“This is Kent Dorfman. He’s a legacy from Harrisburg…”
Like we all must, Stephen Furst, the actor who brought Kent Dorfman, a.k.a. the sweet, portly Delta Tau Chi pledge known as Flounder, to life, has passed away. It’d be hard to argue that Furst’s life wasn’t far too short—after all, he was only 63 years old. But though other actors and well-known figures who have passed recently may have made a more lasting or profound mark on the lives of the audience they left behind, Furst’s death hurts a little bit more for me than those other losses, for a couple of reasons.
In 1977, when I was a freshman at the University of Oregon, I landed a spot as an extra on the set of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE—specifically, I was cast as a “Delta pledge,” and I also ended up serving one memorable afternoon/evening as a stunt double. Both of these roles put me in frequent proximity to Stephen Furst, who was a rookie on the set of ANIMAL HOUSE sort of like I was—Kent Dorfman was his first big role in a Hollywood movie, after three minor and forgettable previous appearances. The Saturday before shooting began, another extra and I accompanied Furst and Tom Hulce to get our “senior pictures” taken (the one of Furst is memorably booed on-screen), and like this wacky morning jaunt to a photo studio in nearby Springfield, for every encounter I ever had with him during shooting Furst demonstrated himself to be a very genial, pleasant fella, not unlike Dorfman himself, who was never one to put on actorly airs as a way of separating himself from the locals.
During the shooting of the Dexter Lake Club sequence, my BFF Bruce and I spent an amusing afternoon between takes hanging out with him, Hulce and actress Eliza Garrett (sympathetic receptionist at Emily Dickinson College, where Faun Lebowitz did all her pottery work—I had such a crush on her!), talking about movies and other things that made us feel like we (Bruce and I) really were an important part of what was going on. And I ended my association with the production of ANIMAL HOUSE as Furst’s stunt double—it was me, not Furst, in the Lincoln Town Car on the last day of shooting as it crashes its way out of the Dexter Lake Club parking lot. (The costumer felt it necessary to put a down jacket underneath my suit jacket to approximate Furst’s girth, on the unlikely occasion that I could be seen on film.) After ANIMAL HOUSE was over I never heard from Stephen Furst again, though seeing him continue on in relative success with his career afterward, in movies like THE DREAM TEAM and TV shows like ST. ELSEWHERE, always made me feel a little bit happy, seeing that one of the good guys who didn’t look like everybody else on the Hollywood circuit had somehow made it into the club.
But Furst’s death has also hit me hard because the actor, who had made his struggle with diabetes front and center in his public life—he became a fervent spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association—ended up succumbing from complications directly related to the disease. Though I am privy to 0% of the details of what life what like for Stephen Furst in his final years, it’s fairly apparent that I’ve had a more successful time coping with diabetes than he had, and his passing reminds me that there are many others who are a whole lot less lucky than I am too. I could never truly relate to the stories of his struggles to get work as an actor that he regaled Bruce and I with on that afternoon in Dexter Lake, though I was always glad to recall how comfortable he felt telling them; but I can definitely relate to the struggles endured during what must have felt to him like a constant uphill battle with his body to ward off and control the effects of the disease that eventually killed him. As a cautionary tale for folks like myself, and others who may be hovering in pre-diabetic status, Furst’s story is an important one to hear. But I’m also glad that I’m one of the lucky ones who can say they spent time with this personable, talented actor when he was just getting his feet wet. After I finish typing this, I’m gonna step outside on my back porch and let loose a hearty “Hey, Niedermeyer!” in his honor, and remember just how big a hand Stephen Furst had in making NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE the rich and delightful comedy classic that, nearly 40 years later, almost no one would dispute it as being. In my mind, that’s a legacy that’s every bit as impressive as Kent Dorfman’s, and it’s one that will carry Stephen Furst’s memory for a long time to come. Rest in peace, Brother Flounder.