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Exclusive book excerpt: How Bill Murray’s improvisational genius stole the show on the set of Caddyshack

April 18, 2018

Excerpted from Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella, by Chris Nashawaty. Published by Flatiron Books. Copyright (C) 2018 by Chris Nashawaty. All rights reserved.

On most movie sets, the open consumption of hard drugs would be prevented by layers of responsible and experienced middle-aged producers and representatives from the studio on the set. But the fact that coke fiend Doug Kenney was the producer of Caddyshack turned those checks and balances into a joke. That, combined with the studio’s hands-off, go-make-your-movie-without-interference ethos, made the film a perfect storm. Or, in this case, a perfect blizzard.

Before he would find himself on the business end of a rusty pitchfork courtesy of Bill Murray in the film’s indelible Dalai Lama scene, Peter Berkrot, cast as caddie Angie D’Annunzio, was a 19-year-old wannabe theater actor from Queens. He wasn’t sheltered, exactly, but he certainly had never been exposed to the sort of Hollywood decadence he was about to discover in Florida. “I had never seen cocaine before I got to the set of Caddyshack,” he says. Although he stuck mostly to drinking and smoking pot, Berkrot says that the sight of coke was hard to ignore at the Rolling Hills motel, where the cast was staying. As the three-months shoot went on, coke use on the film would escalate. Recreational use that started by the gram turned into binges indulged by the ounce. It seemed to be the fuel that kept the film running.

Hamilton Mitchell, who played the caddie named Motormouth, says he was initially shocked to see that cocaine use on the set of Caddyshack was so brazen and public. And because of the shoot’s Florida location, the coke that was being delivered was of the highest quality. “I would never recommend drugs to anyone,” says Mitchell. “But this was really good cocaine. Pure, like they had just beaten it out of a leaf in Colombia and somebody had carried the leaf to us and turned it into powder in front of us just so we knew how pure it was.”

PODCAST: Caddyshack book author Chris Nashawaty explains how he got Bill Murray to talk

Michael O’Keefe calls his eleven weeks in Florida “a permanent party.” “Cocaine was everywhere,” he says. “It was driving everyone. People would come into your dressing room with salt shakers and it would be lunch and someone would say, ‘Do you want to do a line?’ ‘Yeah, sure!’ It was no big deal. This was the ‘70s. No one thought anything was wrong about it. Those of us that did it got sucked into the whole bacchanalian rave of it, and believe me when I tell you we went as mad as any of the ancient Greeks.”

Chevy Chase, who has talked openly in the past about his own addiction and recovery, said that cocaine just always seemed to materialize on the set of Caddyshack. “At the time we didn’t know it was addictive. We just knew that we had money to spend and it was a great high,” Chase said later. “It always seemed that I could drink more and do more drugs than anybody else and still appear straight. … At that time, I was taking it and I didn’t feel that I had a problem. By the time you think you have a problem, you’re half dead.”

Brian McConnachie, a National Lampoon mainstay who’d been cast in a small role in the film, remembers how nervous certain people would get when their dealers didn’t arrive on time. And Cindy Morgan recalls one afternoon when she saw Doug Kenney running down the hallway of the motel yelling, “The eagle has landed; the eagle has landed! Get your per diems in cash, the dealer’s here!”

“Nobody was trying to rip off the studio and get high,” says O’Keefe. “People were trying to make a good movie, and that was just the culture at the time. And Ted Knight was not into it. That was not fun for him. If the call to show up on set was for 7 a.m., Ted was there at 6:45. And he would just seethe all day long.”

Into this maelstrom strode Bill Murray, a Saturday Night Live regular at the time who was only penciled in for a small role in the movie. They contracted him for less than a week, but his improvisational genius forced writers to make more room for Murray’s quirky character Carl Spackler.

