Retrospective: 35 Years Since Rodney Dangerfield went ‘Back to School’ By Shawn McKee

It would make sense that after seeing Back to School in theaters thirty-five years ago, I would be re-visiting the movie today. It was one of my the earliest big-screen outings, where I can still hear Danny Elfman’s bombastic, dreamlike score reverberating through the aisles. I recognized similar musical queues from another movie my brother and I had seen the year prior called Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In both cases, Danny Elfman was just starting what would become a long, illustrious career scoring films.

It was exciting to witness the rise of so many well-known artists back then. Their ascendancy attributed to the zeitgeist of popular culture, with one classic movie after another. In 1986, legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield scored big with a film that became the pinnacle of his career.

As kids, we forget how enormous movie screens looked. The dimming lights and flashing images from an unseen projector provided a surreal disruption of our adolescent sensibilities. I recall my bewildered shock of seeing “Large Marge’s” jarring, eye-popping reveal in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.The Claymation effects of her split-second transformation were courtesy of director Tim Burton, another rising star at the time.

I was equally enthralled with Rodney Dangerfield’s patented “Triple Lindy” dive, performed in succession from multiple diving boards and accompanied by Elfman’s music. My indiscriminating eyes saw no difference between Rodney and the obvious stunt double performing summersalts between closeups. To me, it was simple movie magic.

Rodney Dangerfield struggled for decades as a stand-up comedian. He worked odd jobs throughout the 1950’s to support his wife and family. His comedy act picked up steam in the 1970’s after what must have seemed a lifetime, and he soon became one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guests on the late-night circuit. Dangerfield’s working-class background was the perfect fit for Thornton Melon, self-made millionaire and owner of “Tall & Fat,” a plus-size clothing store.

In addition to multiple one-liners delivered by Dangerfield, Melon couldn’t have been closer to his own persona. The script’s four writers, Harold Ramis among them, decided somewhere along the line to make their main character rich, and it works to the movie’s advantage. Infinite wealth is an artifice effectively used with Batman and Mr. Burns, among others. We know these characters are capable of anything, but it takes good writing to make it interesting.

Thornton lives in the lap of luxury, heeding advice from his limo driver, bodyguard, and friend Lou (Burt Young). He soon discovers that his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) despises him and is fooling around. He promptly divorces her. With no one else to turn to, Thornton seeks out his college-aged son, Jason (Keith Gordon) and decides to enroll in college himself after learning about his son’s difficulties. Thornton means well but constantly irks and intrudes upon Jason’s goals. To Thornton, college is a means to an end. He didn’t need it to be successful, so why should his son? He buys his way onto campus and pays experts to do his homework, disregarding the point of higher education. This attitude pushes him further away from his son than he can understand.

Meanwhile, Jason develops a love interest in a girl named Valerie Demond (Terry Farrell) who happens to be seeing the lead diver on the diving team, Chas Osborne (William Zabka), the blond antagonist from The Karate Kid. Similarly, Thorton is smitten with his literature professor Dr. Diane Tuner (Sally Kellerman), who is seeing economics professor Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whithead). These parallels are subtly delivered in a movie that never slows down. Thorton and his son are two sides of the same coin. They’re equal protagonists, but Thorton ultimately steals the show by design.

Both Melons share moments of failing and subsequently redeem themselves by the third act. Thornton learns that money can’t buy everything, as his son learns to believe in himself, and Back to School is a movie that just works. I could compare it to a dozen other classics and equate its magic to no end. It was the movie Rodney Dangerfield had been working for his entire life. And to see him embrace the role of Thornton Melon and perform it so effortlessly is a pleasure to behold.

The movie’s enduring legacy also comes down to its casting. In addition to the actors mentioned, there’s Ned Beatty, Robert Downey Jr., Kurt Vonnegut (in a cameo appearance), and Danny Elfman himself, performing with his band Oingo Boingo at Thornton’s mega party. Sam Kinison, as the deranged Professor Terguson, undoubtedly delivers some of the movie’s most memorable comedic moments. He, like, Dangerfield, is at the top of his game. Kinison was one of the many comics Dangerfield promoted and featured on his early HBO standup specials. It would have been a dream to see them in more movies together.

The carefree academic environment portrayed in Back to School is obviously long dead. It’s not a movie that fits well with the times, but to that extent, nothing does. It remains a classic though in every sense, and that fills me with hope. I’ll never forget seeing it in theaters, fully taken with its wild-eyed protagonist and his incredibly entertaining journey.

Interview with Actress Khrystyne Haje By Jesse Striewski

For several weeks, actress Khrystyne Haje and I had been playing a game of back-and-forth before our schedules finally aligned right for a phone conversation. And as soon as I got her on the phone, I knew it was worth the wait. Almost instantly, it felt as though I had been transported back to being that same 9-year-old kid who would tune in every week to watch her play Simone Foster on Head of the Class (one of my personal favorite TV shows at the time, which originally aired from 1986 to 1991) and developed one of my very first, and very real (albeit innocent) celebrity crushes. Since the show, Haje has gone on to do numerous acting, voiceover, and various humanitarian work. But with Head of the Class about to turn thirty-five this year, I focused heavily on the show that originally put her on the map.

Early on in our conversation, Haje gave me some insight into just what it was like growing up and simultaneously going to high school in real life, while also doing so on the small screen. She explained; “It was such a life-changer when I got the role! I had been working as an actress prior, and was an emancipated minor, so I was one of the only people on the show going to ‘real’ high school (at North Hollywood High), and what I called ‘fantasy school’ (laughs). It has just created so many opportunities for me since though, and what I consider some life-long friendships.”

