Eugene, Oregon, Fall 1977. I was a first-term freshman trying to squeak out at least a 3.0 GPA my first time at bat at the University of Oregon. Movies had been up to that point such a huge part of my interest, of my existence, really—my friends and I had made a few Super-8 trifles up to this point, but we knew movies primarily as creations to be seen, delivery systems for a world far more interesting than the one we called home in the desert of Eastern Oregon. I had enrolled in the film studies department, officially proclaiming it my major, fully expecting to broaden my horizons by seeing a lot of films to which I had never had the opportunity to be exposed. But I also hoped to log some production time as well—at this point I still harbored a desire to direct movies myself someday. I had no way to anticipate that during my first semester in college I would end participating directly in the production of an honest-to-God Hollywood motion picture, one that would allow me to be introduced to a budding comic actor whose star was just beginning to rise that autumn.
I remember seeing the ad in the Oregon Daily Emerald, the University of Oregon newspaper. It said something about an open audition for a new movie produced by National Lampoon and Universal Pictures called Animal House. The auditions were to be held in the ballroom of the student union on campus, and there were specific instructions to “dress ‘60s.” I had no idea how to go about putting together a ‘60s costume, but I did know that I had some pretty nerdy pants, a plaid short-sleeved shirt and a completely out of fashion yellow button-up sweater that I could pull directly out of my closet—I knew they were in there because I’d recently done laundry, and they were among the dirty clothes I’d worn to class the previous week. I made my way into the ballroom, and after a brief orientation from the woman in charge of local extras casting (her name was Katherine, and I would get to know her well over the course of the next two months) we were instructed to fill out some general paperwork and file past the casting director, Michael Chinich, who was sitting at a long table near the front of the room. Several thousand college kids plodded through the room that day, and most of them ended up going back out the door very soon after they first arrived. But some of us stayed a little longer. When I approached Chinich, who was sitting next to a woman holding a Polaroid camera, he looked at me up and down very quickly and said to the woman, “Delta pledge. Take his picture.” I had no idea what that cryptic message actually meant, but I ended up standing there for a quick round of magically instant Polaroid photos, me in my “’60s costume,” and afterward the woman led me back to a smaller group of about 50 being corralled by Katherine in the corner. Katherine then split us up into smaller groups—there were Omegas, Omega pledges, Deltas and then my group, Delta pledges.
At this point we were informed that we were being hired by Universal Pictures to be in the movie and given mysterious pieces of paper called W-2 forms to fill out, along with vouchers to get our hair cut at the student union salon, where pages from some long-past yearbook hung in front of the cutting stations to be used as models for the stylist from which to carry out the assault on our everyday ’77 dos. That evening I got a call from Katherine with instructions to be ready to be picked up early the next morning for a photo session. When the car picked us up, we were taken to the film’s headquarters at the Rodeway Inn just off the I-5 in Springfield, where I, along with another young freshman named Greg who I dare say looked even greener than I did, was fitted with a moth-eaten jacket, shirt and tie and shuttled away with two of the movie’s main players, gentlemen by the name of Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst (neither of whom meant anything to me at the time, of course.) We headed out to a photo studio in Springfield where individual faux senior portraits of the four of us would be taken for some unknown future purpose. The ride to the studio and back was spent joking and openly speculating with the actors about the film’s director—it was on this ride that I found out Animal House was to be directed by John Landis, a name with which I was familiar from Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and a King Kong parody he directed entitled Schlock, and who also had a hit movie in theaters opening in Eugene that very same Friday, a picture entitled Kentucky Fried Movie. We made our way back to the Rodeway Inn, traded in our jackets for our regular school duds and got bussed back to campus, but not before getting our final instructions to show up on the set at the Sigma Nu house on 11th Street at 7:30 Monday morning and report to Ed Milkovich, the film’s second assistant director, among whose many jobs it would be to greet the extras, give us our assignments and dismiss us at the end of the day.
