Better Off Dead - Dan "Ricky" Schneider
Better Off Dead has always been one of my favorite 80's movies. Actually, it's just one of my favorite movies, period. If you've never seen it, you've missed out on a weird, surreal, quotable and incredibly funny little gem that went somewhat under the radar.
It was written and directed by Savage Steve Holland and starred John Cusack in one of his earliest and funniest roles.
When it came out on DVD last year, I was disappointed that there weren't any extras on it -- in particular no commentary track. I wanted to do my part to preserve the history of this cult favorite, so I decided to talk to the people who brought it to life.
My first Better Off Dead interview is with actor turned Writer/Producer/Good Friend Dan Schneider who played John Cusack's bizarre and hilarious neighbor Ricky Smith.
Did you think Better Off Dead was going to be a big hit?
I thought it had a really good shot to be a big hit. Basically what had happened was, when I started acting, before I got Head of the Class, I did 3 movies. 2 were sort of bad 80's teen exploitation style movies, and Better Off Dead which I thought was unique.
I remember thinking I've just done 3 movies, one of them would be a hit. At the time I thought it would be BOD. It had David Ogden Stiers who had just come off of M*A*S*H*-- after The Sure Thing I thought Cusack was an up and coming big star, it had Curtis Armstrong from Risky Business and Revenge of the Nerds. It had a pretty strong cast and it had a catchy title, so I did think it would do well.
By the way, it was not a big hit.
Did it flop?
Back in that day I didn't pay that much attention to the indicators of how well a movie did or didn't do, but it basically didn't do anything. It sort of came and went without much attention. I don't remember hearing a lot about the movie when it came out. I think it did "only okay."
What do you remember about auditioning?
I remember auditioning for the role for Savage Steve Holland (the writer/director) and possibly another producer there named Michael Jaffe. So I went in to the audition, and I think I only auditiioned one time. I went in and I believe I saw Clint Howard there. I know for a fact that it was between me and Clint Howard, who is Ron Howard's little brother. And I got the role.
So things work a little differently when it's not Ron's movie?
Yes, I guess they do.
Did it bum you out that were you playing such a complete dork?
Yes. Although, it's kind of an interesting phenomenon. Any actor wants to play the cool guy. So playing the role of a borderline mental dork in the movie is not necessarily your first choice as an actor, however in a way you're kind of creating it yourself.
It's not like you're being made fun of, you're making fun of yourself by creating this persona. So it didn't bother me a lot since I was playing a character who was so far away from me. I think it would be more upsetting if you were playing someone closer to yourself and be the butt of a joke or the site gag. The short answer is, I feel ambivalent about that.
I do remember when the movie came out, and sort of realizing "what I had done." That when my parents called their friends, it might not be the most flattering portrayal of their son. But in these first few movies before Head of the Class, I was playing these types of characters. You know, not the cool guy, but the character who was either the nerd, or a weirdo or made fun of, and that was why I was very happy to get on Head of the Class because finally I was able to play a character who was funny, and not just the dork in a movie.
I will say I was very bothered the very first day of shooting, and the makeup person said, "Okay, I have to put your zits on now." And I said "What are you talking about?" And they said, "Well, Steve Holland wants your character to have zits all over your face. I didn't know that.
I don't think it was in the script, and I knew I didn't want it. So I went and found Steve in his trailer and we talked about it. I said "Listen, I'm not too comfortable with that. It makes me feel really weird about playing the character." And Steve tried to talk me into it for a second, but he gave into it pretty quickly. So I guess I did draw the line somewhere.
Do you think your refusal to wear the zits may have been responsible for the movie flopping?
(LAUGHING) Yes. I think I single-handedly tanked the movie with the ommision of the four or five big pus-filled globules on my face that might have made all the difference in the world. So I guess it's my fault.
The movie has gone on to be a huge cult favorite. When did you realize this cult following was forming?
As I said before, while I was doing it I had a lot of fun and I was glad I had the role. Once I saw the dailies and I realized how I was going to look, I remember feeling less thrilled about it because I was playing such a dorky character. I think when the movie died in the box office, I remember feeling somewhat relieved. Yes, I played this bizarre dork, but at least no one will ever see it. And that was in 1985. I guess it was around the very end of the 80's when suddenly I was hearing a lot about it, and it was becomming a cult classic.
