“Golf loves a foursome,” writes Chris Nashawaty in this gritty chronicle of the making of “Caddyshack.” But moviegoers of 1980 hardly rushed to embrace the four comedians who headlined the picture. Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Bill Murray made “Caddyshack” only the 17th-highest-grossing film of the year. Some called it the grossest.
Nashawaty therefore has a heavy bag to lift in persuading readers that “Caddyshack” needed only seasoning to “take its rightful place in the canon of timeless movie comedies.” His heartfelt (if obsessional) salvage job starts to make sense as you scan the endnotes and realize that “Caddyshack” has been the author’s lifelong passion. Nashawaty, the film critic for Entertainment Weekly, interviewed just about everyone connected with the movie, some as long ago as 1998. The result is a granular, glandular re-creation that’s much more fun to read than the movie was to watch.
The one voice hauntingly absent is that of the “brilliantly witty and combustibly self-destructive” Douglas Kenney, a comic prodigy who co-wrote “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and produced “Caddyshack.” His coke-stoked vector through these pages ends on a cliff edge in Kauai a month after the film’s disappointing release. There, police found a pair of penny loafers and Kenney’s wire-rimmed glasses; wedged between rocks in a ravine below was his twisted and sunburned body. “His death was officially ruled an accident,” the author cryptically observes.
Kenney’s blizzard-strength cocaine snorting set the tone for the film’s louchey-goosey location shoot at Rolling Hills Golf Club near Fort Lauderdale. The motel housing the cast became “an unholy cross between a frat house, a love shack, and a twenty-four-hour drugstore.” One afternoon, recalls Cindy Morgan — the actress whose coerced nude scene reads like a harbinger of the #MeToo movement — Kenney ran down the hallway shouting, “Get your per diems in cash, the dealer’s here!” His myrmidons obliged, turning the 11-week production into a “bacchanalian rave,” according to Michael O’Keefe (caddie Danny Noonan). “Occasionally,” Nashawaty deadpans, “a movie would break out.”
The film was largely the brainstorm of Murray’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, and it tapped a deep vein of Murray-clan lore: nine children (Bill was the middle) raised in a three-bedroom house in Wilmette, Illinois. All six boys had worked as shag boys and caddies at the Indian Hill Club in Winnetka, Ill. Their oldest brother had even won the caddie scholarship that would be repurposed as the MacGuffin driving the “Caddyshack” script.
The treatment that Kenney and novice director Harold Ramis pitched to the Orion studio in the summer of 1978 was a coming-of-age story that “hit all the same snobs-versus-slobs class-warfare notes that Animal House had.” Snobs and slobs populated the cast, too. Chevy Chase — born Cornelius Crane Chase to a publishing-executive father and a concert-pianist mother — was the picture of smug superiority beside the blue-collar Murray, whose “short, unpredictable fuse and stormy moods” had led “Saturday Night Live” castmate Dan Aykroyd to dub his rages the Murricane.
The other two titans in “Caddyshack” were former aluminum-siding salesman Jacob Cohen and ex-puppeteer Tadeusz Wladyslaw Konopka. Under their stage names Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight, they, too, seemed to have answered a casting notice in Variety reading, “Wanted: Study in Contrasts.”
Knight, awarded five battle stars as an infantryman in World War II (and diagnosed with cancer in 1977), showed up 15 minutes before each call time with every line memorized. Having won two Emmys as Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” he resented playing flustered foil to the rudderless Dangerfield — “a jittery, wild-eyed lunatic saying whatever the hell he wanted.”
Playing nouveau-gauche condo developer Al Czervik, Dangerfield — who “smoked more pot than anybody” on the set — spewed “a tommy-gun blast of outrageous, ad-libbed shtick” every time he opened his mouth. “Shrapnel and spent shell casings seemed to fly from the screen.”
His approach fit the collaborative, improv-friendly directing style of Ramis to a tee . Little did it matter to Dangerfield that by the first day of shooting the script “had been changed so many times . . . it resembled a fruit salad.” (Incessant rewrites had caused production assistants to run out of colors denoting new pages.) Reviewing the dailies back in L.A., studio heavies insisted that Ramis give Dangerfield more scenes, and “Caddyshack” began to pivot from its focus on the downtrodden staff of Bushwood Country Club to the swells they served.
Re-watching “Caddyshack” today — not recommended — you wonder why Ramis didn’t simply train his lens on Bill Murray and roll film. Playing whacked-out assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler — a character not much different from the Honker, the “side-talking doofus” he had created at Chicago’s Second City — Murray delivers the film’s signature scene off the top of his head, narrating his own imagined Masters Tournament victory with the comically hushed reverence of a TV golf announcer: “What an incredible Cinderella story. This unknown, comes outta nowhere to lead the pack at Augusta.” The spontaneous monologue unspools for another 169 delusional words, culminating with Carl birdieing the 18th hole from 195 yards out.
“Oh!” exults Carl. “He got all of that one! He’s gotta be pleased with that.”
Nashawaty should feel likewise about his scene-stealing book.
Allan Fallow, a book doctor in Alexandria, Va., was assistant greenskeeper at Falls Road Public Golf Course in Potomac from 1974 to 1977.
By Chris Nashawaty
Flatiron. 291 pp. 26.99