I was, of course, terrified as I walked from my dorm on the eastern end of campus all the way across to the Sigma Nu house on the other end. I remember spending the entire weekend nervously anticipating what was going to happen when I got there. There were rumors that Chevy Chase was in the movie, and John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd too, all of whom where heroes of just about everyone of college age at the time from Saturday Night Live, which was just entering its third season and approaching the height of its popularity. Being on the set was indeed terrifying at first, but coming straight from the dull-drums of high school in Southern Oregon it was also like some kind of forbidden, otherworldly movie paradise. There were so many actors on the set who I would encounter who were familiar to me, and even the ones I didn’t know who I saw on the set that first morning carried an aura of excitement about them from being connected to the project. I recognized Tim Matheson right away (I had no idea that him being there meant that Chevy Chase would not be), and I eyeballed Stephen Bishop, whose inescapable tune "On and On" was a top-40 hit at the time, making his way around outside where the crew was setting up in front of the old house next door to the Sigma Nu digs. (This decrepit manor would serve as the exterior of the Delta House, whereas all interiors of the Delta house were shot inside the Sigma Nu fraternity.) After some time on the set, when I began to get a sense of everyone who was in the movie, I even discovered a strange thread that ran through the cast—Donald Sutherland (Prof. Jennings), John Vernon (Dean Wormer), Verna Bloom (Mrs. Wormer), even Tim Matheson (Otter), all had worked with Clint Eastwood. (Imagine the questions a doughy, green kid thought to ask them…)
Inside the Sigma Nu house is where all Delta House interiors were shot. The exterior of this house was used as the exterior of the sorority where Mandy Pepperidge lived. The familiar beaten-down exterior of the Delta House was represented by a rundown halfway house that was situated just next door to the Sigma Nu property. It was torn down a few years ago.
I had been milling around outside waiting for instructions for about two hours on that first day when I saw John Belushi for the first time. He was walking down 13th Street through the crowd of extras, crew members and spectators, not purposefully calling attention to himself but also unable to be conspicuous either. He made his way toward the Sigma Nu house where interiors of the Delta party that opens the film were about to commence (shooting night interiors during the day—it was movie magic!) In fact, that opening party was the first major scene in the movie that I worked, and eagle-eyed viewers can see my pudgy figure (a relatively slim one compared to the 2008 model, to be sure) darting out the front door, up the stairs and seated on the floor in the middle of the inaugural madness, all in a quick succession of continuity-busting shots. And Belushi was there, holding court and creating the spirit of the set that would hold firm for the entire shoot. Spotting Belushi on the set was as easy as turning around—he was everywhere, as yet completely unfazed by encroaching fame (or the heinous influence of cocaine) and as approachable as any wide-eyed extra. He could always been seen hanging around on the periphery of the action, yelling obscenities and trying to crack up the actors on camera, or just hanging out and making friends with all the crew and lucky Eugene residents with whom he didn’t think twice about engaging as if the whole experience was one big party occasionally interrupted by the duties of acting. I remember one afternoon, killing time between takes in the Sigma Nu recreation room, sitting on the floor with Belushi, his wife Judith and about 15 other extras, watching Taxi Driver (my first time) on a weird technological oddity called HBO.
And in my big scene in the movie, when Pinto and Flounder are rousted out of bed, smacked down onto a line of dazed Delta pledges and made to take the oath of loyalty to their new fraternity (“I pledge allegiance to the frat…”), I actually got to share screen time in the same frame with Belushi. During rehearsals for the scene I stood two rumpled kids down from Flounder awaiting bestowal of my Delta Tau Chi name. Belushi got to me and unceremoniously ad-libbed my new name, Douchebag. I burst out laughing, but I could tell from the looks on the faces of Landis, Milkovich, and mostly the deathly intimidating visage of first assistant director Cliff Coleman, who only helped stage the spectacular action in The Wild Bunch and several other Sam Peckinpah features during his career, that to crack up on film would not be a good thing. I spent lunchtime, in between rehearsal and shooting of the scene, utterly terrified that I would do just that, which is why, in the finished film, I end up looking so strangely unaffected—- I was putting every ounce of energy I had into not spewing up guffaws when Belushi finally made his way to me. Well, of course, in the finished film the action cuts away as soon as Kent Dorffman is dubbed Flounder, so I guess I needn’t have worried. And I still got to be in the same shot as Belushi—I’m pretty clearly down the line during the entire sequence, but most especially on the tighter shot of Bluto and Flounder. I even got a nice beer bath for my trouble that day to finish the scene.
