John Landis was still on the rise in the late ’70s; he had come a long way from his assistant director duties on MGM’s “Kelly’s Heroes” at the start of the decade. But even with “Schlock” and “Kentucky Fried Movie” under his belt, he had several uphill battles that made the development of “Animal House” as pressurized as a beer keg at times. Casting in particular was already troublesome with Universal (who was signing the checks), who mandated that white-hot “Saturday Night Live” star Chevy Chase be cast.
As the principal baddie, Dean Wormer’s casting was essential — the whole show would be flat without someone stern and believable to anchor Delta House’s hijinks. As “Fat, Drunk, and Stupid” tells it, Landis heeded Ivan Reitman’s suggestion and caught “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a Clint Eastwood vehicle wherein John Vernon’s steely-eyed Fletcher made an impression upon the future “American Werewolf in London” director. Landis recalled:
“There was a huge close-up and Vernon had this great line where he said, ‘Don’t piss down my leg [sic] and tell me it’s raining.’ When I saw and heard his voice, which was like venom, and thought of the line in our script, ‘The time has come for someone to put his foot down and that foot is me!’ I knew that he was our man.”
Vernon had been successful in Canada before coming to Tinseltown, with celebrated roles on the stage, TV, and early feature roles like the ’67 John Boorman thriller “Point Blank.” His stare could bore a hole between your eyes, and his voice commanded any room he entered — the perfect fit for the iron-fisted head of a college campus. From a lesser actor, the line “No more fun of any kind!” would sound corny; from Vernon, the outburst would be a satisfying collapse of the fixtures that National Lampoon specializes in sabotaging.