The Huge ‘Animal House’ Blunder That Cost Donald Sutherland Millions

“National Lampoon’s Animal House” is one of the greatest comedies of all time. Yet in 1978, not even one of its stars believed in the potential of a small comedy about toga parties. That is why when it came down to Donald Sutherland taking a fee of either 2% of the film’s gross or $35,000, Sutherland took the latter. Here’s how that “Animal House” blunder ended up costing him millions. donald sutherland animal house

The Unlikely Genesis of a Comedy Classic

“Fat, Drunk, And Stupid Is No Way To Make A Movie, Son”

“Everybody is drunk, or high, or getting laid. I’d never make this movie.”

According to Matty Simmons’ “Fat, Drunk, and Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House,” these are the words of Universal Studios boss Ned Tanen after he read the first outline of “Animal House.” It wasn’t until the production promised Tanen that they could make the film for $3 million that Universal signed on. However, the studio still wanted a star to sell the movie to audiences.

Sutherland’s Hesitant Involvement

For Universal, “Saturday Night Live” stand-out John Belushi wasn’t enough, so director John Landis went to an old friend, Donald Sutherland (who was a huge star in 1978), and asked him for a favor. A hesitant Sutherland ultimately agreed to be in the film, but only after Landis told him that all his scenes could be done in a day.

The Fateful Financial Decision

Seemingly, both the studio and the comedy now had its “star.” Yet, there was still the important matter of just how much Sutherland would get paid for the one day on set.

A Choice With Lasting Consequences

Donald Sutherland was presented with two options: a flat fee of $35,000 for his day’s work or 2% of the film’s gross profits. With no faith in the film’s potential success, Sutherland chose the safer option of the flat fee. At the time, $35,000 seemed like a substantial sum for a single day’s work, especially for a project he wasn’t confident in. This decision would haunt him as “Animal House” became a cultural phenomenon.

The Success of ‘Animal House’

“Animal House” went on to gross over $141 million worldwide, an astounding achievement for a film with a budget of just $3 million. Sutherland’s decision to take the flat fee cost him a staggering $2.8 million. His role as Professor Dave Jennings, although brief, became iconic, further cementing the movie’s status in comedy history.

The Aftermath

Sutherland has since reflected on his decision with a mix of humor and regret. In interviews, he has acknowledged the mistake, often joking about the “little” miscalculation that cost him millions. Despite this, Sutherland’s career continued to thrive, and he remains a respected and prolific actor in Hollywood.

Legacy of ‘Animal House’

The film’s legacy is undeniable. “Animal House” not only launched John Belushi into stardom but also revolutionized the comedy genre. It introduced a new level of irreverence and absurdity that would influence countless films and TV shows. The movie’s success also proved that low-budget comedies could become box-office hits, paving the way for future filmmakers.

Lessons Learned

Sutherland’s blunder serves as a cautionary tale in Hollywood. It highlights the unpredictable nature of the film industry and the potential rewards and risks associated with profit participation deals. For actors and filmmakers, it underscores the importance of believing in a project, even when its success seems uncertain.

A Comedy That Defined an Era

“National Lampoon’s Animal House” remains a beloved classic, a testament to the comedic genius of its creators and cast. The film’s enduring popularity is a tribute to its irreverent humor, memorable characters, and the wild antics that captured the spirit of a generation.

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