Monday, June 13, 2011

School Daze

In the 1980s, I was working on a sports copy desk for a metropolitan morning newspaper.

Most nights, it was a busy place — and our paper served the entire state, not a single city or county, so we had three deadlines each night to make sure the newspaper distribution flow was not interrupted.

Nevertheless, there were evenings when things were slow. On those occasions, those of us in the newsroom — the copy editors who were assigned to work the desk and the reporters who were in the office — often got into conversations.

As you might expect, the topic of conversation frequently was sports, whichever sport happened to be in season. But, on evenings when little of note was happening, the conversation could turn to all sorts of things, and, I recall one evening, about 25 years ago, when the subject was Rodney Dangerfield and his "Back to School" movie that was showing at the theaters.

That wasn't too surprising, I guess. Some of the guys with whom I worked were about Dangerfield's age. They had been aware of him for a long time — perhaps going back to the night in the late 1950s when Dangerfield got his first real break as a last–minute substitute on The Ed Sullivan Show or in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was a regular on The Tonight Show.

But he had rarely been seen in movies up to that time.

In hindsight, perhaps some of my co–workers related to Dangerfield's catchphrase, "I don't get no respect." From a professional perspective, I would find that one a little hard to believe. I was working for the Arkansas Gazette in those days, and I can assure you that it was respected throughout the state and region — even by its crosstown rival.

Whatever the reason, though, Dangerfield was an office favorite, and "Back to School" prompted many conversations as, one by one, my colleagues went to see it in the summer of 1986. Whenever one came into the office after seeing it, you could expect an evening of re–telling now familiar jokes from the film.

If memory serves, "Back to School" was actually a bit of a surprise hit.

It was a surprise for a few reasons, one of which was that, at that point, Dangerfield was not what one would call a "bankable" star in the movies — not that he ever was a major movie star, anyway. He was always more suited for night club acts, recordings and television.

Besides, his best movies — "Caddyshack" and "Easy Money" — were behind him at that time. He did have a few high points after "Back to School," but, mostly, his movie career was over.

The appeal of the film may well have been a generational thing. I wasn't overly impressed with it, to be honest. I thought the plot was held together loosely by a string of Dangerfield one–liners — funny in a monologue but a bit too predictable (for me, anyway) in a movie.

Whatever the reason may have been, my friends sure enjoyed it, and I guess that is the ultimate objective of a movie — to entertain.

And there were many entertaining moments in the story about a middle–aged man who goes back to college — like when Dangerfield, playing a successful but uneducated man who is assigned a paper about writer Kurt Vonnegut's work, hires Vonnegut himself to write the paper, then criticizes him for it after Dangerfield receives a low grade.

Talk about no respect.

There were several familiar faces in the film besides Dangerfield — Sally Kellerman, Robert Downey Jr., Sam Kinison, Burt Young (known mostly for his appearances in the "Rocky" films) — but Dangerfield was the main attraction.

And, as it turned out, "Back to School" was probably his last truly noteworthy movie role.

Oh, he did make some other movies before he died — including a part in Quentin Tarantino's "Natural Born Killers" — but "Back to School" was his high water mark.

And, from an entertainment perspective, it wasn't a bad legacy.