Although I may have never been part of an honors class like the students on the show, I always admired the sense of camaraderie that the characters seemed to share together, something Haje informed me still exists with many of her former cast mates to this day; “Kimberly Russell (Sarah on the show) is still one of my best friends in the world. I was also super close with Dan Schneider (Dennis) – we actually met at a call back, and became friends instantly. Dan Frischman (Arvid) and I are forever friends; I lived in New York for a couple of years, and he moved there not long after I first did, so that was really fun having him there. Lara Piper (who joined the cast later as Viki) and I are still close as well. And Tony O’Dell (Alan)…I used to stop doing my homework to watch him on the show Otherworld, so when I saw him at the very first table read, I just couldn’t believe it! (laughs). But I still probably talk to him and Kimberly the most, a couple of times a month, if not more.”

Knowing that previously-mentioned former co-star O’Dell had recently appeared on the hit Netflix series Cobra Kai, I was curious to hear Haje’s thoughts on The Karate Kid revival show. She reveled; “Even though it was ‘super secret’ at the time, I was SO excited when he went to film Cobra Kai! And because of Tony, I actually got to meet the Cobra Kai guys back in the day! It was so fun randomly getting to hang out with William Zapka or Martin Kove back then, and I’m so happy for all of them right now!”

Of course I had to ask what it was like working with such a legend as Howard Hesseman as well; “I was a BIG fan of WKRP in Cincinnati! And at one of my final call backs, I actually got to read with Howard, and was just so starstruck! But I thought, ‘well, even if I don’t get the role, at least I got to read with Dr. Johnny Fever!’ (laughs). I always admired Howard’s work though, and he became just such a mentor to us all. He’s not only a gifted actor, but he’s also a great comedic actor, and was a great example to me as well. He was really invested in the character he played, and it was an honor to get to work with him.”

Towards the end of the show’s run, Hesseman left to be replaced by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. I asked Haje what it was like still being on the show after such a drastic change, and she told me; “Billy just showed up with a huge heart, ready for the adventure. It was different, because his approach was different. And there were definitely some shifts as far as the writing went – at the time, it seemed like the writers were leaning on his stand up comedy skills, as they should have. I was personally grateful to get the opportunity to work with Billy and see what that was like. He was just so kind, and already had had such huge life experiences, with so many stories to tell about all of his U.K. adventures that were so different from anything else to any of us at the time!”

Aside from Head of the Class, Haje has also made appearances on such other iconic shows as the ’80s juggernaut Growing Pains, and the quirky, oft-forgotten Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. I asked Haje how these experiences were in comparison to working on Head of the Class, and she explained; “When your job is to make somebody laugh, you only have good days! Growing Pains was a similar style to Head of the Class, in that it was a five camera sitcom. And I knew the kids, we kind of all grew up together at Warner Bros., so the environment was very familiar, and very family-esque. Parker Lewis on the other hand was a single-camera show, so it was shot very differently, and the approach was different and ahead of it’s time. But I was already a big fan of the show, so it just felt surreal to drop in and get to be on it, and to be able to maneuver those different techniques and skills, too.”

There’s also been some talk of a Head of the Class reboot, which of course I had to inquire about. Haje informed me; “I have heard about a reboot! It looks like HBO Max, who’s airing the original series, is also working on a reboot, and they want to flip the script a little bit. So I think they want to have a young, female teacher, with possibly younger, middle school-aged students – though I’m not entirely sure. But they definitely have – let’s call it a re-imagination – of Head of the Class brewing, and it would be fun if they had us guest star in some way! I think that fans of the original always love to see what the original cast is doing, but we really have no idea right now what they’re looking to do exactly at this point. We all loved that show so much though, so it’d be fun to revisit that world officially. It’s going to be great no matter what though!”

Series Review: Cobra Kai Season 3 (Netflix)

By: Jesse Striewski

When The Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai first emerged in 2018, the world wasn’t quite prepared for the awesomeness that was so unexpectedly unleashed upon it. It instantly united pop culture nerds across multiple medians, bringing back ’80s nostalgia in full force for the young and old alike.

In season one, we were re-introduced to the characters Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who are thrusted back into each other’s lives more than three decades later. Daniel has since gone on to become the owner of a successful car dealership, while Lawrence stayed the same beer-chugging, metal-loving loose cannon he always was. Things shake up when Johnny decides to take a leap of faith and re-open Cobra Kai, which in turn re-opens some old wounds in the process.

Season two focused more on the two old enemies each operating their own respective dojos, with new conflicts arising from their new students (and old mentors). Unlike the first season, more emphasis was put on the rivalries between newcomers Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) and Robby (Tanner Buchanan), as well as Sam (Mary Mouser) and Tory (Peyton List). It also brought back John Kreese (Martin Kove) in a more extended and sinister role, and included a bittersweet, albeit brief tear-jerking reunion with some of the other original members of Cobra Kai (which would unfortunately prove to be Rob Garrison’s final portrayal of Tommy before his passing in 2019).

Naturally, season three takes over directly where the second one left off, with everyone dealing with the repercussions of the final battle that saw Miguel seriously injured and put into a coma. There’s still plenty of unresolved wars between multiple factions, as each character grapples with what happened and tries to return to some sense of normalcy.

And of course, there’s plenty of surprises along the way as well; Elizabeth Shue finally returns as Ali (now actually Dr. Ali Mills Schwarber) after Johnny’s attempt to reconnect with her via social media in the previous season. And even familiar Okinawan faces from The Karate Kid Part II, including Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomito), and Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) return, leading to some tense moments between Daniel and the latter before ultimately bringing some closure. Even former Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider manages to squeeze in a brief cameo, too.

But what makes us invest so much time into shows like Cobra Kai has got to be the reflections of ourselves we’re able to see from these characters and their struggles. They’re far from invincible, and whether you were more of a Daniel or Johnny type growing up, there’s something truly there for everyone.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars