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Back to School: The '80s comedy with a surprising sci-fi pedigree

Contributed by
Feb 25, 2015, 5:17 PM EST

As a fan, it is exciting to see someone I recognize showing up in a project that doesn’t involve orcs or spaceships. I perk up with a “Hey, I know that person!” attentiveness, and it actually enhances the experience because I spot them as one of us (One of us! One of us!). But occasionally a non-genre film comes along that is so stuffed with actors from genre work that the layers of coincidence are undeniable. Suddenly a drama or screwball comedy earns a high level of nerd pedigree -- but it’s hidden to untrained eye.

Such was the case with Back to School. Starring Rodney Dangerfield, the 1986 comedy is about an older, rich entrepreneur who chooses to join his underachiever son at college. I vaguely remembered that Robert Downey Jr., was in it, but when I recently re-watched it for the first time in years, I started taking notice of all the genre performers involved with it. Adrienne Barbeau? Danny Elfman? Kurt Vonnegut?!

The layers of undercover nerdery were inescapable, including representatives of three different Star Trek series, a memorable Blade Runner cast member and Iron Man himself. So, instead of simply ignoring it, I decided to categorize it. Let’s examine the hidden genre cred of Back to School

Harold Ramis

The late, great Egon Spengler of Ghostbusters served as an executive producer and screenwriter on the film. Of course, in the genre realm, Ramis co-wrote Ghostbusters and starred as one of the first movie nerds to be cast in a cool light. His impressive resume included a lot of classic comedies (Caddyshack, Stripes), but he also wrote and directed the time-loop movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray.

Sally Kellerman

Kellerman plays Dr. Diane Turner, the free-spirited English literature teacher and love interest to Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon. Star Trek fans know her better as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (shown here). As Dehner, Kellerman was the Enterprise’s psychiatrist (who develops powers after a space storm encounter) in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the show’s second pilot after “The Cage” was rejected. Kellerman also had a brief part on Twilight Zone and appeared twice in The Outer Limits (“The Human Factor,” “The Bellero Shield”). In non-genre work, she frequently collaborated with Robert Altman and earned an Oscar nomination for M*A*S*H.

Danny Elfman

Two years before the world was introduced to his Beetlejuice score, and three before his Batman one, Elfman was already established as a movie composer. He provided the music for Back to School and had worked on Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. As part of his ska/new wave/Halloweeny band Oingo Boingo, he wrote the theme for the sci-fi teen comedy Weird Science. Oingo Boingo also plays their hit “Dead Man’s Party” at a party hosted by Thornton in Back to School.

Keith Gordon

You probably don’t recognize Gordon, even though he was one of the leads of the film as Jason Melon, the son to Thornton. Although he never became an A-list actor, Gordon made his debut in Jaws 2 as the joker Doug, and went on to be the human lead in John Carpenter’s Christine. But Gordon is better known for a pretty long list of director credits. In addition to directing his Back to School buddy Robert Downey Jr. in The Singing Detective, Gordon helmed episodes of the sci-fi series Wild Palms, the horror anthology Night Visions and, more recently, The Strain and The Leftovers. He also directed the potentially ghosty movie Waking the Dead. As a bonus point, his mom’s name is Barbara Gordon.

Terry Farrell

After seeing Robert Downey Jr., Farrell’s presence in Back to School was the next big surprise for me. The future Jadzia Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shows up here as the unattainable (spoiler: she's attainable) girl next door, Valerie. As Valerie, she doesn’t have much to do other than look pretty, talk in falsetto and give a pep talk to Jason. After Back to School, she built up some genre cred by working on Quantum Leap and the Red Dwarf TV movie before suiting up as Dax for 150 episodes. She was additionally the lead in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, but we’ll forgive her for that.

Robert Downey Jr.

It is hard to separate RDJ from the swagger of Tony Stark/Iron Man, but long before he was a superhero -- and before he was a great thespian or even a troubled actor -- he was an awkward, flamboyant nerd in Back to School. Following his turn as the bully, Ian, in John Hughes' Weird Science (1985), RDJ played Derek Lutz, the outsider sidekick to Jason. Derek is actually more likable than Jason, and Downey plays him like a member of Culture Club meets Amadeus. Only 21 years old when this movie came out, he looks like a baby here, but with not great teeth.