I didn't get recognized from it because I was so recognizable from Head of the Class and that's what people usually went to. The occasional person would know I was in BOD but I had a lot of people who would know me from Head of the Class, and know Better of Dead really well, but not put together that I played Ricky.
I really never started to hear that much about it until the mid 90's. You know, I always resisted calling BOD a "cult classic" or a "cult hit" because I find that a lot of actors do that when their movies flop and they say it was a "cult hit" because some guy rented it once, but I think clearly BOD is one. To this day I hear that movie from somebody at least a few times a month.
How hot was Monique (Diane Franklin) in person?
In a word: very. I was thrilled when I found out she was playing Monique because I had a big crush on her when I was teenager, seeing her in The Last American Virgin.
She was very much my "type." She was small and cute with dark curly hair and cute face. And she certainly fit the bill. I thought she was incredibly cute. And when I first met her it was a pretty tough time.
Were you sad you had to play Ricky in front of her? Did that make it harder for you to make a play for her?
Let's put it this way, if I hadn't been playing Ricky, I knew that my odds were zero. By playing Ricky, all I could assume was that my odds had to have improved because they couldn't have gotten worse. By playing Ricky, at least one of the lights from the set could have fallen and hit her, and knocked her unconscious long enough for me to make out with her or something, so even through the chance of some sort of misshap during film, I knew I had a better chance of enjoying myself with this girl than I did without the movie.
The thing about Diane Franklin, I don't think she was ever perceived as "hot," so much as extremely cute and loveable, so I was extremely smitten by her. Or is it with her? You pick the preposition. You know what I mean.
Did you make a play for her anyway?
Well, in my mind, alone in my hotel room: Yes. Publicly: No.
How about Cusack?
You know what? I have no idea if Cusack fooled around with her or not. If you put a gun to my head and asked me that question, I might say "Probably?"
Did you save anything cool from the movie? Props?
Interestingly, I've been in more than half a dozen movies and at the time it never occured to me to save props or memorabilia, but for some reason I just got lucky because BOD is certainly my most remembered movie that I was ever in. So I got lucky that not only did I save my original shooting script which I still have, but I actually saved Ricky's glasses. Those goofy thick black-rimmed glasses with the round lenses. I still have them. They are in a safe, under lock and key in my home. So you will not be able to get to them. And I'm armed.
Do you have that infamous framed picture of Ricky that was the Christmas gift to Monique from Ricky's mom?
I don't have that. If I thought about it at the time, I probably would have taken it home, but I didn't. I don't know if it was that exact photo, but I can tell you that a picture almost identical to it, taken at the same photo shoot used to be in Savage Steve Holland's house. It was in his bathroom. Although I believe I asked him about it and he said it was stolen. I bet you that the slides or negatives from that photo shoot still exist somewhere. I would love to get one of those. (JOKING) Who wouldn't?!
What did you think when you first saw the final movie?
I think the thought that first went through my head was: I've got to start eating more salads. It was a peak weight for me, and I was pretty appalled.
Have you crossed paths with the other people from the movie over the years?
After the movie I got to be pretty good friends with Aaron Dozier who played Roy Stalin. We were good friends for awhile. And then I would see Cusack here and there, and he was always friendly to me.
But every year Savage has a Superbowl Party which is a pretty big extravaganza at his house every year, and I usually go to that. And there I have run into pretty much everybody who was in the movie except for John Cusack. But I've seen Diane Franklin, and Aaron Dozier, and Curtis Armstrong. Most recently I ran into the woman who played my mother, Laura Waterbury. Who I hadn't seen since we wrapped the movie over fifteen years ago. That was really fun. I ran into her at Art's Deli and I got to sit down with her and talk to her. She even said, "RICKY!" in her usual way.
What do you remember doing in the movie that wasn't in the script?
Interestingly, the dance, when I danced around the dance floor. Savage just said get out there and dance, and we just sort of created it on the spot. So I sort of invented that goofy dance routine. That wasn't choreographed, I just did it.
