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'Caddyshack' at 40: Michael O'Keefe revisits the controversial sex scene that wouldn't be allowed today

If you think the 1980 golf comedy favorite Caddyshack is fun to watch, Michael O’Keefe can confirm that it was even more fun to make. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in advance of the movie’s 40th anniversary on July 25, the actor — who played college-bound caddy Danny Noonan — characterizes the six-week shoot as feeling like one long party. “There were six weeks of parties,” O’Keefe says, reflecting on his experiences working (and partying) alongside first-time director Harold Ramis and comedy superstars like Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. “So much more so that when we got to the final party, which was the wrap party, people were essentially hung over and bored! We had burnt ourselves out pretty good by then.” (Watch our video interview above.)

There were moments, though, when the mood on set took a more serious turn. In one notorious incident, the movie’s executive producer, Jon Peters, tried to spring a surprise Playboy photo shoot on the film’s leading lady, Cindy Morgan, who played the glamorous Lacey Underall. Chris Nashawaty’s 2018 book, Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story sets the stage for what happened: When Morgan and O’Keefe showed up on set to film a sex scene between Danny and Lacey, Peters informed her that a Playboy photographer would also be present. While the actress was willing to be topless for the scene, she objected to the Playboy shoot and stood up to Peters even as he bullied her and threatened to sabotage her career. (Morgan was 25 when Caddyshack was shot, and O’Keefe was 24.)

Michael O'Keefe, Cindy Morgan and Chevy Chase in 'Caddyshack' (Photo: Orion Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
Michael O'Keefe, Cindy Morgan and Chevy Chase in Caddyshack. (Photo: Orion Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)

Ramis and O’Keefe both took Morgan’s side in the dispute, and the scene ultimately proceeded without the photographer present. “Cindy feels like she had that sprung on her, that was not agreed to beforehand,” O’Keefe says now, reflecting on a period when that kind of misogyny was pronounced on film sets. “It's always been an issue for actors, especially back then because it was kind of just expected of you. There was a very casual ‘Stop being such a bother’-type attitude that the producers came with. Cindy stuck to her guns, and I respected her for that.”

To try and lighten the mood — and put Morgan at ease — O’Keefe suggested a moment of topless solidarity amongst the cast and crew present for the scene. “In a hopefully joking spirit, I said, ‘Harold, I think everyone should take off their tops.’ And Harold said, ‘That’s absolutely right!’ So he immediately took off his shirt and everyone else took off their tops, except the boom operator, who was a woman. So Cindy was topless along with about 12 other people, but it was always professional!”

Forty years later, Peters’s treatment of Morgan wouldn’t be tolerated in a #MeToo era Hollywood. And O’Keefe notes that the Screen Actors Guild has taken great strides in addressing on-set nudity, backing legislation to require consent for digital sex scenes and enlisting intimacy coordinators. “A lot of it was taken for granted [in the 1980s], and I think people’s feelings got hurt. There were issues that came up that were really serious, and they needed to be addressed and hopefully they are.”

O’Keefe adds that when he’s spoken to Morgan in recent years, she’s expressed both surprise and pleasure at Caddyshack’s longevity. “We always talk about how we got lucky young, and didn’t know what we had. As actors, we don’t want to be pigeonholed, so while I was always glad to be in Caddyshack, I sometimes wished that people would acknowledge my other work. But then I had this one experience with a wardrobe designer who told me that her father died of leukemia and for the last six weeks before his death, they would gather as a family and watch Caddyshack. That really changed my feelings about what the movie means to people and what it means to me to be a part of it.”

To commemorate four decades of Caddyshack, O’Keefe shared some of his other memories from the set.

The script was thrown out in Week 1

Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Brian Doyle-Murray in 'Caddyshack' (Photo: Orion Pictures/Warner Bros/Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Brian Doyle-Murray in Caddyshack. (Photo: Orion Pictures/Warner Bros/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

The idea for Caddyshack sprang from comedian Brian Doyle-Murray’s own teenage years carrying clubs around his local golf course in Illinois. Working with Ramis and producer Doug Kenney — one of the masterminds behind the National Lampoon empire — Doyle-Murray turned those experiences into a mammoth script that featured Danny Noonan in a much more prominent role. But that screenplay was thrown out not long after Ramis called “Action,” and O’Keefe’s star turn went with it. “What happened is that Harold, Doug and Brian realized they had a potential modern-day Marx Brothers with Ted, Rodney, Chevy and Bill,” O’Keefe tells us. “And so that made me Gummo Marx! They became the four funny Marx Brothers, and I played the visiting Marx Brother who cleaned up after them.”

While O’Keefe admits to feeling disappointed about being downgraded from star to sidekick, he also says he was relieved. “It was clear to me that Bill, Chevy and Rodney were operating on a much different level of comedy expertise, and I was really playing catch up to them. So I don't know if it would be right to say I was secretly pleased, but I didn't really mind it all that much because I trusted Harold and Doug and I was happy to have the job.” And, to his credit, Ramis never made O’Keefe feel like he wasn’t an essential part of the movie. “Harold's one of those people that you just wanted to please, and you immediately trusted. He knew very clearly what he wanted and how to get it from the actors — that was never in doubt.” (Ramis went on to direct hits like National Lampoon’s Vacation and Groundhog Day; he passed away in 2014.)

Caddyshack was fueled by cocaine

Bill Murray confronts a destruction-minded gopher in 'Caddyshack' (Photo: Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
Bill Murray confronts a destruction-minded gopher in Caddyshack. (Photo: Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)

It’s no secret that cocaine played a major role in Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s, and Caddyshack was no exception. Nashawaty’s book is filled with stories of the rampant drug abuse happening on set — most of which O’Keefe can confirm. “It’s sort of like the thing people say about the ‘60s: Anybody who says they remember being there for Caddyshack wasn’t really there,” he jokes. “There was a myth at the time that this was all part of the creative scene. So having said that, yeah, there was a lot of cocaine on the movie. But what I will also say is that the endeavor of making a film is a very serious project in which you cannot shirk your responsibilities. So people were in party mode the whole time, but nobody was there to mess around.”

