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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #142: Thornton Melon


Rodney Dangerfield was masterful in Caddyshack, but I've always felt his magnum opus was Back to School. As self-made clothing tycoon Thornton Melon, Dangerfield's earthy, brash persona is given free reign over a film that is funny, as we might expect, but also surprisingly heartfelt. There's a deep cast, with a young Robert Downey, Jr., Terry Farrell, 80s mainstay jerk Billy Zabka, and even Sam Kinison and Kurt Vonnegut. The movie's plot is improbable, with Melon returning to college to encourage his son (the movie's weakest link, in my estimation) to stick with it. Without SAT scores or even a high school diploma, Melon resorts to the time-honored tradition of throwing cash at the ivory tower, securing his admission with the opening of the new Thornton Melon Business School.

Melon's story is predictably fish-out-of-water, mining laughs at the old guy at play in the fields of youth, and the laughs are plentiful. Melon pays professionals to do his assignments (one of the best moments in the film is when his lit teacher gives an F to his Vonnegut paper...written by Vonnegut himself), and there is tension in his business classes, where his hard-earned, real-world acumen is at odds with the pointy-headed theorists of the chalkboard. This theme has found new resonance with me during my graduate program. Being a graybeard myself, it can be hard not to let lessons from practicing the craft drown out those taught from earnest schoolbooks.

As we can expect, Melon's frauds are exposed, and he is forced to grind out his grades in a bizarre tribunal-style grilling. One question in twenty-seven parts? Sounds like public comments at a selectmen meeting. Anyway, Melon prevails (because he's the hero) and because he rages against the dying of the light, bringing new wisdom to Dylan Thomas's famous verses. It's never too late, we're told by both that poetry and this movie. There's still a Triple Lindy in all of us.

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