Excerpted from Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story, by Chris Nashawaty. Published by Flatiron Books. Copyright (C) 2018 by Chris Nashawaty. All rights reserved.
When Caddyshack went into preproduction in the early summer of 1979, writer-director Harold Ramis and writer-producer Doug Kenney were learning about the mysterious art of casting as they went. Neither had been through this Byzantine process before. Still, Ramis knew that their top priority was pinning down the bankable A-list star that the studio, Orion, had insisted upon from day one. Ramis knew he needed a million-dollar headliner. He needed Chevy Chase.
When Kenney approached his longtime friend about being in Caddyshack, the former Saturday Night Live star liked the idea of spending time on a movie set with kindred spirits who could make him laugh. Plus, Chase was keen on mocking the sport. “I’d never gone for golf; I was more of a tennis player,” he says. “My father told me to stay away from Republicans on golf courses; they just wasted the day so they could stay away from their families. I mean, what the hell was that? Walking around like it was some kind of aerobic sport!”
Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story
by Chris Nashawaty
An Entertainment Weekly film critic goes behind the scenes of the iconic film, chronicling the rise of comedy’s greatest deranged minds as they form The National Lampoon, turn the entertainment industry on its head, and ultimately blow up both a golf course and popular culture as we know it.
With Chase signed on, the team moved on to Al Czervik. For the part of the film’s superwealthy, insult-spewing bull in a china shop, Ramis had originally been thinking of Don Rickles, who could turn anyone unlucky enough to fall into his trash-talking crosshairs into trembling, sobbing jelly. “He had the right obnoxiousness,” said Ramis (who died of vasculitis in 2014). But by the summer of 1979, Rodney Dangerfield was on an incredible run of volcanic guest appearances on The Tonight Show, often reducing Johnny Carson to a slumped, convulsive fool, wiping tears from his eyes. “He was killing it every time,” said Ramis.
“We brought Rodney in to the studio,” says Jon Peters, Caddyshack’s executive producer. “He comes in wearing this aqua-blue leisure suit and takes out a plastic bag and does two lines of coke. He undoes his shirt and says, ‘Where's the p----?’ ” It was a hell of a first impression. Dangerfield would end up getting $35,000 for his role. And though he would always credit Caddyshack for launching his movie career, he would often do so while complaining that he actually lost $150,000 on the film, having given up a month of headlining in Vegas to shoot it.
By the time The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, in 1977, Ted Knight was a six-time Emmy nominee for playing the cluelessly pompous, word-mangling anchorman Ted Baxter—but he was also so desperate to break out of his gilded cage of dopiness and land a starring role in a feature film that he probably would have paid Orion to play Caddyshack’s often-apoplectic presiding club majordomo, Judge Elihu Smails. What no one knew was that Knight had been diagnosed with cancer. He was convinced that working on a movie set would be the best medicine. (It’s been rumored that Jason Robards was also considered for the part, but casting director Wallis Nicita swats that notion away: “That would have been so tonally odd.”)
As Nicita was casting, whenever she got close to zeroing in on the final two or three candidates for a part, she would put their head shots up on the wall. “That way you can physically see how their colors work with the other actors; it’s like a painting in a way,” she says. “It gives you a good map of how the movie’s going to look.” When it came time to cast the role of Danny Noonan, she found herself staring at photos of two actors: Michael O’Keefe and Mickey Rourke. “Mickey made sense in a way because he was Irish,” Nicita says. But he was also a little intense and Method-y for a giddily debauched country club comedy. Ramis liked that O’Keefe seemed like a “really good boy.” Plus, O’Keefe was a scratch golfer.
About that. . . . During his first audition O’Keefe lied to Ramis, telling the director he’d been playing golf for years. “After I got the part,” says O’Keefe, “I thought: I guess I have to get my s--- together and get a golf swing.” The actor’s father knew some of the members at the Winged Foot Golf Club in suburban New York City (O’Keefe had even caddied there as a teen) and pulled some strings to get his son lessons with the club’s pro, Tom Nieporte, who had won the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1967. O’Keefe played golf every day for six weeks before filming.
