Time has been only slightly kinder to Revenge of the Nerds than to, say, Sixteen Candles. Or Driving Miss Daisy. Or Tom Arnold’s TV career. When it came out in the summer of 1985, Jeff Kanew’s comedy was a feel-good revenge story about plucky anti-heroes who wanted to make the world safe for oppressed weirdos everywhere. Now, the film is more than a little problematic.
Immortalized along with Booger’s belching and Poindexter’s hip-hop violin-sawing are the nerds’ secret filming of naked sorority women and, especially, horn-rimmed Lewis Skolnick’s conquest of Betty the cheerleader while wearing a mask and pretending to be her boyfriend. (“I do think that scene needed to be fleshed out,” Julia Montgomery, who played Betty and is now a Los Angeles realtor, says today.) For the movie's 35th anniversary, GQ talked to the cast and writers—covering the good, the bad, and the coke-fueled, behind-the-scenes shenanigans.
Miguel Tejada-Flores and Tim Metcalfe wrote the original script based on Tejada-Flores’s father, a “brilliant, brilliant nerd” who immigrated from Bolivia to the community of mischievous hackers and scientists at Caltech. “Pasadena was a terrestrial paradise for nerds,” he says.
Ted Field (producer): The title Revenge of the Nerds was something I came up with. Joe Wizan, who was head at [20th Century] Fox, finally agreed to give it a shot at a budget of $6 million and it surprised everyone.
Jeff Buhai (screenwriter): I don't think we knew how to spell "nerds." We spelled it N-U-R-D-S.
Steve Zacharias (screenwriter): The story was actually a true story at the University of Wisconsin. Our next-door neighbor didn't get into any of the fraternities so he started his own fraternity. They'd lose 80-to-nothing in football, and their parties were nerdy, but they had fun.
Buhai: You make the fraternity guys the perfect villain and then you make the weak and the oppressed and the different the heroes. That's going to work forever.
Jeff Kanew (director): Wizan sent me several scripts. One was Bachelor Party, one was Gimme an 'F,' about cheerleader camp, and the other was Revenge of the Nerds. I said, "That sounds stupid." But I realized, "I relate to this."
The first key casting choice was Curtis Armstrong as Booger, a crude outcast with crazy hair and a leather jacket. Armstrong had just been in Risky Business.
Zacharias: We thought, "If we get him, we've got a hit." And we were right. He takes our stupid lines and turns it into Shakespeare.
Curtis Armstrong (Booger): The money I'd made on Risky Business was just disappearing. You can't imagine the difference between being sent a script of Risky Business, then being sent, for your next film, Revenge of the Nerds, particularly when it was in the condition that it was in at the time, which was not great.
Ted McGinley (Stan): When I first got it, I was almost embarrassed to say the title.
Larry B. Scott (Lamar): I got tired of doing these roles: “I’m gonna cut you, man!” I wanted to do something different. [Revenge of the Nerds] allowed me to do something other than N----- #36, excuse my French.
Kanew: Bobby Carradine said, "Look, I don't know what I'm doing here, I'm not a nerd, I'm probably a guy who would beat up a nerd." He used to drive fast cars on Mulholland Drive and he was a Carradine brother. But he was a secret nerd.
Robert Carradine (Lewis): I stopped by an optometrist store and I'm looking at the glasses and they're all $300 a pair. The optometrist comes out: "Can I help you?" I go, "Yeah, but not at this price." He says, "You've got to be careful what you put in front of your eyes, young man." I said it's for an audition and I whispered, "It's to play a nerd." The guy, in a loud voice, says, "A nerd? Yeah, I can fix you up!"
Scott: What was big back then was Flashdance. Jennifer Beals. I went in [to the audition] dressed as close to her as I could.
Tim Busfield (Poindexter): [For the audition] I'd taken Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and had it in a little Walkman, and went in and did Poindexter's dance in the movie. At the end—and this is the only time that's ever happened—Jeff Kanew offered me the part in the room.
The University of Arizona signed off on the six-week Tucson shoot, but the campus Sorority Council objected. Kanew, Edwards and Carradine flew out to make their case in person, which was especially challenging given sorority leaders’ concerns about the line “we’ve got bush.”
Carradine: I figured out that I wouldn't be able to develop the character living in the Hollywood hills and riding my Triumph motorcycle. I couldn't go from that to a nerd, there's just no way. So I asked the studio if they would send me to the location two weeks early just so I could get into the zone.
I brought a remote-controlled model airplane to put together. I didn't bring any of my civilian clothes. All I brought was nerd wardrobe. And I didn't leave my hotel room for three days—I was just too embarrassed. Finally, I needed a part made and I called the University of Arizona metal-shop guy and he said, "Yeah, come on over, give me the specifications and I'll build it for you." And I had to dress up as Lewis and step out of the door. To my astonishment, no one reacted. They just thought I was an engineering student.
Julia Montgomery (Betty): The script was minimal for Betty. Those of us who weren't the nerds didn't have the same kinds of rehearsals.
Armstrong: I was picking my nose and belching. And what was first in my mind was all of my acting teachers from the Academy of Dramatic Art at Oakland University.
