Interview with Actor Mark Metcalf from 'Animal House', 'One Crazy Summer', and More

(This interview was originally published September 21, 2013 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Mark Metcalf. Most should know him for his memorable role as "Neidermeyer" in 1978's landmark comedy, Animal House. In the '80s, he starred in a couple memorable Twisted Sister music videos as well as the 1986's One Crazy Summer among other work. As usual, I tried to focus mostly on the '80s, but I couldn't not ask him about Animal House. Find out a little about him, those films, how he ended up in those music videos (and almost got sued for it) and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Mark Metcalf...

Q: When and how did you get your start in acting? When did you finally think that it actually did have the potential to become a career for you?
Mark: I went to college at the University of Michigan to be an engineer. I switched to Architecture second semester freshman year. In the beginning of my sophomore year, my roommate said that I should go audition for a small part in the plays they were doing at the theatre department. They were doing the three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI. I said something like, "Why would I want to do that?" He said something to the effect of, "The girls are really friendly in the theatre department." There seemed to be a special emphasis on "friendly" so I went on over. I was asked to do 15 parts in the three plays. About twelve of them had lines ranging from, "A message, my Lord," to an entire scene. After that, especially doing those three plays all in one day which we did several times over the course of a four week run, I was hooked.

I didn't really think of it as a career until about ten years later after I had been living in New York City making my living as an actor. I think what made me realize that it was a life's work was that I had been having so much fun doing the work for ten years and hadn't even bothered to look up and think about what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn't worried about that kind of idiotic question, and here I was, pretty well into being an adult, doing something that I loved, being successful at it, so why even bother thinking about getting that degree in Marine Biology that I had been threatening to do, why not just continue to work as an actor until they told me I shouldn't bother anymore.

Even though it is not an '80s film itself, I feel that 'National Lampoon's Animal House' paved the way for many of the comedies to come in the '80s and decades to follow. I did not see it myself until the '80s, so I do tend to associate it with my own coming-of-age decade personally. The film was written by Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, produced by Ivan Reitman and Matty Simmons, and directed by John Landis. Even with the incredibly funny and talented ensemble cast, Metcalf's performance as Omega member and ROTC leader "Doug Neidermeyer" was one of the most memorable. I could've asked dozens of questions about Animal House alone, but I was (barely) able to contain myself and shift focus on to the '80s.

Q: Animal House was a landmark comedy that I feel made it possible for many of the comedies of the '80s to follow. What do you feel made Animal House such an endearing film for so many? Do you enjoy your connection to the beloved film and the Neidermeyer character?
Mark: I think 'Animal House' still has life after 35 years because it is extremely well and carefully written, it had a great cast of non-movie stars, just actors who knew how important it is to work together as an ensemble, and a young director who really understood the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, lived and breathed movies, and was about the same age as all the actors.There are lots of little reasons why it was so successful at the time. All movies depend on a little luck and timing to be successful and Animal House had that, but it is the way that it was wrought, the care and vision with which it was made that makes it alive today. I do think it spawned a lot of careless comedies of the '80s and continues to spawn them. Old School, which must have been made in the 2000's sometime [2003] is a direct descendant. I've been through a lot of different stages with the movie. For a while, I resented my connection because it seemed to have typecast me and I wasn't a good enough or strong enough actor to resist that typecasting. But it has gone on for so long and the celebrity behind it has taken on a life of its own, so I have to embrace it. I am now quite proud to have been involved in something that has affected so many lives in such a fun and positive way.

Q: Kevin Bacon played a fellow Omega in his film debut. What can you tell us about Bacon back then and did you have any impression that he would go on to become the leading man star that he did?
Mark: I don't think I would have predicted that I would be answering a question about Kevin 35 years later but I wouldn't have predicted that I would have been answering questions about Animal House either. Kevin was a bright, young, good looking guy, who seemed to have his head on straight, had a pretty girlfriend (who was a dancer in Atlantic City, I think), and he seemed to have a good idea about what acting was all about. So he had as much a chance as anyone to "make it", as they say. I'm not surprised at all that he is and has been a successful producer as well as actor. As I said, he was a smart kid.

In 1981, Metcalf had a role in the first season of Hill Street Blues. His "Officer Harris" only appeared in the first four episodes before his character was murdered and written off the show. That debut season was rewarded with eight Emmy Awards, a debut season record later surpassed only by The West Wing. It went on to enjoy seven successful seasons and the show is considered one of the best great dramas in television history.