Also, after the dance when I run out looking for Monique. I'm not sure who's idea it was to take the balloon and have it let go. That may have been in the script. I know for sure it was my idea to do that little half-hearted jump for the balloon, which by the way, is the one thing I hear the most about from fans of the movie when I run into them. For some reason people seem to enjoy when I let go of the balloon, and did that sort of half-assed leap to get it, and then forgot about it. I hear about that a lot.
Any other behind the scenes stuff?
The one thing that comes to mind for me is the day of shooting when I had a fever over 103. We were shooting the scene, right after Lane's car goes into the lake, and I come up from the back seat all annoyed and say I'm going to tell my mother. I had a virus or something, and had a fever of 103.5. I could barely walk, and was kind of hallucinating, but we had to get the shot. I remember people carrying me to the car because I couldn't walk. They put me in the car, and they prepared the take. I mustered all my energy to lift myself up in the backseat, I said my line, then they yelled "Cut!" and I was sent home.
So when you are watching the movie now at home, and see me pop up in the backseat, you will now know I had a 103.5 degree fever.
Do you ever like to heat things up in the bedroom with your wife by putting on the glasses and doing Ricky?
No. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure my wife has ever really seen BOD. And I think if she watched it, it might be the last sex I ever have.
I can't believe she doesn't think it's cool that she's married to Ricky.
I think you can believe it, Steve.
Click here for a fun and revealing talk with BOD's writer and director:
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Better Off Dead - Savage Steve Holland
Savage Steve Holland wrote and directed Better Off Dead, in addition to being an incredibly nice guy. I recently had the chance to hang out with both Savage and Dan Schneider (who played Ricky), to discuss the movie in depth.
The following is Part One of our talk which includes, among many interesting topics, Savage's very candid and detailed explanation of just how much John Cusack hates the movie.
Exactly how well or not well did the movie do?
Savage Steve: I think it did fine because it was only 3.5 million dollars to produce and it made 10 million, but everybody was still super-disappointed.
Did you feel vindicated when it became so popular later on?
SS: Somewhat. First of all, I didn't know the business or anything. Really, I was always just making little short movies. So this was like my big opportunity, but I didn't even think of it like that. To me it was just another step, and it was the funnest thing I could have ever done, making the movie, and meeting Dan, and all the people were all so amazing in it.
And every day we were going, "This is hilarious. Am I wrong?" And it was like, every day anything we shot was really funny. So at my first test screening... I'll never forget it, the movie was like five or seven minutes longer, and the audience reaction was pretty good, but it wasn't that good.
And I remember one guy walking out, and for some reason he knew me, and he goes, "Hey, better luck next time."
And I'm like, "Oh shit, I'm doomed." It really hurt.
Do you know where he is today?
SS: He's probably running Paramount with my luck.
I was just hoping he was homeless.
SS: No, because mean people always get the good jobs.
But we cut out about five really over the top, stupid jokes that were in there that you would never miss. I loved them, but they were really stupid. And at the next screening it was like 99% of everybody thought it was great.
I got a call from Michael Ovitz who was my big agent at the time. And he said they had the best screening Warner's ever had. Like the best audience reaction, with people cheering and going crazy. And he said he witnessed it, and this movie was going to be a giant movie.
I thought it was going to make a hundred million dollars. I think that the fact that it has become so popular in its after life is an indication of that. It's just how the stars align. We just assumed because it was so funny, it would just kick ass.
Dan Schneider: If the movie had come out four months earlier, or four months later, been marketed a little bit differently, I think it could have made all the money in the world.
SS: You just never know.
When did you write it?
SS: Really right after college.
DS: Did you write it as a lark? Or did you think, "I'm going to go right out and sell this?"
SS: You know what? Honest to God, it was just a movie I really wanted to make. I had always made short movies, and I started with an 8 minute movie which got me into film festivals, and kinda got me noticed around here. And then based on that I did a longer one which was 22 minutes. And I said "Shoot, I should just write the whole story." But Better Off Dead is a true story, pretty much. It's an exaggerated true story.
So there was a girl you were that broken-hearted over?
SS: Oh yeah.
Have you ever spoken to her again? Does she know the movie is about her?
