Meatballs (1979): Ivan Reitman’s Directing Debut, Starring Bill Murray

Tribute to Ivan Reitman

Meatballs launched the directing career of Ivan Reitman, whose later comedies include Stripes (1981) and, of course, Ghostbusters (1984), both starring Bill Murray.

The film was the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time in the U.S.

It is the first of six collaborations between Murray and Harold Ramis and several sequels, of which only Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986) had any connection to the original.

Tripper Harrison leads a group of new counsellors-in-training (CITs) at Camp North Star, a summer camp located in Ontario. He leads practical jokes on camp director Morty Melnick (called Mickey by everyone, a play on Mortimer Mouse), taking Melnick from his cabin late at night so that he awakens in unusual places.

Rudy Gerner, a lonely boy whose mother had died, is sent to summer camp by his workaholic father, but decides to run away.

Noticing Rudy is lacking self-confidence, Tripper takes him under his wing, and they rapidly bond. Tripper helps Rudy gain confidence while Rudy encourages the reluctant Tripper to romance Roxanne, the girls’ head counsellor.

Other CITs also find romance: Candace “kidnaps” Crockett in a speedboat and confesses her feelings for him, while Wheels, who had broken up with A.L., rekindles their relationship, and the nerdy Spaz falls for the tomboy Jackie.

A subplot deals with North Star’s rivalry with Camp Mohawk, a wealthy summer camp across the lake. During a basketball game, North Star is being beaten by Mohawk when they attempt their own perverse victory.

This sets the stage for the yearly Olympiad between the camps, which Mohawk has won 12 consecutive times. During the first day of competition, Mohawk dominates North Star, often winning by cheating.

In the end, Morty, Tripper, Roxanne, and the CITs sing around a campfire as the camp prepares to close at the end of summer. Rudy has already decided to return to camp next year and Roxanne agrees to live with Tripper. The two ride off on Tripper’s motorcycle, leading the buses out of camp and leaving Morty behind on a raft in the middle of the lake.

Harold Ramis said that Reitman was not sure whether Murray would participate until he showed up for the third day of filming.

Filming took place at Camp White Pine, on Hurricane Lake, between Haliburton and West Guilford, Ontario.

Critical response was mixed. with inevitable comparisons to the raunchier, more “perverse” Animal House. The New York Times wrote that Meatballs is a loud, off-key cry for conformism of a most disappointing sort.” The movie was naive and sweet-natured, but there were not many belly laughs, as the ad campaign had promised.

There was a consensus, however, that Murray, the ‘Saturday Night Live’ regular, renders the movie vitality and elan. Murray’s riffing adds a spark that sets it apart from numerous subpar entries in a frequently uninspired genre.

Despite divided reaction, the film was a surprise hit grossing $17.9 million in its first two weeks. The film was the first Canadian film to gross more than $2.5 million in Canada, surpassing 1970’s Deux femmes en or, to become the highest-grossing film of all-time, with a gross of $4.2 million.

It also became the highest-grossing Canadian film in the U.S. with combined gross of $43 million, and $70 million worldwide.

The score was composed by Elmer Bernstein and other musicians also contributed to the soundtrack including Mary MacGregor (performing “Good Friend”), David Naughton (performing “Makin’ It,” serving as the theme for his title sitcom, which was cancelled before the film’s release), and Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots (performing the title theme “Meatballs”). “Good Friend” and “Makin’ It” made the Billboard and Cashbox pop charts (see below).

Recycling: Sequels

Meatballs was followed by 3 sequels: Meatballs Part II (1984), Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986) and Meatballs 4 (1992), none involving Reitman or Murray. Only Meatballs III had any relation to the original’s story or characters, featuring Patrick Dempsey as Rudy Gerner.


Bill Murray as “Tripper” Harrison
Harvey Atkin as Morty “Mickey” Melnick
Kate Lynch as Roxanne
Russ Banham as Bobby Crockett
Kristine DeBell as A.L.
Sarah Torgov as Candace
Jack Blum as “Spaz”
Keith Knight as Larry “Fink” Finkelstein
Cindy Girling as Wendy
Todd Hoffman as “Wheels”
Margot Pinvidic as Jackie
Matt Craven as “Hardware” Renzetti (billed as Matt Cravenn)
Norma Dell’Agnese as Brenda
Chris Makepeace as Rudy Gerner
Ruth Rennie as Jody
Hadley Kay as Bradley