UCR: Movies and Culture

In Police Academy, a group of ragtag outcasts decide they want to become law-enforcement officers. They are unqualified, unprepared and their lieutenant wants to see them fail. Somehow these oddballs band together, defy the odds and graduate. The story seems far-fetched, but the real-life creation of the film is even more surprising.
The concept can be traced to a far different movie, 1983’s The Right Stuff. The Oscar-winning film was being shot in San Francisco when producer Paul Maslansky saw a motley crew of individuals.

“I noticed a bunch of ludicrous-looking police cadets being dressed down by a frustrated sergeant,” Maslansky told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “They were an unbelievable bunch – including a lady who must have weighed over 200 pounds and a flabby man of well over 50. I asked the sergeant about them, and he explained that the mayor had ordered the department to accept a broad spectrum for the academy.”

When Maslansky inquired as to why these seemingly incompetent individuals were being considered as potential police officers, the sergeant said: "We have to take them in, and the only thing we can do is wash them out.”

This concept got the wheels turning in Maslansky’s mind. He wrote a two-page treatment that night, titling the project Police Academy.

Malsansky took his idea to Alan Ladd Jr., founder of the Ladd Company, the production house behind films like Body Heat, Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and the 1982 comedy Night Shift. “I go in and he says, ‘You know something? I think this could be a funny picture,” Malansky later recalled. “‘How much can you make it for?’ I said, tell me and I’ll make it for that price. He said, make it for under five [million].’”

Screenwriter Neal Israel was brought in to write the script. The studio wanted “bathroom humor,” following the formula of successful comedies like Porky’s, Meatballs, and Animal House. Israel enlisted comedian comedian Pat Proft as co-writer. Together, they penned the film’s initial story.

Soon after, Hugh Wilson was hired as director. While he had a comedy background, including success with the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati, Wilson was unfamiliar with the gross-out style of humor that the studio was looking for. The director was initially discouraged by the original Police Academy script and requested permission to work on a rewrite. “I asked for, and got, the power to refine the Israel-Proft script. Maintaining that 'funny is money,' I wanted to go for real laughter rather than going for the elements such as gratuitous sex and anti-establishment exploits. I wanted jokes which were rooted in reality."

The director's changes worried many, including Maslansky. “He took a lot of the vulgarity out; some of the very things I considered necessary," the producer told the Times. "I worried that it was becoming more homogenized, and I told Hugh, 'Let's keep some of the flatulence in.'"

Wilson added: "I found out that the shower scene, the party scene and the fellatio scene were obligatory. I had to put them in. So, I was stuck with trying to make those scenes as artistic as possible."

Watch the Original Trailer for 'Police Academy'

According to the Times, about "20 of the major elements in the movie" remain from the Israel and Proft version. Israel says that when Wilson and Maslansky turned in their rewrite to the Ladd Company, "it was rejected and the project was almost shelved. Only when they put back in dozens of our gags did the project get the go ahead."

The director recalled another "major fight," this time over a scene in which a police sergeant is hurled into a horse’s rear end: "The original script called for me to show the police sergeant with his hand actually inside the horse," Wilson said. "There was no way that I would film that. So, I showed the sergeant going through the air toward the horse, cut to reactions on the cadet's faces and had one of them say, 'My God! Somebody call a veterinarian.'"

Wilson eventually convinced Maslansky and Ladd that "subtle is better." "I realize that you can carry grossness, rudeness and crudeness just so far before the audience finds it terribly repetitive and not so funny," Wilson insisted.

With a script finally ready and agreed upon, casting commenced. When filling the lead role of Cadet Mahoney, Maslansky initially aimed high. “I wanted Tom Hanks. I wanted Michael Keaton.”

Instead, the part went to Steve Guttenberg, whose biggest hit up until that point was the Barry Levinson film Diner. “My agent put me up for the part," Guttenberg told the AV Club in 2015. "I’d just gotten done doing The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was an invisible-man movie, and I went from there right into Police Academy.”

Little did he know, the role of Mahoney would help launch his career. “Steve was just perfect for it,” Maslansky later admitted.

Kim Cattrall was the film’s biggest name, having recently scored a major hit with another sophomoric comedy, the aforementioned Porky’s. The actress signed on to play Karen Thompson, a socialite who enlists for police duty and becomes the love interest to Guttenberg’s Mahoney.

The rest of the cast was filled out by character actors, comedians and relative newcomers. Much like the group of misfits they portrayed, these supporting players came from all walks of life. Bubba Smith (Moses Hightower) was a Super Bowl champion NFL player who made the foray into acting after retirement. David Graf (Eugene Tackleberry) was a struggling actor who had only earned bit roles on a few TV shows. Marion Ramsey (Laverne Hooks) had appeared on the one, and only, season of Bill Cosby’s sketch comedy TV show, Cos.

