Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About ‘Caddyshack,’ With The Guy Who Wrote The Book On It

It’s hard to separate Caddyshack, shot in Florida in 1979, from its creators doing too much cocaine. In fact the first cut made so little sense that they added an animatronic gopher during post production, one of the greatest, or certainly the most, cocaine ideas of all time. Yet Caddyshack also brought together three of the generation’s most important comedy institutions — SNL, the National Lampoon, and Second City. Like basically all things Boomer, Caddyshack‘s is a tangled legacy.

I came to Caddyshack, which turns 40 this week, at least a generation too late and, save some of the most classic bits, didn’t entirely “get” it. Understanding the wells from which it sprung, a story lovingly detailed in Chris Nashawaty’s book, Caddyshack: The Making Of A Hollywood Cinderella Story, helped a lot.

At the very least it’s a story with some unforgettable characters — arguably more interesting in real life than the movie. Like Bill Murray, who the National Lampoon staff initially thought was homeless when they found him napping on their couch (the movie itself was a semi-autobiographical tale about the Murray brothers, who grew up caddying at Indian Hills in Chicago). Or Jon Peters, the hairdresser-turned-movie mogul who conceived the gopher bit (much to the chagrin of the movie’s writers and director, Harold Ramis).

At the center of the story is Caddyshack co-writer Doug Kenney, who became a millionaire in his twenties when he cashed out of National Lampoon. Chevy Chase’s playboy Caddyshack character, leaving five and six-figure checks underneath couch cushions, was an inside joke about Kenney. Kenney had had a massive hit with Animal House and expected the same from Caddyshack. It didn’t pan out at first and the critics hated it, and Kenney wouldn’t live long enough to see it become a cult classic, dying later the same year.

Like I said, it’s a great story. I spoke to Nashawaty, former senior film writer at Entertainment Weekly, this week in honor of the film’s anniversary.

So how much cocaine was everyone doing at the time?

Oh my God, so much cocaine. I’ve read a lot about the history of movies, and especially the decade of 1975 to 1985. I mean, there’ve been a lot of cocaine movies, The Last Waltz or, New York, New York, or whatever, Scorsese in his cocaine period. But there is nothing that even comes close to the amount of cocaine done on the set of Caddyshack. I mean, it was shot in South Florida in 1979. It was pretty much the gateway into the country for the stuff. So they were 3,000 miles away from the studio, and they were young and they had a lot of money, and they had a good time. For the record, it wasn’t everyone who was doing cocaine. Ted Knight [the veteran TV actor who played judge Elihu Smails] was definitely not taking cocaine. He was the one guy on the set who was not into partying at all. But as for everyone else, it was a cocktail of cocaine, marijuana, and booze.

Was he not into partying just because he was older?

Well, he was an old-school guy, for starters. He’d been trained in a very different style of comedy and drama than everyone else. He didn’t know from improv, and that really became a problem on the set, whenever everyone was just throwing the script out the window and just making stuff up as they go along. His character, Judge Smails, is constantly fuming and slow-burning, and that was pretty much Ted Knight while they were making the movie. He did not get along with this young and crazy crowd. I don’t know if he had revealed it to anyone at the time, but he had just been diagnosed with cancer, and so he was like going to bed at 8 pm, taking vitamins, having alfalfa smoothies, and that was definitely not the diet of everyone else on the set.

Ted Knight’s acting choices feel like they don’t fit at times.

Well, first of all, it’s a movie where nothing fits together. It’s such a loose combination of random scenes that were put together in post. They threw away the script pretty much when they got there, and I think that explains some of the mismatched styles. But also, Ted Knight was just a different kind of actor. He had done I don’t know how many seasons on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and when you crank out a sitcom, you do a certain amount of pages every day, basically say the script line for line, and you don’t ask questions and don’t veer off the page. And then to put him in the ring with someone like Rodney, it’s just going to be total chaos. Rodney didn’t even bother looking at the script.

Rodney was what, 58 at the time? Was he still partying pretty hard?

Late 50s, definitely partying, pretty hard. The people I interviewed for the book said that Rodney liked to partake in both weed and coke, and he definitely liked being around the younger cast members, just because they were so much more fun, almost to the point where they wanted him to go away at times.

So I’ve gotten to the part about Doug Kenney being mad about how the movie turned out, but not quite to exactly why he was mad.