But the real memorable encounter came one afternoon when I went begrudgingly to the set, after having had to practically beg for a special time to take a midterm that was in conflict with a shooting time that I couldn’t miss. My professor was kind enough to give me another opportunity to take the test, so I brought my books to the set, knowing that there would certainly be at least two or three extended periods in between takes that I could use to get away and study. Just after lunch, sure that I wouldn’t be needed for at least another hour, I informed the casting assistant that I was going to go study outside. Since filming was concentrating that day indoors, I found my way to a displaced couch which was sitting out near the front steps of the house. And no one but the occasional grip was anywhere near, a great chance for some peace and quiet. I sat down on the couch and was there for five or ten minutes, I suppose, when out of the corner of my eye I saw someone approach the couch and flop down on the other end of it. I tried to keep my eyes on my book, but eventually I gave in to the primal impulses of social behavior and looked up to acknowledge the person who was taking up some of what I considered my personal space. It was John Belushi. I immediately realized how dry my mouth was when I tried to say something, anything, and only a loud smecking sound came out. Perhaps sensing that I was a bit nervous, he began asking me about my studies, where I came from, how I was enjoying school—small talk, really, but coming from someone whom I already considered a cultural hero of sorts, it sounded plenty big to me. I even mustered up enough composure to ask him what enduring his schedule was like-- during filming, Belushi would be on the set in Eugene Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then at the end of the third day he would fly back to New York, crash-write and rehearse Saturday Night Live, perform the show that weekend, then be on a flight back to Eugene on Sunday. Naturally, he was pretty exhausted by the whole thing. (Some have suggested that his abuse of cocaine had its roots in trying to keep up with this brutal back-and-forth, but I certainly couldn’t say I saw any evidence of it.) It was clear that Belushi, like me, was looking for a place to get away from the bustle of the day’s shoot, if only for a moment, and he chose to sit next to me to spend that down time.
Before he got up to return to the (barely) controlled chaos, he even told me a dirty joke. I’ll tell it to you (and those who don’t appreciate a filthy, borderline sexist joke can probably skip this last part—it is admittedly in extremely poor taste, but indicative of the uncut Lampoon sensibility from which Belushi and the movie would spring): Guy goes to see a doctor. He says, “Doc, it’s really weird. I’m having very odd symptoms. Don’t get me wrong—I feel great, but look at me—I look awful!” The doctor sizes him up for a second, then gets up from his stool, pulls out a large leather-bound volume from his shelf and begins to page through it. He stops briefly at one entry: “No, that’s ‘feels bad, looks bad.’” He turns a few more pages, stops, considers the text, then says, “No, that’s ‘looks good, feels bad.’ Hmm.” The doctor, determined to get a handle on the patient’s problem, turns a few more pages. Again he stops, and this time his eyes light up: “’Feels good, looks bad’! That’s it!” The patient sits up and asks, “What is it, Doc? You’ve figured out what my problem is?” The doctor happily responds, “Why, yes, Mr. Johnson! According to Grey’s Anatomy, you are a vagina!”
This time it was okay for me to laugh at Belushi’s antics, and I did—they weren’t being filmed, and they were staged just for me. It wasn’t until much later that I gave much thought to how gross the joke really was, but truthfully it didn’t much matter to me at the time, and I don’t think it really does now, as I think back on it. I’ve thought a lot about National Lampoon’s Animal House in the 30 years since it was filmed—how lucky I was to be involved, how incredible it is that it turned out to be something of a comedy classic, and how watching it then and now is for me akin to viewing a college yearbook with picture and sound. It really is, for me, a unique audio-visual of my life as a college freshman captured in a very peculiar and particular amber, a constant reminder of what my own school days were like as filtered through the reminisces and the recreated world of the film’s writers, its director and cast. And on top of all of that, I had a moment to call my own with one of my generation's most revered, and most tragic comedy talents.
My chat with Belushi is nothing compared to meeting the fella who would eventually become my best friend, and who remains so to this day, on the Animal House set—it is for that fortuitous occasion that I am most glad to have been a part of making the movie. But I often think of that afternoon listening to John Belushi’s filthy jokes and marvel at what a different world I was occupying then, separated only by a couple of months from the uneventful days of my high school youth. It was a valuable window for me on the world of how films are made and how difficult it must be for actors of a certain level of profile to maintain their connection to the bedrock influences and experiences of their lives. Of course I had no idea how little time Belushi had left when we sat and chatted that day—only just over four years—but in those moments he truly did seem both larger than life and very much life-sized, confident yet unassuming and even vulnerable. Meeting John Belushi was a major highlight of the two months I spent on the set of Animal House-- he indeed displayed some of the mannerisms of a classic P-I-G pig, but also a soft-spoken lack of self-consciousness that could allow him to go from being just one of the guys to a scene-gobbling toga-clad force of nature armed only with a jar of mustard and a desire to make everyone laugh. A good combination, as the world was about to find out.
(Portions of this article have appeared previously on this blog in a different form.)