Editor’s Note: Anthony Michael Hall, the guest celebrity at this weekend’s Truth or Consequences Film Fiesta, is not simply a great actor. The author makes the case here that Hall, who appeared in iconic teen comedies of the 1980s written and directed by John Hughes, was the funniest kid ever on film. On Friday, the Fiesta will screen three of Hughes-Hall’s most admired collaborations: “Sixteen Candles” at noon; “Weird Science” at 2:30 and “The Breakfast Club” at 6 p.m. It’s too late to buy an all-access pass for the Fiesta, but if single seats for these films are available, they will be awarded on a first come, first serve basis to single-ticket purchasers. The three films are also available to rent on most streaming platforms.
Think of your favorite comedy films, or what you might deem the “greatest comedies.” Now consider your most cherished funny actors who played roles in those films. Who comes to mind?
The likes of Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy or perhaps Chevy Chase. The late John Candy, maybe? Robin Williams is in many minds, I’m sure. These are just several of the most beloved comedic actors who played integral roles in history’s funniest, most influential films. They also happen to be comic performers who shared some of their most impactful work throughout the 1980s.
The ’80s were a standout decade for breezy, fun cinema. A heyday for snobs vs. slobs slapstick, light sports comedies and silly tales of family vacations gone awry. In this span of 10 years many of the most memorably funny and inspired comedy films ever were released. And we revere the comedic heavyweights who made some of cinema’s funniest capers what they were—especially those names listed above.
People pretty unanimously love a Bill Murray performance or several. We’ve felt and loved the warmth of John Candy flicks since our upbringing. Even those who don’t like Chevy Chase have gotten a rise out of “Vacation” or “Fletch.” You can’t scroll a streaming platform’s comedy section without stumbling upon at least three Steve Martin vehicles.
These are names we still talk about, the actors who frequently arise in the “great comedic performers” discussion, but there’s one actor who needs a whole lot more mention when we chew over the funniest people in the funniest movies. A brilliant underdog. A seriously hysterical hero to many. An underestimated talent who made some of the funniest movies ever as funny as they were and still are. That actor is Anthony Michael Hall.
Whether you’re 60, 42 or 25, you’ve probably seen a John Hughes film, and you more than likely love a John Hughes film. No writer/director made teen movies as funny, hip and poignant as Hughes’ before his run of ’80s teen films, and it’s hard to say any filmmaker has painted adolescence as charmingly and timelessly since. With his name on iconic titles such as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty In Pink” and others, it’s hard to dispute that Hughes is the all-time teen movie king. If you’ve seen even a few of his most significant ’80s teen comedies, you’ve watched a performance from Anthony Michael Hall that runs the range between relatable and endearing . . . and impressively, uproariously funny.
Hall was in unforgettable films of the ’80s that have been endlessly parodied and borrowed from since. “The Breakfast Club” has been joke fodder on “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons,” late night shows and a laundry list of other programs from the ’80s to now. “Sixteen Candles” was lampooned in more than one parody film of the 2000s, including the raunchy classic “Not Another Teen Movie.” Hughes’s flicks are genuine, funny as hell, pop culture staples. Hall arguably stole the show in some of those efforts, bringing a unique blend of raw heart, real innocence and lovable snark. I honestly don’t believe the movies we regard as the funniest teen comedies would be so memorable without him.
Hall entered entertainment in the early ’80s with a sweet, all-American sort of look, like a boy from a Norman Rockwell painting. With his wavy blonde hair and gentle eyes, he was not cookie-cutter handsome or bound to be the school stud, but pleasant in appearance. Based solely on looks and the feel he exuded, young Hall seemed like his film characters: a bright and funny, yet insecure kid with the right intentions and the sarcastic edge adopted by someone who has suffered constant reminders he wasn’t popular or cool enough.
Hall’s characters resonated then and still do with the quirkier kids and young men wandering about, not completely sure of themselves and unwelcomed by the standard social circles. Those written off as dweeby because of their harmless appearance or different body frame. The guys who aren’t chiseled and classically handsome enough to draw attention from the popular girls, nor tough and “guy’s guy” enough to find footing with the jocks.
Hall’s characters are the misunderstood, funny, actual cool guys who haven’t been given a fair shot to express themselves and be understood. That represents a lot of kids and young adults in reality, then, before then, today and forever. The roles Hall played in the ’80s not only speak to these young folks, they offer a fun bit of inspiration through the laughs. After all, these characters might be wrongly labeled and laughed at early in the story, but we always end up laughing with the young men Hall’s playing, loving their confidence and adoring their quirks.
