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  • Writer's pictureJeff South

Other Summer Movies of the 80s: Back to School

Released: June 13th, 1986

Rodney Dangerfield: Thornton Melon

Sally Kellerman: Dr. Diane Turner

Burt Young: Lou

Keith Gordon: Jason Melon

Robert Downey, Jr.: Derek Lutz

Paxton Whitehead: Philip Barbay

Ned Beatty: Dean David Martin

Screenplay by Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei, Harold Ramis

Directed by Alan Metter

By the end of my freshman year of college, I had performed in two mainstage productions, two student directed one-act plays, and television project by a mass communications major. Classes had gone well, too, though I didn't carry a heavy course load. Theater and writing classes were my favorites and my history classes were pretty interesting, but the others didn't do much for me. I wrote a lot, too. Scripts, stories, notes for a novel. Since I was a theater major, I thought I should give playwriting a shot, too. My interests didn't lie in class work, honestly. Rehearsals were a blast and if I could've focused on just studying acting or writing, I would've been quite content.

The summer of 1986 brought my first paid acting gig. I played Androcles in a small touring production of George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion and it was a wonderful experience. The idea of performing repertory theater somewhere outside of Missouri appealed to me, but I couldn't sing or dance. That was a shame because I enjoyed musicals. My focus was comedy, which is why I enjoyed watching the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School.

I caught it a weekend matinee and, while I laughed a lot, I studied Dangerfield. His timing, his delivery. The purpose wasn't to mimic him in anyway because that man was one of a kind. There had never been anyone like Rodney Dangerfield and there never will be. No, I wanted to observe how he made a joke work and if he could tap into something beyond just the delivery of wicked one-liners. Dangerfield was a master and Back to School was a showcase for his unique style. I wondered how the character of Thornton Melon, the tycoon who goes back to college to inspire his struggling son, would've been handled by a different actor. It would've been a different movie. Better, maybe. Worse, maybe. Watching Back to School told me that I needed to hone my own style. One that would define who I was.

That was the type of education that mattered to me. I loved the idea of college. Certainly the parties were a blast and I probably convinced myself I was in love about half a dozen times. I was happy at college, but restless. It was impossible to see a movie, any movie, and not wonder if I was going to do that one day. Did I have the talent? The desire? The drive? The idea of leaving Missouri scared me, frankly. How would it look if I failed? Did I want to face potentially returning back from L.A., New York, or even Chicago with my tail tucked between my legs, unable to make my dream a reality? I needed more time to get a plan together. Fortunately, my school expenses were almost completely cared for because of my theater scholarship and my upcoming job as a resident advisor in the dorms. Surely, I told myself, I'd have a plan together for the future.

We tell ourselves some pretty convincing lies sometimes.

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