I mean, I think Doug was a pretty complicated guy and everything he had done up to that point in his career had been just an overwhelming success. This was the first time where he was nominally the producer on the film. But the studio had their say and the executive producer, Jon Peters, had his say. He wasn’t a manager and he wasn’t, really, a very good producer. And I think that all of the creative concessions that come in making a movie-by-committee for a studio, [Kenney] just couldn’t handle that. Animal House, the script they wrote is pretty much the script that appeared in the movie. But Caddyshack, dealing with a guy like Jon Peters, it’s not an easy assignment. So many expectations on the film, and even more so the expectations that Kenney put on himself. I think he wanted Caddyshack to be bigger than Animal House, which was the most successful comedy of all time, and it just was not fated to be. It just wasn’t as good.

Why did you personally want to write a book about it?

I had done the story for Sports Illustrated back in 2010 about the making of Caddyshack. And I interviewed Bill Murray and Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis, and all these people, and I expected it to be a pretty standard making-of story that I’ve done a million times before. Then these anecdotes started coming out about what absolute chaos it was. And it was almost like the making of the movie was more interesting than the movie itself.

What other kinds of comedy were happening at the time that made this crew feel unique. It’s hard to understand what made jokes seem fresh when you weren’t there when they came out. What was the context for these guys?

I think it really was this generational changing of the guard, and Caddyshack, more than any other movie, is where these three tributaries of zeitgeist comedy come into play and join forces. You’ve got National Lampoon, you’ve got Second City, with Bill Murray, and you’ve got Saturday Night Live with Chevy and Bill. Animal House was the preamble for it, but Caddyshack is the movie where they let that, really, satirical, improvisational, let’s take a swipe at the establishment sense of comedy loose for the first time. All of a sudden a lot comedies from the ’70s, the Pink Panther movies, or Oh God, or Smokey and the Bandit, or whatever, suddenly seemed square. Caddyshack is an example of how you shouldn’t make movies, but this is the rare case when it actually works. It’s a “Don’t try this at home” thing.

Orion Pictures

I’ve read that Cindy Morgan [Lacey Underall in the film] was pressured into doing her nude scenes.

Cindy was very frank about how everything went down. I interviewed her a couple times for the book, and she was really honest. I mean, look, she was a really young, green actress, and she was thrown into this boys club, and it didn’t go very well. She had a nude scene in the film, which she said she was fine with doing, but then all of a sudden, Jon Peters, the producer, got a Playboy photographer to come to the set to shoot candids of the making of that scene. And she was like, “No way, I’m not doing that. It’s one thing to have a fleeting nude scene in the movie, it’s another to be on people’s coffee tables or under some teenager’s mattress. It’s not what I had in mind, and that’s not what we agreed upon.”

And so she had a very heated phone conversation with Peters, who was back in L.A., who basically said to her, “You do the nude scene or you’ll never work in this town again.” And Harold Ramis tried to play mediator. He was one of the good guys, but she really got put through the wringer in that movie in a way that’s really sad and tragic, but all too common. Eventually, she did the scene, and the Playboy photographer was not allowed on set, Ramis kicked him off. But Peters admitted to me, “Yeah, you’re damn right I told her if she didn’t do the nude scene, she’d never work again.” I was shocked when he said that. I was just like, “Really? You realize the tape recorder’s on, right?”

But that’s the kind of dude he is. She was in Tron shortly after Caddyshack, but after that, her career really dried up. And she also didn’t get along with Chevy very well. He could be a real prickly dude, as I’m sure you’ve read. He gave her a hard time, too. So she really got put through the wringer on that movie, and the fact that she manages to give such a great performance I really do think is a testament to her tenacity and courage.

Watching it now, the things that stand out to me in the movie are the very casual relationship to realism, where it feels a bit like when you’re reading a Mad Magazine, people have goofy names, then there’s a random sketch with the Busby Berkeley thing thrown in there [the sequence in the pool with the synchronized swimming number]…

I mean, as I write in the book, the three writers on the movie were Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis, and Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill’s older brother. And it was based largely on Brian Doyle-Murray’s experiences growing up on the North Shore of Chicago, caddying, as all the Murray boys did, to pay their way through Jesuit school. And all the characters they met at the snooty white bread country clubs as blue-collar kids. It’s really a movie about class, the whole snobs versus slobs thing. But yeah, for Ramis, there was no scenario that was too weird to just shoehorn in there somehow, and they just find a way to make it work. That’s what I love about it.

