'Meatballs' still "clearly a classic," says Jack Blum, a.k.a. Spaz

Television personality Larry Solway interviews camp counselor Bill Murray as seen in this Paramount Pictures' Meatballs publicity handout photo. The Canadian Press/HO/Paramount Pictures

TORONTO - "Meatballs" still has a lot of beef.

Thirty years after the Canadian summer-camp film starring Bill Murray stormed the box office, teens still seem charmed by its motley crew of misfits.

"We just screened it for 600 kids in a gym and they laughed as though it were made yesterday," Jack Blum, who played Spaz (the super geek with the tape on his glasses) in the Ivan Reitman-directed comedy, said in a recent interview.

"It's clearly a classic and it's still a popular choice."

Blum commented after a screening of the comedy at a local school as part of REEL Canada, a program he co-founded with his wife, Sharon Corder, the group's artistic director.

Now into its fifth year, REEL Canada arranges screenings of homegrown films in schools across the country for free and brings in talent from the projects to talk with students.

"We really wanted to disabuse people of the notion that Canadian film was one thing or another, either low-budget or inaccessible or arty or rural - it's actually a whole bunch of things," said Blum, who also writes and produces films and TV series with Corder (the two created the show "Traders").

Students get to choose which films they want to see from a REEL Canada program booklet of about 40 titles.

"Meatballs," said Blum, is picked by students several times a year.

At Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School earlier this week, hundreds howled at the nerds' pratfalls and Murray's wily lines as randy camp counsellor Tripper.

Girls exclaimed "aww" when Rudy the runner (Chris Makepeace) had trouble fitting in. Boys in the room whistled at the scenes in which female characters wore the short shorts that were fashionable at the time.

At the end, when Murray's character rallies the kids with his famous "It just doesn't matter" speech ahead of a big competition with a wealthier rival camp, students erupted in applause.

"I don't think at the time you ever heard that," Blum, whose real-life glasses aren't nearly as thick as those of Spaz's, said of the speech's message.

"I think sort of 'loser chic' became cool later on. I think we really kind of broke that news and said: 'You know what? It's not so important to win the race, it's important to sort of have a good time."'

Blum was a 20-year-old theatre director when "Meatballs" was made. His brother, Len, co-wrote the script with Dan Goldberg, Janis Allen and Harold Ramis.

Blum was also one of the casting directors and helped find Canadian talent for the film through an open audition that drew in 1,100 kids over three days in 1978.

Only eight made the cut, and they created some "icons" of youth comedy, said Blum.

"The character that I played with the tape on his glasses actually turns up in other television series in different guises in different ways," he said, citing Arvid (Dan Frischman), the bespectacled nerd from the 1980s TV series "Head of the Class," as an example.

Filming took place at Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ont., with a budget of $1.2 million.

Reitman had Murray in mind as the star from the beginning but didn't get him to the set until after they'd already started shooting, said Blum. "We were waiting and we were waiting.

"Ivan was trying to get him; Ivan thought that he could get him ... but we had to shoot so Ivan just said: 'We're going.'

"I think on Day 3, Bill turned up. He just sort of blew in and ... started going so it was a nail-biter and Ivan showed a lot of guts to start making it."

Also present on the set was Reitman's infant son, Jason, who has become a respected moviemaker himself with such hits as "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno," which earned him an Oscar nomination.

"Ivan's wife, Genevieve (Robert), brought him to the set as a baby when we were shooting 'Meatballs,"' said Blum. "So time just rolls on."

"Animal House," the classic fraternity comedy produced by Reitman, was released while they were shooting "Meatballs" and the crew set up a special screening near the film set.

The cast sensed that they were part of something special after watching it, said Blum.

"Here Ivan had this massive hit on his hands," he said in reference to "Animal House." "And his next movie was going to be us, so it was quite exciting."

"Meatballs" went on to win two Genie Awards for best screenplay and best actress for Kate Lynch, who played Murray's love interest.

It also raked in big sales.

"That was perhaps the first Canadian film to have a significant box-office impact at the time, and a wide release," said Blum.

"It made about $50 million, so it really changed things."

Three less-successful sequels followed, but weren't connected to the original.

Rumours of a remake have surfaced over the years and Ramis's imdb.com lists it as one of the projects he has in development.

But Blum - who will see Ivan Reitman next month when he's honoured at the Whistler Film Festival in B.C. - hasn't heard of it.

"It may be that the life has been squeezed out of this franchise. I'm not sure," he said.

"I have had no news and I'm not sure they'll be calling me. But maybe I'll play the camp director, who knows. Of course that would be great!"