Screenwriter Robert Klane was on a hot streak in 1989. After crafting stories for several television shows, most notably M*A*S*H, the writer had successfully transitioned to films.

National Lampoon’s European Vacation from 1985 gave him his first big screen hit, but it was a lesser-known movie, The Man With One Red Shoe, that connected Klane with producer Victor Drai. “I asked [Klane], ‘Do you have any other ideas?’” Drai recalled in a conversation with MEL magazine. “‘He said, ‘Yes, I have an idea, but nobody would ever buy it. It’s about two kids who drag a dead guy around Fire Island.’”

The producer’s interest was piqued. He initially pitched the idea to his partners at MGM, but was rebuffed. “If somebody pitched you an idea about two kids with a dead guy, you’d think they’re crazy,” Drai later admitted.

Still, he refused to let the quirky idea go. Instead, he reached out to a friend, director Ted Kotcheff, who had helmed such hits as Fun With Dick and Jane and Rambo: First Blood. “I loved [the idea] because it was so extreme,” Kotcheff wrote in his 2017 autobiography Directors Cut: My Life in Film. “I thought it was not only hilarious, but also dark and full of comedic and satirical possibilities.”

With Kotcheff agreeing to direct, Drai was able to secure the necessary financing for a $15 million budget. The strange corpse comedy was green-lit. Its initial title was Hot and Cold, but the world would eventually know the film as Weekend at Bernie's.

Watch 'Weekend at Bernie's' Trailer

The movie’s plot centered on Larry Wilson and Richard Parker, two twentysomething friends working low-level jobs at a New York City insurance company. High jinks ensue when their millionaire boss, Bernie Lomax, invites the guys to his beach house. When the duo finds the executive dead, they go to extreme lengths to convince everyone else he is still alive.

Jonathan Silverman and Jon Cryer were originally selected as the buddy duo. But, in a real-life plot twist, Andrew McCarthy, who had starred alongside Cryer in Pretty in Pink, ended up snagging the Weekend at Bernie’s role from his former costar. "They had us screen-test for both roles, so all we knew was that one of us would be playing [Richard] and the other would be playing [Larry],” Silverman recalled in a conversation with Entertainment Weekly, noting that Cryer was originally his partner. “I’m not sure what happened. Then it became me and Andrew.”

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

More difficult to cast was the role of boss-turned-dead-body Bernie. Terry Kiser, a veteran character actor, was invited to try out for the part  but initially had to pass on the audition while he recovered from a motorcycle accident. A month passed and the film still hadn't found its Bernie. Producers again contacted Kiser, who had recuperated and was now ready to come in.

The actor normally shaved before his auditions, but made distinctive grooming choice in this instance. “I’m just going to leave this mustache on,” Kiser recalled saying to himself. “I knew that these clean-faced young kids  —  with a guy with a mustache in a suit  —  was right. It just felt right at the time.”

The actor’s instinct proved correct.

“It was just his face  —  it was perfect,” Drai noted. “It was very important for us that Bernie have sunglasses on [when he’s dead] because we didn’t want to see the eyes moving. I had a pair of glasses I was wearing, and I said, ‘Please wear these.’ As soon as he put the glasses on his face, we knew he was Bernie.”

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Kiser accepted the part, though he was hardly enthused about the script. “Well, this is a one-trick pony,” the actor remembered thinking when he first read the screenplay.

While some of the film’s early scenes were shot in New York, the majority of principal photography took place on the sun-kissed coast of Wilmington, N.C. While watching the playback of one scene, Kiser spotted a problem with his portrayal of dead Bernie: “I’m looking at the thing and I said, ‘No, it’s not funny. He’s just dead  —  it’s not funny-dead.’”

This realization concerned the actor because the majority of the film’s comedy was predicated on the audience’s ability to laugh at a corpse. If viewers couldn’t chuckle at the cadaver getting pulled behind a boat, washing up on shore or getting turned into a makeshift marionette, the movie would surely flop. Kiser had to find “funny-dead.”

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Late that night while ruminating on his character, Kiser developed what he calls “the Bernie smirk.” “I was looking in the mirror,” the actor recalled. “I had to find something on my face that I could hold [in a funny way]. I experimented —  I could fall right into [that smirk] just by going, ‘Mmm, hmmm, mmm,’ and that smirk would come.”

Kiser tested his new “Bernie smirk” on set the next day. When the crew started cracking up, he knew he’d made the right choice. Even his co-stars recognized the subtle genius of this move. “Terry Kiser did something so clever,” Silverman recalled in a conversation with Entertainment Weekly. “He died with a smirk on his face, which let the audience love him.”

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Confident that their star corpse was now funny, the cast and crew began improvising unique situations for Bernie. “A fair amount of it was made up,” McCarthy remarked while appearing on the Build Series YouTube channel. “There was nothing that was over the top,” the actor noted while pointing out one scene when Bernie was thrown off a balcony and another when he had a toupee stapled to his head. The physical comedy led to laughs, but also pain. Kiser broke several ribs while filming Weekend at Bernie’s.

Still, arguably the biggest test of taste was a scene in which a woman makes love to Bernie’s body, thinking the business executive is still alive. “Who the fuck is going to find this funny?” Silverman asked himself after reading the necrophilic scene. “But people did. And they found it endearing.”

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Test audiences responded so positively to early screenings of the movie that its distributor, 20th Century Fox, decided to move Weekend at Bernie’s release date to July 5, 1989. Doing so put the film against one of the summer’s most anticipated blockbusters, Lethal Weapon 2. The studio believed the comedy would provide a laugh-filled second option for those not interested in the Mel Gibson action sequel.

“I wanted to kill them,” Drai admitted later, still upset about Fox's decision to move the release date. “We think we have a $100 million movie  —  we’re sure we have a big hit. Well, those dumbbells at Fox decide, ‘Okay, we’re going to counter-program.’”

Weekend at Bernie’s placed eighth at the box office its opening weekend, earning $4.5 million. Gene Siskel called the film “a preposterous, unfunny comedy,” while his At the Movies partner Roger Ebert said the movie’s concept “was a bad idea and it didn’t work.” Not every critic was quite as harsh. The Hollywood Reporter called Weekend at Bernie’s a ”good old, knock-down slapstick with just the right dose of cruelty thrown in.”

Watch Siskel & Ebert Review 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Positive word of mouth helped the film maintain solid returns the next few weeks at the box office. The movie would eventually haul in more than $30 million domestically, more than doubling its budget.

If the Weekend at Bernie's story ended there, it would still be an impressive tale. But the movie about two guys and their dead boss has somehow achieved a pop-culture longevity that even those involved in its creation couldn’t have dreamed of.

Family Guy, Friends and How I Met Your Mother are just some of the TV shows to dedicate plots and jokes to Weekend at Bernie’s. The film’s sequel, though a commercial disappointment, spawned a viral dance craze. Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders capitalized on the name, creating fundraisers dubbed “Weekend at Bernie’s.”

“That movie was completely stupid and fantastic,” McCarthy confessed during a 2017 interview with the AV Club. “It’s the stupidest movie. I love it.”

Silverman echoed similar thoughts when interviewed by Larry King. “I’m thrilled and shocked and confused that this little movie that we made years ago has turned into a cult [hit]," he said. "When we made it, I was lucky just to have the job. I had no idea people would find it amusing. It’s about a guy who dies on page 20 and we drag him around the Hamptons for the rest of the weekend. But it made people laugh.”

 

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