Returning to ‘Animal House’: Cast and crew reunite at SF Sketchfest panel

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“It’s hard to realize how radical it was,” explains director John Landis, speaking at the 40th-anniversary SF Sketchfest panel for his comedy classic “Animal House.” And he’s absolutely right — the film essentially originated the college party subgenre and launched the careers of more than a few famous names, including Kevin Bacon, Harold Ramis, Karen Allen and Tim Matheson. It’s laden with scenes that, while not particularly ambitious to modern audiences (though nonetheless downright hilarious), rocked audiences in 1978.

John Landis was joined at the Sunday panel in the Castro Theatre by several of the film’s actors, including Tim Matheson (Eric “Otter” Stratton in the film), Bruce McGill (“D-Day”), Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer), Peter Riegert (“Boon”), Martha Smith (Babs) and James Widdoes (Hoover).

Following a screening of the film, they reminisced over favorite memories, including an actual fraternity party that certain actors attended as part of their initial bonding experience — a party that, according to Matheson, ended with a few of the panelists getting the “shit kicked out of them.”

They humorously recalled a fiasco in finding a hairdresser and their eventual success using a local barber. When it came to creating the absurd hairstyle for Smith’s Babs, Landis had simply pointed to a picture he had and told the hairdresser to replicate it.

“What she did was much worse,” Landis explained. “And therefore, much better.”

It was similarly entertaining to hear just how adamantly Universal Pictures was against producing “Animal House.” As the cast and crew tells it, the “straight-laced” studio scrutinized the film at every turn.

After all, “There’s a dildo in that movie!” Landis exclaimed, and the crew’s solution was to “put a ribbon on it” to make it more palatable. And when it came to the film’s notorious scene that takes place in an all-Black bar, executives ran the movie by legendary comedian Richard Pryor for approval.

“ ‘Animal House’ is fucking funny, and white people are crazy,” Pryor allegedly wrote back.

The studio continued to push against the film’s production right up until its previews, which were a smashing success.

It’s a pity, given how rich the history of the film’s creation appeared to be, that attendees didn’t hear too much from the actors present, as Landis tended to interrupt and dominate the conversation.

“These fucking actors!” he would jokingly say, hijacking his co-panelists’ ridiculous stories each time and promising to tell the “real” story. Though the panel would have benefitted from stronger moderating, there were still plenty of gems uncovered — so many, in fact, that they ran out of time for a Q&A.

Oh, and Daniel Ellsberg, the famous American activist behind the Pentagon Papers leak, was in attendance. Who knew he’d be an “Animal House” fan?

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].