Almost exactly 35 years ago, in 1978, Universal Pictures released a low budget comedy called "Animal House" that had almost no hope of being a financial success. Animal House was a raunchy gross out movie that starred a bunch of unknown actors and one SNL comedian. Initially, the producers hoped to land some star power by offering the lead roles to Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Everyone except Belushi turned them down. Had Belushi declined, the role of Bluto would have gone to Meat Loaf. All the other main parts went to actors who had probably never even been on a film set before. That includes a 20 year old baby-faced Kevin Bacon whose very first paid acting role was Animal House. Unfortunately, the studio was worried that Belushi didn't have enough star power to sell the film to audiences, so director John Landis was asked to secure one more big name actor for the role of the stoner Professor Dave Jennings. Landis approached one of the biggest actors of the 1970s, Donald Sutherland, who also happened to be a family friend (Landis actually used to babysit for Keifer). In order to persuade Sutherland, Universal authorized Landis to offer a very generous compensation deal. What happened next would turn out to be one of the biggest financial blunders an actor has ever made. A mistake that Donald Sutherland still regrets today!
Executives at Universal did not have high expectations for Animal House. In fact, one studio executive named Ned Tanen flat out hated the idea and the script. You have to keep in mind that in 1978, the idea of a "gross out" comedy was unheard of. Today the plot of Animal House would hardly raise the most conservative of eyebrows, but back then the excessive sexual innuendo, drugs, nudity, offensive language, vomiting and general debauchery was shocking. One of the early working titles for the film was "Lazy Orgy Girls". After writing nine different drafts and settling on the friendlier title "Animal House", the producers finally convinced Universal to pony up a scant $2.5 million budget. In the words of studio head Ned Tanen "Screw it, it's a silly little movie, and we'll make a couple of bucks if we're lucky — let them do whatever they want".
With such a minuscule budget, the studio authorized John Landis to persuade Donald Sutherland to accept the part by offering him 2.5% of the film's profits plus $35,000. Sutherland, who thought this movie had no chance of ever making a profit declined. Universal then upped the offer to $35,000 plus 15% of the films gross receipts. Again Sutherland declined, insisting that he get paid in cash only and up front. Finally Universal and Donald settled on $50,000 cash up front with no points at all.
Considering he believed that the film would be an absolute bomb, Sutherland was pleased with himself after nearly doubling his salary for what would amount to a grand total of two days work. Unfortunately, as we all know now, Donald Sutherland was dead wrong about Animal House. Almost immediately upon its release, the movie was a huge hit with audiences. The producers and director John Landis went on a nation wide promotional campaign that drew huge audiences dressed in togas. Nearly 10,000 students in togas showed up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, setting a Guinness World Record for biggest toga party ever. The movie launched many young acting careers and would become a true cultural phenomenon. As we all know now, Animal House would eventually be considered one of the funniest movies of all time. In fact, the TV network Bravo ranked it as the #1 comedy of all time. The United States Congress even selected Animal House for preservation in the National Film Registry after deeming the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In terms of money, Animal House would go on to earn more than $141 million at the box office and on home video, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. If Donald Sutherland had more faith in the movie, his 15% would have been worth over $20 million. At a minimum, he made a $19,950,000 mistake.
Before we feel too bad for Donald Sutherland, let's remember that he still turned out to have a very successful acting career that was likely boosted by his appearance in Animal House. And if he ever is short of cash, he can always ask his son Keifer for a piece of his $65 million "24″ fortune. Also let's keep in that while missing out on $20 million is painful, it's nowhere near as bad as the $450 million that Sean Connery gave up by turning down the role of Gandolf in Lord of the Rings! Similar to Animal House, studio executives thought LOTR needed at least one big star to sell the movie to audiences, so they offered Connery $10 million per film plus 15% of the box office gross on all three movies. Connery turned them down because he "did not understand the script". The Lord of the Rings franchise would eventually earn $3 billion at the box office