SS: That's a great question. It's really weird but she really broke my heart, and even through college I was still bummed out about it, but life went on. Then I made this funny movie. And like 6 years later, I got a call, I don't know how she got my number, and she said, "I've been in therapy because I saw your movie and I had no idea."
I mean, she knew she hurt my feelings, but she was like, "I just feel horrible that I put you through all that." And she sent me cookies and stuff.
And I was like, "Hey, I just bought a house. I wouldn't worry about it. And you know when you're a director you meet girls."
Did she leave you for the dude on the ski team?!
SS: Oh, yes. Totally!
DS: I didn't know it was that autobiographical. You didn't really think about killing yourself, did you?!
SS: I did! I totally went through a suicidal stage. But this is where my suicidal stage went. This is the truth about as far as I got. I got an extension cord...
DS: It's already funny.
SS: It gets worse. Because that part when Lane does this in the garage is true. I went into the garage, and I put an extension cord on a pipe, and I'm on a garbage can, and I'm thinking "Should I do this? Maybe this isn't a good idea." Anyway, it was a plastic garbage can, and my weight just like crashed through it, and I fell, and the pipe broke!
And it starts pouring water everywhere. And I'm basically in a garbage can, drowning. And my mom comes and, and my mom starts yelling at me for breaking a pipe, which is what any mom would do.
So I started writing down stupid ways to kill yourself that would fail after that, and I put them in sort of a diary. And that diary kind of became Better Off Dead. And you know, all the bad stuff that happened to me in high school.
I just had this book of stupid stuff. And my paper boy, honest to God, Johnny Gasperini would come up to the house--I was a latch key kid, my mom wouldn't come home until six, and this kid would come up to me and would say "Give me my two dollars." And I'd say, "Hey, I'm just a kid in school! I don't have two dollars. My mom will be home soon!"
And he would sit across the street waiting. And then he'd come back in ten minutes and say "You got my two dollars?" You'd think he'd wait for my mom's car to pull up, at least, so I wrote that down.
How come there was no commentary track on the Better Off Dead DVD?
SS: I know. It's because this movie is a bastard step-child. No one ever believes in it, cares about it. No one ever calls me about anything. The only time I hear nice things are when people like you tell me how much you liked it.
DS: You really didn't have a thing to do with the DVD?
SS: Not a thing. Really. They didn't even tell me it was coming out.
DS: That's terrible. With the exception of Cusack, everyone would have gotten together to do commentary on it.
SS: Well, this movie has just never had respect, and it's sad. But it's so goddamn funny. I'm not just saying this because I made it. Sometimes I still look at it and I go, "This is still one of the funniest movies I have ever seen." But again, it's not because of me. And I have to say, first of all, Cusack being in it was amazing. He hated it. We'll get to that. But Danny Schneider. I mean, things I never imagined. I never even pictured Danny Schneider as Ricky Smith.
DS: You know who almost got the part? Do you remember?
SS: Who? Oh, you're going to say Clint Howard.
DS: Is that not true?
SS: It is true, but it's not true in one way. In one way, the casting lady really wanted him, and he is Ron Howard's brother, so there is that kind of thing. But that was just kinda old, and it wasn't too funny.
DS: Oh, you didn't want him?
SS: No. And I don't mean that in a mean way! I'll tell you what, if you hadn't walked in the door, probably it would have been Clint Howard. And that's with all due respect to him. He was the second funniest guy. But other people we saw, just wouldn't have made it.
So, let's talk about Cusack hating the movie.
SS: Yeah. That was tragic. That was really sad.
I had met John when he was 17. We went to Yamashura and had drinks, which was totally illegal, and he was just the coolest guy. He was just so much fun and so funny and I was like, "You are my Lane."
DS: But when it was all done and he was watching the final edit, he told you "I hate this?"
SS: No. It was worse than that. He actually came to a lot of the editing. We were really good friends. We had a lot of fun.
Then he went off to do some other movie, and when he came back he agreed to do One Crazy Summer. Which I had written a rough draft of, and he didn't think it was that funny. And I just said, "I'm just gonna let you guys do your thing, and make it funnier when we get there." And I guess they paid him a lot of money.