Watch Michael Winslow Disperse a Riot in 'Police Academy'

Comedian and beatboxer Michael Winslow earned the breakout role of Lavell Jones, after being discovered by chance. At the time, his biggest credit was an appearance on the Gong Show. But Maslansky and Wilson happened to be in the crowd when Winslow performed an opening set before a Count Basie concert. "We got a chance to sit with Count Basie in the same room,” Winslow remembered in 2011. “One of the things he said was 'you guys take real good care of this young man, make sure that they see him and they enjoy what they see him do.'"

Principal photography took place in Toronto. The buildings used for the academy’s grounds were, in real life, a former psychiatric hospital. Other scenes were shot on set at Toronto’s Lakeshore Film Studios.

Despite occasional moments of improvisation, the cast stuck mostly to script. “Hugh [Wilson] was pretty specific about the comedy, because he’s so good at it,” Guttenberg told the AV Club. “So, he kept us pretty much on book, but we were able to devise a couple of different lines here and there – and a lot of little moments that worked.”

Still, initial screenings with studio executives did not go well. Many were upset that the film lacked the toilet humor and sexually charged moments that they had been hoping for. "What are you trying to do?" Maslansky was asked by one studio rep, "Make a damned Tootsie?'" Another exec complained that the film “Doesn't fit the formula; it needs more flatulence, more slobbishness, more T&A."

Criticism wasn’t limited to the studio types. “I remember sitting with my manager watching the screening,” Guttenberg told NPR in 2012. “He turned to me and said, 'This is the biggest piece of junk I've ever seen.'"

Things got even worse when the professional critics got ahold of Police Academy. In a scathing review, Roger Ebert gave the film zero stars.

“It's so bad, maybe you should pool your money and draw straws and send one of the guys off to rent it," Ebert said, "so that in the future, whenever you think you're sitting through a bad comedy, he could shake his head, and chuckle tolerantly, and explain that you don't know what bad is.” He also referred to Police Academy as “the least funny movie that could possibly have been inspired by Airplane! or any other movie.”

Watch the Obstacle Course Scene from 'Police Academy'

Now, some context: Two weeks before Police Academy hit theaters, the romantic comedy Splash came out. The film boasted a cast featuring Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah and John Candy, and director Ron Howard, giving it a much higher profile than the goofball-cop comedy. Splash was No. 1 at the box office its opening weekend, earning a little more than $6 million.

When Police Academy was released on March 23, 1984, few expected it to earn anything close to Splash’s numbers. “There were no expectations,” Winslow admitted. “No one thought it would make it.”

Maslansky was already working on another picture in London during Police Academy’s opening weekend. Nervous about the response, he decided to go on a pub crawl. “I come home, a little smashed, and I said [to his assistant] ‘Did you get a call?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I got a call.’ I said, ‘Well what’s the figures?’ She said, ‘800 something.’” Dejected, he actually believed the movie had taken in less than $1 million. “I said, ‘Jesus Christ, the picture has tanked.’” Maslansky called Ladd, prepared to do damage control. “He said, ‘No, it’s going to do $8.2 million this weekend! It’s the biggest hit Warner Bros. has had in the spring almost ever!”

Guttenberg told NPR: “I remember the producer called me that next morning and said, 'I'm a millionaire, I'm a millionaire!' I didn't know what a box office was, I didn't know what grosses were, but I sure did learn pretty quickly that that's a very, very important part of Hollywood — making money and making money for a lot of other people. I was very lucky to be in that movie and others that have made money and bought a lot of beach houses for a lot of producers."

Police Academy became the surprise hit of 1984, going on to become the sixth highest grossing film that year. It earned over $80 million domestically, and more than $155 million worldwide.

The studio immediately rushed to make sequels. In total, seven Police Academy films were made in the decade between 1984-1994. Though several were financial successes, none could match the astonishing box office numbers of the original.

Police Academy: The Animated Series made its television debut in 1988. Geared towards a younger audience, the cartoon included many of the film’s most memorable characters, while eliminating much of the off-color tone. None of the film's original cast were enlisted to voice their animated counterparts. The series lasted one year before cancellation.

Warner Bros. then attempted to revive the franchise with a live-action TV show in 1997. Police Academy: The Series lasted less than a year before cancellation. Winslow was the only cast member from the original film with a recurring role on the show, though several other Police Academy alumni made guest appearances.

Though it’s been more than a decade since the last Police Academy project was released, the franchise may not be done. Maslansky has expressed interest in a reboot. Key and Peele were reportedly attached to the project at one point. Guttenberg has also alluded to his interest in returning. “The next Police Academy is coming," he said via Twitter. "No details yet, but it is in a gift bag being readied!”

'Police Academy' Sequels, TV Series, and Stars