Ad-libbing wasn’t invented on Caddyshack. It’s been an integral part of the filmmaking process since the birth of cinema. Some of the most memorable movie lines during the past 50 years have been the result of on-the-fly moments of inspiration. Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver, Clemenza’s “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” line from The Godfather, Roy Scheider’s deadpan “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” button from Jaws, even John Belushi’s zit-popping spray of mashed potatoes in Animal House — they were all spontaneous moments of magic. They’re proof of film as a living, breathing medium.

“We always trusted improvisation,” said Harold Ramis, Caddyshack’s director and a veteran of Second City. “It never felt like we were ad-libbing and winging it. It’s an actual technique and a method that allows you to create material instantly. It’s not grabbed out of thin air.”

For some actors, that sort of freedom can be paralyzing. For others, like Bill Murray, it’s liberating. Murray’s most famous scene in Caddyshack is his epic tale of looping for the Dalai Lama — “Big hitter, the Lama” — but his longest scene in the film is the famous “Cinderella Story” monologue. And it’s a scene for which no lines were ever actually written. It sprung sui generis from Murray’s head. “All it said in the script is: Carl is outside of the clubhouse practicing his golf swing, cutting the tops off flowers with a grass whip,” Ramis said.

Actually, this is how it appeared in the shooting script on the day in October 1979, when it was filmed:

The sky is beginning to darken. CARL, THE GREENSKEEPER, is absently lopping the heads off bedded tulips as he practices his golf swing with a grass whip.

That was all Murray was given. Before rolling the camera, Ramis huddled with Murray and gave the actor some motivation. “When I used to jog during a brief period of physical fitness in my life, I would encourage myself by pretending I was the announcer at the Olympics,” said Ramis. “Like, ‘They’re coming into the stadium. Ramis is in the lead!’ So I said to Bill, ‘Did you ever do imaginary golf commentary in your head?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, don’t say anymore. I got it!'”

Murray’s only request before Ramis yelled “Action” was to have the flowers changed from tulips to mums. In the scene, Carl stands outside of the clubhouse dressed in a grass-stained shirt buttoned up to his Adam’s apple, his camouflage hat, tan workpants and big, clunky, unlaced boots. An insert shot of the sky reveals ominous storm clouds gathering. Carl chokes up on the grass whip like a golf club, steps up to the flower bed, waggles his hips, and then…

What an incredible Cinderella story. This unknown comes outta nowhere to lead the pack at Augusta. He’s at the final hole. He’s about 455 yards away, he’s gonna hit about a two iron, I think … (Carl reels back and swats the head off of a mum. Petals fly like confetti) Boy, he got all of that. The crowd is standing on its feet here at Augusta. The normally reserved Augusta crowd is going wild … (he pauses as he notices some golfers coming) for this young Cinderella who’s come out of nowhere. He’s got about 350 yards left. He’s going to hit about a five iron, it looks like, don’t you think? (Carl pulls the grass whip back to demolish the next mum) He’s got a beautiful backswing … That’s … Oh! He got all of that one! He’s gotta be pleased with that. The crowd is just on its feet here. He’s a Cinderella boy, tears in his eyes, I guess, as he lines up this last shot. And he’s got about 195 yards left, and he’s got a, it looks like he’s got about an eight iron. This crowd has gone deadly silent. Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greenskeeper, now about to become the Masters champion. (Carl reels back one last time and — Swat! — blasts the third mum to smithereens) It looks like a mirac . . . It’s in the hole! IT’S IN THE HOLE!!!

Murray says he did the entire sequence in one unbroken take. “I was good back in those days,” he says. “I could do something when they turned the camera on. I was wired into what I was talking about. Improvising about golf was easy for me. And it was fun. It wasn’t difficult to come up with stuff. And there was a great crowd of people there to entertain. If you made … Harold laugh, you sort of earned your keep. You made your bones.”

Since Murray’s time in Florida was so limited, Ramis worked him hard, brainstorming situations for Carl, and shooting them with little or no preparation. They could worry about finding a place for them in the film later. “Everything we shot with Bill in the movie was just him riffing,” said Ramis. “We just described the physical action and he made up the lines. He’d done so much improv at the [National] Lampoon, he could just go. He would just turn up and do weird stuff. That’s how he worked.”

