Part of Chris Nashawaty’s challenge in Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story is justifying the new book’s subtitle. The movie, after all, wasn’t quite as unlikely a success as Bill Murray’s imagined greenskeeper-turned-pro. When the film opened in 1980, Murray and Chevy Chase were two of the world’s hottest young comedy stars. Caddyshack wasn’t the breakout comedy hit of the summer (that was Airplane!), but it grossed nearly $40 million, turning a very handy profit over its $6 million budget.
That wasn’t good enough for Doug Kenney. Nashawaty’s book opens with a surly, hungover press conference at Rodney Dangerfield’s New York comedy club where the film’s cowriter savages his own movie in front of journalists he desperately needs to impress. The National Lampoon cofounder would be found dead in Hawaii just weeks later, after a solitary fall that still haunts his friends. Did he slip or did he jump?
Kenney’s wild life and tragic death serves as a larger frame for the Caddyshack story. Widening the frame further, Nashawaty takes in the entire generation of comic geniuses who became the baby boomers in the back of the bus — pulled together by a seemingly irresistible momentum as Chicago’s Second City contingent (including Murray, Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle-Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and John Belushi) came east to join the Ivy-League-spawned National Lampoon crew.
This isn’t the greatest timing for a book lauding those men’s talents. Chase, the top-billed star of Caddyshack, was recently in the spotlight after a New Yorker profile of his Community costar Donald Glover painted the comedy veteran as racist and conceited.
Nor are the likes of Caddyshack’s creators apt icons for the Me Too era: the National Lampoon’s breakout success, as Nashawaty notes, was a parody of Playboy that Hugh Hefner embraced to the point of offering his services as distributor. In another recent New Yorker article, Molly Ringwald dug out some offensive Lampoon columns by John Hughes, whose films their own star now sees in a different light.
Nashawaty doesn’t treat the film’s legacy (let alone those of contemporary pictures like Animal House and Meatballs) as wholly unproblematic. Notably, Caddyshack star Cindy Morgan tells Nashawaty that not only was gratuitous nudity part of the gig, producer Jon Peters tried to bring a Playboy photographer to the set for some, er, promotional photos. When Morgan balked, Peters retaliated by not inviting Morgan to the premiere party.
Still, the book is largely a love letter to the relative Hollywood neophytes who made Caddyshack on their own terms. Ramis directed, and ran the set like an improv stage. That led to comedy gold (Murray’s now classic character was more or less a cameo in the original shooting script), and also to the shambling quality that helps qualify the movie as a cult classic.
The tightly structured book will be devoured by the film’s many fans. Nashawaty unpacks the various stars that aligned to make Caddyshack an enduring favorite: Chase and Murray, who got over an infamous beef while shooting scenes (and snorting coke) together. Dangerfield, who had just the right amount of innate irony to make his Borscht Belt schtick work. The gopher, an animatronic creation by special effects whiz John Dykstra of Star Wars fame.
That adorable rodent’s presence on the book cover should serve as a clue that this Cinderella Story isn’t going to be a particularly critical take on Caddyshack — as should the author’s day job as film critic at Entertainment Weekly, not a publication known for sharp knives. Recounting tales of debauchery and volatility, Nashawaty’s sources largely shrug and say or imply that it was a different era. It sure was.
The Caddyshack audiobook is an Audible production read by Peter Berkrot, who played the caddy at the point of Murray’s pitchfork during the Dalai Lama monologue. The gravelly-voiced Berkrot narrates the book like a general recounting a particularly unlikely victory, which is precisely the right tone to strike. Kenney thought he’d double bogied, but it turns out he’d sunk a birdie.