Friday, February 04, 2005

JOHN VERNON 1932 - 2005: Dean Wormer Gets This Damned Thing Over With

Perhaps it's fitting that the robust rumble of actor John Vernon's full-bodied yet well-tempered speaking voice would first be introduced to American audiences in 1966, when the Canadian actor was featured in the Marvel Superheroes animated TV series as the voice of the stately, driven and dignified Prince Namor, otherwise known as the Sub-Mariner. Vernon was also Tony Stark, the Iron Man, and the voice of General Glenn Talbot, arrogant military nemesis of the Incredible Hulk, and he returned to voice-over work for cartoons and video games in the latter part of his career, when illness had made it difficult for him to get around. His last credited work, according to the Internet Movie Database, was voice work for a video game entitled Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. But his last appearance on film (or, in this case, video) was a return to the role with which he would be most closely identified, in which he allowed us to catch up with the whereabouts of one Dean Vernon Wormer, former president of Faber College, in "Where Are They Now: A Delta Alumni Update," available on last year's "Double Secret Probation" DVD release of National Lampoon's Animal House. John Vernon died yesterday at the age of 72 of complications from heart surgery.

Like a lot of people my age, my first exposure to Vernon was probably those Marvel TV cartoons. But the first time I ever saw him on screen, in Dirty Harry, as the mayor of San Francisco reading a note left in the wake of a grisly shooting that promised even more bloodshed, his presence left an impression on me and my life as a young moviegoer that made him seem far more ubiquitous in my memory than his actual credits would attest. In fact, in between 1972, when I saw Dirty Harry for the first time at the tender age of 12, and 1977, when I graduated high school, I saw John Vernon in exactly two movies, the John Wayne vehicle Brannigan, and Drum, the ultra-sleazy sequel to Mandingo. Neither movie was particularly memorable, or good, or representative of his talent. (I would end up seeing his other, better work, in movies like Point Blank, Charley Varrick, The Questor Tapes and The Outlaw Josey Wales, much later, in college and into my 20s.) No, instead of blazing a trail through great movie after great movie in the 1970s, John Vernon became an indelible part of my TV landscape growing up, a frequent "special guest star" on shows that were always on in my house, shows like The F.B.I., Tarzan, Felony Squad, Mission: Impossible, The High Chaparral, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, The Name of the Game, Storefront Lawyers, Bearcats!, Cannon, Search, Kung Fu, Petrocelli, Police Woman, McMillan and Wife, and S.W.A.T. It's no wonder, then, when I met John Vernon in 1977 on the set of National Lampoon's Animal House, that he seemed so familiar, so approachable, and at the same time so intimidating.

The intimidation was actually no surprise. Fresh from the sagebrush of Lake County, I was an extremely green freshman trying to navigate through my first term in the relatively bustling scholarly environs of the University of Oregon. Intimidation was a way of life for me, a form of functioning. Yet I managed to gather enough courage to respond to a cattle call ad in the school paper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, which said that Universal Pictures was looking for fresh faces to be used as extras in a new comedy that would be shooting on campus in October. The next thing I know, I'm on the floor of the Delta house, watching with several other "Delta pledges" on camera as Jamie Widdoes (Hoover) talked about the house being put on "double secret probation, whatever that is," while Tim Matheson (Otter), Peter Reigert (Boone), Bruce McGill (D-Day) and, of course, John Belushi (Bluto) began to hatch the plan for the big toga party.

Earlier that same day was when I first met John Vernon. I'd spotted him on the set a couple of days earlier, milling about, checking things out, but I was far too terrified to introduce myself or say anything to him-- I imagined him as being tough and mean and unapproachable, like most of the characters I'd seen him play, and I didn't even yet know him as Dean Wormer. (I also lived in fear on the set of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and incurring the wrath of the assistant director, a craggy veteran of The Wild Bunch and other Sam Peckinpah movies.) I wasn't as gregarious and inquisitive with all that talent floating around as I wish I'd been in retrospect. But when Vernon arrived on the set to drop the "double secret probation" bomb on the Deltas, I gathered what little courage I had and sidled up to him for a brief moment before he began rehearsing his scene. I don't remember much about what I said, other than some witty bon mot along the lines of "What's Clint Eastwood like?" But I do remember he was very gracious, very open to talking with some nobody kid who'd found himself smack in the middle of a dream situation, and he never once made me feel like I was intruding or being obnoxious. I told him what my plans were for college and beyond (I thought I wanted to direct movies back then!), and he was cautiously encouraging and told me I was lucky to get a crash course in what filmmaking was like just by being a part of this movie. I made sure I told him how much I liked him in Dirty Harry, he laughed and thanked me, and then he was off.

