Coming off a pair of somber movies and without a comedy credit to his name, Jeff Kanew was surprised when a friend in the movie business dragged him from his teaching job at Columbia University to interview in Los Angeles for the director’s chair of one of three comedies.
He got the scripts. One, for a film about a cheerleader camp, “Gimme An F,” which, Kanew said, “was really, really bad.” Another, for “Bachelor Party,” which would go on to be a minor early hit for Tom Hanks.
And a third, “Revenge of the Nerds.”
Kanew looked at the title and said, “I’m not even gonna read this thing.”
One of his earlier films had been about a prison escapee and another about a man who kills himself and his family — “That wasn’t funny at all,” Kanew said — and now here he was, a serious director who thought to himself, “I don’t want to do a stupid comedy about farts.”
But a friend is a friend, and in Hollywood, there aren’t many of those to go around, so he gave it a shot.
It took all of three pages.
“I recognized myself in there,” said Kanew of “Nerds,” which was shot at the University of Arizona and celebrates the 30th anniversary of its release today.
“I went to Columbia — I mean, I eventually got kicked out — but I walked around campus on the first day of school, and I thought, ‘I don’t belong, nobody is gonna like me, I won’t be accepted.’ I went up to my dorm room, shut the door, and that kind of set my experience for my entire time there. I felt like an outsider.
“So I read this scene — they show up on campus and they get picked on — and I thought, ‘Yeah, I get this.’ ”
And the rest is nerd history.
The movie, about Lewis Skolnick, Gilbert Lowe and the ragtag group that made up the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity fighting the jocks of Adams College, became a reflection of itself. Produced on a meager $6 million budget and given little chance to succeed by 20th Century Fox executives, Nerds would go on to make $60 million and spawn three sequels.
It helped launch the careers of Robert Carradine (Lewis), Anthony Edwards (Gilbert), Timothy Busfield (Poindexter), Curtis Armstrong (Booger), Ted McGinley (Stan Gable), Donald Gibb (Ogre) and John Goodman (Coach) and, in perhaps the truest honor bestowed upon the movie, inspired the creation of real-life Tri-Lamb fraternities throughout the country.
And to think, it almost was never made. At least not in Tucson.
Early in the production process, Tucson and the university had given permission to film in town and on campus. A month before shooting, however, someone within the UA Greek system got hold of the script, and chaos ensued.
“They hadn’t read it!” Kanew, now 69, laughed over coffee at a Hollywood café recently. “They thought, 20th Century Fox, how bad could it be?”
Greek officials had objected to the depiction of fraternity and sorority life, and, fearing another “Animal House,” had threatened to shut down production. Kanew rounded up a posse that included producers Ted Field, Peter Samuelson and Peter Macgregor-Scott, and actors Carradine and Edwards and flew to Tucson.
“We meet with the sororities, and we’re worried we’re about to deal with a bunch of feminists who are pissed because this is a fairly sexist movie,” Kanew said. “I just say to them, ‘Look, I have kids, and I’ll tell you now, I’d let them see this movie. It’s about the triumph of the underdog, not judging a book by its cover. This is a good movie.”
Eventually, the UA relented, and the movie was on, even if the expectations were low.
This was a movie about an overlooked part of the population; the script was developed after the producers had read a magazine article in Los Angeles about Silicon Valley, where long-ignored computer geeks were gaining respect.
“No one could’ve predicted a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs, but that’s what was starting to happen,” said Kanew. “Now the nerds seemed to rule. I’ve even heard they’re working on another production, ‘Revenge of the Jocks.’”
The article, which would eventually lend its title to the movie, convinced the producers they were onto something. But not the studio.
None of the stars were bankable, though Carradine did come from a prestigious lineage and the casting of the supporting characters was filled with compelling stories.
For instance, McGinley, who played the star quarterback and head of the Alpha Beta fraternity, Stan Gable, was discovered when Kanew saw him on the cover of a “Men of USC” calendar inside the UA book store. The role of Alpha Beta and Adams wide receiver Danny Burke was given to Matt Salinger because of his famous father, J.D. — “I just love Catcher in the Rye so much,” Kanew said. Gibb, who played the obnoxious and oversized Ogre, was a stuntman on set.
There was a sense that magic was happening, that this was the right mix of personalities, storytelling, timing. It was great fun.
The production took place in early 1984 all over the UA — Cochise Hall, Bear Down Gym, Old Main — and around town. UA students served as extras. The pivotal Alpha Beta party scene was filmed at a local funeral home.
Like the movie itself, filming had its fair share of calamities.
Entire scenes had to be reshot, some canned entirely — a scene in which the fraternity headed to Las Vegas for a Tri-Lamb convention was scrapped after a Fox executive thought he was being lampooned. Cops raided the set one day after they’d heard student interns were selling drugs to guys on the crew, Kanew said.
When filming was done, Kanew and his team had no idea what they had.
They did a test screening in Las Vegas that scored an 85 — huge numbers for a movie screening — but Fox executives thought it was a fluke so they sent the team to screen the movie in Dallas. “You’re gonna send us to Dallas to screen a movie that celebrates nerds and in which the black guys intimidate the white football players?!” Kanew said — and predictably, the movie rating sank down to the 60s, which justified Fox’s decision to cut marketing and exposure. Instead of releasing the movie on 1,000 screens, it was released on just 100.
Then a funny thing happened.
“I don’t really understand what happened, but it hung around and grew and grew and grew,” Kanew said. “We knew something was up. A week before opening, me, Peter Macgregor-Scott and I think Robert and Anthony rented a limo to each of the theaters where the movie was playing, stood in the back and there were people there and it was playing great and we thought, “We’ve got a chance!”
Thirty years later, the movie is still finding new audiences and some of the scenes have gone down in comedy history. Lamar Lattrell’s javelin, the panty raid, Booger’s belch, the iconic performance at the Greek Games — they are etched into the minds of comedy fans and critics alike. The movie was ranked 91st on Bravo’s 100 Funniest Movies list.
For the director, it’s been a blessing and a curse. He still watches it when it’s on, though the jokes have worn a bit, and he appreciates the quality of the storytelling. It’s stayed a part of his life.
“Stayed a part? In some ways it’s my strongest identity,” Kanew said. “In other ways, it’s my most depressing thing. It’s like I peaked in 1984, and now I have to live knowing that.”