Murray was due back in New York for the beginning of the fifth season of SNL on October 13, 1979. Ramis and his fellow writers scrambled for more impromptu Carl moments. Doug Kenney, the film’s coke-fueled producer, thought up a raunchy sight gag (it’s actually Carl’s introduction in the film) in which he’s standing in a sweat-stained gray T-shirt and a camo hat behind a hedge leering at a foursome of older-women golfers and seems to be masturbating until it’s revealed that he’s actually working the plunger on a ball washer. As Carl quietly moans and vigorously tugs the pump handle, Murray uncorks a pervy string of ad-libs: “You wore green so you could hide from me. … You’re a tramp.” Ramis nearly ruined the take because he was laughing so hard off camera.

Then there was the matter of the smattering of Carl’s scenes with a golf-course-destroying gopher. At that point, the gopher was far less important to the film than he would eventually become in postproduction. Most of Murray’s gopher scenes were little inserts of him setting up explosives, fashioning clay bombs, and trying to flush the varmint out of his network of underground tunnels with a hose. In fact, Ramis shot only one scene of Murray with a gopher puppet — back then it was nothing more than a mangy, matted, chinchilla-looking sock puppet that Ramis’s assistant Trevor Albert wore on his hand and pushed up through a hole in the ground. It looked as crude and primitive as a kid’s stuffed animal.

The gopher scenes were random and disjointed, but the crew rushed to nail down as many of them as they could before Murray had to leave. “We had Bill talking about the gopher,” says production executive Rusty Lemorande. “We had Bill dragging the fire hose around the course; we had Bill turning on the hose and having the water rush up through all the greens. But that was the extent to which the gopher was referenced. It was all the effect. There was no sign of the cause.”

When he was shooting the gopher scenes, Murray didn’t understand how they would all be pieced together in the finished film. But that wasn’t his problem. Plus, he was having a blast shooting them. “It was the time when people were making movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now,” says Murray. “And that was my Vietnam movie. The ridiculously inappropriate firepower I used to kill a small rodent. And a guy who was taking it all personally and it didn’t have anything to do with him. Carving those clay bombs of the rabbit and the squirrel, that stuff, you’re just amusing yourself. And if I’m making myself laugh and making these guys laugh, then it’s funny.”

Ramis worked Murray around the clock and to the point of exhaustion during his contracted six days in Florida. Murray never complained even though he was spent.

Recalls Cindy Morgan, who, the morning after Murray’s arrival on set, woke up next to him on a nude back in Jupiter, Fla., after an evening of sandy abandon, “There was one day, you could hear on the walkie-talkies, ‘Where’s Bill?’ … ‘He’s sleeping in a sand trap!’ … ‘What do you mean he’s sleeping in a sand trap?!'”

After two months of hard partying and filming on the fly at Rolling Hills, the time to say goodbye to their home away from home was fast approaching. In a couple of days, the cast and crew would load up and head due south on I-95 to Key Biscayne, near Miami, where they would shoot the final unshot pages in the script — the yacht club scenes, including the stunt-heavy water sequences in which Rodney Dangerfield’s gaudy cabin cruiser, Seafood, turns Ted Knight’s The Flying Wasp into driftwood. Some were sad to leave the nonstop bender behind; others couldn’t pack up and get the hell out of the dorm of debauchery soon enough. Before they left, though, there was still one last scene to get in the can, and it would require stealth, diversions, outright lies, and wanton mayhem and destruction.

By that point in the production, almost every page of the Caddyshack script had been tweaked, revised, or simply ignored and thrown into the garbage. One of the few scenes that never changed at all was the one that the governing board at Rolling Hills was under the impression would be changed first — the climactic explosion at the end of the film that accidentally sinks Danny’s putt and unsuccessfully attempts to send Carl’s nemesis to gopher heaven, all scored to the “1812 Overture.” In what can only be described as a classic feat of old-fashioned, bareknuckle Hollywood producing, Jon Peters hatched a brilliantly devious campaign of subterfuge.

