'Animal House' to celebrate 25th anniversary

Friday, August 22, 2003

It's toga-party time again.

Anyone fond of fraternity get-togethers or food fights has to love "Animal House," which truly was a fly-by-your-seat undertaking when director John Landis and the cast converged on the University of Oregon at Eugene to film it 25 years ago.

The silver anniversary of one of Hollywood's biggest comedy hits is commemorated with an "Unseen and Untold" behind-the-scenes special airing Sunday on TNN/Spike TV (Sunflower Broadband Channel 50); a "Double Secret Probation Edition" DVD of the movie available Tuesday; and a TBS airing (in edited-for-TV form) Sept. 6.

John Belushi was key to the project, making his starring movie debut as slovenly-and-proud-of-it Delta House brother Bluto after finding TV fame as a founding "Saturday Night Live" cast member.

The other "Animal House" actors ranged from child stars graduating into adult roles (Tim Matheson) and novices (Peter Riegert, Karen Allen, Stephen Furst, Kevin Bacon) to veterans (Donald Sutherland, John Vernon, Verna Bloom, Cesare Danova) and noted character actors (Bruce McGill, Mark Metcalf). The movie also was a milestone for Landis, since it led him from independent films ("Kentucky Fried Movie") into big-budget studio pictures ("The Blues Brothers," "Trading Places").

"Even if it hadn't been successful, I'd still be thrilled about having been a part of it," Matheson says. The original voice of the animated character Jonny Quest and an early fixture of such family films as "Yours, Mine and Ours," he re-invented his screen image as "Animal House" womanizer Eric Stratton, alias "Otter."

'Over the edge'

Matheson describes the movie as being "just out there, way over the edge. It was my first comedy, and it spoiled things for me in many ways. Rarely have I found another script or production as good."

A current Emmy nominee as the recently resigned vice president on NBC's "The West Wing," Matheson claims his 1977 experiences in Oregon helped him stay in the frat-house mentality "Animal House" required.

"They pretty much kept us out of the mainstream," he recalls, "but there wasn't a lot of time to do anything other than shoot the movie. The first week, we had a lot of fun, then we got into a big ol' brawl with an actual fraternity. Ten drunk guys literally were trying to kill me, but a football linebacker stood in front of me so they couldn't get at me. After that, we were sort of told, 'Maybe it would be better if you guys just stayed home."'

Though Matheson finds the incident amusing now, it confirmed the not-so-humorous subtext of "Animal House" for him and his co-stars.

"To us, those guys were the Omegas (enemies of the Deltas)," he reflects. "It just re-emphasized everything we felt was wrong with fraternities -- the exclusivity, the elitist attitude, just the overall behavior. The Deltas weren't beating people up just because they were different."

Memorable movie

Another notable Delta was rotund Kent Dorfman, a k a "Flounder." The role introduced Stephen Furst to audiences before his TV runs on "St. Elsewhere" and "Babylon 5," and he marvels at how "people remember everything about that movie.

"I recently saw it on a big screen for the first time in a long time, and there were things I noticed that I'd never caught before. What really sticks out in my mind is a scene where Pinto takes a girl to Delta House president Hoover's room during a party, and there's a big Confederate flag on the wall. I went, 'Where did that come from?"'

Easily recognized

Though considerably slimmer, Furst finds his association with the movie as strong as ever, with fans of all ages.

"The other day, this little girl about 9 years old came up to me and said, 'If you're the guy from 'Animal House,' I thought you were funny in it.' I mean, 9 years old. I thought that was a little weird. Also, there's a commercial running in Los Angeles for a cable company, and (a potential customer) asks the salesman, 'Is it good for kids?' They start showing quick clips of cartoons and other things ... and a Belushi scene from 'Animal House' is in there. I could only think, 'Wow. How interesting."'

The "Double Secret Probation Edition" DVD includes a new, Landis-directed "Where Are They Now?" segment featuring many of the actors as their "Animal House" characters today.

"That was really fun to do," Matheson says. "It brought back a lot of emotional memories for me."

Furst agrees. "I'm kind of like Flounder," he concedes. "I'm not quite as inept, but I came to Hollywood sort of wide-eyed and trusting and naive. It was no problem for me to fall right back into that character."

The initial impact of "Animal House" was felt by its stars as much as by audiences.

"I must say it was better than I'd hoped it would be," Matheson admits. "It was what I dreamed it could be, and I think it's a testament to the writers, Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller. And John Landis was the perfect director for it at that time."

Furst remembers going to a 1978 preview: "I was in a car with some other people from the movie. As we got near the theater, we could see that the line was around the block. I couldn't believe it. Once we got in, I sat in the back, and I got annoyed that there was so much laughter. It drowned out some of the lines I knew were coming up."