SS: So this is short of a shocker. but we all got up to Cape Cod, and the night before we started shooting One Crazy Summer, we screened Better Off Dead for everyone that was up there because it was mostly the same crew, and a lot of the same cast.
We didn't get Danny for some reason, I think I was mad at him or something- no I'm just kidding.
DS: Maybe you were mad at me, but I don't know why.
SS: I've never been mad at you, that's insane!
DS: Then why wasn't I in One Crazy Summer?
SS: That's a good question. I probably had something for you, but it got cut out. That was like a 150 page script, and it just got trimmed way down. Everything went crazy at that point. It wasn't the "joy" that Better Off Dead was.
So we're all watching the Better Off Dead screening that night, and John walked out of the movie. About 20 minutes into it, he walked out, and he never came back.
The next morning, he basically walked up to me and was like, "You know, you tricked me. Better Off Dead was the worst thing I have ever seen. I will never trust you as a director ever again, so don't speak to me."
DS: Are you kidding?!
SS: No, it was that bad. He was just really upset. And I said, "What happened?! What's wrong?!" And he just said that I sucked, and it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and that I had used him, and made a fool out of him, and all this other stuff.
And I was just stunned, because it was as funny as shit. And he was great in it. And he was helping me edit it throughout the summer.
How did that affect you?
SS: It made me not care about movies anymore. And I didn't even want to do One Crazy Summer at that point. I was just gone. It was sort of like the break-up that I made Better Off Dead about. It was so out of left field, that it just floored me.
And I told John, look, "I have this scene, you're in it. Do what you want to do. But this is what it says and you can do whatever you want." And then some reviews started coming out about Better Off Dead while we were still shooting One Crazy Summer. And people were writing giant stories about what a great, funny movie it was. It previewed in Rhode Island, and someone write a 3 page newspaper story about how funny it was, and one of the grips tacked it on John's door. So he started to lighten up. And Bob Goldthwait is really funny, and he brought a lot of levity to all of it, too. And started to tease John for being so cranky. But, you know, John doesn't want to be "foolish" I guess? He's more serious than we think, I guess.
Do you watch his movies?
SS: I think John is awesome. I love his movies. I think he is probably one of the best actors I have ever seen. And I'm grateful to him.
DS: I don't understand why he had such a negative reaction to it. I supposed that after he made it, he must have just decided it wasn't the type of movie he wanted to be making. But it's weird that he'd blame you because he clearly read the script before signing on. He knew what he was doing and he knew that it was being recorded on film. It's not like you put roofies in his Diet Coke and then "tricked" him into acting in the movie.
SS: And he was at dailies every night, too.
DS: So why would his reaction be like he'd never had anything to do with the movie until he saw it?
SS: It was a little out of left-field. I have to admit. And I just don't know if he was more mad that he was in the second movie that was way more absurd than even Better Off Dead. And what was interesting was that the dream was we always wanted to absurd kind of stuff like Woody Allen's "Bananas."
And it's funny, John will never talk about Better Off Dead, and One Crazy Summer, and I read something recently where he called me "the director." He wouldn't use my name, and he said, "the director wanted to do absurdist comedy and that's just not the thing I like to do," or something like that.
I feel like I let him down. And it totally surprises me so much because I have to say the most important person to me about that movie, was John. I really wanted him to love it as much as I loved it. And once he said that stuff, it was like a girlfriend who breaks up with you. You can't fight with her. It's like everything is so great, and then they say "I hate you!" out of nowhere. There's really no argument you can have. I had my heart broken. That was the second time my heart was broken since that girl that Better Off Dead was about - honest to God.
It made me think, "What's this business about? It's no fun." But, I will say that Better Off Dead was the happiest time of my life without a doubt.
I really thought as time went by, he might feel differently. But I read one other article that he got jailed for something. Somebody in his car had something, I don't know what, but he got jailed for something. He said, "Jail sucked the most because everybody kept coming up to me going 'I want my two dollars!'"
I bet you he hears about that as much as any movie he's been in.
SS: I've got a feeling.
Click here for the Better Off Dead interview with Dan "Ricky" Schneider.
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