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Better Off Dead: Facts That'll Blow You Away Like Ricky's Mom

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Many great movies are based on true events. A lot of people don't realize that fiction is often non-fiction in disguise, and this applies to both comedy and drama. In the case of "Better Off Dead," writer-director, Savage Steve Holland, drew from the sad times of his teen years and transformed them into a beloved '80s comedy that's a cult classic today

Even though the film had great test screenings, and was a hit with its teen target audience, "Better Off Dead" flopped in theaters and got lukewarm reviews (not to mention that its star, John Cusack, famously hated it) until it was saved by home video, proving you can't keep a good '80s comedy down. "Better Off Dead" has a wonderful sense of irreverence and anarchy, with Holland throwing everything he can into a crazy cinematic stew that's stood the test of time. It also has a terrific message that tells us that life is worth living, and if we stick around, things can work out alright.

Even if you're a fan of the film and can recite many of its classic lines, there's still a lot you probably don't know about "Better Off Dead." Here are some facts that will blow you away ... like Ricky's mom.

It's based on real life

"Better Off Dead" was the creation of Savage Steve Holland, a promising young filmmaker just out of California Institute of the Arts. Cinema teachers often encourage their students to draw on their personal lives to tell stories, so Holland made a short called "My 11-Year-Old Birthday Party." In the short, Holland tells the true story of when no one came to his childhood birthday party except the drunken clown who was hired for entertainment.

The short created a buzz, and four months after Holland graduated from Cal Arts, he had an office at Paramount, where he wrote "Better Off Dead." Like Lane Meyer, the character played by John Cusack, Holland's girlfriend split up with him and left him brokenhearted. He also had an obsessive neighborhood paper boy who stalked him for money. 

In addition, Holland once attempted suicide in the garage, much like Cusack's character does in the film. As Holland stood on a garbage can, an extension cord around his neck, the other end tied to a pipe, thinking, "Should I do this? Maybe this isn't a good idea," the garbage can fortunately collapsed, and the pipe broke, spraying water everywhere. After that disaster, Holland started writing down different ways you can fail at trying to end your life, and they wound up in the film.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

The director really had a stalker paperboy

Yes, Holland's real-life experiences are exaggerated for comedic effect in "Better Off Dead," and he, fortunately, found some humor in the trauma he endured. Not only was Holland dumped for the captain of a ski team, but he also had a stalker paperboy who constantly hounded him for his money as well.

As Holland told Entertainment Weekly, "He would not let go." Holland would see the kid across the street, staring him down for whatever petty amount he was owed. Holland told him, "My mom's not home. I'm a kid. I don't have money." Still, the paperboy wouldn't budge. Finally, after about 20 minutes, the kid would come over and say, "All right. I'm ready for my $4." This paperboy kept at it, driving Holland's family nuts.

Demian Slade, the kid who played the paperboy, auditioned for the role seriously, approaching the role like he was playing a serial killer. Even the headshot he brought to the audition looked menacing. This was just what Holland was looking for, and Slade got the part.

Henry Winkler helped get the movie made

After playing the Fonz on TV's "Happy Days," Henry Winkler reinvented himself as a producer and helped create the successful series "MacGyver." He also played a big part in launching Savage Steve Holland's career and getting "Better Off Dead" made. Winkler saw Holland's "11-Year-Old Birthday" short, really enjoyed it, and set the young filmmaker up at his office at Paramount. As Holland told Entertainment Weekly, "Everybody talks about [Winkler] being the nicest guy in Hollywood, and he actually is."

Winkler saw Holland's short at the LA Film Festival and invited him to lunch. As Holland recalled, "He said that my movie was so funny. And I'm like, 'Well, wait a minute — it wasn't supposed to be funny. It's a sad story about my life.' So he asked if I had any more sad stories about my life and I'm like, 'Of course I do!'"

Winkler wanted Holland to follow his vision and make the movie he wanted to make, telling Holland, "I believe in you, and I believe in your twisted vision, and I want to give you an office." Holland adds, "To have someone who was probably the coolest guy on TV in your childhood say that to you was super inspirational."