By the first week of August 1979, most of the main roles in the film had been filled. But Orion was pressing for one more big-name star to join Chase, Dangerfield and Knight. Golf loves a foursome. So Ramis, Kenney and cowriter Brian Doyle-Murray (from whose teenage recollections the script had largely been cobbled together) reached out to someone they’d always been able to rely on, even if no one else could: Brian’s younger brother Bill.
What Brian forgot to mention was that the character Bill would be playing didn’t quite exist on the page yet. He thought they could figure that out later. First was the question of a salary. Bill Murray was a star—or well on his way to becoming one. “Between the time they started writing Caddyshack and the time they started shooting, I’d gone from being an unemployed actor to paying my rent and then being able to rent cars,” says Murray. “I think the reason I got the job was they could get me cheap.” (Actually, it wouldn’t be cheap at all. Shortly after filming began, The Hollywood Reporter ran an item: “For his starring role . . . Bill Murray’s salary will be $250,000 per week! [That’s] more per week than he gets for a whole year on SNL.”)
Now Ramis, Kenney and Doyle-Murray just had to come up with some lines for their latest star. Or not.
With casting in full swing, Ramis began looking for a country club that would open its iron gates to a Hollywood film crew. He knew it wouldn’t be easy; the climax of the movie hinged on a massive, fairway-annihilating explosion that would seem more fitting in Apocalypse Now. But it was nothing a little old-school Hollywood deceit wouldn’t take care of.
Both Ramis and Doyle-Murray had always taken it as a given that they would find their course-—which they were calling Bushwood Country Club—in their home state of Illinois, since the Indian Hill Club in Winnetka, where the Murray boys had caddied as kids, had been the model and muse for their story from its inception.
The studio had other ideas. In order to get the film in theaters by the summer of 1980, Orion wanted to shoot in the fall—not exactly the ideal time to make a sunny, short-sleeved golf comedy by Lake Michigan—and encouraged Ramis to look for a location in Southern California. That was a nonstarter. Nervous enough already, the last thing Ramis wanted on his first outing as a director was to have the studio swinging by and second-guessing every take and camera setup.
The search refocused to Florida, where Rolling Hills (now Grande Oaks Golf Club) would end up being an almost made-to-order compromise. Carved out of a 140-acre swamp in Davie, a half hour north of Miami, the 18-hole semi-private club seemed built with Caddyshack’s idiosyncratic requirements in mind, with tall oaks and Australian pines. “We kind of picked Rolling Hills by default,” said Ramis. “We visited a lot of really nice clubs, and of course they didn’t want us. But this place agreed to let us shut down four holes at a time and the players could play around us.” As for the matter of the giant fireballs they were going to set off, Ramis told the Rolling Hills board not to worry; the script would be changing.
That was a half-truth at best. Yes, the script would be changing, but not that part of it.
Ted Knight first arrived at Rolling Hills, took one look at the place, with its manicured fairways, and exclaimed, “Gee, it’s so pretty . . . too bad we have to destroy it.” Rodney Dangerfield was less upbeat, calling Florida in late August “a sauna with gnats.”
While the actors were settling in, the production brought in PGA Tour pro John Cusano to try to make the actors’ collection of terrible golf swings look passable on film. “Aside from O’Keefe and Murray, they were all horrible,” said Ramis. “Ted had no swing, Chevy didn’t have a real attractive swing. And Rodney, I don’t even know if you’d call what he was doing ‘golf.’ He took one lesson and said, ‘That’s it!’ and never went back.”