Carradine: About a week before the filming, Anthony [Edwards, who played Gilbert] showed up and we went over to the campus and tried to rush the fraternities. By that time, everybody on campus knew the nerds were coming, except this one fraternity.
This guy takes us to the inner sanctum of the fraternity, and there's the head guy, he's got one of those helmets on with the two beers attached to it and the tubes coming down to his mouth. He says, "Hey, Biff!"—or whatever the guy's name was—"these guys want to rush."
He turned around and looked at Anthony and me and just said, "No way," and went back to the party. That's how I knew we had figured it out.
Montgomery: The second I met him, Bobby was in character.
Carradine: I think it was Curtis who came up to me. He said, "I get it." I said, "Get what?" He said, "You're playing it for real." I said, "Yeah. These guys don't know they're nerds." And that set the tone for the movie.
"We're all at a party and at some point Larry B. takes my mom aside and went, 'Oh, you're not going to want to be here in 20 minutes.' And she's like, 'Gotcha.'"
The nerds wrote much of their own dialogue on the set. Or so they said.
John Goodman (Coach Harris): [Kanew] ran, in a good way, a very loose ship. We all trusted each other and just kind of let it rip.
Carradine: The movie's full of these little snippets that happened on the moment—like when Brian Tochi, after they had this big pile of jockstraps we're pouring the Liquid Heat on, goes, "Ah, salad!"
Goodman: I was having trouble getting it right. And I wound up making a bunch of stuff up.
Zacharias: It's bullshit. They didn't adlib.
Brian Tochi (Takashi): Curtis and I were passing the time, just goofing around, playing cards and checkers, and we start coming up with these bits and we're laughing, thinking, “Hey wouldn’t this be funny?”
Zacharias: Okay, that's possible.
Tochi: We were smoking pot and Ted came in and had never done that, ever, in his life. So we said, "Here, Ted, why don’t you try this?" and passed a little joint around. “Now hold it, Ted, hold it!”
Then we’re saying, "How you feeling, Ted?" And he says, "I’m feeling nothing at all." All of a sudden, he starts laughing and laughing and cannot stop—it’s this shriekish, freakish nonstop laugh, this crazy kind of "ha HA HAAH." Then Tim Busfield took Ted and incorporated that scenario into his stuff.
McGinley: What's funny is I really didn't party. I drank beer, kind of. But that was it for me.
Allegedly, cocaine was snorted.
Montgomery: This was the ‘80s!
Scott: We partied our ass off, I ain't gonna lie.
Busfield: At 6:00 in the morning, we would go to somebody's room and order 38 orders of bacon and eggs and two cases of beer. We were all in our twenties.
McGinley: I think there were drugs at the time. You can't take it from a guy who didn't do it to be the one who says, "Yeah, it was there"—but I definitely saw some.
Scott: I remember Ted McGinley at 21, 22, and these girls were losing their minds over him.
Montgomery: It became very wild! There was a lot of sexual craziness going on. A lot of the guys were out with different local people. Larry B. Scott [who played Lamar] was, I guess you'd say, dead set on making sure that the entire town of Tucson knew that he was not actually gay.
Scott: I would like to say cocaine back then was rather prevalent. You can still prosecute, so I can't say that for sure.
Montgomery: One night we were all in John Goodman's room. He was a real doll. Genuine. Not what you would expect from his character. And I guess no one had a mirror or anything like that, so John stood up on the sofa and he pulled one of those horrible paintings out of the wall... and there was damage. [Laughs.] And the evening went on from there.
Goodman: That doesn't sound like me. Jesus. It's a great story! But I don't break things.
Scott: Bobby’s a really good guitarist and we would all gather in the room and sing along. He’s playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones, and, unbeknownst to us, two people sneak in and were singing with us. They actually robbed the joint and snuck into that room—we didn’t know this until the next day. They were going in there to hide.
Andrew Cassese (Wormser): They did a good job of shielding me from any explicit drug use and things like that. We're all at a party and at some point Larry B. takes my mom aside and went, "Oh, you're not going to want to be here in 20 minutes." And she's like, "Gotcha."
Scott: This is Arizona. Tucson. '82. Everybody's not cool with that coke shit.
Buhai: The [unnamed crew member] was dealing cocaine. And Peter Macgregor-Scott, the line producer, got the guy out of town, away from the police. And everything went back to normal.
Cassese: I remember the [crew member] getting taken out in cuffs.
Scott: They gave him a very stern warning. They happened to find him on a day when he didn’t have anything on him, which was a good thing.
Tochi: In the morning, because we were so beat, many of us would stand in line waiting for the on-set doctor to inject us with [Vitamin] B12 to get us going the next day.
"Her first line was, 'You're that nerd, oh, that's wonderful.' That excuses it. But in a way, it's not excusable. If it were my daughter, I probably wouldn't like it."
The shoot was intense. In the climactic scene, the nerds compete with the jocks in the Greek Games to install their own Greek Council president and keep their fraternity. Lamar wins the javelin toss with a distinctive, wobbly technique (Larry B. Scott had the flu and could only film one take—then he returned to the hotel to hurl). Booger wins another contest with a tempestuous belch that, he later learned, involved an overdub of a camel having an orgasm. And the nerds win the music competition with a Devo-like electro-rap—renowned violinist Thomas Newman taught Busfield how to play the solo.
