Toga! Toga! Toga! The real story behind ‘Animal House’

In this April 25, 2015, file photo, Peter Riegert (Boon), Karen Allen (Katy), Martha Smith (Babs), Mark Metcalf (Niedermeyer), Judy Belushi, widow of John Belushi (Blutarsky), and Stephen Furst (Flounder) gather in front of the Mahaiwe at an "Animal House" reunion in Great Barrington, Mass. Furst's family says the "Animal House" actor has died. Nathan Furst said Saturday, June 17, 2017, that his father died of complications from diabetes. Stephen Furst was 63. He died Friday at his home in Moorpark, Calif., north of Los Angeles.
In this April 25, 2015, file photo, Peter Riegert (Boon), Karen Allen (Katy), Martha Smith (Babs), Mark Metcalf (Niedermeyer), Judy Belushi, widow of John Belushi (Blutarsky), and Stephen Furst (Flounder) gather in front of the Mahaiwe at an "Animal House" reunion in Great Barrington, Mass. Furst's family says the "Animal House" actor has died. Nathan Furst said Saturday, June 17, 2017, that his father died of complications from diabetes. Stephen Furst was 63. He died Friday at his home in Moorpark, Calif., north of Los Angeles. AP

Actor Stephen Furst, who played the inept, naive and lovable butt of a lot of semi-insane fraternity-house pranks in the 1978 film "Animal House," died over the weekend. In a Miami Herald story in 2003, on the 25th anniversary of the film, we revealed the unconventional (OK, totally nuts) way he got the role, plus some other tidbits -- many of them printable -- about what went on on the "Animal House" set. Here it is:

LOS ANGELES — Dean Wormer: Who dumped a whole truckload of Fizzies into the swim meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween the trees are filled with underwear; every spring the toilets explode.  

Marmalard: You're talking about Delta, sir.

Nobody had ever seen anything like it. It was rebellious, it was anarchic, it was gross. It had kids getting wasted and puking and being promiscuous, sometimes all at once. Its heroes were drunks and slobs and Peeping Toms; its villains were teachers and cheerleaders and anybody who was or would ever be grown up. It trashed militaristic ROTC Nazis and limp-wimp folksingers with equal glee. It was grungy rock 'n' roll in the slam-glam Age of Disco. It made audiences crazy. It was “Animal House,” and it was something.  

It was also — read it and weep, baby boomers — 25 years ago. “Animal House” has confounded its own conception by growing into a distinguished middle age, officially celebrated at 9 tonight with a behind-the-scenes special on Spike TV. That's followed Tuesday with the release of a DVD that includes the original film and several extras, among them a "mockumentary" on what happened to the characters later.  

If that sounds like a big to-do about a bunch of delinquent frat rats, well, “Animal House” was much more than that. For one thing, it pioneered -- invented -- the gross-out kid comedy genre. Every party-hearty sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll flick from “Porky's” to “American Pie” has merely treaded the same twisted path carved out by “Animal House.”  

More importantly, it was the first comedy that was made by, for and about baby boomers. Though released in 1978, it was located squarely in the '60s -- not just in terms of its story, but its in-your-face sensibility.  

"I guess you could say “M*A*S*H” was tonally, attitudinally, in the ballpark, " says Ivan Reitman, barely 30 when he wangled the job as “Animal House” 's producer. "But this was the first movie that went all the way in embracing our generation and its values.  

"We articulated that among ourselves while we were making it, that this was a movie for us. Remember, comedy back then was still Doris Day and Phyllis Diller. There was very little being made for this generation."   


It almost wasn't made. The story that emerges in interviews with the cast and crew, as well as tonight's “Animal House: Unseen And Untold” on Spike TV, is of a movie that virtually nobody believed in. Universal tried to kill it on almost a daily basis; eight directors turned it down, not to mention 12 colleges in six states. (It was finally shot at the University of Oregon where the president OK'd it without reading the script -- he was still sick over saying no to “The Graduate” because he thought it was dirty, and had concluded he didn't know how to read screenplays.)  

Its only champions were a couple of young low-level executives -- and the brain trust of the National Lampoon, a sacred-cow-slaughtering humor magazine for college-age kids, which had conceived the project.  

But the Universal suits found “Animal House”'s slapstick food fights, furtive furgling, and generally mutinous attitude to be vulgar, scruffy and mystifyingly unfunny. It survived their wrath only because its budget was so tiny that it was almost certain to turn a profit.  

"The studio didn't want to make it, " Reitman agrees. "They only gave it a budget of $2.7 million, which was small even then."  