M. Emmet Walsh

Walsh is known for being an actor who can just show up and make a movie better. Here, he is Coach Turnbull, the old-timer diving coach who does a bit of grumbling and becomes simpatico with Dangerfield’s character. But holy crap, it’s Captain Bryant from Blade Runner: The noirish, sleazy, threatening and hard-drinking cop who forces Deckard to take out the replicants. As a great character actor, Walsh has been all over genre fare. He was on anthology shows Tales From The Crypt, Amazing Stories and the revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits; he played Barry Allen’s dad in The Flash (1990); and was in one of the best episodes of The X-Files, “The Unnatural.” He has added his voice to The Iron Giant and Adventure Time. And in movies, he was in Critters and Harry and the Hendersons – and yes, even Twilight.

Adrienne Barbeau

If you don’t know who Barbeau is, then you didn’t pay much attention to some of the best genre movies to come out of the 1980s. In Back to School, she is Vanessa, the cheating, much-younger wife of Thornton. Her role is fairly small, especially considering she was a bona fide sex symbol at the time (and if you catch her at a horror convention, you’ll see how lovely she still is). Barbeau was married to John Carpenter, and took the lead in his film The Fog, as well as appearing in his Escape from New York. She stayed on a genre roll with Swamp Thing (directed by Wes Craven), Creepshow (directed by George A. Romero, based on Stephen King’s screenplay), Two Evil Eyes (Directed by Romero, Dario Argento, and Luigi Cozzi) and a lot, lot more. In the ‘90s she showed up on Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, and was the voice of Selina Kyle in Batman: The Animated Series. Her voice additionally shows up in video games such as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the God of War franchise, and Halo 4.

Robert Picardo

Barbeau was the adulteress in Back to School, but Picardo played the other man, Giorgio. He only shows up for a brief scene, but Picardo more than makes up for that with a resume chockfull of genre entries. Of course, he was Emergency Medical Hologram The Doctor/Lewis Zimmerman on Star Trek: Voyager for seven seasons (and on Deep Space Nine, First Contact and in Trek video games). He was also Richard Woolsey in Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and SGU. He pops up on Supernatural, Smallville, and the Justice League animated series. Want more? Catch him in Legend, Innerspace, Gremlins 2...basically, Picardo likes to keep busy. And we’ll be seeing him as Zimmerman again in the upcoming crowdfunded film Star Trek: Renegades.

Ned Beatty

In Back to School, the Academy Award-nominated Beatty plays the college’s dean, David Martin (Get it? Dean Martin? Never mind). Although Beatty has done a lot of highbrow dramatic work, I will always love him as Otis, the buffoonish henchman to Lex Luthor in Superman and Superman II. He even had his own theme as Otis! He was also the evil teddy bear Lots-O-Huggin in Toy Story 3, and played Father Edwards in the much maligned Exorcist II. Still, as bad as the Exorcist sequel is considered, Beatty also was the reporter Sam Kolawetz in 1990’s Captain America – you know, the really bad one. 

Sam Kinison

Before he died in a car accident in 1992, the rockstar comedian had made a mark on pop culture with his shouting delivery, but not so much in sci-fi – with one exception. Kinison, who is the very passionate Contemporary American History professor Terguson in Back to School, also took on the role of Superman’s dad in 1986. In a Saturday Night Live episode, he was a Marlon Brando-esque Jor-El who makes some miscalculations. Krypton doesn’t explode even though he sends Kal-El away, and he doesn't hear the end of it.

Jason Hervey

Like William Zabka (who is also in Back to School), Hervey built a career around playing jerks. But in this film’s opening scene, he plays a young collar-tugging Rodney Dangerfield. Hervey works quite a bit as a reality-TV producer these days, and his last listed acting role was as Dove on the Justice League animated series. But his resume also includes brief but memorable roles in genre films Back to the Future, Monster Squad and Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

In an appearance that earns Back to School its most nerdy genre cred, Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself. The gag is that Dangerfield’s Thornton hires the author to write a paper on his own novels. Thornton receives a failing grade because Kellerman’s character says whoever wrote it didn’t know the first thing about Vonnegut. The master science fiction/satire novelist appeared in a few other films, but this was his best cameo.