When Peter Berkrot arrived to play wiseass caddie Angie D’Annunzio on the Friday of the 1979 Labor Day weekend, a week before cameras were slated to roll, he headed to the business office at the Rolling Hills lodge-—a dormlike residence for the actors that functioned as an unholy cross between a frat house, a love shack and a 24-hour drugstore—to let them know he was there. He stepped off the elevator and bumped into Knight, who after a few minutes of small talk said goodbye with the booming farewell, “Have a nice hurricane, guys!” Berkrot thought those words were a bit cryptic. Maybe it was some sort of Old Hollywood saying, like “break a leg!”
It wasn’t. Berkrot quickly learned that a Category 5 storm was swirling up from the Dominican Republic. Everyone taped up the windows in their rooms, filled their bathtubs with water, and stocked up on batteries and booze. Lots and lots of booze. After a cast dinner that night, back at the motel, some of the talent continued drinking and passing joints early into the next morning. “You couldn’t find a more fun group to party with,” says Ann Ryerson, who played one of the film’s caddies.
“I had never seen cocaine before I got to the set of Caddyshack,” says Berkrot. But the sight of coke was hard to ignore. And as the shoot went on, recreational use that started by the gram turned into binges indulged by the ounce. It seemed to be the fuel that kept the film running.
“This was really good cocaine,” says Hamilton Mitchell, who played Motormouth, another caddy. “Pure, like they had just beaten it out of a leaf in Colombia and somebody had carried the leaf to us and turned it into powder in front of us just so we knew how pure it was.”
Cocaine was “driving everyone,” says O’Keefe, who calls his 11 weeks in Florida “a permanent party.” “It would be lunch and someone would say, ‘Do you want to do a line?’ ‘Yeah, sure!’ It was no big deal. This was the ’70s.”
Meanwhile, Hurricane David caused more than $1.5 billion in damage to the area. In Davie a few of the Rolling Hills sets were turned into kindling and the first floor of the motel where production offices were set up had been flooded, leaving a plague of earthworms wriggling in the carpets. (The storm, in fact, proved far more destructive than the explosion scene, which left only some downed tree limbs and a couple of craters that needed to be filled in and resodded.) The hurricane party, however, was a roaring success. It would keep rolling for the next three months.
The first day of shooting on any film is a time of frayed nerves and built-up anticipation. But by the first day on Caddyshack, the script had been changed so many times (at least five) that it resembled a fruit salad—a sheaf of rainbow pages, new rounds of revisions each in their own color, bound together by brass fasteners.
Not that the script would be the problem. For Dangerfield’s first shot, the comedian was supposed to wait behind a door on the pro shop set until Ramis said “action.” Then he would barrel in as if he owned the joint and rattle off all of the pricey equipment he wanted to buy. Finally, out of the corner of his eye he would spot a mannequin wearing an ugly, pastel-striped golf hat and say, “This is the worst-looking hat I ever saw.” Meanwhile, behind him, Knight’s Smails, wearing the very hat, fumes a slow burn. Dangerfield notices and says, “Oh, it looks good on you, though,” as he rolls his big bug eyes. That’s it.
But when Ramis rolled the camera, hit the clappers and called “action,” Dangerfield just stood there like a redwood. The director walked over and asked if there was a problem. Was he ready? “Sure,” Dangerfield replied. Ramis sat down and again called “action.” Nothing.
Ramis: “Rodney, when I call ‘action,’ that’s your cue to come in and do the scene.”
“You mean, do my bit?”
“Yes, do your bit.”
Ramis again went back and called “action.” Crickets. Ramis laughed incredulously and said, “O.K., Rodney, now do your bit!” Dangerfield barged into the room and nailed it, even improvising on the spot: “You buy a hat like this, I bet you get a free bowl of soup.” From that point on, Ramis would just call out, “O.K., Rodney, do your bit.”
After the pro shop scene, Scott Colomby, who played another caddy, Tony D’Annunzio, remembers Dangerfield sitting alone, stewing. He looked sweaty and haunted. When Colomby asked him what was wrong, Dangerfield said, “Nobody’s laughing at me. I’m bombing out there!” Colomby assured his costar he wasn’t bombing. The crew just wasn’t allowed to laugh; they’d ruin the take.