Q: How did the role of "Officer Harris" on Hill Street Blues come your way? Did you know from the start that your character was going to be killed off in the first season? If not, how/when did you find out? What do you remember best about your short time on that series which went on to such success for 7 seasons?
Mark: I auditioned like everyone else. When I got the job they asked if I would be interested in a long-term, five year contract, but I said, "No", that I didn't want to get tied down for that long doing the same thing. After the second episode, I was having so much fun and the people around me seemed to be fun to work with that I kind of changed my mind and asked if the idea of a long contract was still on the table. They told me that the network, as much as they liked the character the way I was playing it, thought that Harris was a little too much of a bad guy, too much of a racist, misogynist pig, and that he had to die. Until then, I didn't know what would happen to him. I don't think they did at first. They were working with such innovative camera technique, acting styles and scripts that it was a fun exciting set to be on. Everyone was in experimental mode. Breaking with classic television traditions. Pushing the envelope. It was good work.

Q: You were featured in two memorable Twisted Sister videos in 1984. When and how were you approached to play a part in those videos? Did you have any reservations or were you on board right away? What was your impression of Dee Snider and had you known him at all previously? Was it fun creating those videos with the band and returning a little bit to your Neidermeyer persona?
Mark: I lived in the East Village of New York, was a stage actor in off Broadway plays, regional theatre, and occasionally Broadway, didn't have a television, had no idea what MTV was, didn't listen to music unless it was classical, jazz or blues, and some guy called me up and asked me to fly to California to be in a "music video" for his band. I obviously had never heard of Dee Snider or Twisted Sister but the play I was doing afforded me two and a half days off and I said something like, "If you're paying American money and can get me to L.A., shoot the damn thing, and get me back for the Wednesday evening show, then, sure, I'll do it. Whatever IT is." I had some stuff at an old girlfriend's house and it's always nice to get a trip to L.A., so I went.

Dee picked me up at the airport and that was a little surprising. I had no idea what this band did, but I lived in the East Village and had seen worse, or better, depending on your point of view, so I went along. Dee was very excited that I was doing this thing and he drove me to Marty Callner's house which is where the couch was that I slept on. On the way from the airport, he outlined the dynamic of the video then said that he wanted me to write this long rant to open the story of the video. He had loved the movie and especially the character so he wanted some reference to Neidermeyer.

I didn't care and certainly thought that no one would ever see the thing so I spent the first night in L.A. with an old friend named Rex Weiner, a writer, and he and I cobbled together the rant. The part of it that Dee wanted to be sure we got in was the tag line, "What do you wanna do with your life?" I got letters from Universal after the thing had been on MTV every five minutes for a couple of months threatening me with law suits because, in their words, "They owned the character, I didn't. Therefore I had no right to use the character in any other medium and I better not do it again or they would really sue my ass." By the time they got around to sending that letter I had already done it a second time with "I Wanna Rock", so I just ignored them. So... yes it was fun making the video and having it play all the time for a year or so but it was one more way in which I kind of betrayed myself and made it difficult to have any more varied a career than "the guy who gets mad and spits when he yells."

In 1984, Twisted Sister took the rock and roll world by storm and a big reason for that was their interesting look and memorable music videos. In addition to "What do you wanna do with your life?", Metcalf also used lines like "A Twisted Sister pin?! On your uniform?!" and "You're all worthless and weak!" which were variations of lines from Animal House. It turns out the folks at Universal Studios took exception, but luckily they still made it into the videos. Lucky for us and lucky for Twisted Sister because the videos for "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock" drove their Stay Hungry album to multi-platinum status and the band to international fame. Here are the music videos for "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock" by Twisted Sister (featuring Mark Metcalf)...



Q: You were cast as another dislikable character in 1986's One Crazy Summer. How did the role of "Mr. Beckerstead" come your way? Were you looking forward to playing another somewhat sinister character?
Mark: Again, I just auditioned for the part and turned it in the direction that I thought would be the most fun after talking to the director. Savage Steve Holland, the director, had liked what I did in Animal House and he thought I could play this a little more than slightly-crazed businessman father willing to risk the life of his son as well as his own father to succeed in the lobster business, so we went to Cape Cod and shot it. Good cast. Cusack when he was young and innocent; Demi Moore before a lot of things; Bobcat Goldthwaite; Jeremy Piven because he was good and a friend of John's. It was a lot of fun.

One Crazy Summer was released in August of 1986. The film was written and directed by Savage Steve Holland. It is a story of a group of young adults spending the summer on Nantucket island who end up trying to protect a house from the greedy Beckerstead family. Metcalf's character will stop at nothing to see Beckerstead Estates built, but his plans are thwarted in this often absurd comedy. Here is a trailer for One Crazy Summer...



