Movie review: ‘Back to School’

You knew what you were in for when you went to a movie by the late Rodney Dangerfield: shtick, sarcasm, barbed criticism and pointed irony. Certainly, you’d also experience profane comedy. At the end, it was pretty much all fall-down funny, unless you’re a stuck-up prude. Initially in film, Dangerfield was in the comedy classic “Caddyshack” then got top billing with “Easy Money” (click here for my review) and then 1986 arrived and so did “Back to School” and he had his big-hit showcase. It was better than “Easy Money” because I’d say that Dangerfield gained from his first experience as the headliner in the earlier effort. “Back to School” was a big hit so you’ve most likely seen it, but it’s worth another look – anytime – especially if it has been some time since you’ve watched it. Or even if it was just last week!

‘Back to School’
(1986; 96 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Alan Metter and starring Rodney Dangerfield, Burt Young, Keith Gordon and Robert Downey Jr.)


(NOTE: I reorganized this review and added more trivia and opinion and updated links on April 25, 2018.)

Rodney Dangerfield was a very funny man. He was one of those comedians who could get a laugh just from walking into a room (of course, in his case probably adjusting his tie and saying, “Take my mother-in-law, please!”). Dangerfield’s films only enhanced that comedy reputation and “Back to School” is simply his best effort as a headliner with the most screen time.


Dangerfield is better known for his role in the comedy classic “Caddyshack” in 1980 and he followed that up with three years later with “Easy Money.” Still, he managed to take it to yet another level with “Back to School,” where he does things like fire Kurt Vonnegut. The best thing is that all the jokes work and there isn’t a flat stretch in the film.

In “Back to School” Dangerfield, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, plays “Thornton Melon,” a self-made millionaire who built his fortune around a clothing store. He’s widowed with a second wife who’s socially grasping and cheats on him and his son’s off to college where he’s not doing too well.

After this plays out a bit, Dangerfield decides to go back to school and thereby provide the film a canvas that includes the obligatory run into a sorority house shower, a college town bar fight and the squaring off against the jocks (except instead of football, this one is framed by the sport of diving – you can’t forget the “Triple Lindy” once you’ve seen this one).

Along the way he finds love (with a professor) and manages to get his son to appreciate him as a person. It’s all tied up with a neat bow and you feel good when the credits roll.

Now, for some of the cast …

  • Dangerfield, who was also in the dark, vile “Natural Born Killers,” the kid soccer movie “Ladybugs” and with Adam Sandler in the devilish “Little Nicky,” basically plays himself on a stand-up stage here but is so good at it that he pulls it off with panache and energy than only a stand-up comedian can muster. The role isn’t worthy of an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination, but he was better here than some Oscar winners for other comedy roles. Rodney died from complications from heart surgery.
  • Keith Gordon, who became possessed by a car in “Christine” (click here for my review), plays “Jason Melon” and is looking to find himself at college. However, he’s failed at making the diving team, getting into a fraternity or getting a girlfriend. Gordon is convincing and manages a neat range of emotions and is cast perfectly in this role. He was also in “All That Jazz” (click here for my review) and was terrific in the slasher-thriller “Dressed to Kill.”
  • A two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Robert Downey Jr. is in familiar territory here as oddball “Derek Lutz” – Gordon tells Dangerfield something like “I have one friend and it’s him and he doesn’t have any friends.” Downey knows how to play odd and he also brings some vulnerability and sense of loyalty to the character. A very good, if modest, effort by Downey. He of course has been in the “Iron Man” franchise as well as fare as varied as the societal mess “Less Than Zero” and the horrid football flick “Johnny Be Good” (click here for my review).
  • The most remembered supporting role is by the hyper comic Sam Kinison, who plays the angry, easily agitated “Professor Turgeson.” Kinison is pure electricity here with his abrasive personality and cutting, sarcastic voice. Kinison is a piece of perfect casting here … right, “Mr. Helper?” Then, “SAY IT! SAY IT!” Kinison had a thin CV of only eight acting credits (I liked him in an episode of “Married With Children”) before his death at 38 in 1992 in a head-on crash blamed on the other driver.
  • Another good supporting effort is by veteran character actor and Oscar nominee (not for this one) Burt Young, who plays Dangerfield’s tough-guy sidekick and chauffeur “Lou.” Young does the hulking thug with a gravelly voice well here and has been in HBO’s “The Sopranos” as well as “Murph the Surf” (click here for my review) and his iconic character “Paulie” in the “Rocky” franchise earned him his nomination for the original film.
  • A Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Adrienne Barbeau does a fine job as Dangerfield’s chronically unfaithful second wife “Vanessa” and I would have liked to have seen more of this character because she was so effective as the bad wife. Barbeau was also in “Escape from New York” (click for my review) and a string of TV roles including her most noted TV role on “Maude.” She was nominated for “Maude.”
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Ned Beatty plays “Dean David Martin” with ease and Dangerfield and Downey laugh when they hear “Dean Martin.” Beatty was also in roles stretching from quite memorable work in “Deliverance” to “Superman” to “Charlie Wilson’s War” (click here for my review). He was nominated for “Network” He was also excellent in “The Big Easy” (click here for my review).