Holland desperately wanted John Cusack for the lead

John Cusack took off as an actor in the mid-'80s, with roles in the John Hughes classic "Sixteen Candles" and the Rob Reiner romantic comedy "The Sure Thing." Throughout his career, Cusack has proven to be a great comedic and dramatic actor. Holland wanted him for the lead in "Better Off Dead." Badly.

Henry Winkler's production company helped hook Holland up with Cusack, and once Holland saw "The Sure Thing," he knew Cusack was the guy. As he told Entertainment Weekly, "I was like, 'My God, that kid is so great.' I couldn't see anybody past John."

Winkler helped hook Holland up with Cusack, but the director had to fight the studio to get the young actor in the film because he had just played a dweeb in "Sixteen Candles." The studio told Holland, "This is not a leading man." However, Holland pushed for Cusack, explaining, "You don't even know what you're getting right now. You're gonna be so ahead of the curve to get Cusack now." Finally, the studio relented, and Cusack got the lead.

John Cusack hated the film

John Cusack got a big break with "Better Off Dead," and it's one of his best-loved movies today. Yet, he famously hated the movie. Savage Steve Holland confirms this, stating, "John Cusack didn't like 'Better Off Dead' at all. That was difficult."

Reportedly, Cusack saw "Better Off Dead" as a much darker movie in the script phase and wasn't happy with how the movie turned out. He wouldn't do press for the film and wasn't easy to work with on the follow-up movie he made with Holland, "One Crazy Summer."

When Cusack saw "Better Off Dead" at a screening, he walked out after 10 minutes. Holland told Entertainment Weekly, "He just said that he hated the movie, and from the sense that I got, that I betrayed him making a movie so stupid ... It was just heartbreaking for me that he didn't get it."

Years later, Cusack's co-star Curtis Armstrong told the Nerdist podcast (via Pajiba), "Somebody told me recently that he had signed a poster of 'Better Off Dead.' That was huge because he literally would not sign anything. Someone would bring him something and he would push it away. It was like a cross in front of a vampire."

The Diane Franklin backstory

In "Better Off Dead," John Cusack's Lane Meyer is dumped by his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss), for the captain of the ski team. Lane eventually falls for a lovely foreign exchange student named Monique Junot (Diane Franklin), and she's the right woman for him.

Franklin is an '80s actress who has a bit of cult movie cache because she was previously in the teen angst dramedy "The Last American Virgin" and later played Princess Elizabeth, the "medieval babe" in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Like many actresses, Franklin started as a model when she was young and worked her way up to her first feature role in 1982's "The Last American Virgin." Then, she starred in "Amityville II: The Possession" and had TV appearances on "Charles in Charge," Murder, She Wrote," and "Matlock" among others. Franklin is still active as an actress, and, as she told Comicbook.com, "'Better Off Dead,' to me, is my favorite film I ever did. I'm very proud of a lot of the things I've done, but 'Better Off Dead' was a film that I would have seen, even if I wasn't in it. It was very sweet and funny and romantic..."

Franklin had such fond memories of the film that she wrote a book about it, "Diane Franklin: The Excellent COMEDY of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s: The Better Off Dead Movie Tribute Book," featuring an introduction by Savage Steve Holland.

The Curtis Armstrong backstory

In "Better Off Dead," Curtis Armstrong plays Charles De Mar, the kind of friend you're embarrassed to have. The hometown he and Lane come from is so small and boring, he has to snort snow and jello because he can't get real drugs.

Armstrong has played a variety of odd characters, but he's probably best known for playing Dudley "Booger" Dawson in "Revenge of the Nerds." He also had a recurring role on the hit ABC series "Moonlighting." Armstrong broke through in film playing Tom Cruise's buddy Miles Dalby in "Risky Business." Later in his career, he played legendary music industry executive Ahmet Ertegun in "Ray." As Armstrong explained in a podcast (via Pajiba), he was cast in "Better Off Dead" because Savage Steve Holland was a big fan of "Revenge of the Nerds." While Armstrong has had a successful career as a character actor, he once modestly called himself "a cult celebrity, not A-list or even B-list, maybe a C-plus list."

Regarding "Better Off Dead," Armstrong recently tweeted, "A critical and commercial disappointment on its release in 1984, this delightful film found its audience over decades and still speaks to people. I'm proud to have been part of it."