Although “Animal House” would launch much of its cast -- including John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hulce - toward stardom, they were barely known then, much less bankable. Belushi, with a cultishly small following from the new TV show “Saturday Night Live,” drew the top salary: $40,000. When Bacon, a waiter who had never been in a movie, was told he was being paid scale (that is, union minimum), he thought it had something to do with his weight.  

Still, Bacon was a model of sophistication next to Stephen Furst, signed to play the hapless Delta pledge Flounder. Furst, a Hollywood pizza delivery boy, stuffed his picture and résumé inside every pie he delivered -- an impossibly unlikely strategy that paid off when he delivered a double pepperoni to National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons. 

At the last minute, Universal insisted that “Animal House” add an actual movie star. Director John Landis got his pal Donald Sutherland to take a small role as a hip English professor -- two days of shooting for $25,000. (Sutherland turned down a deal for $10,000 plus a share of the profits, which probably cost him $5 million.)   


But it wasn't just the lack of star power in “Animal House” that appalled Universal executives, it was everything. A movie set in the 1960s, which everybody was going dancing at Studio 54 to forget? A movie about a renegade college fraternity, at a time when fraternities were on the brink of extinction? Worst of all, a movie in which Hollywood's eternal definitions of good guys and bad guys were turned on their heads?  

The execs would have felt even worse if they'd known that even some of the cast members were nervous. Martha Smith was no prude -- she'd already done a Playboy centerfold -- but she shuddered every time at the parts of the script involving her character, the randy cheerleader Mandy.  

"I'm reading along, and it says, 'She stands nude in front of the sorority window and masturbates herself.' And I'm thinking, 'How am I going to cover this up from my parents?' " Smith laughingly recalls. "Or -- this was cut from the movie -- 'Bluto [Belushi's character], hiding underneath the bleachers, looks up her skirt and discovers she's wearing no panties.' “ 

Finally Smith gave up and asked to switch to the role of another cheerleader, the priggish (and fully clothed) Babs.  

Outlandish as the script was by Hollywood standards of the day, it was downright sober compared to earlier drafts. The first one was about the Manson family in high school, and even 20 drafts later, director John Landis still found himself cutting out a scene of a 10-minute vomiting contest.  

Some of the other bits vetoed by Landis or Reitman are not the stuff of family newspapers to this very day: encounters between sensitive bodily parts and various substances including frozen hot dogs and buckets of hot tar; a beer keg bursting out of the forehead of a paper-mache replica of President Kennedy on a homecoming float; and jokes about Bob Dylan and Norway's King Olav IV (don't ask).  

Reitman still tenses up a bit at the mention of his daily wrestling matches with the screenwriters, Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and -- particularly -- Chris Miller, a porn-prone National Lampoon writer “whose erotic prose was so prurient it practically ran down the page, " as another Lampoon editor once observed.  

"There was this constant dialogue back and forth about about how much drinking should the characters be doing? How many drugs should they be doing? How much sex should there be?" Reitman recalls. "Finally I just had to tell Miller, there's a point past which things are not funny, they're just tasteless."  

But when the final arguments about the script were over, the actual filming -- just 32 days -- went smoothly, if exhaustingly. (Especially the memorable toga party scene, which lasted for two 12-hour days.)  

Reitman and the National Lampoon crowd, as they watched the dailies, thought the movie was going well. But they weren't sure until its first sneak preview screening in Denver. The audience went nuts, even tearing out rows of seats.  

"That was one of the great screenings of my life, " says Reitman, who went on to make both “Ghostbusters” movies, among others. "I've never seen an audience get into a movie like that. It was like a rock concert."   


Even so, neither Reitman nor anyone else could have predicted the mania that struck when “Animal House” was released that summer. It would eventually rake in more than $170 million and for years was the most successful comedy of all time. Reitman, who had a share of the profits, was rich. So was National Lampoon. Belushi's face was on the cover of Newsweek. Fraternities boomed, and on some college campuses there were toga parties so huge they had to be held in football stadiums.  

In Hollywood, that can only mean one thing: Sequel. And they tried, oh National Lampoon tried. There was one script set in a sorority. Another centered around the military-nut character D-Day, leading a revolution in Central America. Kenney, Ramis and Miller finally settled on an idea: the Delts would reunite five years later in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, during 1967's Summer of Love.  

But those plans suffered a blow when Kenney tumbled to his death from a cliff during a Hawaiian vacation in 1980. Eighteen months later, Belushi's fatal drug overdose put an end to them. For most of the cast, those two deaths — especially Belushi's — are the only sad memories connected to a movie that was as much fun to make as it was to watch.  

"The greatest tragedy is that there's a generation out there that doesn't know John Belushi and what he could do, " Matheson declares. "You hear kids say, 'Hey, don't you mean Jim?' And it's just not right."