Has it really been more than 30 years since Fletch (1985) was first released in theaters? For my money, it is still the best film Chevy Chase ever made (with Caddyshack a very close second). I can put the film on at almost any time and still find it just as funny, no matter how many times I have seen it. And yet, it is too often dismissed as just another dated piece of 1980s pop culture. To be sure, the soundtrack is horribly dated (Stephanie Mills’ “Bit by Bit” anyone?) but this part of the film’s charm. It is also often cited as the rare highlight of Chase’s career that subsequently went downhill over the years. But Fletch has endured, thanks in large part to repeated broadcasts on television channels like TBS and rock-steady video rentals (with revenues of $24 million in the United States alone). So why does Fletch continue to inspire such a strong and loyal following after all these years? It is simple: insanely quotable dialogue, a colorful assortment of character actors and, of course, Chase’s inimitable, vintage smart-ass persona.
When he’s not avoiding his ex-wife’s attorney – Arnold T. Pants, Esq. (George Wyner) – Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher (Chase) is an investigative reporter who writes under the anonymous pen name Jane Doe for a Los Angeles newspaper. He is currently looking into the local drug trade on the beach and its links to police corruption when he is approached by Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson), a rich businessman who tells him that he is dying from bone cancer. He wants to pay Fletch $50,000 to kill him. After doing some digging, he finds out that Stanwyk is lying and may also have some kind of involvement in the city’s drug trade. His investigation ends up connecting these two seemingly unrelated plots for an exciting finale.
Fletch originated from a novel of the same name by Gregory Mcdonald. According to the author, the idea for the character came from hearing “from other people in the newsroom about other reporters doing these things for stories, and that gave me an idea. He was running around in my head for quite some time before I actually wrote the book.” The novel was very successful and soon Hollywood came calling. His Fletch books were optioned around the mid to late 1970s but the author had the option of approving the actor cast to play Fletch. Mcdonald remembers that “everybody from 12 to 72 in Hollywood wanted to play Fletch. But I kept throwing a monkey wrench into their plans.” He rejected the likes of Burt Reynolds and Mick Jagger when the studio mentioned Chevy Chase as Fletch. Despite never really seeing the comedian in anything, Mcdonald agreed to this choice. Years before, the comedian’s manager had recommended Mcdonald’s books to him but showed no interest in them or playing Fletch. However, when an old friend and producer Alan Greisman and screenwriter Andrew Bergman got involved, Chase agreed to do the film. Mcdonald sent him a telegram saying, “I am delighted to abdicate the role of Fletch to you.”
Chevy Chase started out as a satirical writer for the Smothers Brothers, National Lampoon magazine, and Mad magazine. He started acting in a comedy workshop called Channel One in Greenwich Village in New York City. Chase learned the art of comedy through improvisation during his stint at the workshop. “A laugh is a surprise,” he once said in an interview, “and all humor is physical. I was always athletic, so that came naturally to me.” Chase shows a stellar range of physical comedy in Fletch. His technique ranges from broader displays, such as the dream sequence when he imagines himself as the unusually aggressive L.A. Lakers star power forward (“6’5″, 6’9″ with the Afro”), to more subtle bits such as when he bangs his nose into a door, posing as the accident-prone Mr. Poon.
Andrew Bergman was hired to adapt Mcdonald’s book into screenplay form. He was only 26-years-old when Mel Brooks transformed his first script, “Tex X,” about a black militant cowboy, into Blazing Saddles (1974). The money Bergman made from that script allowed him to stay in New York City where he wrote The In-Laws (1979), a brilliant black comedy starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Bergman went on to write several more screenplays for mediocre films in the ’80s before working on Fletch. Bergman remembers that he wrote the screenplay “very fast – I did the first draft in four weeks …Then there was a certain amount of improv, and something that we used to call dial-a-joke. Michael [Ritchie, the director] found this aircraft hanger, and called me and said we need a scene set in an aircraft hanger. So I wrote it that afternoon.” This, of course, became the scene where Fletch poses as an airplane mechanic by the name of G. Gordon Liddy and famously chastises the real mechanics that confront him about not using ballbearings. “It’s all ballbearings nowadays,” he says with hilarious mock-indignation. However, Mcdonald read the script was upset by how much it differed from his novel. He wrote the studio and listed his numerous issues with the script. Ritchie invited the author to the set of the film and then took him out to dinner where, according to Mcdonald, “Point by point, he showed me where I was wrong. I was beautifully chewed out.”
Director Michael Ritchie had much the same career arc as Bergman. He enjoyed success early on in theater and television, directing episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Dr. Kildare in the 1960s, before breaking into feature films with Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972) – both starring Robert Redford. After a successful run of films in the 1970s that included The Bad News Bears (1976), Ritchie directed mostly forgettable fare, like The Island (1983), until Fletch came along. According to actor Tim Matheson, Fletch was the first film Chase did after cleaning up a problem he had with drugs. Regardless, the studio hedged their bets and hired Ritchie to keep tabs on Chase. However, during principal photography, the director would do one take that adhered to the script and then another take where Chase was allowed to improvise. The comedian enjoyed the role and working with Ritchie as it allowed him to play a diverse collection of characters. He once said in an interview, “I love props, like wigs and buck-teeth and glasses. At one point I wear an Afro and play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There were some scenes where I didn’t recognize myself.”