The next time I saw him, a few moments later, he was lit like the Frankenstein monster as he walked with great deliberation through the doorway into the living room where Deltas great and small were gathered, unconcerned with being caught by the dean in violation of rules concerning alcoholic beverages in fraternities on probation. He seemed completely different from the man I'd just talked with, and over the course of rehearsing and shooting the scene it became very easy to forget he was anyone but the vicious and obsessively punitive Dean Wormer, a distillation, amplification, and a perfecting of the kind of villainy I'd seen him embody on all those TV shows in years past. He didn't roam around the set between takes staring down helpless extras or demanding to be treated with special deference in order to stay in character-- the Animal House set would definitely have been the wrong arena for any actor to try to get away with that sort of Method indulgence. But Vernon carried Wormer's sweaty belligerence around with him anyway by the sheer force of his presence and his refusal to wink at the audience or his fellow actors. He infused what could have been a simple cartoon characterization with real gravitas, real arrogance, the real frustration of "the establishment" as the first hiccups of 60s rebellion began to manifest in the rebellious hi-jinks of real-life college students whom the Delta Tau Chi fraternity very closely resembled. He also displayed a deft agility with comedy that was surprising coming from someone as closely identified with dramatic bad guys as he was. He made the deliciously mean-spirited and apoplectic Dean Wormer wiggle and breathe on the hook, adding one layer to the richness of absurdity and observation and groundbreaking raunch that lifted National Lampoon's Animal House to a higher plane and kept it out of the reach of a multitude of pale imitations for 27 years and counting.

It was somehow fitting that Vernon's last appearance would be a return to Dean Wormer's shoes. Even though he was clearly ill in "Where Are They Now: A Delta Alumni Update," Vernon's cantankerous Wormer, railing irrationally at the indignities foisted upon him by the Delta house some 40 years previous, was spirited fun to see. And after toiling during the post-Animal House years in roles that, to put it kind kindly, didn't give him much of a chance to shine-- brief appearances in films like Airplane II: The Sequel, Chained Heat and I'm Gonna Get You, Sucka were the highlights-- there was some satisfaction in seeing him come home and lay fresh claim to a characterization that has given so many moviegoers so much nasty pleasure since the movie premiered in August 1978.

During Animal House's fraternity council hearing scene, as the Deltas are preparing to present their case for not being kicked off campus, Dean Wormer, in his best conspiratorially hushed tones, leans over to Omega lackey Gregg Marmalarde and mutters, "Let's get this damned thing over with." It's not a laugh line, and certainly it's not in the same canon of classics such as "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son," or "Put a sock in it, boy, or you'll be out of here like shit through a goose." But for reasons probably entirely related to the way Vernon delivers the line, it has resonated with me, and I often use it in situations, both lighthearted and of import, in my own life. And it's the first thing I thought of when my friend Todd dropped me a line on this blog and let me know that John Vernon had died. He had finally, after illnesses related to heart problems, and surgery undergone to repair them, gotten this damned thing over with. And he's left a body of good work, and one vivid, dare I say great, characterization that lovers of laughter will enjoy as long as film exists in one form or another, an achievement that any actor would relish. It's inconceivable to imagine that John Vernon didn't delight in knowing he was one of those lucky ones. I feel lucky that I got to meet him briefly and watch him in the process of creating Dean Wormer, but I'm no luckier than anyone who's gotten a chance to see the movie and appreciate that performance. Imagine with me the actor's deadpan response to the pencils up Belushi's nose, or his attempt to placate the angry mayor on the telephone while his drunken wife wraps her legs around his head and eventually tumbles to the floor, and then join me in saying thanks one last time to John Vernon for a dean well done indeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, what sad news, but what a nice warm tribute you wrote to a good man. This is Bruce, by the way, who met Dennis on the "Animal House" set--a fellow nerdy freshman cast as a Delta Pledge. I met John Vernon the day we shot the courtroom scene in Fenton Hall, and he was immediately approachable, even to a shy kid like me. As I remember it, I had some coffee and some kind of fruit pastry from the caterers, and he said "Mmmm, that looks good." So we ended up talking, and he put me at my ease. When I went back for more coffee, I asked him if he'd like some, and he thanked me and said he'd love some. So I brought him a cup, which led to a recurring routine, over the course of the days, of me asking if he'd like a cup and Vernon inevitably gratefully accepting, probably half just to please me, as I obviously liked his company. (He drank it black, as I remember, and mine of course was full of milk and probably sugar). But he was the kind of guy who asked me about myself, rather than talk about himself. Soft-spoken, polite and gentle--the very opposite of most of the characters he's identified with. He seemed happy to be working and to be patient and wait around on the set, chatting easily with some kid whose big thrill of the day was to bring coffee to him. The line I always was taken by was one of those you mention: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son." It's not very nicely put, but it always struck me as Dean Wormer showing a little flash of decency, and of course Wormer was right. A little bit of old-fashioned, pre-60s revolution tough love, you might say. It's details like that which give "Animal House" a little more dimension than its myriad pretenders. But Vernon was a swell guy. May he rest in peace in that big administration building in the sky.