The location is familiar, the colors on the sweatshirt look right, but what’s the name of that academic institution? Ah, yes — Grand Lakes University, home of the Hooters: the fictitious college attended by Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) in the movie Back to School. Twenty-five years ago, Dangerfield and company came to Madison, using the UW campus as their backdrop while filming exterior scenes. The movie featured not only Dangerfield, but also Sally Kellerman, Adrienne Barbeau, Sam Kinison, Kurt Vonnegut (yep, that Kurt Vonnegut), and Robert Downey, Jr.
Back to School was released in June 1986 and grossed more than $91 million, making it the sixth-highest earning film that year. Dangerfield was both writer and star, and it was perhaps the peak of his film career, coming on the heels of hits Caddyshack and Easy Money. In his subsequent movies, the roles and financial returns were never quite so large.
The movie may also be the high-water mark of the UW’s film fame. In spite of Back to School’s success, campus didn’t catch on as a substitute studio. Evidently, Madison’s distance from Hollywood — plus its eleven-month-long winters — are cinematically inconvenient. Even Back to School shot many of its scenes elsewhere, including the diving competition that formed a critical component in the plot. Dangerfield did his famed “Triple Lindy” not in the Nat, but at the Industry Hills Aquatic Club in Industry, California.
Published in the Winter 2010 issue