What the Hell Happened to Judd Nelson?
In 1985, Judd Nelson starred in two of the top-25 highest-grossing movies of the year. He was 26 years old. Nelson was one of the founding members of the Brat Pack, a group of young actors who helped define the decade. But when the 80’s ended, the Brat Pack actors found themselves scrambling. Just five years later when the Pack was entering their 30s, they were collectively dealing with irrelevance. In 2014, Nelson had to deny rumors that he had died.
What the hell happened?
Nelson made his movie debut in a low-budget 3-D musical called Rock’n’Roll Hotel.
Usually, this is where I include a brief summary of the plot. But even the people responsible for Rock’n’Roll Hotel are hard-pressed to describe what the movie is about. Very few ever saw a complete copy of the script if in fact a completed script existed. The movie was made to capitalize on two trends, the rise of MTV and the short-lived 3-D revival of the early 80s.
Nelson’s role is a small one. He is part of a band called The Third Dimension (because 3-D). Dick Shawn played the leader of a band from the 50’s who owned the Rock’n’Roll Hotel. The band, which included a raccoon mascot, tried to kill the members of The Third Dimension to keep them from playing in their hotel!
The movie was backed by a lot of investors with competing motives. Most viewed the movie as a tax shelter. They didn’t care whether or not the movie made a dime. They were expecting to write-off their investment. Richard Sweet was the father of the lead actress, Rachel Sweet. He invested in the movie as a way to promote his daughter’s career in music.
Ultimately, the entire movie “disappeared”. When the crew left Virginia, no one was entirely certain what happened to the negatives. According to one of the movie’s co-producers, some of the footage was lost when the lab developing the prints went bankrupt. In March of ’83, a print of Rock’n’Roll Hotel surfaced and was shown at an industry screening in LA. Original screenwriter, Russ Dvonch, expressed his disappointment in the movie:
“The awful awfulness of the movie was on several levels of awful-ocity. The writers, myself included, failed to write a good screenplay. Intense pressure can spark the creative spirit. Or it can push you into writing half-baked crap. Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel ended up firmly located on the ‘half-baked crap’ end of the scale.”
Following that showing, the movie was bought by Richard Sweet who went back and filmed additional scenes showcasing his daughter. No one knows if Sweet’s version of the movie ever played in theaters. But it resurfaced on video in 2010 in the form of a VHS tape produced in 1986.
The Sweet version of the movie which was completed in 1986 is arguably less coherent than the original mess of a movie. Sweet basically took the first movie and just edited in more musical performances featuring his daughter. Supposedly, this version of the movie aired at some point on HBO. But the cable channel denies this claim.
In 1984, Nelson starred in his first “real” movie, the teen comedy, Making the Grade.
Dana Olsen played a lazy rich kid who is about to be cut off from the family money if he doesn’t graduate high school. His solution is to hire a street-wise kid played by Nelson to assume his identity and attend a new school in his place.
The film’s casting director, Julie Seltzer, originally tried to cast Jim Carrey in the lead role. She approached Carrey and Andrew “Dice” Clay in the parking lot of a comedy club after watching them perform. Carrey turned down Nelson’s role, but Clay accepted a part despite being much too old to be believable as a high school student.
Many consider Making the Grade to be the movie debut of both Nelson and Clay. But technically, Nelson made his debut in the lost Rock’n’Roll Hotel and Clay debuted in a movie called Wacko. Making the Grade is considered to be the debut of Clay’s Dice character.
The movie ends with the promise of a sequel. Tourista was supposed to feature the characters touring Europe. But due to the poor performance of Making the Grade, the sequel was never made.
1985 was a big year for Nelson. It started with Kevin Reynold’s coming-of-age comedy, Fandango.
Kevin Costner, Nelson and Sam Robards starred as recent college grads who embark on a road trip circa 1971. Costner’s character has broken up with his ex played by model-turned actress Suzy Amis in her acting debut. Robards’ character is engaged but is having second thoughts about getting married. Nelson played the friend with a car.
The movie started out as a student film by Reynolds while he was attending USC film school. Steven Spielberg liked his student film well enough to fund a feature-length version of the movie. But Spielberg was disappointed in Fandango and had his name removed from the final film.
Costner audition for the lead role in the student film but was not cast. He auditioned again for the feature-length version and won the part. He and Reynolds became good friends. They would go on to collaborate several more times including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld.
Robards and Amis also had future collaborations. Robards, the son of Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall, married Amis in 1986. They had a son together but divorced in 1994.
Spielberg chose not to give Fandango a wide release despite mostly positive reviews. Director Quentin Tarrantino has high praise for the movie which he was able to track down during its limited time in theaters:
“Fandango is one of the best directorial debuts in the history of cinema. I saw Fandango five times at the movie theater and it only played for a fucking week, all right.”
Over time, the movie has developed a small but loyal cult following.
Posted on January 23, 2015, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged New Jack City, St. Elmo's Fire, Suddenly Susan, The Brat Pack, The Breakfast Club. Bookmark the permalink. 86 Comments.