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
Brad Puterbaugh (Class of '88) January 10, 2011
I remember those days well. My roommates (Jeff Munroe, Jim Wegerbauer and John Ronzia) and I were extras and we made it onto some pretty good scenes. In fact I got to speak quite a bit to Rodney Dangerfield and Robert Downey Jr. between scenes. On Spring Break 1986 I went to NYC and Robert Downey Jr. got me onto the set and green room of Saturday Night Live. Guests that night were Francis Ford Coppola and George Wendt (aka Norm) from Cheers. I got to meet the entire cast (Anthony Michael Hall, John Lovitz, etc.) and partake in Francis Ford Coppola’s birthday cake. Coppola was a “special” guest that night. I’ll never forget the filming of “Back to School” on campus. Thank you UW for affording me that great opportunity as well as an excellent education.
Jack Schreve January 14, 2011
Ah yes! I too was an extra in Back To School. I was working on my MBA at the time. I had to drop a marketing class due to a very unsupportive professor (I missed a test as a result of shooting) but it was well worth it!
Not only did I get to carry beer into the party as one of the campus cops, but I also doubled for Burt Young and drove the limo in the scenes shot from a helicopter in the Verona area.
A great experience with great memories and I still get calls from time to time when it airs on TV.
Jack Schreve (JBS ’83, MBA ’86)
David Stank August 23, 2011
Days and nights watching the filming of ‘Back to School’ around the lakeshore dorms was a treat.
I tried getting onto a scene as a “walk-thru” along the sidewalk in from of SChlichter Hall (?) but someone stopped me.
From my dorm room window at Winslow-Faville my then-girlfriend slash future wife and I watched a scene with Burt Young and the actor who played Dangerfield’s son. Her bike appears in the rack near Melon’s limousine.
The Hollywood crew arrived for the peak of the Fall colors that autumn and some outdoor scenes are beautiful.
David Stank (BSME ’86)
Jeff Burr July 20, 2012
I was also an extra, with my roommate Joe Herzog. We were part of about 20 people filming scenes in the background. I remember showing up in the movie, talking with Bill Dance..I think that was the choreographer…and loving every minute of our 16 hour days.