Between its 1984 and 1985 seasons, Saturday Night Live went through well known major changes when creator Lorne Michaels returned to the show, replacing producer Dick Ebersol. What few remember is that Ebersol’s tenure had been cut short by three episodes thanks to the 1981 writers’ strike, and he was still under contract to deliver those shows.
The solution: an experiment in Summer 1985 saw three more SNLs produced, with the option for a recurring summer spot if they were successful. Instead, these three episodes would never air again.
Ebersol: “The ’84 cast, we couldn’t afford to keep them for the summer. I was in talks with Billy Crystal about taking over the show, but James Belushi was hot to stay on. He said he had big ideas, and he was, certainly he was part of the SNL family, so we ran with it.”
Belushi’s first move was to bring one of the hosts of the previous season, retired pro football player Alex Karras, back as a full cast member and show writer.
Belushi: “With Karras, I mean, Blazing Saddles? It’s a given, if you can get an Alex Karras on your show, you make this happen. And he got it. Great guy, best cast member I ever worked with. I’d put him up there with John and Billy Murray.”
Crystal: “Belushi and Karras did the White Guy Rap sketch when Alex hosted, and Jim was convinced this was going to be a thing, that it was going to take off, maybe be his Blues Brothers. They did three episodes that summer, and they did the White Guy Rap seven times.”
Herb Sargent (Writer): “What I remember most about working on those episodes was The Karras Rule that Belushi instituted. The Karras Rule was, Jim was head writer, but anybody who disagreed with an idea he had, they got to overrule him as long as Alex Karras couldn’t bench press them. And he was, god he was retired for over a decade, but he was so strong. So, so strong.”
Singer and actress Ellen Foley, who had a starring role on Night Court the previous season, joined the cast as its lone female member.
Larry David: “Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] was going to stay on for those episodes, but it was the summer of New Coke, and they had this weird ‘Nude Coke’ sketch that she didn’t want to do, so she walked out.”
Dave Wilson (Director): “Belushi had been watching a lot of Night Court because he wanted Richard Moll to come onto SNL very badly. I never understood it at the time, how they were really fixated on making this ‘biggest cast ever’ in terms of size. I guess it made a lot more sense after that XTC thing that happened.”
Ebersol: “I don’t know how it started, but a rumor spread around that Night Court was going to be canceled, so after that, it was easy to get her to come over. It’s a shame for her, I suppose, it went on to crack the Top 10 in ’86.”
Veteran character actor Vincent Schiavelli, who had appeared in both the film and television versions of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, was added next.
Ebersol: “James pushed hard for us to bring Vince on board, and this was before those Dorf golf videos. I remember James running into my office with a headshot of Vince, and he just kept saying ‘Look at this guy, Dick! Just look at him! Get a load of this guy!’ It was a no-brainer, with that kind of enthusiasm.”
Wilson: “Jim and Alex assigned Vince to do what was still Saturday Night News, because they figured he read the papers. He took it as an honor, and was really moved by the whole thing. A few hours later, they thought it would be funny to barricade him in his office. He was trapped in there for a day and half before facilities got him out.”
Reuven Frank, (President, NBC News, 1981-1985): “It was the damndest thing. The lone News segment Schiavelli did was right after the Soviets named Gorbachev General Secretary. And he called it. He called it all: perestroika, glasnost, the whole thing. Just uncanny, stunningly accurate in hindsight.”
Dennis Miller: “Pat Swayze hosts about five years later promoting Ghost, and he asks about Vinnie Schiavelli being on the show. Swayze said Vince told him that he based that subway ghost deal on what it felt like being on SNL with Al Karras and Jimmy Belushi.”
Kevin Peter Hall
A prime time press conferences was held to announce the hiring of 7’4” tall actor Kevin Peter Hall, who would later become famous for playing the title role in Predator.
Ebersol: “James and Alex had it in their heads that we could make a big deal out of, with this seven foot tall fellow, signing someone who would be the Tallest Cast Member in SNL history. He still holds the record, which, that’s impressive.”
Brandon Tartikoff: “Everyone was convinced that being tall was the next big movement in comedy. And so NBC signed Kevin to a three-year exclusive contract to be our next big star, and when the summer SNL flopped, we put Misfits of Science together around him in about a month, because of this multi-million dollar contract with the network.”
Wilson: “The first episode, his head was out of frame in a lot of the shots, because you could see the top of the set if he was standing. Still, Kevin did a surprisingly good Desmond Tutu impression. But Alex liked writing for him, so mostly he was just called on to play Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Bubba Smith in a lot of sketches.”
Actor Josh Mostel was brought onto the show after playing Bluto’s brother Blotto in Delta House, the TV version of Animal House.
Belushi: “As good as my years were, I knew something was missing. Nobody ever brought this up, but where was the big, funny guy in my cast? All the best years, you have that loud, doughy guy, but where was that guy in ’84-’85? Nowhere, man. So I went and got one.”
