Early in 1978, Doug Kenney came to my studio. He brought along Chris Miller and the script for Animal House, the first Lampoon movie. Doug, Chris, and Harold Ramis had written what was to become one of the great screen comedies. All I knew about it was that Doug wanted me to do the poster. He gave me the script and an envelope of photos from the shoot. We talked a little about what a poster could look like, and I roughed out some ideas for them.
A week later I was sitting in a Park Avenue screening room between Doug and John Belushi. John had mustard stains on his shirt. (If you’d hung around with him at all you’d know that wasn’t unusual.) Also in the room were Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, James Widdoes, Peter Reigert, and some executives from Universal.
We watched a twelve-minute selection of scenes from the movie. It was incredibly funny. During the screening, Belushi fell asleep. His head rolled forward onto his chest and he began to snore loudly. (yes, this is true.) Afterwards I said to Doug, “so these are all the funny parts, right?”
Nope,” he told me, “the whole film is like this.” He wasn’t kidding.
I began work in March 1978. I worked from the photos and from my own experience at Boston University. I had briefly pledged a fraternity that bore a remarkable physical resemblance to the one in the film. The art was due on Wednesday March 29. On March 27 in the afternoon, my wife went into labor. I phoned Matty Simmons the publisher of the Lampoon. I told him that I wouldn’t be able to deliver the art on time because we were delivering a baby. Knowing he wasn’t going to get it on Wednesday, Matty was magnanimous. “That’s great Rick. Take ‘til Thursday,” he told me. My daughter Molly was born Tuesday morning. Somehow in the next few days I managed to get the painting done; I delivered it on Friday, March 31.
Belushi was in the office with Matty when I arrived with the art. They both loved it. Others came in just to see it and they loved it too. I thought it would be like a walk off homer – I could go home to the cheers of this crowd – but then John pulled me aside to tell me he wanted his face to be drawn a little more angular so he didn’t look like “such a pig.” I answered, “John, I paint what I see.” “C’mon, look at my profile.” he said, turning his head sideways and raising his chin, “it’s more John Barrymore than some asshole in a cartoon!” I preferred the latter characterization, but I made the change. How could I not?
The next time I saw John was in late May before the first public screening of Animal House at the American Bookseller’s Association convention in Atlanta. I was there to promote my first two Nose Mask books and the Animal House movie book that used my art on the cover. John was there to promote the movie. It was a huge theater and it was jammed. Just before the screening I went out back with John and a few others. We stood in a grassy spot behind a dumpster and enhanced our moods for the show. By the time we wandered into the theater, the only seats left were in the front row.
So that’s how I finally saw Animal House. Neck craned upward, mood enhanced, Belushi snoring away next to me, and the audience behind me screaming with laughter. It was something else.
Afterward, John and I stopped in the lobby in front of a huge reproduction of the poster. We were both staring holes in it. I was thinking I was a lucky guy. I’d managed, somehow, to capture the whole damn thing in one piece of art without having seen the movie first. John, as if reading my thoughts said to me, “You nailed it maaaannn. You really fuckin’ nailed it.” It is the best of all the compliments I’ve ever received about my work on Animal House.
The Other Animal House Poster
Animal House was a huge success; it stayed in theaters for months. It was released overseas and was a hit there too. I have posters from Japan, Italy, and Germany, (where for some reason, the title was translated as “I Think I Got Kicked in the Head by a Horse.”)
By the summer of 1979, the movie was no longer in general release. Plans were made to re-release it in autumn for the back-to-school season, and I was asked to do another poster. The headline was “Guess Who’s Back?” I decided to draw a back view of all the Deltas with the rest of the cast, horrified, facing them and out at us.
When it was finished, I thought it was a better piece of art than the first poster. In the autumn it was printed and distributed with the movie, but almost never displayed. Theater owners clamored for the first poster; they felt it was the one that moviegoers would want to see. As a result, this pretty damn good piece of art never became as well known as its predecessor.
Too bad, really, but lucky you; you can see it here.
The Real Animal House
Chris was there with Doug Kenney when we met in my studio in March 1978 to discuss the art for the movie poster. Years later, it seemed right for us to work together on his memoir about the fraternity at Dartmouth that inspired his stories. And I got to knock-off my own Animal House art. Only this time I did it with snow!
Chris is a great guy. Buy his book!