January 10, 2004

Better Off Dead - Dan "Ricky" Schneider

DVDBetter 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.

Dan as Ricky


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.

pictureDo 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.

danceWhat 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.

Sicky RickyAny 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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