As it happens, the end of Caddysack’s cocaine-fueled shoot coincided with the industry’s growing realization of the dangers of drug abuse. And Kenney became one of many cautionary tales. During production, the co-writer/producer had a serious cocaine problem that eventually played a role in his untimely death. One month after the movie’s release, Kenney fell to his death from a cliff in Hawaii. “Doug Kenney essentially committed suicide, or as his friends like to say, ‘No, he didn’t commit suicide — he tripped and fell while he was looking for a place to commit suicide due to the fact that he was strung out on cocaine,’” O’Keefe says. “We kind of joke about the party thing [with Caddyshack] because there was a lot of fun to be had doing it, but there’s a whole side we need to be aware of that is much more serious.”

O’Keefe says that it was Kenney’s death that led him to give up drugs. “That was the last time I did cocaine. It was a huge loss: I only knew Doug for two months, but all of us in the business took it personally. Had he lived, I think his writing would have matured, and his gifts as a filmmaker would have blossomed much in the same way Harold’s did. He was really an intellectually sophisticated guy, and he co-wrote Animal House and Caddyshack before he was 40. Who knows what else he could have accomplished?”

Bill Murray and Chevy Chase put their SNL feud aside

It’s a story that’s echoed within the halls of Studio 8H for decades: the time that Bill Murray and Chevy Chase had a for-real fistfight before filming an episode of Saturday Night Live. After leaving the show following its first season in 1975, Chase returned to host an episode in 1978 and instantly got on the wrong side of Murray, who had replaced him among the Not Ready for Primetime Players. Moments before airtime, the duo went at each other in John Belushi’s dressing room, with Belushi as referee.

With that kind of backstory, some were expecting fists to fly when Murray and Chase were both cast in Caddyshack as rodent-hunting groundskeeper, Carl Spackler, and golf savant Ty Webb, respectively. But O’Keefe says that the duo were on their best behavior. “Whatever had happened in the halls of NBC was ancient history; I think that was more like a high school showdown more than an actual fight.” Murray and Chase only share one scene together in the finished film — which also happens to be the only scene they’ve shared together in their entire film careers — but it’s arguably the best scene in the entire movie.

O’Keefe wasn’t present for that particular sequence, but he was on the green for a deleted scene that featured Murray and Chase riding together in a lawnmower. “I had forgotten about that scene, until this year when I was kind of cruising YouTube,” he admits. “I was like, ‘I don’t remember this scene!’ But you can tell that’s me where Chevy hits someone else’s ball and then jumps onto Bill’s lawnmower. I’m surprised one of us didn’t get maimed, because that thing was absolutely gigantic. They jumped on and rode away, and I chased them into the sunset. Really, that’s kind of what happened with our careers! I ended up running behind them trying to catch up.”

Ted Knight wasn’t having any fun

Ted Knight and Chase in 'Caddyshack' (Photo: Orion Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
Ted Knight and Chase in Caddyshack. (Photo: Orion Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection.)

Coming off an acclaimed seven-season run as Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ted Knight was no slouch in the comedy department. But as Caddyshack’s cartoonish villain, Judge Smails, he struggled to find his place on the Caddyshack set alongside the hard-partying Murray, Chase and Dangerfield, who made up their material as they went along. “Ted was, of all of us, the most professional and prepared,” O’Keefe remembers. “So this kind of fly by the seat of your pants, carry around salt shakers filled with cocaine scene was not something he was enamored of. After six or seven weeks of that he was bored, and in retrospect who could blame him? Here’s some easy advice: If you want to stop drinking, go out one night with your friends who are drinking and don’t drink. Your friends will appear as the idiots they actually are, and you’ll all of a sudden wake up and go, ‘Man, we’re really full of it.’”

O’Keefe felt the full force of Knight’s frustration in a sequence where Danny flees Smails’s house while the judge is attacking him with a golf club. Watching the scene now, Knight seems to be enjoying swinging that club a little too much, but his co-star insists that he wasn’t acting out of actual anger. “[His frustration] never bled over into his work on camera. Especially with me, he really wanted me to do well. I was a little nervous, and comedy is difficult to do when you’re nervous. One of the reasons that scene came off well was because Ted found a way to gather you up, bring you along and buoy your confidence with his own.” (Knight passed away in 1986.)

Forget Caddyshack II — O’Keefe made his own sequel

Caddyshack may have only grossed $40 million during its original theatrical run, but between home video, cable television and merchandising, the movie has almost certainly grossed many hundreds of millions dollars more over the past forty years. O’Keefe wisely sat out the ill-fated 1988 sequel, Caddyshack II, which has since been consigned to the dustbin of history. But that doesn’t mean Danny Noonan is permanently retired. The actor revived his alter ego for the May fundraiser, The Match: Champions for Charity, spearheaded by Michelob Ultra and the American Red Cross benefitting COVID-19 relief. The charity event featured Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods playing golf against Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson, and Danny made it clear he would happily caddy.

If you’re surprised that Danny is still carrying other peoples’ golf clubs around four decades later, O’Keefe says that’s exactly where he’s always imagined the character. “I think he’s still a caddy — and I think he could be a damn good caddy,” he says, smiling. You might say that Danny’s got that going for him... which is nice.

Caddyshack is available to rent or purchase on most digital video services including Amazon and and iTunes.

— Video produced by Jen Kucsak

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