Karras: “That guy cracked me up. Jim and I, we had this sketch that would be like those old samurai bits, only Mostel would be a sumo wrestler and he was in this giant diaper every week. I still laugh, just thinking about it.”
Wilson: “They showed him the sumo costume, you could tell Josh wasn’t happy. But Karras had – and I don’t even know why he had it, it was the middle of summer – he had one of those ski poles, that you ski with? And he’s horsing around with it and one thing leads to another and it gets thrown across the room and stuck into the wall about a foot from Mostel’s head. So the Sumo Wrestler sketch went on that week.”
Episode 1: Eric Stoltz/Dukes of Stratosphear
After receiving word in 1984 that Back To The Future was poised to become a major hit the following year, SNL locked up star Eric Stoltz to kick off its summer launch. Unfortunately, Stoltz was replaced during filming by upcoming NBC star Michael J. Fox. The show was still contractually obligated to have Stoltz host that season, but by the time his episode aired, their host was now promoting the 1985 film Mask. The musical guest was the band XTC under their short-lived Dukes of Stratosphear psychedelic pseudonym.
Ebersol: “We kept putting that one off, when [Stoltz] left Future. And they had a sketch about Mask, but it was a little…I’ve never seen the dress rehearsal audience turn on a sketch like that. They were livid, ready to rush the stage. So instead, most of the sketches that aired that night were about Back To The Future anyway. I heard later that Eric went home and threw out his TV instead of showing up for the after party.”
Wilson: “Back in ‘81, John [Belushi] pushed to have the band Fear on and they almost started the riot. That stuck with Jim, he thought it sullied the family reputation. And he apparently had this elaborate idea where he would invite Fear back on for a make-good session, and the plan was that he and Alex Karras and Kevin Peter Hall would jump Fear on live TV, to get revenge for making John look bad.”
Ebersol: “Kevin really wanted no part of this, he didn’t know who Fear were and he had no interest in fighting anyone, so thankfully, he relayed this plan, and we were able to call it off and got a replacement act. But I guess James never told Alex, or maybe the band names confused him?”
G.E. Smith: “Andy Partridge stopped performing a few years before because of stress and stage fright, but he felt like he could do a show if he did it in his Sir John Johns character? But about a minute into “25 O’Clock”, Karras hit the stage and just pummeled the whole band. He tossed Dave Gregory right through their mellotron. It was a scene.”
Episode 2: Orson Welles/USA For Africa
This episode holds the distinction for shortest SNL installment, ending 20 minutes earlier than planned when host Orson Welles fell asleep on air. Sketch highlights included Sumo Wrestler Café, Citizen Kane Winter Olympics and White Guy Rap.
Ebersol: “The great Orson Welles, he was game for anything, what a trooper! The only conflict he had with the cast and crew all week was over how they were pronouncing a few Japanese words. He really let Josh Mostel have it.”
Karras: “Having been in films, working with Orson Welles was amazing. He was really out of it by then, so he’d do pretty much anything you wanted if you told him Merv Griffin said it was funny. So to get this guy, this famous director, to get him in that sumo wrestler outfit, that was hilarious. I don’t even know if he was promoting anything.”
G.E. Smith: “Dan Aykroyd helped book USA For Africa, and we knew we couldn’t get everybody, so obviously Michael wouldn’t be on, or Bruce, Dylan, Ray, Willie, Lionel, those guys. We hoped Paul Simon or Stevie Wonder might show, but that fell through. Daryl [Hall] made it, but not John [Oates], which was kind of weird. I think Billy Joel showed up to rehearse once but we never saw him again. But, Daryl, Cindy Lauper, Steve Porcaro, Randy and Marlon Jackson and Dan Aykroyd, still kind of a big deal.”
Episode 3: Patrick Ewing/Magic Dick of J. Geils Band
In a coup, SNL landed future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing as a host a mere four days after he was drafted #1 overall by the New York Knicks. Sketches included Too Talk With Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones, a Dallas sketch with Patrick Ewing as JR and three installments of White Guy Rap.
Ebersol: “Getting Patrick right after the draft was very exciting for everyone, a chance to get some positive momentum going. This was our best episode that summer by far, but I guess it was too little, too late.”
G.E. Smith: “A few months earlier, Peter Wolf was the musical guest right after J. Geils Band broke-up, and to make it up to the rest of the band, they were all going to be on for our summer show. I guess they were still angry about Peter being on first, so at show time, the only member of the band who came was Magic Dick. But he still played, he did Centerfold twice, on just the harmonica. And Belushi was thrilled.”
Belushi: “Oh, that was great! He was the best one anyway. We should have had him back to do some Blues Brothers stuff.”
Michaels: “After the XTC beatings and the 20 minutes of dead air on the Orson Welles debacle, I knew that coming back was was the only way to salvage the show’s legacy. And these episodes, these are not, they do not count. I will say, the credits for that summer, they were very nice. We kept those when we came back. So, not a total loss, no.”
Special thanks to gallery archivist kickthebobo for use of certain photos.