In the late 90s and early noughties, Adam Sandler was the king of low-brow comedy. Recently, however, the comedian hasn’t been doing so well. His latest projects, part of a multi-movie deal with Netflix, have been slaughtered by the critics (even as they rack up the views). The Ridiculous Six, a parody Western, was plagued with issues of cultural insensitivity over the portrayal of Native Americans. Add in a whole lot of poop jokes, and you’ve got a comedy stinker. His second offering, The Do-Over, hasn’t garnered the same level of controversy, but the buddy comedy also hasn’t received much praise, sitting at a painful 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even his recent big-budget action flick, Pixels, crashed and burned, despite a heaping serving of video game and geek nostalgia and big names like the incomparable Peter Dinklage.
Despite this, many fans still have a soft spot for the SNL alum’s classic hits. Sandler’s early comedies were fresh and funny, and the crass humor was always balanced out by some real heart. Sandler’s nice-but-dim character appeared time and time again, the perfect role model for every kid who wasn’t interested in becoming a responsible adult. This Peter Pan act is the heart and soul of Sandler’s first lead role: Billy Madison. This Sandler classic stars him as Billy, a spoilt rich kid in his 20s who couldn’t even graduate high school without his dad paying the way. In a slightly ludicrous (but fun) twist, he makes a deal with his father, that he will complete each grade in a week in order to prove that he is capable of running the family business. Throw in some cute kids and a romance with a hot teacher, and you’ve got one of the funniest films of the ‘90s. But how much do you really know about Billy Madison? Read on for eleven tidbits that you might not have heard before…
Charles Bronson is best known for his many roles as the on-screen tough guy, with many of his best-known characters appearing in classic Westerns in the 50s and 60s. By the 90s, Bronson was in his seventies, and his film career was winding down, which may be why he turned down the role of Billy’s father, Brian Madison. Brian is a relatively minor character in the film, despite his huge importance to the plot (being the one who makes the deal with Billy in the first place). Surprisingly lenient with his layabout son, Brian is still optimistic about Billy’s chances of growing up. After Bronson turned it down, the role eventually went to Darren McGavin.
If you missed his time on Saturday Night Live, you might not realize that before Sandler went into making movies, he set his particular brand of comedy to music. His musical best includes songs about nipples, crappy cars, holidays and football, although he covers far more than that one his comedy albums. (Yes, he has written enough musical comedy for multiple albums.) An SNL favorite even made it into Billy Madison in human form – the lunch lady, a cackling woman in a hairnet who is excessively proud of her extra-sloppy joes. This is a reference to Sandler’s song ‘Lunchlady Land,' where he sings about a lunchlady who gets in a fight with her food (literally) and the sloppy joe comes to her rescue.
The elementary school principal, Max Anderson, is one of the many comedic side characters in the film. A big softy, he’s just your basic funny-fat-guy at first, but becomes a more important part of the plot when Eric, Billy’s rival for ownership of the Madison company, blackmails Max to tell the press that Billy has been cheating his way through school. He manages this because he finds out that Max never got his teaching degree - instead, he was a Lucha Libre wrestler who accidentally killed someone, and who (somehow) managed to talk his way into the principal position. Max later comes clean, and even tackles Eric with his old wrestling mask on. Josh Mostel, who plays Max, is also a man of hidden talents - he's an opera singer! He started out as a boy soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, and although he moved into film, he is still an accomplished singer. He was even on Broadway in 1989, in a production of The Threepenny Opera.
Chris Farley plays the unnamed bus driver in Billy Madison – he’s only on screen for a few minutes throughout the film, but he makes a huge impression in just that short time. For the most part, his character is crude, nasty, and completely stressed out (although driving around a busload of kids who throw sandwiches at him can’t be easy). He steals lunches from the kids and tries to sneak a look up the teacher’s skirt, although he does also get a happy ending with Mr. Penguin. But one of his most memorable moments is when he’s behind the wheel, and the kids just push him too far – after threatening to turn the bus around, he starts mumbling, cursing under his breath, and turns bright red with fury. It’s an amazing moment of pure stress, and it was completely improvised.
Before getting his first starring role in Billy Madison, Adam Sandler appeared as Pip in the 1994 comedy Airheads. Also starring Steve Buscemi and Brendan Fraser, the three star as members of a less-than-stellar rock band who decide that the only way to get their song on the air is to hold up the radio station at gunpoint. Billy Madison saw several of the cast members from Airheads return, including Steve Buscemi and Chris Farley. Farley even re-uses a line from his Airheads character in the film. In Airheads, Farley plays a cop, sent to find the lead singer’s girlfriend at a rock bar – a difficult mission, given that she is described as “a blonde wearing something tight and black," a.k.a., almost every woman there. This inspires the cop to sarcastically describe his Herculean task as “good, great, grand, wonderful” - a line that became far more famous when he said it as the angry bus driver in Billy Madison.
