A Not Very Funny Story About My Mother and the 1998 Movie The Godson

Ahead of his Off-Broadway show, Kids in the Hall's Kevin McDonald shares a poignant tale from his past.

In 1997, I was a recent arrival in Los Angeles. I’d moved there in 1996, and was immediately auditioning a lot, but only booked one role that year. After one particular audition, the casting agent called my agent and said, “Not only did he not get the job, but we think he needs acting lessons.” That was devastating to me – and it didn’t help that my agent passed this information on to me when I was en route to my next audition, a pilot Nora Ephron had written and was producing. I’m not an insecure person, but I basically had a breakdown in front of Nora Ephron. I remember there was a blanket in the room, and at one point she put the blanket over my shoulders and said, “Well, look, it’s been a really rough day. We’re really dying to have you audition, no matter what the other casting agent said. Why don’t you come back in a few days?”

After that, I hired an acting teacher, Janet Alhanti, who was amazing. She told me, “No, you are good, you just get nervous when you audition.” Which I hope is true. So I went back, had a good audition for the Nora Ephron show and got a call back. Overall, though, it was a tough year. When I finally got a part, it was in a crummy TV show. I forget what it was called, and I’m glad about that. I do remember my one line, though: “I’ll have the chow mein.” It was not a good show.

In 1997, I got offered a lead role in the movie called The Godson, a parody of The Godfather which I suspect everybody involved knew was going to be a straight-to-video title. I was going to play the funny version of Al Pacino’s character, and was very excited that one of my childhood idols, Dom DeLuise, was to play the Marlon Brando role and Rodney Dangerfield was going to be the head of the rival gang.

The script was horrible, but I said yes right away, because I’m Canadian. Also, Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy had just bombed and they offered me $75,000, which at the time I thought was a fortune. So I said, “I’m gonna do this bad movie.”

There were a lot of sexist things in The Godson, specifically scenes in strip clubs with naked women, and I was uncomfortable with that. Not just because I’m a feminist, but also because I’m kind of a prude and I thought it was offensive. My girlfriend said to me, “Just rewrite the part!” and so I rewrote it. The financiers wanted to keep the strip club scenes in, so I changed it to being a club where the strippers looked like Ed Asner. It was bad comedy, but it was at least something I could live with.

Before I was cast in The Godson, my girlfriend and I were going to visit my mother in Toronto, and take some trips with her and her boyfriend. But then the movie happened. I called her and said, “Look, I’m going to do this movie. Can we delay the trip until after the movie?” and she said, “Of course.”

So I did the movie. It was amazing to become friendly with Dom DeLuise. I went to his house. I loved him as a kid because he was in one of my all-time favorite comedies, The End. One time on the set, Dom and I were doing the worst scene in what was a movie full of bad scenes. I said to him, “How do we do this? This is the worst over-the-top comedy.” He said, “When you’re in a bad scene like this, and you’re doing it for $75,000, you’ve got to pretend the script is Shakespeare.” That actually helped me a lot, and I have occasionally used this approach on other movies over the years.

Rodney Dangerfield was also very nice. I was 36 then, but I looked younger, and he’d say to me, “You’re a good kid, you’re a good kid. Where you from?” I said, “Toronto, sir.” He said, “Oh, there’s another good kid from Toronto, Jim Carrey. You know Jim Carrey?” He got high in his trailer all the time; you’d walk by his trailer and the marijuana smoke made you have a contact high. Rodney was so stoned, he needed a guy to hold up cue cards because he couldn’t memorize his lines. The cue-card guy was well into his eighties and his hands kept shaking, so Rodney Dangerfield would say, “The hands are shaking! Stop the shaking hands, I can’t read it!”

Lou Ferrigno played my bodyguard, and I had a lot of scenes with him. I think sometimes he got mad at me, but it was hard to tell because he was deaf and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Joey Buttafuoco – the guy who cheated on his wife, who then got shot by his girlfriend – and his wife were extras in the movie. I don’t know why. They seemed nice.

A week or two into the movie, I started getting calls from my mother complaining that she was having headaches. I was in every shot of the movie, so I couldn’t leave to go see her, and her headaches were getting worse. She got an MRI, but they couldn’t find anything.

I went to work depressed every day. But then one day, my mother called me and she was better all of a sudden. The pain was gone and she was feeling good. That was on my second-to-last day on the movie. The next day, we had a night shoot, and I got into a big argument with the writer-director. I’d disliked him from the beginning, but I’m a Canadian lapsed Catholic, so I still felt really guilty about it. When I got home at seven in the morning, there were 16 messages on my answerphone.

Before I listened to the messages, I said to my girlfriend, “My mother’s dead.” I just knew. The messages were so sad. “Kevin, I just wanted to let you know she’s not doing very well. Maybe there’s a chance you can talk to her.” And the next one: “Kevin, she’s doing worse.” And then the next one: “Kevin, she’s in a coma. We don’t want to pull the plug until we talk to you.” They didn’t know I was on set; this was before most people had cellphones.

My mother died that night, and I never saw the director again. That last scene I’d done on the night shoot – the reason I wasn’t with my mother when she died – was integral to the plot of the movie, but it was somehow cut from the movie. After that, I made a vow I would never again take a job because of the money. (A few years later, because I had to pay alimony to my ex-wife, I had to do exactly that, so then I made a vow to never make a vow.)

There was such a feeling of darkness on the film that, in a way, I wasn’t surprised something horrible happened at the end of it. In retrospect, it seemed inevitable. It seemed to make sense that’s what it was headed towards when I said yes to the script.

So, yeah, this is not a funny story, but it’s good to tell a different kind of story sometimes. If you’re after funny stories, though, my one-man Off-Broadway show, Kevin McDonald ALIVE on 42nd Street, which runs from August 25 to 31, is full of them!

Kevin McDonald’s Off-Broadway show Kevin McDonald ALIVE on 42nd Street plays at Theatre Row NYC’s Studio Theatre from August 25 to 31. Kevin co-founded the iconic comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall with Dave Foley after they met at Toronto’s Second City; joined by Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson, the television iteration of the troupe ran from 1988 to 1995. In addition, Kevin has appeared on such TV shows as Seinfeld, NewsRadio, and Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, as well as performed voice work on Lilo & Stitch, Invader Zim, and The Angry Beavers, to name a few. Kevin frequently stages his podcast, Kevin McDonald’s Kevin McDonald Show in NYC (and throughout the country), with recent guests including Tim Heidecker, Sasheer Zamata, Weird Al Yankovic, Paul F. Tompkins, and many others. (Photo by Leif Norman.)