When they cast Michael O’Keefe [as main character Danny Noonan], was that partly because he had a decent golf swing?

He actually told them he had a better golf swing than he actually had. They were down to two actors for that part: Michael O’Keefe, who had just been in, it hadn’t come out yet, but it was made for the same studio, Orion, The Great Santini, which he was really good in and got an Oscar nomination for. They had seen the rushes on that film, knew that this guy was a real up-and-coming talent. So he was one, and the other one that they had in mind was Mickey Rourke. Now think about the movie with Mickey Rourke as Danny Noonan. That’s a completely different film. Eventually, they went with Michael O’Keefe, because Michael O’Keefe told them that he was a scratch golfer. He wasn’t but in the two or three months between when he was cast and when the film started shooting in Florida, his dad had known the golf pro at Winged Foot out on Long Island, and he just played golf every day for a couple of months. Other than Bill Murray, who doesn’t play much golf in the movie, he’s the only one who looks semi-decent golfing in the film. Chevy’s swing is terrible, Rodney’s swing is not even golf. It’s a collection of some of the worst golf swings you’ll ever see.

You mentioned the gopher. Watching it now, that’s the worst part of the movie for me by far. Can you explain a little more about how that came about?

The gopher was really a last-minute Hail Mary pass. They knew that they had shot a ton of great comic moments and scenes when they were in Florida, but when they got back to L.A. to edit the film, the rough cut was about four and a half hours long and made no sense. They thought this was even unreleasable. Actually, I have to give credit to Jon Peters. It was his idea. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. He came up with the idea of taking the gopher — which was never really seen in the movie that they shot, it’s just Bill Murray battling some invisible foe — and [Peters] said, “You know what, what if we shoot more scenes. We go back to the studio, we ask them for a couple of hundred thousand more dollars. We go to ILM [Industrial Light and Magic]. We have them build an animatronic gopher, and we use those scenes with Bill’s scenes, and we use that as the connective tissue to connect all these wild scenes.”

Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney sat there with their jaws wide open. And they were like, “What the f*ck are you talking about? You want to get an animatronic gopher?” They couldn’t believe it. But they did it. And I think it was $500,000 bucks or $250,000 bucks to shoot these gopher scenes with John Dykstra, from ILM, who had won Oscars for Star Wars. He created the gopher that could move and dance. And suddenly, they had an actual movie. So as much as you hate the gopher, and as much as I hate the gopher, the gopher actually saved the movie. And if you go to any golf store, there’s so much Caddyshack gopher memorabilia for sale, it’s ridiculous. Love it or hate it, it’s become the face of the movie.

Who was the hardest person for you to get in touch with that you wanted to talk to from the movie?

I mean, the obvious, Bill Murray. He’s a tough cat to pin down. Most actors in Hollywood have a publicist or an agent that you can reach out to for an interview request. Bill Murray doesn’t have any of that. What he does have is a 1-800 number that you have to first get your hands on. And then you just leave messages. And it’s just a beep. It’s not like, “Hey, this is Bill, leave a message.” It’s just beep and all of a sudden, you’re auditioning. I left about 30 messages for him. I had a friend of mine who knows him a little bit, Elvis Mitchell, he used to be a New York Times movie critic. He’s sort of friendly with Bill and I was like, “Elvis, you got to help me out. You got to call the 1-800 number and leave a message for Bill and tell him that I’m a decent guy and I’m not going to f*ck him over.” And he did. And then after about 30 more calls from me, where I just tried every desperate thing to get Bill to call me back, I was at work at EW, in my office. It was a Tuesday night, 9:30 at night, and I was still there for some reason, and my phone rang. It had a South Carolina prefix and I was like, “Holy shit.” And I picked it up and he was like, “This is Bill Murray.”

And not only did he give me gold, but he couldn’t have been nicer about it. I thought that he would not really want to talk about Caddyshack, but for an hour, all he wanted to do was talk about Caddyshack. I think looking back on it, it’s for two reasons. One, because the movie is so personal to the Murray family. Danny Noonan is really like one of the Murrays. The opening scene where there’s a hundred kids in that house, that’s the Irish Catholic Murray family in Winnetka, going to the breakfast table. So I think the movie means a lot to him and his brother, Brian. And secondly, I think he knows deep down that he wouldn’t be Bill Murray without it. He wouldn’t have the movie career that he ended up having were it not for the early breaks in things like Meatballs and Caddyshack. So he was surprisingly happy to talk, which was the greatest gift I could have asked for.