Rigging and setting off the film’s big explosion wasn’t cheap. By some accounts, the pyrotechnics alone would end up adding as much as $150,000 to the film’s budget. Others say the number was much lower. Either way, it could only be done once. There were no second takes or do-overs. The crew had constructed a fake elevated green off to the side of the Rolling Hills course, which would act as ground zero. Several of the club’s stately oaks were wired to blow. A giant fuel truck was backed up onto the course. “I’ve got pictures of that truck pumping gasoline directly into the ground,” says Cindy Morgan.

While preparation for the big bang was underway, including the hiring of dozens of extras, Peters says, he extended an invitation to the Rolling Hills VIPs. He asked them if they would be so good as to accompany him for dinner and a scenic boat ride. It was his way of saying thank you for all of their hospitality and cooperation. “Jon was going to take these guys for a ride and by the time they got back, it would just be too late to do anything. What balls!” says Michael O’Keefe.

As soon as Peters and his party passed through the gates of Rolling Hills, Ramis sprung into action. All of the principal cast and extras were gathered around. Ramis held up a megaphone and announced, “We only have one chance to get this right.” He made sure that everyone knew where he or she should be looking when the blast went off. “Harold was anxious that no one get hurt,” says Trevor Albert. “Whenever there’s a stunt of any sort, if you’re a responsible human being it flashes through your head: I hope we’ve done everything we can to make sure this goes right. With all of the unpredictable stuff that had gone on on the movie and the total lack of discipline, I was just like, I hope this goes well. There’s no improvisation in this.”

There are several separate explosions as Danny’s ball hangs on the lip of the cup and Carl plunges the detonator. Ramis said that he made sure to set up multiple cameras so that his one-shot deal was covered by every possible angle as an insurance policy. “The reactions when that thing went off were absolutely genuine because no one knew what to expect,” says Peter Berkrot. “We were expecting fireworks and we got Guadalcanal. You could feel the heat and the shock waves of hot air. You couldn’t fake the response.”

While Peters and his hoodwinked guests were finishing up their meal, they caught a news report on the restaurant’s television. It said that there had been a huge explosion at Rolling Hills. It’s easy to picture jaws dropping into laps, forks clanking on bone-china plates, monocles plopping into bowls of lobster bisque. The magnitude of the blast had been so severe and the fireballs and curling plumes of thick black smoke so extreme that an incoming commercial pilot radioed into the control tower at the Fort Lauderdale airport reporting a plane crash. Peters did his best to calm down his guests. Still, when the Caddyshack crew left Rolling Hills the next morning, some said it had the charged air of a bunch of gangsters making a quick getaway, fleeing the scene of the crime one step ahead of the authorities. Surprisingly, the damage to the course itself was minor. Some downed tree limbs, a couple of craters in the grass that needed to be filled in and resodded. Still, no one expected to be invited back to Rolling Hills anytime soon.

In the early drafts of the script, the film ends right after the explosion with Danny at the airport, supposedly headed off to college but distracted at the last minute by a babe headed to Jamaica who makes him change his plans. He follows his bliss instead of the responsible path he’s supposed to take. Life lessons are learned, etc. There was also supposed to be a brief Casablanca-like scene in which Ty and Lacey walk off into the sunset with Chase saying: “Should we get together? We couldn’t respect each other less.” Ramis ended up going with something far more arbitrary. A bug-eyed Dangerfield looks at the camera and barks the one-liner: “Hey, everybody, we’re all going to get laid!”


At that point, the question had become: Why not?

“It was a totally improvised line that I can’t even believe I left in the movie,” said Ramis. “It makes absolutely no sense, which at that point was pretty much par for the course.”