In the 1986 classic comedy Back To School, Rodney Dangerfield played a brash, obnoxious millionaire named Thornton Melon who sends his son off to school. Then, in a quintessential ’80s movie twist, he decides to enroll alongside him, remembering his own father’s long-forgotten words of advice: “A man that has no education has nothing.” It’s not only the classic fish-out-of-water tale, but it’s also a story about a father trying his best to be there for his son, all while bettering himself through higher learning. To celebrate Dangerfield’s birthday, here’s a celebration of some of Thornton Melon’s most outlandish moments from Back To School.
“A, B, C, you’re in the top three, so what are you worried about?” – Thornton
After he splits up with his unfaithful wife, he and Lou, his limo driver played by Burt Young, decide to pay his son, Jason, a surprise visit. Thinking he was in a fraternity and a member of the diving team (instead of just the towel boy), Thornton is hurt that his son would lie to him (“you don’t lie to me, you lie to girls”). When Jason begins describing the difficult time he’s having — socially and academically — Thornton tries to help him look on the bright side.
“What’s wrong with used books?” – Jason
“They’ve already been read!” – Thornton
Ready to be a part of the student experience, Thornton questions his son’s choice of buying used books. When Jason explains that “they’ve already been underlined,” he’s quick to point out that whoever had that book before could have been a maniac. Which, technically, is possible. The best gauge is to count up how many crude cartoon drawings you find in a book to determine psycho status, but that’s just me.
“Hard work? Listen, Sherlock, while you were tucked away working on your ethics, I was out there bustin’ my hump in the real world — and the reason guys like you got a place to teach is because guys like me donate BUILDINGS!” – Thornton
With Thornton’s grating behavior ticking off the head of the business school, Phillip Barbay, he’s eager to defend the choices he’s made in life. Choices that allow him to buy the occasional building here and there.
“I’ll tell you what, maybe if you got a note from each and every one of these people saying it was alright, then we’d reconsider — but, until that day, take a hike, you elitist, fraternity scumbag!” – Derek
Waiting in never-ending lines to register for classes, Diving Team captain Chas tries to pressure Jason into cutting in line. His sole friend on campus, Derek (Iron Man in picture-perfect 1980s attire), decides to answer for him, not mincing any words in the process
“These classes can be REAL inconvenient.” – Thornton
Before the semester even gets started, Jason breaks the news to his dad that he won’t be able to reschedule any of his classes to accommodate his personal life. It’s then that Thornton begins to see the challenge of day-to-day college life.
“Hey, folks, it’s on me. Shakespeare for everyone!” – Thornton
It’s the kind of line you’d expect in any ’80s movies where Rodney Dangerfield plays a brash, fun-loving millionaire. There really weren’t enough of those, by the way. When they write the big book of ’80s regrets, we need to make sure that’s up there.
“Flunk me? FLUNK HIM!” – Thornton
Once again drawing on his own years of real-world experience, Thornton is not at all impressed with the theoretical models Barbay uses in class. While Thornton seems pleased at the attention he gets, including irritating the teacher, Jason reminds him that the teacher still holds his grade in his hand. Thornton reacts with clever word play that is sadly wasted on an ungradeable moment.
“Good teacher. He really seems to care. About what, I have no idea.” – Thornton
From business class to history class, where Professor Terguson (scream practitioner and late comedian Sam Kinison, mostly playing himself) goes on a trademark rant about the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, driving one student to tears. Thornton, however, isn’t afraid to deliver an equally rant/tirade in response, which wins Terguson’s respect in the process.
Kinison found a backer in Dangerfield as a stand-up, and Back to School was his first and probably most iconic role save for that of himself.
“I like teachers. Do something wrong, you can do it over again.” – Thornton
Finding himself smitten with English Professor Dr. Diane Turner, (Sally Kellerman), Jason reminds his father that she’s their teacher. Thornton immediately responds with why he likes teachers in the first place.
“I took out an English teacher. That didn’t work out at all. I sent her a love letter, she corrected it!” – Thornton
It wouldn’t be a movie starring Rodney Dangerfield without a few of his trademark lines woven into his dialogue.
The Study Montage
After being accused of academic fraud by Barbay (rightfully so, he had Kurt Vonnegut write his paper on Kurt Vonnegut for him, after all), Jason urges his father to study with his help, which leads to the study montage to end all study montages. What? People got stuff done to music in the ’80s.
“Do not go gentle into… into… into that good night…”
Having already passed Barbay’s grueling 27-part oral exam question and delirious from non-stop studying, Dr. Turner has Thornton recite the Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, causing him to rise triumphantly once he realizes he won’t be flunking out of college. He took a valuable lesson from it, namely “not taking sh*t from no one.”
The Triple Lindy
Such a famous display of aerial-to-aquatic artistry that it inspired a Sum 41 music video. Which is the greatest compliment something can receive.
“It’s a jungle out there. You gotta look out for number one. Just don’t step in number two!” – Thornton
Being allowed to speak at commencement, despite being a freshman, Thornton imparts these immortal words of advice to the graduating class. Though, not as resonating as his sendoff line from Caddyshack, it does end up having a distinct similarity to a graduation speech given by Robert De Niro earlier this year.
Finally, there was just no way this was getting left out.