Q: The film was both written and directed by Savage Steve Holland. Were you familiar with his previous work of Better Off Dead before working with him? What can you tell us about Holland and your experience working with him on One Crazy Summer?
Mark: I had not seen 'Better Off Dead' because I think Warner Brothers gave him a big budget to make 'One Crazy Summer' before 'Better Off Dead' was even released. They liked the early cut of 'Better Off Dead' so much they just said, "Here's ten million dollars. Go make a movie." I think Steve had trouble figuring out how to spend all that money.

Q: As you mentioned, One Crazy Summer had a tremendous cast. You didn't necessarily have a lot of scenes directly with him, but what else can you tell us about John Cusack and his work on the film? How about the hilarious William Hickey who played your father?
Mark: John Cusack, as I said earlier, was young and innocent and very good. Pretty serious. I hung out with him and drank with him a little but didn't have any scenes with him. Bill Hickey was known to be a great teacher at the Herbert Berghoff Studios in New York City. I had never met him before but knew his reputation. He was an interesting guy to be around and had a dog with him that really needed a bath. I think Bill was so used to the smell of the dog that he didn't even notice. But everyone else did. Even the Teamsters, who are known to be able to deal with anything and to never make any extra effort. They took Bill and his dog to the set in a special van which they fumigated after every trip. At least that was the story they told.

Q: Any interesting stories or facts about making One Crazy Summer that you can share with us and let us in on? What are some of your best memories from making One Crazy Summer?
Mark: My best memories I can't really talk about because I'm trying to act more like a gentleman than I have in some interviews [hopefully not, as Neidermeyer said, "acts of perversion SO profound and disgusting that decorum prohibits listing them here"]. I do remember that there was a former football player [possibly John Matuszak?] in it for one or two scenes. He and I watched a Bears/Vikings game in the hotel lobby in Falmouth, MA, one Sunday. He got so involved in wanting the Vikings to "kill" (I think that was his word) Jim McMahon, the Bears quarterback, so passionate and loud that I thought he was going to destroy the television. I also thought he might destroy me so I started getting passionate too and yelling and threatening. I really don't know or get involved in football but I didn't want to be on the wrong team with that guy having his "game face" on.

Q: What were your feelings about it when the film was released in 1986? What are your feelings about One Crazy Summer now over 27 years later?
Mark: It was a good job. They paid on time, let me do my work, and didn't hassle me in any way. By the time it came out, I was probably doing another play or another film and I barely noticed. When I work, especially back then when I was working fairly regularly, once I was finished shooting the film or television show my job was done and I moved on to the next or went fishing. I didn't concern myself with how people would react when the movie came out. There wasn't anything I could do about it by that time so I just wouldn't waste the energy getting excited. Now, if people like the film and remember me in it, I'm flattered. I'm always a little confused when people say it's their "favorite movie of all time". I usually suggest that they watch Renoir's The Rules of the Game or Grand Illusion and broaden their horizons.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Mark: I think Animal House, "The Maestro" on Seinfeld, and "The Master" in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are the pieces of work that I am most known for. A play called Streamers that I did at Lincoln Center in New York and a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night at Arena Stage [Washington D.C.] and the American premier of Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime are some of the stage plays that I am most proud of. And several productions at First Stage Children's Theatre in Milwaukee. Working at First Stage helped me find my passion for acting again. I had lost it after dealing with a lot of very stupid scripts and lazy, self-aggrandizing people in Hollywood. Acting is a lot of work for me. Work that I love, but it takes a lot of effort. When I do it now, I want it to be with people that I really like and respect and whose work I am interested in. I also have a son that I am trying to raise to be unafraid to walk in the sun (as the Cherokee used to say) and that is my priority.

Q: What else has Mark Metcalf been up to more recently? Both acting and otherwise? What can we expect in the future?
Mark: I look for directing jobs now and have done a few. I like to work with young filmmakers whom I think have a unique vision. I live in Montana now, so I fish and walk in the mountains a lot. I'm learning to be a better photographer. I enjoy bringing talented people together to see what happens. I spend a good deal of time looking at the view from my front porch which is pretty amazing. And scanning the woods for deer. Elk should be coming down from up high soon and they pass right over my land. That will be fun to watch. I really enjoy looking at things and watching how they change. There is a film called Billy Club that I made with Drew Rosas that will premiere at the Milwaukee Film Festival in October. And a film I made several years ago called Little Red that is slowly finding distribution.

I am so honored that Mark was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. I am such a fan of his work from Neidermeyer to Twisted Sister videos to Beckerstead to the Maestro and more. Even though he doesn't appear to have any particular fondness for the decade, I want to take this occasion to again thank Mark Metcalf for his awesome contributions to '80s pop culture and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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