Fletch is essentially a vehicle tailor-made for Chase. It plays to the comedian’s strengths; in addition to his affinity for physical comedy, the film is famous for showcasing his trademark deadpan smart-ass delivery of dialogue and his knack for playing a wide variety of characters – abilities he perfected on Saturday Night Live. Chase expertly juggles Fletch’s numerous aliases. From the likes of the absent-minded, Dr. Rosenrosen to Mr. Underhill’s racquet club “friend” John Cocktosten, Chase makes each one distinctive and hilariously memorable.
Fletch spends the film skewering all sorts of authority figures, from wealthy businessman Stanwyk to the scary chief of police Karlin (Joe Don Baker). He always has a snappy comeback for any given situation. For example, there is a scene early on where Fletch has a funny exchange with Frank (Richard Libertini), his long-suffering editor at the newspaper, about the identity of the reporter’s source to the drug trade going on at the beach. Frank asks Fletch for more information to which he replies, “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.” Frank asks, “Alright, how gray?” Without missing a beat, Fletch replies, “Charcoal?” Infuriated, Frank’s hand trembles with anger as he holds a pot of coffee to which Fletch responds by holding an empty styrofoam cup and shakes it also. I think that why the film appeals to so many is that in some way we wish that we all could walk through life like Fletch delivering smart-ass one-liners and getting away with everything. Chevy does it in such a casual, nonchalant way that seems so effortless. It was just a perfect marriage of Bergman’s script and Chevy’s knack for improvising and physical comedy.
Capitalizing on the immensely popular action comedy, Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Fletch adheres to the same formula: the maverick protagonist who has a problem with authority, the use of multiple disguises to get in and out of dicey situations for comedic effect, the obligatory car chase, and even the hopelessly dated synth-soundtrack by Harold Faltermeyer who seemed to be everywhere in the ‘80s, scoring major hits like the aforementioned Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun (1986). His distinctive minimalist synth beats are the glue that holds the collection of forgettable ‘80s songs together. Fletch deviates in one significant aspect: Chase’s character never uses a gun (he also repeatedly gets the crap kicked out of him).
Another aspect of Fletch that makes it so unforgettable is the strong supporting cast. The film features character actors like Joe Don Baker as the slimy Chief of Police Karlin (who brings a wonderfully scary intensity to his role), George Wendt as the amicable drug dealer Fat Sam, Tim Matheson as the double-dealing bigamist Alan Stanwyk, M. Emmet Walsh as the probing Dr. Dolan, and a young, pre-Thelma and Louise (1991) Geena Davis as Larry, Fletch’s ever loyal co-worker. I’ve always harbored a cinematic crush on Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (playing Stanwyk’s wife, Gail) thanks to this film. Her first encounter with Fletch at the racquet club, decked out in a cute, white tennis outfit, is a memorable one. She essentially plays straight man to Chase (who doesn’t in this film?) and they have pretty decent chemistry together. One of the joys of the film is how Chase interacts with all these people and how they react to his flippant, off-handed remarks. Watch him in action in the hospital sequence as he confuses and befuddles the staff in order to get the information he wants (even offhandedly ordering a cup of fat and making a sly reference to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) – it is not only what he says to them but, more importantly, how he delivers the dialogue that makes it so funny.
There are the little asides that are a constant source of amusement, like when researching Stanwyk’s past, Fletch comes across information about the man’s parents and their hometown. Chase deadpans, “that’s three names I enjoy. Marvin, Velma and Provo.” There’s also the recurring gag of Fletch running up an expensive tab on the Underhills, an obnoxious member of the racquet club that Gail frequents, and who Fletch overhears berating the waitstaff upon his initial visit. From that point on, whenever he gets a chance, Fletch orders all kinds of exotic foods and drink, sticking it to this arrogant jerk.
Since Fletch, Michael Ritchie continued as a director-for-hire on a number of movies that didn’t make much of an impact, except for Fletch Lives (1989) and the highly enjoyable James Woods con-man comedy, Diggstown (1993). Sadly, Ritchie died on April 16, 2001 from complications of prostate cancer. Andrew Bergman, on the other hand, enjoyed critical and commercial success with The Freshman (1990), which he wrote and directed, and also made two successful, box-office-friendly romantic comedies starring Nicolas Cage – Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and It Could Happen To You (1994). Sadly, Chase’s post-Fletch career has not been as triumphant. He starred in Fletch Lives, which has its moments but let’s be honest, it is a pale imitation of the original. He has done a series of forgettable family-oriented films (Cops and Robbersons anyone?) that feature Chase on auto-pilot. Even the man himself admits, “I made about 28 movies and I think about five of them were good.”
More so than in any other film, Fletch is classic Chevy Chase. While he is in exceptional form in Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation, they do not showcase his unique talents as well as in Fletch. In every scene, Chase does a fantastic job carrying the picture with the right mix of comedy and drama. Fletch has aged surprisingly well over the years. The jokes are still funny and many of Chase’s one-liners are insanely quotable. So much so that it has become a cult film. In an interview for the New York Post, Bergman tried to explain its appeal. “It’s so bizarre, but Fletch strikes a chord. There’s a group of movies like that in the ‘80s, like Caddyshack, too, that captured a certain wise-ass thing.” Chase also looks back on the film with fondness. “It was at the height of my career in film, and it was as close to me as a person as any part I’d played.” Perhaps the most meaningful praise comes from Gregory Mcdonald himself: “I watched it recently, and I think Chevy and Michael Ritchie did a good job with it.” As Fletch would put it, “and a damn fine answer if I do say so my damn self.”