Why Beverly D'Angelo Was 'So Sure' She 'Wasn't the Right Person' to Play Ellen Griswold in Vacation

Beverly D'Angelo rollout
Beverly D'Angelo rollout
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Manfred Baumann

The Griswold family would look very different if Beverly D'Angelo had followed her initial instinct.

In the new issue of PEOPLE, the actress, 71, reveals she nearly turned down the role of Ellen Griswold opposite Chevy Chase in the first Vacation movie, which premiered in 1983. "I was so sure that I wasn't the right person," she says.

At that early point in her career, D'Angelo had done musicals and drama including Hair and Coal Miner's Daughter, in which she played Patsy Cline. "I really didn't know what my direction was going to be," she says.

What's more, she was around 30 and would be playing a mother to Anthony Michael Hall, who was a teenager. "I even suggested somebody else to my agent and he went, 'No, no, no. Really, take a look at the script,'" D'Angelo continues.

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Her husband at the time, Lorenzo Salviati, also urged her to do it. "He read it and he said, 'But Beverly look at this. This is very funny," recalls D'Angelo, who says he was a particular fan of Randy Quaid's boorish and uncouth character Cousin Eddie: "He said, 'He's hilarious!"

Beverly D'Angelo rollout
Beverly D'Angelo rollout


Meeting Chevy Chase also put her at ease. "Great chemistry," she recalls. "It was like meeting my brother."

D'Angelo ultimately said yes to the movie, about over-eager suburban dad Clark Griswold (Chase), who takes his wife (D'Angelo) and kids Audrey (Dana Barron) and Rusty (Hall) on an ill-fated road trip to the amusement park Wally World. The classic comedy also features stars such as Eugene Levy, John Candy and Jane Krakowski in smaller roles.

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The movie was financial and critical success, and D'Angelo went on to costar with Chase in several sequels including 1985's European Vacation, 1989's Christmas Vacation, 1988's Vegas Vacation and the 2015 reboot Vacation starring Ed Helms and Christina Applegate.

"I'm just so honored that the Griswolds are so embedded in our culture about what a family is, because it's a good family," she says.

Her dysfunctional brood in Violent Night is a different story. In the comedic thriller, she plays foul-mouthed Gertrude Lightstone: "It's Ellen Griswold on steroids if she was widowed and the matriarch of an uber wealthy family," says D'Angelo.

She, her adult children and their families are taken hostage by would-be thieves on Christmas Eve, and it's up to Santa Claus (Stranger Things' David Harbour) to save the day.

"I'm really hoping that all the fans of Vacation go to the theaters to watch this wild ride and then they can come home and get cozy with the Griswolds," she says.

Violent Night is playing in theaters now.

For more on Beverly D'Angelo, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE.