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The Untold Truth Of Weekend At Bernie's

It's got to be one of the most preposterous, over-the-top (borderline tasteless) premises to ever drive a major motion picture — and somehow, "Weekend at Bernie's" was a hit. Only a moderate success at the box office when it was released in the summer of 1989, the extremely dark but buoyantly-presented comedy evolved into a cult classic with home video and constant airings on cable TV — allowing audiences to realize that "Weekend at Bernie's" was something truly original. 

Set at the tail-end of the go-go, materialistic, Yuppie culture-laden 1980s, "Weekend at Bernie's" concerns two young guys, portrayed by era superstars Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman, who get an invite to their sleazy, corrupt boss's island retreat. 

The only problem: He's murdered before the big weekend, and it's up to the two hapless dudes to keep up appearances through a series of macabre machinations and sight gags. They successfully convince a lot of people that the clearly dead, forever slumping corpse of Bernie, is actually a living human.

Here's the untold story of "Weekend at Bernie's," like how such a quirky movie even got made in the first place and its substantial impact on the world at large.

It originally had a different title

"Weekend at Bernie's" might not have resonated with audiences the way it did had filmmakers gone with its original title. According to Mel Magazine, screenwriter Robert Klane gave his script the title "Hot and Cold," and it went into production under that name. It didn't sit well with Terry Kiser, the actor who played dead Bernie. "Halfway through the movie, I went up to the producer and the writer and I said, 'Boys, this isn't Hot and Cold anymore, I hate to tell you.' They didn't realize how much Bernie had become the forefront of everything. I said, 'Weekend at Bernie's,' and they said, 'I think you're right.'" 

However, director Ted Kotcheff claimed that he came up with the final title. After a "Weekend at Bernie's" test screening, a studio public relations rep ordered Kotcheff to devise a new name. "I always thought Bernie was a funny name, so I came up with 'Weekend at Bernie's,'" Kotcheff wrote in "Director's Cut: My Life in Film."

But because "Weekend at Bernie's" had been produced, fully or in part, before it was named, filmmakers had commissioned and received a title song. Reggae musician Winston "Pipe" Matthews and Police guitarist Andy Summers wrote a song called "Hot and Cold," and '80s pop star Jermaine Stewart recorded it. Despite no longer really fitting into the movie, the song played over the end credits of "Weekend at Bernie's" and appeared on the soundtrack

There might have been a different cast

On "Bob Saget's Here for You" (via Yahoo!) Jonathan Silverman revealed that "Weekend at Bernie's" nearly starred him and Jon Cryer. But then another '80s teen movie veteran, Andrew McCarthy expressed interest. Filmmakers wanted him to play the primary role of sweet and innocent Richard. But McCarthy read the script and wanted to play Richard's friend and partner in crime, the scheming, smirking Larry instead. 

According to his memoir, "Brat: An '80s Story," McCarthy asked director Ted Kotchoff if he could switch parts. The director consented to the move, and Silverman stayed in the picture, ultimately winding up with the role of Richard. Once the main duo was set, Kotchoff set out to cast the female romantic lead, Gwen. The director wanted Catherine Mary Stewart, whom he hired because studio executives at Fox objected to producer Victor Drai giving the role to his wife.

They built a house and then tore it down

The majority of "Weekend at Bernie's" takes place in and around a beach house in the luxurious Hamptons outside of New York City. The film is specifically set on the fictional Hampton Island, but filmed hundreds of miles away, near coastal Wilmington, North Carolina. That was only out of necessity.

"We had all the money we needed," producer Victor Drai told Mel Magazine. "But we couldn't find in the Hamptons a house that people would rent to us to shoot." So, the production decamped to North Carolina, which Drai said has a coastline that closely resembles the beachside Hamptons. "Except they don't have great houses — all the houses there are kind of s***." And so, the film's crew had to purpose-build a new house — Bernie's house — right there on the beach. While that could've been a tourist attraction for hardcore "Bernie's" heads, it wasn't meant to be — the production dissembled the house immediately after filming ended.

The movie had its influences

What with the yuppies, rich people beach parties, wacky, slapstick hijinks, and the presence of Brat Pack member Andrew McCarthy, "Weekend at Bernie's" is a quintessentially '80s movie, very much of its time and its medium. And yet it has a lot in common with — and may have been inadvertently influenced by — more highfalutin works of art, like literature and non-English-language film.

According to SlashFilm, "Weekend at Bernie's" is very similar to a novella by Brazilian author Jorge Amado published in 1959 in the magazine Senhor called "The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell." The plot concerns a gregarious unhoused person found dead whose friends traipse around town with him and avoid having the man's enemies learn of the death. There's also a 1983 Hindi-language movie produced in India called "Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro," a class system satire which involves a couple of young goofballs and some corpse handling.

John Barrymore's connection

There's also a possibility that "Weekend at Bernie's" screenwriter Robert Klane was inspired by a seemingly apocryphal but well-vetted tale of old Hollywood. After actor John Barrymore died at age 60 in 1942, his friends, actor Errol Flynn and director Raoul Walsh, slipped a mortuary worker $200 to check out the body for an hour to play a prank — they set him up straight on a couch and pretended he was alive but sick, and tried to get Flynn's butler to revive him with alcohol and coffee. (Both participants recounted the story in their memoirs.)

Barrymore's granddaughter, Drew Barrymore, claimed on "Hot Ones" that the story was true. And when "Weekend at Bernie's" star Andrew McCarthy was a guest on her talk show, she asked if her grandfather had inspired his film. "That could well have been true, but we do not have such a fine pedigree as that," McCarthy said. "We were just fools running around with this dead body."

The actor who played Bernie was very committed

He's the title character in "Weekend at Bernie's," but Bernie Lomax doesn't say much in the movie. After committing some financial crimes, the character dies and two underlings spend the rest of the movie carrying him around and propping him up at a beach house, pretending he's alive. The right actor for the job was Terry Kiser. He believes he landed the role because his mustache fit Bernie's character so well, and he only had it for a few weeks because he hadn't bothered to shave it off during recovery from a motorcycle accident. 

Among the other limited number of tools Kiser could use as a stiff: Bernie's permanent smirk. After a day of shooting and thinking his physical comedy wasn't funny enough, Kiser developed the expression. "I went back to Acting 101: 'What is this guy trying to do? Well, he's goofing on these guys,'" Kiser recalled to Mel Magazine. "So I decided I'm just going to goof on them all through the whole movie and see if I can break these guys up."

Producers used a stunt double, portraying Bernie in every bruising, battering, corpse-abusing scenario. But that doesn't mean Kiser didn't suffer for his art. "I broke three ribs during the course of filming," he said. "I had a nerve in the back of my neck press down that was causing violent dizziness when they kept dropping me on the couch on my head."

A combative director fosters collaborative environment

"Weekend at Bernie's" is both a dark and freewheeling comedy, and to that end, many of the film's most memorable and elaborately-staged comic bits involving the toting around of a dead body were improvised. Co-star Andrew McCarthy was responsible for a lot of the movie's on-the-fly humor. "Want to staple Bernie's toupee to his head? Go for it. Toss him over the side of the balcony onto the sand? Why not?" McCarthy wrote in his memoir "Brat: An '80s Story." 

The actor closely worked with director Ted Kotcheff to create one scenario in which dead Bernie waves to a couple of women in bikinis. McCarthy took the game Monopoly from the condo where he was living during the shoot, set it up, and played a game with Bernie. "The game not only gave me something to do, it illuminated character and enlivened a modest scene," McCarthy said in his book, adding that the scenario enabled him to tie fishing line to Bernie's wrist, making the wave that much more plausible.

McCarthy also directed one scene because Kotcheff wasn't available — he cameoed as the father of Jonathan Silverman's dad. But despite this creative freedom, Kotcheff was a bit of a terror on set. "Ted was an explosive guy who occasionally lost his cool, screaming profanities through a bullhorn at scores of extras," McCarthy recalled, "or throwing the assistant director's walkie-talkie into the sea when it went off during a take."

The science behind the dead guy

"Weekend at Bernie's" is a movie with a concept so high that it borders on the unbelievable and implausible: Two guys who convince many adults (of at least moderate intelligence) that the obviously dead corpse of their late boss, Bernie, is actually alive and well. But could Larry and Richard have feasibly pulled off this stunt? According to the experts, it would be nearly impossible for a "Weekend at Bernie's"-type situation to go off without a hitch in real life. 

According to Texas State University forensic anthropologist (a person who studies dead things) Daniel Westcott, Larry and Richard would have had a terrible time dragging Bernie's body around and keeping it upright. Westcott likens this action (via NBC News) to "trying to carry a 150-pound bag of loose potatoes."

Bernie's body also would have been quite rigid. According to Westcott, rigor mortis, or muscle stiffness, sets in just a couple of hours after death. "It will usually start to dissipate by 24 hours," Westcott said. "So, for much of the movie he would have been in rigor." Also, for much of the movie's screen time, Bernie would've been subjected to autolysis, or the breakdown of cells and the rotting that occurs when bacteria and fungi "start the putrefaction process" and make bloating and stinking occur — which Bernie's friends certainly would have noticed.

The screenwriter and director sued the studio

For screenwriter Robert Klane and director Ted Kotcheff, "Weekend at Bernie's" was one of the biggest hits of both filmmakers careers, but they claim to have been shut out of the financial rewards the movie and its sequel wrought. In 2014, according to Deadline, Klane and Kotcheff sued past and then-present rights holders 20th Century Fox and MGM for breach of contract, alleging that they were purposely cheated out of residual payments to the tune of "at least hundreds of millions of dollars."

In their legal complaint, filed in California's state Superior Court, Klane and Kotcheff sought a jury trial and wanted a full accounting of the revenues generated by the "Weekend at Bernie's" films, and then to receive a large (but unspecified) sum in monetary and punitive damages. According to Law360, MGM asked a judge to throw the suit out of court, but the case fell apart when Klane and Kotcheff learned they'd waited too long to sue. "There is a statute of limitations on lawsuits dealing with company profits after the 10-year mark," Kotcheff wrote in "Director's Cut: My Life in Film" (via Mel Magazine). However, MGM and the filmmakers renegotiated a new, agreeable residual system going forward.

When a bit became a meme

The 1993 sequel "Weekend at Bernie's II" didn't hit big, but one moment from the movie inspired a (briefly) popular dance craze nearly 20 years after it arrived (mostly unnoticed) in movie theaters. Mobsters on the hunt for the $2 million Bernie Lomax stole back when he was alive in the first movie hired a voodoo practitioner to reanimate Bernie, thinking the zombified criminal will lead them to the money's hiding spot. But they botch the ritual and Bernie can only move — or dance — at the sound of music, a notion culminating in a big dance number led by the shuffling, lurching, flailing dead guy.

In 2009, rapper Tre-Doh released "Weekend at Bernie's 'The Dance,'" a music video that found the artist falling asleep while watching "Weekend at Bernie's II," and dreaming he can do the dance. Another rapper, ISA, made another video and song about the Bernie dance, and from there, according to Know Your Meme, it went viral, with numerous YouTubers and social media account holders posting their own take on the zombie movements. The fad peaked when the Oakland Athletics performed the dance as a team at a game in July 2012

A real life dead guy

As we mentioned, "Weekend at Bernie's" washed over the fact that real corpses tend to rot and appear (obviously) lifeless — and that could have been a misguiding influence for two Denver men who attempted to carry out a real-life "Bernie" gambit. In August 2010, according to CBS Denver, Robert Young and Mark Rubinson went over to the home of their friend, 43-year-old Jeff Jarrett, who was unresponsive and close to death. Rather than call for medical assistance, Young and Rubinson dragged Jarrett to their car and they embarked on a night on the town — on Jarrett's dime. They patronized various bars, restaurants, and a strip club, retrieving money from Jarrett's bank account with the use of his ATM card.

Later that night, after Jarrett had expired, Young and Rubinson took him back home and went back out with the dead man's credit cards, and then told a police officer that there was a dead man at their friend's home. Officers eventually arrested Young and Rubinson. They avoided jail time for the charge of abuse of a corpse after agreeing to a plea deal.

Will the franchise rise from the dead?

'Weekend at Bernie's' performed well enough at the box office to merit a sequel, 1993's 'Weekend at Bernie's II,' an utter critical and commercial flop, earning a 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and just $12 million at the box office. Those figures precluded a 'Weekend at Bernie's' trilogy from ever happening, but it's not like there's zero demand for that movie, nor a lack of effort on the part of fans and various filmmakers not associated with the first two films.

A Facebook campaign urging rights-holders to restart the series got some attention in 2013, and on the screenplay market website Coverfly, writers Craig Douglas Miller and Pete Johnson scored high marks in 2020 for their spec script, "Weekend at Bernie's III: The Anti-Sequel," a meta comedy in which "Weekend at Bernie's" stars Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy seek to revive their dormant careers by making a "Weekend at Bernie's" sequel, and have to parade around a dead Terry Kiser, the actor who portrayed Bernie. In 2021, the retro movie web series "VCR Redux" proposed and outlined a sequel-meets-reboot called "Weekend at Bernie's 3: Dead and Loving It." As of 2022, no "Weekend at Bernie's" sequel or continuation is currently in the works at any major film studio.