind of eternal life that he never could have dreamed of in his youth. To say Rodney had a hard life was life saying he told jokes. So many of them — “I was so ugly my parents had to hang a pork chop around my neck to get the dog to play with me.” — come from the pain he felt as an abandoned child.

Born Jacob Rodney Cohen, he claimed that his mother never kissed, hugged or showed any sign of affection toward him; he was also molested by a neighbor. He legally changed his name to Jack Roy at the age of 19, following the father who left him behind by taking his name and telling jokes and working as a singing waiter in the Catskills. After he was fired, he went into selling aluminum siding.

When he went back into comedy in the 60s, he was in deep debt and couldn’t get booked. That’s when he realized he’d need a hook. His new name Rodney Dangerfield came from a Jack Benny routine — indeed, Benny even visited him once backstage and complimented him on his act — and came from a place he understood very well: he got no respect.

In just a few years, he’d headline Vegas and own his own club, a place where young comedians came to get a break. Rodney never forgot what it was like to struggle and gave so many young performers their start. He also kept struggling mentally throughout his life, using marijuana to self-medicate.

Unlike his stand-up persona and maybe even the real Jacob/Jack/Rodney, his film characters in movies like Caddyshack and Easy Money were portrayed as successful, happy and popular men. However, they had gone from nothing to something all on their own, thereby becoming the enemy of the ruling rich. They may have money, but Rodney’s characters would never truly be part of the 1%.

Yet despite their success, the club of Hollywood kept him at arm’s length. Dangerfield was rejected for membership in the Motion Picture Academy in 1995 by the head of the Academy’s Actors Section, Roddy McDowall. His fans protested and the Academy reconsidered, but Dangerfield then refused their membership.

Actually, those fans were really important to him. He was the first celebrity to operate a website and he’d often directly e-mail the fans who visited the site, which had to be a huge surprise.

Rodney used to say, “I tell ya I get no respect from anyone. I bought a cemetery plot. The guy said, “There goes the neighborhood!”” That phrase is emblazoned on his tombstone. Man, I get teared up even thinking about Rodney, because while I never met the man, he meant so much to me and my family. I’d get the opportunity to stay up late if we knew he was on Carson and I can still recall a riotous screening of Easy Money where the film was barely audible from all the laughing from my father and uncle.

Anyways — Back to School is the big starring role from Rodney, the chance to shine on his own. He plays yet another of his regular guys made good, Thornton Melon. His plus-size clothing stores have made him rich, yet he can’t connect with his son Jason (Keith Gordon). After leaving his newest wife (Adrienne Barbeau), he goes, well, Back to School to be part of his son’s life. But he does it as only a rich man can, taking over most of the campus and living it up while his son pretty much is embarrassed.

This film completely understands the pure comic formula: set up a simple premise and allow hijinks to ensue. To wit: A rich regular guy goes back to school and hijinks ensue.

Those hijinks include Burt Young as Rodney’s tough butler and best friend, Robert Downey Jr. as his son’s punk roommate, Kurt Vonnegut as a guest speaker hired by Rodney, a romance with Sally Kellerman*, a memorable Sam Kinison cameo and the aforementioned Zapka being, well, Billy Zapka.

And oh yeah, the Triple Lindy.

This film is pretty autobiographical in parts, as Rodney was a diver and truck driver in his youth. I’ve always loved its message that he may have changed with wealth, but he’s remained a kind-hearted man throughout it all. Harold Ramis was one of the co-writers and his comedic sensibilities really help the picture.

For metal fans, you can hear Michael Bolton’s pre-crooner metal song “Everybody’s Crazy” during a party scene, and the Alice Cooper song “The Great American Success Story” was intended to be in this film. It appears on Constrictor and features the lyrics “Back to school, he’s gonna take that plunge.”

We all need more Rodney in our lives.

*She lives in Tommy Doyle’s house from Halloween. Seriously.

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