Many movie fans are loath to admit that their favorite film isn’t a highbrow, classic movie. Plenty of people lie and claim that Citizen Kane is their absolute favorite, or, if pushed, might allow that they have some “guilty pleasures” that aren’t quite as deep and meaningful. Not Robert De Niro. The multi-Oscar-winning star has reportedly claimed that Billy Madison is his all-time favorite film, something that should make anyone feel a little better about admitting to the same. He’s not the only big name that’s a fan, either - Sandler’s movies include a huge number of cameos by big names, including Al Pacino (Jack and Jill), Steve Buscemi (Billy Madison), Jon Stewart (Big Daddy), Reese Witherspoon and Harvey Keitel (Little Nicky) and even Jack Nicholson (Anger Management).
Sandler may have made his name playing incredibly kind-hearted guys who just aren’t that smart (or that grown-up), but it seems like his off-screen persona wasn’t quite so kind during the filming of this one. Either that, or he’s just really into method acting. In the film, Billy plays a game of dodgeball with the kids in his class – a horribly mis-matched game, given that Billy is a full-grown man (on the outside, at least). He takes great pleasure in hitting the kids with the ball - and reportedly, he wasn’t faking it. The actor actually threw the ball as hard as he could. The cries of “ouch” that you can hear in the scene are the actual reactions of the child actors, many of whom cried when this scene was being filmed, causing the director to have to cut away from their faces so it wouldn’t show in the finished product.
The script for Billy Madison was originally written by dynamic duo Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy, friends who worked together on SNL as well as on Sandler’s first film. Herlihy recalls that despite not really knowing what they were doing, the pair were adamant about staying true to their original writing, even when the studio hated it. Universal hired a writer to come in and tweak the script, but Sandler simply reverted to the original lines when they were filming, making it near-impossible for the studio to actually make any changes. Despite this, one very famous change did make it into the final version of the film: the line “O’Doyle rules!” Now made famous by the movie, the line was repeated by multiple members of the O’Doyle family – big, red-haired bullies who Billy deals with in several grades. Since Billy Madison, the O’Doyle name has appeared in several more Sandler movies, usually attached to unpleasant people.
Billy Madison shows off his wealth (or his father’s wealth) with multiple scenes of him and his friends lazing around the grounds of a stunning mansion. Parties by the pool, drinking by the pool, studying by the pool – he really likes that pool! And fans really liked that mansion – and may even have recognized it in other films as well. The actual house is called Parkwood Estate, and it’s a popular filming location. Located in Oshawa, Ontario, the house and grounds has appeared in a huge range of films and TV series. As well as acting as Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted in 2000’s X-Men, it’s the house that Denis Leary breaks into in The Ref, and also appears in Hemlock Grove, Hannibal, Nikita, Queer as Folk and Bullet Proof Monk. It’s also a popular wedding venue, if any die-hard Billy Madison fans have been dreaming of getting married in the same grounds where Billy first drunkenly chased a penguin.
The opening scenes of Billy Madison introduce us to Billy and his friend Frank, a fellow drunken layabout who enjoys doing a whole lot of nothing. Frank re-appears throughout the film, generally drinking and being silly at the parties that Billy throws to celebrate each grade he passes (at one, Frank suggests getting the donkey drunk). In one scene in particular, Frank wakes up to tell Billy a stupid story, when he drunkenly realizes that Billy has been gone for quite some time. His slurred speech isn’t acting! Norm MacDonald, who played Frank, got completely wasted to film the scene. He claimed that it was to get into character, but maybe he just felt like having some poolside drinks. Either way, he ended up getting so wasted that he passed out, and had to have ice water poured on him to wake him up.
Well, his character did, anyway. Buscemi (who also worked with Sandler on Airheads the previous year) has a bit part in Billy Madison as Danny McGrath, someone Billy went to school with. First time around, Billy was one of the popular kids, but when he has to return as an adult his classmates don’t want anything to do with him. Finally getting a taste of what it’s like to be picked on, Billy reaches out to Danny to apologize for how he treated him in school – one of the sweeter moments of personal growth for the character. Of course, Sandler couldn’t make that moment too heartfelt, so they camp it up by having Buscemi smear lipstick on after hanging up the phone, and then turning to cross Billy’s name off a “to kill” list hanging on the wall. The rest of the names on that list? They were actually crew members on the film! Obviously an inside joke, but it’s a great moment for those in the know.