Dangerfield was used to getting instant feedback as a stand-up comedian. “He wasn’t getting that instant reaction,” says Cindy Morgan, who played Lacey Underall, “and it was throwing him completely. . . . People who are funny are the most insecure people in the world.”
Ramis began to set aside time on the nights before Dangerfield’s scenes to cater to his star’s neuroses. They’d comb over his lines, trying to make them better, funnier. Dangerfield would later say that he’d stay up late coming up with 20 new jokes for each new day. Ramis’s star may have seemed green in front of the camera, but he was a perfectionist. “Rodney needed every word, every syllable in place, every comma, every period,” said Ramis.
Chevy Chase saw it differently: “Rodney couldn’t act. We shot a master shot on the 18th green with five or six of us standing there, and you have to do your lines the same every time. He had some joke he put in there, and then when they did the close-up, he said something different. You can’t do that! It has to cut together. He was not familiar with how movies are made.”
“I’ll tell you a story about Rodney,” says Berkrot. “I had a tray with my weed, and I was walking through the hotel lobby and saw Rodney. He said, ‘I love weed. You know what I love more than weed? Coke.’ I thought he was doing a bit, but we found out he wasn’t.” Berkrot adds, half-jokingly: “The only person who didn’t take drugs on the movie was Ted Knight.”
Says John Barmon, who plays Smails’s grandson, Spaulding: Rodney “would get really stoned and walk around the hotel in his bathrobe with a towel around his neck and he’d say, ‘Hey, I want you to come listen to [tapes of] my stand-up act.’ He’d be really interested in your reaction. I’m just some 19-year-old kid! He was so paranoid, it wasn’t funny. And then it would happen again the next night. After a week of this, you’d see him coming down the hall and you’d take off in another direction!”
When Chase arrived on set, one month into the shoot, his marriage to actress Jacqueline Carlin was in bitter pieces. He was living the revved-up, hell-raising life of a man who’d fallen into fame rather early and unexpectedly and was now grappling with how to make sense of it. Here he could relax and indulge recreational vices that the film’s young crew was only too happy to procure. “It was the time when these things were considered benign,” says Chase. “John Belushi was still alive. Smoking pot had been going on forever.”
Kenney described the character of Ty Webb to Chase as being “of the establishment, but not in it.” Even after a sixth draft of the script was completed in mid-October, Kenney was writing new lines for Chase on the spot and feeding him kernels of motivation before his scenes, such as the idea of quoting (or rather, misquoting) the 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō. Like Ramis, Kenney had always been fascinated by Zen Buddhism and had read enough about the subject to offhandedly inject its esoteric teachings into the film. According to Murray, it was Kenney’s idea to have Chase make the mystical “Na-na-na-na-na” sound—channeling the bionic sound-effect from The Six Million Dollar Man—when he was putting. (Chase’s “Be the ball” speech was already in the script.)
Chase came to the set every day ready to fool around in the hope of making something spontaneous and great. He felt like he was back in SNL’s Studio 8H. Each day he would goose his dialogue with wild riffs of improvisation that Ramis openly encouraged. “I called it guided improvisation, not just ad-libbing,” said Ramis. “Ad-libbing with a purpose. You could give Chevy an idea and he could just go.”
That spirit of on-the-fly abandon was pervasive throughout the set. One night, as everyone was getting high, someone suggested they hijack a few golf carts and race them on the course. Kenney had a better suggestion. An hour later a fleet of carts was chewing up the Rolling Hills fairways with a re-creation of one of George Patton’s famous World War II tank battles.