Paired together at the beginning of Dangerfield’s college career are Sally Kellerman as “Dr. Diane Turner” and Paxton Whitehead as “Dr. Phillip Barbay.” Kellerman, who was the original “Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan” in the “MASH” movie (the character’s name was changed to “Houlihan” for the TV series and the asterisks were added for the title in the movie posters and used for the TV series but not in the film’s credits), becomes Dangerfield’s love interest as she loses interest in Whitehead, who is the business professor who hates Dangerfield.

  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Kellerman expresses the willowy, mellow personality of her character perfectly, just as Whitehead is matchless in his portrayal of a high-handed snob. She’s smooth, watchable and convincing as the mellow professor of literature who should learn more about Kurt Vonnegut! Kellerman was also in the putrid “Moving Violations” (click here for my review) as well as a string of TV appearances. Kellerman’s nomination was for “MASH.”
  • Whitehead has also been in a string of TV shows as well as the films “Kate & Leopold” and “Baby Boom.” He hasn’t notched an acting credit since 2011.

Wrapping up a look at the cast is one actor and an acclaimed, top-shelf writer in a cameo …

  • I personally have always enjoyed how Oscar nominee (not for this one) William Zabka perfected the role of blond, muscular bad guys – either jerks (watch “Just One of the Guys” – click here for my review) or bullies (watch “The Karate Kid”). He plays “Chas” here and does his usual excellent job as the BMOC who has to take a fall. Zabka has also been in “European Vacation” and TV shows such as “Psych.” His nomination was for the live action short “Most.”
  • Kurt Vonnegut plays himself and was hired by Dangerfield to write a book report on one of his works. Of course, Kellerman, who is a literature professor, notes that the book report’s writer “doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” Vonnegut actually has four acting credits, but 18 credits in roles as “himself.”

Back to School” was the sixth ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1986 with $91.2 million in receipts, according to Box Office Mojo and Wiki notes that it has since made more than $40 million in video rentals. It was bested by Tom Cruise’s iconic “Top Gun” with $176.7 million and “Crocodile Dundee” with $174.8 million as the top two films. Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed and posted on my blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via

  • The room where Dangerfield is grilled in a test by professors is the same one used for the shooting of the final dance scene in “Flashdance.”
  • Directly from “Kevin Spacey appears briefly as a waiter as Dangerfield is eating his big sandwich at the party. (Appx. 11:35 into the film).” Guess what? With all the controversy about sexual issues in Hollywood these days … no one cares, Kevin.
  • Rodney’s character was a truck driver in his younger days … as was Rodney!
  • Directly from “Due to Rodney Dangerfield‘s contractual obligations with the Miller Brewing Company and his appearances in Miller Lite beer commercials at the time, only Miller beer was allowed to be shown in certain scenes (when Dangerfield goes to get a beer out of the refrigerator during the party at his house and during the large party at the college when the police arrive with extra beer).”
  • Co-writer Harold Ramis, who was Dangerfield’s director in “Caddyshack,” changed Rodney’s character from being poor to being rich because it worked better that way for him to return to college and the succeeding hijinks.
  • Most of the outdoor shots were filmed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Hmmmm … it is such a liberal hotbed that I don’t believe the film could be shot there today because it would be too politically incorrect for those PC asshats who run the place to allow such a film on campus.
  • Finally and directly from “When Thornton talks to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. over the phone, the last thing he says before hanging up is ‘Next time, I’ll call Robert Ludlum!’ Spy novelist Ludlum was one of Rodney Dangerfield‘s real-life neighbors at the time.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
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