There’s a lot of flaky characters involved in the movie. Was there a consensus flakiest person at the time, who was acknowledged as the hardest one to work with?

Hardest one to work with or flakiest? The flakiest, again, that goes to Bill Murray. I mean, Bill was only supposed to shoot for seven days in Florida. And he had just finished shooting Where the Buffalo Roam, out in L.A. He said, “I’ll swing by Florida when I’m done with that, and we’ll shoot my stuff,” knowing full well they didn’t have a scene written for him. He was just going to ad-lib everything. And so he actually borrowed Lorne Michaels’ VW bug, which was being garaged out in L.A., and he drove it across country, but no one knew when he was going to show up. So every day it was, “Where’s Bill?” Desperation and panic set in. And finally, he drove up on a golf cart one day and asked, “Can you tell me where the youth hostel is?”

He was there for seven days, shot a tremendous amount of stuff. Did the Cinderella story scene in one take, all off the top of his head. So he was a magnificent flake, but also that was Bill Murray at his absolute prime.

As far as the toughest person to work with, I would say probably Rodney, just because he had no clue what he was doing. This was his first real major Hollywood film, and he didn’t even know what the word “action” meant. During his first scene when he’s supposed to barrel into the pro shop with his Japanese friend, Wang, and just say, “If you buy that hat, I bet you get a free bowl of soup,” that whole thing. He stood outside the door and Harold Ramis literally called, “Action,” and he just stood there. Harold had to explain to him what “action” meant. And Rodney was like, “You mean, that’s when I do my bit?” So from that point on, in Rodney’s scenes, Harold wouldn’t say, “Action,” he’d just say, “Rodney, do your bit.”

Right, so what was happening at the time that someone thought, “Hey, we need to absolutely get Rodney Dangerfield to be in this movie.”

So here’s the thing. In the late ’70s, when they were casting the film in ’79, Rodney Dangerfield was, at the time, on a white-hot run of guest appearances on The Tonight Show. I mean, he’d go on every week and he’d kill. He was just amazing. And so they were originally thinking about casting Don Rickles in the part, which, actually, probably would have worked. But Rodney was just so on fire every week on The Tonight Show, that finally the casting director, Wallis Nicita, said to Ramis and Doug Kenney, “Have you guys ever thought about Rodney? I saw him on The Tonight Show last night, and Johnny was crying he was so funny.” And they were like, “That makes absolute sense.” And they didn’t really worry too much about the fact that he hadn’t acted before. Plus you have to remember, guys like Ramis and Doug Kenney were such comedy nerds that getting to spend three months with Rodney Dangerfield in Florida to them was like hanging out with God. So that’s how Rodney got in.

What do we tell a younger audience, what are the reasons they shouldn’t dismiss Caddyshack as just some nonsense Boomer movie?

Well, I’m always reluctant to try to force anyone to like anything. I’ve spent 25 years telling people that they should watch this movie or that movie, and it doesn’t always have good results. I just happen to think that beyond being a collection of funny scenes and a pretty sly commentary about class in America, Caddyshack, it’s just got some of the most quotable moments collected in one sloppy movie. It’s funny, I was telling you before that I went to see it at a drive-in a couple of nights ago. And I brought my twin six-year-olds, and they know I wrote a book about Caddyshack, but they don’t know what Caddyshack is, so they were excited to go. I was pretty hesitant about bringing them because it’s not a movie for a six-year-old, but we brought their iPads for them to look away at the appropriate moments. I thought that they were going to complain and say, “This is no SpongeBob SquarePants,” or whatever. And then the doody scene came on, and they just lost it. I mean, they thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. They also happen to love the gopher, unfortunately.

But anyway. I mean, I just think that if people know more about how the movie came about, the cultural moment that it represented, and the changing of the guard that it represented in Hollywood, they might appreciate it a little bit more, which is part of the reason I wrote the book.

Chris Nashawaty’s book is currently on sale. ‘Caddyshack’ turns 40 July 25th, 2020. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read his ‘Caddyshack’ 40th anniversary retrospective any day now.