By October, midway through production, Ramis had been worrying for days: Had anyone heard from Bill? It was simply the cost of doing business with such a magnificent flake as Murray. And Ramis had known that this was a possibility going in. Murray brought an exciting air of imminent mischief wherever he went, regardless of when he arrived. He was a once-in-a-generation kind of talent to whom the rules simply didn’t seem to apply. But still, where the hell was he?
Finally, shooting one day on a fairway, the crew noticed something coming around a bunker. Ramis could finally breathe. As a golf cart pulled up with the MIA star, Murray leaned out and announced, “Which way to the youth hostel?” Ramis and Murray hugged and slapped backs. Bill was excited to catch up with his brother Brian and with Kenney. But that would have to wait. Ramis had Murray for only six short days.
Murray’s first scene was his Dalai Lama monologue. Early on in the screenwriting process, his character, Carl Spackler, hadn’t even existed in the script. Now they needed to create him out of whole cloth on the spot. And that—a situation where almost nothing is defined—was the stage on which Murray thrived. He’d had a chance to let Carl marinate in his head during his cross-country drive from L.A. to Florida (in a VW Super Beetle borrowed from SNL producer Lorne Michaels, no less). He arrived fully committed to a handful of half-baked ideas. None of which he shared with his director before cameras rolled.
Ramis had left large gaps throughout the shooting script for Murray to fill in later. The director had envisioned the Carl character as a whacked-out contemporary Harpo Marx, popping up here and there to do silent bits of bizarre slapstick. (He saw Dangerfield as Groucho and Chevy as Chico.) As they prepared to shoot the Dalai Lama scene, the crew set up outside the film’s red, barnlike caddie shack. Murray and his costar in the scene, Berkrot, were introduced, but Murray was already in character with a funny, thousand-yard stare in his eyes. “Bill was standing there with this huge, rusty scythe, like Death,” says Berkrot. “He points it at me and I said, ‘Absolutely not! Are you crazy?’ This thing looked like it would have taken off my head. So Bill goes, ‘O.K.,’ and picks up a pitchfork. And that’s what he held at my neck during the whole scene. It was sharp.”
Murray already knew the basic premise of the scene. Ramis handed him the script pages, more as a springboard than something to stick to. Murray took a few minutes, then nodded. When Ramis called “action,” Murray stuck out his jaw and curled his lower lip in a strange way that Ramis had seen many times before. Murray was going to play Carl as the Honker, a character he’d been perfecting since his pre-SNL days doing improv at Second City in Chicago. The director was laughing even before a twisted line came out of Murray’s twisted mouth.
“So I jump ship in Hong Kong and I make my way over to Tibet. And I get on as a looper at a course over there in the Himalayas. . . .” You know the rest: “Gunga galunga . . . Gunga lagunga. . . . Total consciousness. . . . So I got that going for me. Which is nice.”
The miracle of the Dalai Lama scene is that it feels completely tossed off and spontaneous—but Berkrot says they shot it for seven hours. (Murray did his entire “Cinderella story” scene, on the other hand, in one unbroken take. “I was good back in those days,” he says.) During each take Murray would toss in new things to keep it fresh and unpredictable. And each time, he would press the rusty tines of his pitchfork a little harder on Berkrot’s neck. “I said to Bill, ‘Can you take it easy with the pitchfork? It really hurts,’ ” says Berkrot. “And he said, ‘Quit whining, Berkrot!’ He was totally in character between takes.”
Shooting that scene, Murray was “like a wild animal, you don’t know what he’s going to do,” recalls Trevor Albert, Ramis’s assistant. “I’d never seen anyone with that unpredictable power. He made me nervous.”
When Ramis finally called, “Cut and print!” he couldn’t have been happier. Says Murray: “I guess they thought it was funny because they started saying, ‘Why not just have this guy all over the place?’ ”
Near the end of the shoot, Peters pulled Ramis aside. The producer had been looking at the dailies and was knocked out by what Chase and Murray were doing on camera. He didn’t understand why they didn’t have a scene together. “We had two of the biggest stars in comedy, and they didn’t talk to each other,” says Peters. That was going to have to change fast.