Though his most prominent roles fit somewhere in the category of “dork” or “geek,” the kids Hall played weren’t one-dimensional nerds. Beneath gangly exteriors and beaten-down attitudes were hilarious, smart dudes who recognized they had swagger and charm, but had been taught to suppress their outgoingness. When their confidence comes out, however, they’re smooth, enigmatic individuals. Hall breathes real vulnerability into his characters, but also always conveys an offbeat, half-expressed self-assurance you have to love. His character “The Geek” in “Sixteen Candles” frequently lies to impress peers, but always follows with truth. The inner fight for authenticity shows in all of Hall’s best performances for John Hughes, and it’s that battle with self versus the judgments of harsh peers that we understand and appreciate. Fortunately, Hall’s characters are armed with great one-liners to match rejection or jeers. Hall delivers such zingers in a dry, “fed up with it” tone, blending sharp comic wit with raw realness.
Hall’s major feature acting debut came in 1983 with “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” penned by John Hughes, his soon-to-be frequent collaborator. As most know, the movie details the comically disastrous Griswold family vacation to fictional amusement park WallyWorld. Hall, of course, starred as son Rusty Griswold. He wouldn’t remain the only actor to play Rusty in a “Vacation” caper, but he’s no doubt the most fondly remembered. The film is still a widespread favorite today. An all-time great comedy, it tells the all-too-relatable tale of a well-meaning but emotionally immature father who drags his family along for a trip full of dark comic mishaps. Rusty, a sheltered pre-teen, has the good nature of a kid from a decent home, but also the edge and inclinations of a curious young guy nearing his teens to whom his goofy dad can’t relate, and whose mother has been driven to exhaustion by a screw-up, unfaithful husband. Though Hall mostly plays the straight man to Chevy Chase’s lunacy, he delivers his matter-of-fact remarks with impeccable timing and shows all the signs of a funny young prodigy. A scene in which Rusty casually chugs his dad’s beer is a particularly funny Rusty moment that demonstrates Hall’s natural timing and comedic presence.
The following year came “Sixteen Candles,” a timeless Hughes classic, treasured raunchy teen comedy and Molly Ringwald vehicle featuring a show-stealing performance from Hall as “The Geek.” The Geek has an obsessive crush on misunderstood older girl Samantha, who herself longs for Jake, the most popular guy in school. Over the course of a nutty evening that includes a school dance and wild after-party, both Samantha and The Geek find their shots at acceptance.
The Geek isn’t an assembly-line social outcast. He’s the unfortunate result of a late puberty—the snarky sort of prick guys need to be when they’re small, skinny and still without a single armpit hair in high school, society’s most ruthless popularity contest. The Geek has all the arrogance and bravado of a chiseled ladies’ man, despite his lack of social standing and unimposing appearance. A guy as compassionate and complex as The Geek can’t uphold that façade for long, though.
Hall plays the sexually charged little perv that is revealed when The Geek drops his guard with enough social intellect and genuineness to make the sleaziness feel harmless and funny. The Geek may request a pair of your worn panties, but he’ll be candid about why he’s doing so. Hall embodies every layer that this delusional horndog requires to be more than a sad, sex-crazed dork. His nervous screeches seem to derive from a hilariously real place, and he has a few of the film’s most hysterical lines (“Nice ma—nice manners, babe?!”). His self-aware transitions from behaving embarrassingly to playing it cool are brilliant. The Geek is embedded in pop culture nerd history thanks to Hall. “Sixteen Candles,” though not entirely politically correct by today’s standards, is a comedy classic that doesn’t receive enough credit for its genuine funniness.
Hall’s presence was evidently sought after, as a year later he would appear in 1985’s “The Breakfast Club,” another John Hughes project that is arguably the most respected and fondly remembered of the writer-director’s teen capers, even though its premise may be the simplest. A random group of students is spending a Saturday in detention with a power-hungry principal. There’s a jock, a leather-jacket-sporting rebel, a prom queen, strange girl outcast and a bookworm, so virtually all of the stock teen characters are covered. While these may be standard roles, they each have their depth and individual motivations, and, though the movie covers just a single afternoon in detention, it’s a timeless look at young people searching for their identities with misplaced angst.
