In 2018, Pennywise and his razor-sharp grin would be front and center on the Mount Rushmore of famous clowns. Rewind the clock by three decades, though, and a kinder, gentler jester dominated the pop culture landscape — one who served up hamburgers rather than nightmares to billions and billions of children. His name? Ronald McDonald, of course — the red-haired spokesclown for the McDonald’s fast food empire.
Good ol’ Ronald has been less visible in the company’s marketing campaigns in recent years, but back in the 1980s, it was next to impossible to escape his blinding smile and equally blinding yellow jumpsuit. The clown’s face beamed at kids from Happy Meal boxes, TV ads, animated shorts and even 8-bit video games. Thirty years ago this weekend — Aug. 12, 1988, to be exact — Ronald made the leap to the big screen in Mac and Me, an E.T. homage (or, if you prefer, rip-off) that, to this day, merits its prominent position on the list of terrible kids’ movies. The movie’s status as a go-to punchline is confirmed every time Paul Rudd goes on Conan and plays a clip of Mac and Me instead of the actual movie he’s there to promote.
But don’t take our word for it — just ask the clown himself.
“It was kind of a disappointment,” admits Squire Fridell, the actor who wore Ronald’s white facepaint in nearly 50 commercials that aired during the height of his ’80s ubiquity, from 1985 to 1991. That’s also him in Mac and Me, popping up during a sequence in which the movie’s handicapped hero, Eric (Jade Calegory), smuggles his extraterrestrial friend, Mac (as in Mysterious Alien Creature), into a birthday party/dance-off held at his local McDonald’s franchise.
The fast-food giant was closely involved with the film, having been convinced by producer R.J. Louis to lend the brand to a major motion picture as a way to boost both the box office and burger sales. And as the face of McDonald’s, Ronald also served as the face of Mac and Me; in fact, the trailer opens with Fridell in full makeup, boasting about being “on the set of my very first motion picture ever.”
The trailer turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch, and not just because it made the movie look halfway entertaining. While Ronald presents himself as an equal co-star with the titular bug-eyed alien, his actual role in the Stewart Raffill-directed movie is little more than a glorified cameo.
As Fridell tells Yahoo Entertainment, early drafts of the script did grant his alter ego a bigger piece of the action. “[In] the first script that we got, Ronald was featured all the way through,” says the now-retired actor, who these days oversees the GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery in California’s Sonoma Valley. “He became this kind of otherworldly support for the little boy. Then, as time went on — and whenever you have committee meetings — things changed drastically.”
While Fridell can’t remember the specific sequences that fell by the wayside, he says that the original script justified Ronald’s presence in a way the finished film doesn’t. “I didn’t understand my role in the thing,” he says of his appearance, which amounts to roughly two minutes out of the movie’s 99-minute runtime. After pulling up to the McDonald’s where the birthday party, which is in full swing, Eric and Mac — who is not so cleverly hidden in a teddy bear outfit — are briefly greeted by Ronald with a cheery, “Hiyah coach, how’s it going?” The clown then heads off to announce the start of the dance contest, just as the movie’s alien-chasing FBI bad guys, Wickett and Zimmerman (Martin West and Ivan J. Rado), enter the restaurant. The joint is soon jumping with dancing teenagers and McDonald’s employees, inspiring a disguised Mac to cut the rug himself.
Ronald’s primary function in the scene is to be the hype man who encourages everyone else in the place to join in the fun. Nevertheless, Fridell does remember learning the dance choreography so that he could perform it if required. “I’m not a professional dancer, but I can move well. I wanted to make sure that I looked like I was in control and that I knew what I was doing.”
And when he wasn’t on camera, he was pondering the logic of Ronald’s presence in the film. “If you watch the film objectively, you say, ‘Why is Ronald McDonald in this thing? Is he one of the field Ronald’s around the United States that just happened to be in the store?’ What is it? Because Ronald, of course, was fictitious; he’s a character. Ronald McDonald didn’t just walk into a real live McDonald’s store and say, ‘Hey, how do you like the fries?’ That wasn’t Ronald at all! Ronald had a degree of magic to him. I thought the film was going to make Ronald a real-life human being, [but] the powers that be said, ‘No, but we still want Ronald in the film because we put all this mileage into promoting it.'”
Criticizing the realism of Ronald McDonald’s presence in a movie about a kid who befriends a rambunctious alien may seem like a minor nitpick. But that commitment to character is one of the reasons that Fridell — who had a lengthy career on episodic TV and commercials before McDonald’s came calling — excelled in the role during his six-year tenure, during which he became the Ronald McDonald for a generation of kids. The actor downplays his own contribution to Ronald’s legacy, insisting that he mainly followed the example of his direct predecessor, King Moody. “He was a very good actor, so I simply took what he had done and did what I could to emulate that. The greatest compliment you can pay to an actor after seeing him on stage or in front of a camera is, ‘That was really a clean performance.’ That’s what I’ve always kind of prided myself in — cutting those right angles and making a clean performance. This is not method acting.”
Fridell’s unfussy approach made Ronald the solid center of McDonalds’s mid-’80s television commercials, which leaned heavily on fanciful mini-stories that cast him as the smiling guardian of a colorful supporting cast of costumed characters. In one memorable commercial, he helped his winged pal Birdie learn how to fly. In another, he helped the McNuggets crack a case involving missing BBQ sauce. And in yet another, he chased the burger-pinching Hamburgler through a series of doors, in a nod to silent screen stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
“Of all the commercials I did for McDonald’s, that’s probably the one I enjoyed the most,” Fridell says of the burger-chase spot, pointing to a holiday-themed ice-skating ad as another favorite. “There’s a little kid that can’t ice skate and he’s sitting all by himself. Then Ronald appears, sees this poor little kid and goes over to him, picks up the little boy and skates with him. It’s a wonderful piece of editing, directing and acting. Right after that, the corporate powers that decided that Ronald McDonald — for whatever reason — can no longer touch a child in a commercial. It was [about] making Ronald safe — corporate. They finally got to the point where they got so safe and so corporate that I don’t even think Ronald is a character in commercials anymore.” (The current Ronald, Brad Lennon, has been an infrequent TV presence, no doubt because McDonald’s has reduced the character’s visibility as clowns have taken on a more sinister edge in pop culture.)
Looking back over his time as McDonald’s signature clown, Fridell understandably prizes the work he did on television more than his brief appearance in Mac and Me. That said, the film did gift him with an award that no other Ronald before or since can boast about: a Razzie. Mac and Me received four nominations at 1988 edition of the Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay. It lost both of those statues to the Tom Cruise bottle-flipping classic, Cocktail, but Raffill shared the Worst Director prize with Hollywood legend Blake Edwards, who had descended from the heights of Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the depths of Sunset. Meanwhile, Fridell-as-Ronald beat out the talking horse from the Bobcat Goldthwait non-classic Hot to Trot and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport for the title of Worst New Star.
Apparently, Fridell’s invitation to the 1988 Razzies got lost in the mail, though, because he erupted in laughter when Yahoo Entertainment informed him about his victory. “God, I won a Razzie! That’s great. I’m just tickled pink,” he said. “I wish they’d sent me a little trophy — I would proudly display it. That film was strange. I remember seeing it and I thought, ‘Gee, this is kind of a rip-off of E.T.’ That was obviously a much better film!”
Mac and Me is available for purchase on DVD — if you dare.
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