Kanew: [At one point] the jocks, inspired by John Goodman as the coach, run out of the locker room and wreck the nerds' house. I filmed that in great detail—there's a lot of smashing and crashing and there's a confrontation. Ogre throws Anthony Edwards off the porch and it's bullying. That was an important moment in the movie, but that had to go. The audience is having a good time and they're horrified by what's happening. Now you watch the movie, the jocks kick the fence and go inside the house and it's cut—and the nerds are picking up the aftermath.
McGinley: I had animosity towards [the nerds]. I just thought they were dicks. Ha. The first two weeks we did not intermingle. I had nothing to do with them.
It wasn't until much later that it started to loosen up.
Tochi: Bobby had a bowl of cereal on the couch watching the naked sorority chicks. He was actually eating his cereal in beer.
Armstrong: They had scheduled, outside the talent competition, something on my own, which was lip-syncing [Elvis] Presley doing "America the Beautiful," which I had been rehearsing in my bedroom with the first VHS player I had ever seen. The night of the recording, the producer and director said, "We can't do that, it's going to slow everything down." And I wind up doing Presley in the [scene] and no one knows why that is.
Scott: They tried to bring a choreographer in with us. I was like, "Psssh, damn the choreographer." Me and Andrew worked that shit out on our own. Andrew was actually a really good dancer.
Tochi: I got so much shit from Asian entities, newspapers, commentators and groups saying that I kind of perpetuated the Asian stereotype. But what made it different with me—first of all, at the time, I was one of the very Asian few actors in TV or film. Yes, it was a stereotype, but we were playing real people. We had heart and the film had heart. I thought, "Fuck 'em!" You know?
Lewis, our hero, gets the girl in the end—but in the creepiest way possible. After Betty and her jock boyfriend, Stan, have a fight, Lewis picks up Stan’s discarded Halloween costume and begins to have sex with her. When she finally learns his identity, she’s happy. Somehow the movie got away with this for decades, but in recent years, the scene has repelled critics and viewers. Crooked Marquee wrote in 2017: “Legally speaking, that’s ‘rape by deception.’” Even Zacharias, the screenwriter, refers to this as “the oral rape scene.”
Montgomery: In the '80s, we didn't see it as a rape scene, exactly.
Kanew: I've heard [criticism] a lot this year because of the #MeToo movement—that's considered a form of rape because it's sex under false pretenses. At the time, it was considered sort of a switch. She doesn't resist and scream and say "my God, get away from me!" Her first line was, "You're that nerd, oh, that's wonderful." That excuses it. But in a way, it's not excusable. If it were my daughter, I probably wouldn't like it.
Montgomery: I thought about it as "what a surprise, Stan's got some new moves—but oh my God, it's not Stan, it's Lewis!" He just wanted to date me. There's something charming about that. You can write this: I blame Jeff. There should've been one more beat in this scene—something else, something added, even if Betty had pushed him or slapped him or something.
Carradine: It wasn't until recently that people started to point that scene out and put it in a negative light. It was never our intention to have anything but a funny scene where I get the girl.
Busfield: The movie would've been just fine without it. He could've found another way to win the girl over.
Zacharias: I regret that. I've written a play for the musical and I eliminated the rape scene. I made it that Betty was thrown off the cheerleader squad because she flunked trigonometry and Lewis teaches her trigonometry and then before the rape scene he reveals who he is and she wants to have sex with him. I also regret the video scene. It would be goofy enough if they just did a panty raid and played it really nerdy.
McGinley: I got screwed, for sure. Stan got the short end of that deal. Lewis is going to jail! And Stan would remain king.
When it debuted to a wide theatrical audience on August 10, 1984, the film earned $15 million in its first week, eventually scoring $40 million at the box office.
Goodman: I had no idea people would still be talking about it this many years later.
McGinley: I read a poll a couple years ago—and this is a sports, football poll—"Top 10 Asshole Quarterbacks." And Stan Gable was in there. I mean, come on, that's like the highlight of my life.
Scott: Nerds were ostracized and shunned and hidden and being a nerd was the worst thing you could be. If you were called a nerd that meant you were getting 1-800-NO-PUSSY. Now being a nerd means "oh, he owns something, he's really smart."
Field: We're developing, at Fox, a sequel where we've reversed the status of the nerds and the jocks. Everybody wants to be Zuckerberg and the movie is about a jock trying to get respect on campus.
Tochi: This is before computers became cool. What made nerds also cool is Bill Gates, and the Steve Jobses of the world. Now everybody wants to be a nerd.
McGinley: When I watch that movie, do I cringe? A little bit, sometimes. Or do you just say, "Sorry, this still holds up, it's still funny"?
Scott: I remember Bernie Casey [the late actor who played U.N. Jefferson] telling me, "Wow, you’re going to be remembered for this more than anything you do." I didn’t get it at the time. Maybe he did. He seemed to be right.
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Originally Appeared on GQ