“The Breakfast Club” presents another opportunity for Hall to bring his authentic self and comedic chops to a teen comedy, this time as a more subdued, unconfident character, the bookworm Brian Johnson. Johnson’s an innocent, troubled soul, a bullied dork who has been beaten down. Here Hall isn’t called to be the high-energy cutup serving up meanspirited jokes, because Johnson is a reject of the softer variety. He’s tremendously believable and easy to empathize with in this role.
Hall’s also the glue holding this cast of misfits together. After the characters have warmed up to one another and come together to speak candidly during a “group therapy” scene, Brian’s the first to ask: “What’s gonna happen to us on Monday?”; the first to express: “I consider you guys my friends.” He’s in a sense the group mediator, and, once his confidence is built, he’s the main character who tries to establish lasting friendships. It isn’t Hall’s wildest performance, but it may be his most recognizable. Brian might not be manic or over the top, but he’s charming, funny and not unlike someone we knew or were.
After a nice run playing supporting characters, Hall stepped into the leading role in a different sort of teen vehicle from Hughes, 1985’s “Weird Science,” an adolescent-dude comedy with a sci-fi tinge, the usual Hughes heart and more zaniness than was seen in previous Hughes movies. For me personally, “Weird Science” is a deceivingly hilarious gem that’s still underappreciated. It features Hall’s funniest performance, which I believe is one of the funniest performances ever captured on film.
Hall plays Gary, another misunderstood, dorky guy who’s not exactly killing it with the ladies. He and his computer-whiz friend Wyatt use software to build their ideal woman, but, because of technological difficulties, the computer creates a beautiful flesh-and-blood woman who falls deeply in love with Gary and Wyatt. Due to its sci-fi elements, “Weird Science” has slightly aged into camp and cheese, but many of us value those qualities in an ’80s flick. For those who can look past corny effects and silly old fantasy-comedy concepts, the film is a laugh riot throughout which Hall’s young comic genius shines.
Gary’s a textbook instigating friend; the guy who means well but pushes his buddy to do stuff out of his comfort zone. Gary masks insecurities with jokes and quips, even though, deep down, he knows he’s cooler and more of a catch than the kids at school who tease him. Hall’s at his most sardonic and schtick-y in Weird Science, calling upon a comedic arsenal ranging from zingers to silly character work to more outrageous physical comedy.
Following his hall-of-fame appearances in these Hughes classics, Hall made his way into non-Hughes vehicles, both comedy and non. He appeared as Darryl Cage in the 1986 dark action-thriller “Out of Bounds.” A year later he returned to comedy in “Johnny Be Good,” playing a star high school quarterback. “Johnny Be Good” didn’t hit big like any of the John Hughes movies in which Hall made his name, nor does it have any real lasting power, but it’s a lightly funny effort with a unique Hall showing that I think may have been overlooked.
“Johnny Be Good” concluded Anthony Michael Hall’s ’80s hot streak, an unmatched one for a young comedic talent. He continued appearing in films, some of which were box office hits, though he seemed to favor television acting through the 1990s and 2000s. In fact, he’s has had a spectacular acting run that’s far from over; his latest film, “Halloween Kills,” with Jaime Lee Curtis was released only last week, and the Film Fiesta is still hoping against hope to to win the right from Universal Pictures to screen it this weekend.
Hall broke out of typecasting smoothly and didn’t make any haunting attempts to hold onto youth or what was. Due to the fact that the man’s career hasn’t ever seen a lull, we film and comedy lovers can sometimes forget just how incredible Hall’s teen performances were. He is seldom referred to as a “Great Comedic Actor” because he’s spent the majority of his adult life in more serious projects. Clearly Hall is a talented thespian with diverse abilities and ever-great presence. I highlight his earlier career simply to make the point that he was unusually funny in his younger years, beyond anything audiences have seen or will see in a teen or young adult performer. He was a special comic actor who could garner laughs like seasoned comedians who had spent decades in film.
To be one of the funniest people in the funniest movies, during a decade many would call the golden age of comedy films, is a remarkable feat. But Hall wasn’t simply funny, he was real. He was me, and guys I knew—misunderstood, witty dorks on the outside of cool—and I didn’t even grow up in the ’80s. I watched and loved Hall’s ’80s roles as a kid in the 2000s, because they spoke to me unlike any other teenage character I had encountered in movies, and he made me laugh more than just about anyone. Fans of the mature Anthony Michael Hall might not know it, but he was one of the funniest, most authentic, real and likeable comedic actors of all time, and he hasn’t been a leading man in a straightforward comedy film in decades.