National Lampoon's Animal House isn’t just one of the seminal college movies, it’s one of the greatest comedies of all time. It’s a movie stacked with incredible performances, with every single one of the actors delivering pitch-perfect comedy. And except for John Belushi, none of them were supposed to be in the movie.
Director John Landis himself wasn’t even supposed to helm the movie. The producers thought he was too inexperienced, so they went after A Hard Day's Night’s Richard Lester and Five Easy Pieces’ Bob Rafelson before finally granting the job to Landis. It was his work on the underground anthology comedy Kentucky Fried Movie that won them over.
Belushi was the only holdover from a time when Animal House was conceived as a movie that would bring the hot then-young cast of Saturday Night Live all together to the big screen. Looking at the characters in the movie it soon becomes clear who would have played who:
Chevy Chase was supposed to be Otter, the suave ladies’ man who seduces Dean Wormer’s wife. Bill Murray would have been Boon, Otter’s sardonic best friend whose girlfriend has a thing for their English professor. Brian Doyle-Murray would have been Hoover, the flustered official president of the fraternity. Dan Aykroyd was to have played D-Day, the biker dude, whose whole attitude was based on the actor. And Bluto was always, of course, to have been John Belushi. Who else could have ever played that role, described by Landis as a cross between Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster?
The story goes that once Landis came on he decided against the casting, wanting to instead go with straight actors. He claims to have run Chevy Chase off the production simply by telling him it was an ensemble piece. The rest of the proposed cast couldn’t do it anyway; they were still working on SNL at the time and wouldn’t have been able to do both at once.
Belushi somehow found a way. He worked on Animal House on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays and then flew from location in Eugene, Oregon back to New York City on Thursday to work on SNL up through the live show. He’d come back to Oregon on Sunday. Bluto’s nature - the way he drifts in and out of the narrative - certainly made that easier.
What would an SNL All-Star Animal House have been like? Right off the bat I can’t imagine it happening as planned, as it turns out Chevy Chase and Bill Murray did not get along that well. Writer Harold Ramis wanted the Boon role - he had written it for himself - but I can’t see Ramis’ style mixing with Chase’s. What would that chemistry have been like? What’s more, Tim Matheson brings just the right level of smarm to Otter, a line I suspect Chase might have crossed.
Losing Aykroyd feels like an actual bummer. While Bruce McGill is great, Belushi and Aykroyd as a team would have elevated the D-Day/Bluto partnership to new levels without having to add another line to the script. But at least they kept Belushi; at one point Landis was considering Meat Loaf for the part if his star fell through.
Landis’ instincts were probably for the best. By getting more dramatic actors for the roles surrounding Belushi he allows Bluto to be the cartoon heart of the film while adding unexpected depth to the other characters, all of whom are kind of unlikable assholes on paper. I don’t know that there’s much I would want to change about the movie we got.
This article originally appeared in "Back to School," the September issue of Birth.Movies.Death. You can pick up a physical copy of the magazine at your local Alamo Drafthouse, or you can read it on the web here.