The hamburger scene was a hit

In "Better Off Dead," Lane Meyer works the usual type of degrading job we've all had as teenagers, which is often in fast food. Here, he's working at Pig Burgers with a big, scary boss named Rocky, played by Chuck Mitchell, best known for playing Porky of the '80s raunch fest "Porky's."

While at work, Lane has a fantasy of bringing hamburger creatures to life like Dr. Frankenstein. One of his hamburger creations then grabs a red-and-white-striped guitar and performs the Van Halen classic "Everybody Wants Some."

This fun animated segment was created by Academy Award-nominated animator Jimmy Picker. It went over very well when "Better Off Dead" had test screenings. Of the admittedly off-the-wall segment, Holland recalls "Everybody was really worried about it. But it was the highest testing thing when we went to the test audience. They thought that was the greatest thing in the whole movie."

It's a kitchen sink movie

When many filmmakers write their first script, they throw in everything they've ever wanted to put into a film — probably because they're scared they'll only get one shot at making a movie. For Savage Steve Holland, "Better Off Dead" was a kitchen sink movie in which he threw in many crazy elements. Consequently, he feels he probably couldn't get away with it today.

As Holland told LA Weekly, "I would never get ['Better Off Dead'] made these days, but I just wanted to put in everything I knew about filmmaking — cartoons, Claymation, everything — because I figured I'd have one chance at it. Today the comedy police would stop me."

In the New York Times review of the film, Janet Maslin said that Holland's directing style "could be better described as hit and run. But some of the gags in 'Better Off Dead' have a lot more cleverness than the material might warrant." Maslin added that Holland also has "a genuinely anarchic sense of humor." Yet, as one critic points out, the way Holland described the film "could easily apply to Edgar Wright's 'Scott Pilgrim' adaptation." Thankfully, you can still throw in everything but the kitchen sink in a movie today. It might be harder to get it made, but it can still be successful.

There was a fight over the title

Many filmmakers have had to fight with studios over what they want in their movies. Not only were there concerns over the animated hamburger scene, but Savage Steve Holland also fought with the studio over the title "Better Off Dead." The studio insisted that Holland call the film "Out on a Limb." Holland recalls, "I hated that title so much." (Funnily enough, the title was later used for a Matthew Broderick film.)

That was one battle that Holland finally won. However, when he wanted to call his follow-up film "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," he was overruled by the studio for the more on-the-nose title "One Crazy Summer." The studio wanted to make sure the audience knew exactly the kind of movie they were going to see, and as Holland quips, "I was like, that's like calling a Woody Allen movie 'One Neurotic New York Jewish Guy.'"

It was saved by home video

When a film bombed in the 1970s, there was no home video, cable TV was just getting started, and there were no secondary markets for movies other than regular television. With the home video boom in the 1980s, a movie could get a second chance, and it could become a big hit with a new bunch of fans who missed it the first time.

"Better Off Dead" is one of many films that caught on big time with audiences on video and cable. As Holland told Fast Company, "Those video stores just completely saved 'Better Off Dead.' It was always out at any Blockbuster Video I walked into, and then I'd talk to the guys who worked there and they were like, 'You know, people rent it and they don't bring it back.'"

While there are many examples of how a movie can be a big hit after it tanked in the theaters, one of the best examples is "Fight Club," which was a box office bomb but eventually sold 13 million copies on DVD, putting the movie in the black.

No one told the director it's out on Blu-ray

In "Better Off Dead," Savage Steve Holland created a character who suffers through many humiliating situations. So imagine years later when the movie came out on Blu-ray, and no one told Holland.

The Blu-ray came out in August 2011, and Holland found out practically by accident. He was working at Paramount when he saw a sign for the Blu-ray release. Adding insult to injury, no one ever asked him to do commentaries for the DVD release, either.

When directors make flops, there's a joke that they're put in "bad movie jail," and Holland calls "Better Off Dead" "my baby that got taken away when I went to film prison ... they just took this movie away, and it just shows up every now and then in a new box."

It's easy to feel sorry for Holland. He's had to take a lot of knocks bringing his real-life trauma to the screen. Still, "Better Off Dead" is a beloved '80s comedy today, and movie fans everywhere are grateful he made the sacrifice.