Having returned to the weekly grind of SNL, Murray was summoned back to the Caddyshack set by Ramis. “I thought: Hey, go to Florida in the winter, that doesn’t sound too bad,” says Murray. “They just kept adding more and more to the part.’” Murray was happy that everyone had been so pleased, but he hadn’t signed up for doing a scene with Chase—the two actors had a hostile relationship, dating back to a fight they had when Chase returned to host SNL a year earlier.
With Michaels’s blessing, Murray got a few days off from SNL to fly back down. When he arrived he wasn’t particularly shocked to learn nothing had been written yet for him and Chevy. That seemed to be standard operating procedure on Caddyshack. Once again, they’d wing it.
During lunch one day, Ramis, Kenney and Doyle-Murray, along with Murray and Chase, sat down to brainstorm not only what might happen in a scene between Spackler and Webb, but why it would happen in the context of the story, and where it might fit into the film they’d already shot. In the end they shrugged and decided it didn’t really have to make sense. The film was so slapdash already, what difference would one more random encounter make? “It has nothing to do with the movie,” said Ramis, “but actually, no scene has anything to do with the movie.”
“We decided that I would be playing night golf,” says Chase, “and the premise was going to be, ‘Do you mind if I play through?’ after I hit a ball into Carl’s shack and it landed on his special grass you could play on and also smoke. Bill was very careful with that character, and he set up the shack. I remember he filled the wall above the couch with Hustler magazine centerfolds.”
The X-rated pinups weren’t Murray’s only contribution to the decor. He also thought he might repurpose a ripped-out car seat as a ratty couch and use an old wooden wire spool as a coffee table. Skid row chic. By the time lunch was over, the five writers had worked out the beats of the scene . . . but hadn’t bothered to write anything down. This would be pure improv.
“We shot it that same night,” says Chase.
“Chevy came in sideways, hitting a golf ball,” explains Murray. “And then we just sort of did a take and we said, ‘O.K., we got that.’ And then it was like, ‘Let’s take it again.’ And we kept building it a little bit at a time. We didn’t do many takes. Just two or three. I’d never really done anything with Chevy. We’d always had sort of a . . . funny relationship. But it was like, ‘O.K., I liked that when you did that. Let’s just keep going.’ We kept going and it was funny because Ty Webb’s not far from who Chevy is. So he was pretty comfortable in his space. And I was comfortable as Carl. So he could be free to laugh at me. And if Ty laughed, Carl thought it meant, ‘Hey, he’s my friend!’ It’s a really fun, self-aware example of whatever the heck Harold maintains the movie is about—status.”
“Bill is aggressive; he likes to push you in a scene,” says Chase. “It just came from him. He was f------ hilarious. I had to do whatever I could to keep from laughing. And I tried to get him to laugh, so when he asked if I had a swimming pool, I said, ‘A pool and a pond, the pond would be good for you.’ That’s all winging it. As I said it, I could see Bill give a little look like he might crack, but he didn’t. He’s too professional. The scene really defined our characters. Carl clearly wanted more than he had in life and was happy to see me because I had a pool and a big house. And I clearly wanted less of him. Harold had to stop me and Billy at some point, because we could have gone on all night.”
If you look at that scene today—if you squint hard enough—you can see two men rooting up years of bruised egos and wounded pride. It isn’t just two SNL stars ad-libbing about grass you can smoke, chinch bugs and “getting weird”; they’re exorcising years of perceived slights. It’s a therapy session disguised as a two-handed comedy jag. This one, four-minute moment would finally be the thing to thaw the off-screen iciness between them.
“We got over everything,” says Chase. “The tension was short-lived. I have nothing but admiration and affection for Bill. He still can be a surly character, to say the least. But ultimately he’s a good guy. Even though I’m the number one star in the movie under the title, I’ll always think of Caddyshack as Billy’s movie.”