Freeze Frame

Forget Fargo and A Simple Plan: A quarter-century ago, The Heartbreak Kid had Minnesota down cold

The 47-year-old Browne, who played the only locally cast speaking part in The Heartbreak Kid (he has about four lines), appears a self-directed man in every way, although he does acknowledge Elaine May's shrewd method of eliciting his gape-mouthed reactions--especially in the scene where Lenny poses as a narcotics agent to intimidate the slow-witted Big Man on Campus. "She said, 'We're gonna do a scene, but we're not gonna tell you what it is. Just walk into it and react how you would normally react,'" Browne recalls. "So Chuck [Grodin, as Lenny] confronted my character and his two friends, flashing his fake badge while we sort of fumbled around. It was a technique that Elaine May used to create surprise."

Yes--and to complete her portrait of how hopeless a blond, blue-eyed jock would be trying to keep up with a quick-witted kid from New York. It's truly remarkable, therefore, that the "ape of a boyfriend" would now be discussing said role in his own spacious conference room--seated, to boot, in front of a 7-foot-tall cardboard "standee" for Flubber, a film Browne helped promote. "Free premiums are the most powerful tool in our business," Browne explains, apropos of his Flubber plot to offer a movie-related toy with the purchase of three grocery-store products.

Back when he first became acquainted with the business of movies in '72, Browne was but a 21-year-old UM journalism and advertising major on a football scholarship (he played defensive end for four years, beginning just after the Gophers tied for the Big 10 championship in 1967). One day in late winter, Browne responded to a bulletin-board posting in the Gopher locker room that invited students to try out for a part in a movie. "They were looking for that Nordic look to match the Cybill [Shepherd] look, you know?" Browne smiles, his voice calmly booming. "And what better place to find it than the University of Minnesota football team?"

The acting tryouts took place at the Hopkins House hotel on Highway 7. "A bunch of us went over there and interviewed with Elaine May, [director of photography] Owen Roizman, and Erik Preminger. They asked me some questions, just to see my delivery, to hear me talk. They wanted me to look surprised, to look angry, to look distraught--to get me to act. Then they hired me after a second interview later that day."

May and her crew of 35 shot The Heartbreak Kid's UM scenes over four bitterly cold days in mid-March of '72. The filmmakers had apparently secured permission from the university to park the Grodin character's apricot-colored car in the center of campus, allowing Lenny, shivering in the rented sedan, to look for Kelly across a snowy landscape while listening to a radio report of "good news in the Twin Cities weather forecast... Temperatures will fall to between 18 and 21 degrees below zero tonight." (The "Minneapolis-St. Paul weatherman" delivers this chilly prediction in a distinctly East Coast accent, another one of the movie's handful of amusing regional gaffes.)

During their three weeks in the state, the Heartbreak Kid crew also shot at Minnetonka's Lafayette Club, a motel, a cabin, a Budget Rent-a-Car, and the Gopher Grill lounge of the now-defunct Hotel St. Paul (for a scene set in Miami), in addition to working a week at Winslow's Tanager Hill (now owned by Irwin Jacobs). When the campus scenes had wrapped, the Kid crew unexpectedly donated $1,500 of the $3-million budget to the University Film Society, in gratitude for "how knowledgeable [the student extras] were about films and film making," as co-associate producer Michael Hausman told the Pioneer Press. (Those were the days: One could scarcely imagine U Film receiving such charity from a major studio in the '90s.)

The Heartbreak Kid was clearly an A-list production. The film career of Shepherd, a former model, was just beginning to take off as a result of her acclaimed role in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. (Incidentally, Bogdanovich, who left his wife around this time to commence a relationship with Shepherd, couldn't have failed to note The Heartbreak Kid's uncanny resemblance to his own life story.) During the Minneapolis portion of the shoot, Roizman won an Academy Award for his cinematography on William Friedkin's The French Connection; after lensing Kid, he returned to work for Friedkin on The Exorcist. May was just coming off a hellish experience on her debut feature, A New Leaf, a comedy that had been re-edited by the studio enough for her to disown the picture. (May went on to write and direct Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar; her most recent credits are as screenwriter of the Nichols-directed films The Birdcage and Primary Colors.)

May's direction of Browne was deliberately rudimentary, in keeping with the limited conception of the character. "At one point," Browne says of the scene in which his blond lughead first spots the New Yorker schmoozing Kelly, "I remember she stopped the shoot, took me aside, and said, 'We have to get you to look more angry, more mean.' She threw out an example: 'Think of how you'd feel if your sister was beaten up by some guy in an alleyway and left for dead.'" In other words: Please conjure up your most intense hatred for this nebbishy kid from the East Coast whom you've never met.

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