• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #13: Judge Elihu Smails


It's easy to grin when your ship has come in...

Let's face it - Caddyshack is brilliant. Not perfect, but so densely packed with inspired performances that we're still quoting from it 35 years later, and probably will be in another 35. And there are probably four characters I could choose to highlight from it, including Bill Murray's iconic, ad-libbed groundskeeper Carl Spackler, Chevy Chase's slouching Zen-pro, Ty Webb, and Rodney Dangerfield's frenetic insult machine, developer Al Czervik. But of all the great acting in this film, my favorite will always be Ted Knight's Judge Smails. It kind of feels like the others are playing around, goofing off, while it was Knight's job to be the stuffed-shirt straight man. And he succeeds brilliantly.

Judge Smails is a pitch-perfect send-up of the straight-laced conservative country club man, thinking his affluence is wealth, fiercely protecting a world he believes truly exists. He is the angry old white dude, fuming in his paneled office as his carefully constructed reality crumbles around him. People quote Webb, Spackler, and Czervik, but Smails gets off the best lines in the film, Knight milking every second he's on the screen to comedic greatness. There are two kinds of people to Judge Smails: the little people and the right people. The little he treats with veiled (or unveiled) contempt, such as his entitled nephew Spaulding, the staff of his beloved Bushwood, Czervik (who, to Smails' horror, is bigger than he), or caddy-hero Danny (the weakest part of the film). His obsequious treatment of the right people - Ty, Dr. Beeper, the Bishop - reveals his true insecurity and desperate need for status and approval.

Whether he's improving his lie, christening his dinghy, offering a Fresca, or sentencing boys to death because he owes it to them, Judge Smails' ship has yet to truly come in. And, well, we're all waiting. Mmm? Mmm?

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